Week 15 - Amalfi. Pompeii and Carpi - Start happening too! It's time to go round and round...
Day One Hundred September 25th 

We are on a 10:45a train to Salerno.  How Italian does that sound?  In order to get to the station on time we need to eat, pack, call a cab and mail a box back home.  Guess which one is the most challenging.

Post Italia sits a block or so away from the apartment and after a failed attempt to mail our yellow box yesterday afternoon I now know that the doors open at 8:30a.  That’s plenty of time to mail a box.  We picked up a bright yellow box last night and filled it up with all sorts of things including, but not limited to: (1) about half of our rock collection (2) Adele’s big white blanket (3) a few jackets (4) our European GPS.  It weights in at 8 kilos.

The nice lady behind the counter speaks absolutely no English whatsoever and seems to think that I will understand Italian if she yells at me and says things twice.  Since this is what I have been doing to others for the past month or so it seems perfectly natural to me.  It appears I need to fill out some forms.  She smiles and points to lines on the paperwork and goes on and on about this and that.  I have no idea what she is talking about.  There appears to be three of four of things to fill out: one needs passport info, another looks like a background check and the other two are for my parents address, a list of items and maybe some kind of valuation for tax information.

She sends me off with a pen.  Everything moves along fine until we get to the item list and the valuation.  First off who really knows what’s in the box. We all added stuff before closing it up.  I list out the big white blanket, jackets and GPS and since they are all really old I listed them as having no value.

She looks at the list, looks at the weight, looks at the valuation and starts muttering and shaking her head.  I would have listed rocks but I thought getting across the explanation would cause us to miss the train.  After all I only have an hour and a half.  Then she calls out a second lady from the back room and the questions come rapid fire.  

The second lady does not speak English either.  It appears they can’t understand want I have listed and they need to look up each time in the computer.  We tackle the easy one first.  “Bambino jacket!” I explain miming the process of putting on a jacket and pointing to a guy standing in line wearing one.  It takes a few minutes but we work it out.

Then comes the GPS.  I had a feeling electronics might be a problem.  Using my iPod as a sample I set it on the counter kind of like a GPS, semi-sit down to pretend I am driving and then look at it for directions.  It all makes perfect sense to me.  They call out a third lady to see if she can help.  This one takes a little longer.

At last we come to the blanket.  The line is now five or six deep and there are three ladies trying to interpret.  It feels like we are playing, “Lets make the foreigner do funny things”, the people on line are now in the game and folks are shouting out what they think the answer is.  Blanket is a hard one.

I take off my shirt and lie down on the floor and then cover myself back up with the shirt like a blanket.  All the while I am shouting out, “Blanketo, blanketo for bambino! Mia daughtereriao has a blanco blanketo!” Every few seconds I look nervously at the clock because I sense it is getting late.  They look very concerned.  

At long last someone on line yells out the word for blanket in Italian and everyone seems to breath a sigh of relief.  They all laugh and clap hands and go back to what ever they were doing before.  I get dressed and hand her my credit card.  

The nice lady ignores it and looks at the line that lists the box weight at 8 kilos and then back at the three items I have listed as contents.  It is a stretch to thinking they weight 8 kilos.  I should  have listed the rocks.

Did I mention that this Italian Post is a very serious place? You enter one at a time though a series of locked doors and what appears to be a metal detector and cameras.  You take a number and they call you up one at a time to stand all alone in front of the counter.  The first thing they did was scan my passport.  It is like crossing a border.   

8 kilos, three items: three items, 8 kilos.  She looks me over: I stand and smile.  I stand and smile: she looks me over.  Again. The minutes click by.  After two more meetings with the ladies in the back she picks up my credit card.

It turns out they don’t take credit cards.  Imagine that.  I have been at the counter for almost an hour, I have tried to pay twice with the credit card (by mistake, in all the confusion of filling out the forms) and not once did they mention anything about payment, until now, with minutes to spare, and they decide they want 100E in cash.  

It makes you want to cry.  “ATM!” I shout.  “BankOmat?” she shouts back.  “Si, si, BankOmat!”  I shout again.  She hand motions “around the corner” and I run off like a rabbit.  She looks a bit concerned that I am leaving the box but I can’t wait around to explain.  I run out the door, around the corner into the square and start sprinting from corner to corner in search of the machine. 

I can’t find it.  I run up one block, then back, then up another and back again.  Finally in utter frustration, I stop, card in hand and resign myself to missing the train.  That’s when someone from the line inside sees me and comes out to lead me over to the BankOmat right around the corner from the entrance exactly where she said it was.

Mental note to self:  no more mail from Italy.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, poor Teri is stuck with all of the packing and prepping.  Thankfully when I return everyone is ready to roll.  Our hosts bid us safe travels, pour us into a cab and we are off to the station, T-minus forty-five minutes to lift off.  

We settle into our first class seats on EuroStar Italia, only a few extra Euros and worth every penny, with five minutes to spare.  It has been an incredible stay here in Rome: one of our greatest adventures to date.  As we pull out of the station we say goodbye and hope to once again return.

Our packing strategy has been refined several times now and we have become a lean mean travelling machine.  Between the four of us we can now carry everything we need to survive on the road.  We probably have one or two extra small bags but I have a feeling we will shed them on the intra-Turkey flights.  All in all we are primed and ready for the Middle East.

But first we have a week of relaxation in Ravello on the Almafi coast.  

Salerno’s train station is small compared to Rome, filled with homeless people, dirty and generally unappealing.  Welcome to southern Italy.  We are just south of Naples, north of Sicily and in kind of a no man’s land seemingly searching for an identity.   They have found one in the rocky coastline of Amalfi.

Our taxi driver meets us with a big, broad smile.  He seems genuinely excited to see us!  Born and raised in Ravello, he knows every inch of the winding road and handles the twists and turns sure footed, like mountain goat.  I thank God I am not driving.

Our hotel, Hotel Scarpiello, hangs over the cliff.  Our room is 150 steps or so down towards the sea, close to the pool and on top of the ocean.  The waves are pounding so hard into the castle wall beneath us that the doors to the balcony shake and the windows rattle.  Apparently surf is up.  

We explore the grounds and settle in.  Adele and I are charged with going to the store to stock up on provisions.  The guys at the front desk say the market is no more that 600 yards away, just a short, easy walk.  Clearly he has lost all perspective.

It is a harrowing walk along the side of a hairpin laden, one lane road (maybe considered two lanes here but not in my world).  Cars and buses pass by inches from us, going very fast, at times actually accelerating into blind turns.  We fear for our lives.  

All this risk for the reward of a market tucked into the back of a bar: Adele determines it is 9m by 3m.  The crazy thing is that when we first walk in we are convinced they will have nothing on our list.  I mean we have candles on there and suntan lotion 30spf.  Then, when we walk out a half hour later, we find that we have everything except for few minor items.  Neither one of us has any idea how it all happened and we marvel at the experience.  

Somehow, when the kids take showers, a big pool of water leaks out onto the bathroom floor and the spills out into the hallway.  It leaves a big puddle right in the middle of the hallway.   When we call the front desk they don’t seem to really care much and of course blame us for not closing the shower door.  It was closed.

 As Adele rounds the corner to go in to her room she slips on the puddle and crashes into the corner of the wall with such force that her head actually dents the plaster.  Not good.  She has a big indentation on the side of her head, no blood that we can see, but plenty of pain.  I call the front desk for ice but it does not arrive.  In a bit of panic I head up and find them watching TV.  In the states we could sue them to kingdom come, here they could care a less.  It is infuriating.

Adele is tough as nails in these situations.  She handles it all very well and is really impressive in the situation.  All we have is Tylenol, but it seems to do the trick.  We cancel dinner and stay in keeping a sharp eye out for signs of a headache or mild concision. 

Day One Hundred and One September 26th

I wake up in a bad mood, exhausted from trying to sleep over the sound of the crashing waves, with a pounding headache, two screaming children, an unsympathetic wife and no where to run.  Every once in awhile we have these days.  All of us do in some form or another.  All you can do is ride them out and hope they pass with as little damage as possible.  24/7/365 can be a bit much at times.

We have breakfast and then try to catch the bus to Amalfi. On Sundays the buses make their own schedules.  We wait for half and hour in a doorway of a house on the really narrow street with the cars screaming by inches from Adele and Vince before we decide to call it a day.  It is apparent that logistics here are going to be an issue.

The pool is very nice and we make the best of the rain and clouds.  Teri decides to walk to Amalfi, as much to take a break from the rest of us as to shop I think, and she heads off to fight the oncoming traffic.  Seriously, it is like bull fighting with cars on that road.

It is a slow day spent waiting for Aunt Denise and passing time trying to relax.  The kids are beyond excited for her visit.  All they can do is make little gifts, color cards and presents and ask over and over, “how much longer?”

The highlight of the afternoon, aside from the rickety ping pong table, is our discovery of the lemon trees and a juicer to make fresh lemonade.  We spend a good hour or two picking lemons, squeezing them, adding in just the right amount of sugar and water and serving it to Teri.  Great fun.

Dinner is a simple pasta with local olives cooked in olive oil, topped with fresh Provolone cheese. 

By the time Denise arrives it is well past 11p.  Talk about a journey: taxi to LAX, Los Angeles to London, London to Rome via planes, then Rome to Naples, Naples to Salerno by trains, then taxi to the hotel.  Twenty-four hours en route.  All with a suitcase full of work and play clothes, stuff for her meetings at Cannes, our new computer, my callmecuffs samples, eight people magazines and a few Vanity Fairs.  She is truly amazing! 

Adele wakes up to greet her and we all catch up for few hours before calling it a night.  This may be our latest night yet!  Such excitement and so great to see someone from home...

Day One Hundred and Two September 27th

Breakfast here is simple but plentiful.  They have good strong coffee, rolls, pastries, coco and tea for the kids and fresh fruit from the trees in the garden.  All of the guests seem to congregate and share travel stories and tips of things to do along the coast.  This morning we meet several couples form the Boston area, a couple from Chicago, some ladies from Denver and one more couple from Vegas.  It appears everyone here is from the States, most sourced the place from a blurb either online or in a past edition of Travel and Leisure. It shows the power of the press.

Jet lag hits Denise so she heads back to bed while the rest of us lounge at pool, catch up on journals, do some school work and mill about the hotel.  By mid-afternoon we manage to find a small local restaurant, supposedly 30 meters around the corner (do not believe the guys at the front desk) for lunch.   It is mediocre at best.  I think part of it is that our standards are so high after almost a month in Italy that anything ordinary seems average.  

The town of Ravello is a short hike, 1700 steps, uphill.  I have no idea what we are thinking about when we start to climb.  Teri and Vince and the first to bail: Adele, Denise and I make it to the mid-point then we too turn around and head back down.  From now on we take cabs.

Our afternoon is spent making more lemonade, sharing experiences, getting news from back home and relaxing.   

Dinner is another “short” walk, this time in the dark along the treacherous road, to a place owned by the same people that own our hotel.   Again it has all the potential to be great, no menu just a waiter taking orders, tiles of Italian scenery on the walls, a nice friendly atmosphere but the food is just mediocre.  Maybe this area is known more for the scenery than the food.  

Vince is out of control again so we need to leave.  Both kids have been out of sorts for days. They are not sleeping, acting out and generally out of control from about 5p until they go down around 10p.  We try to get them to bed earlier to no avail.  This then cuts into my time downtime with Teri.  Actually, we have none.

Maybe it is the change of seasons, or that life continues back home and we are not part of it.  Or maybe it is that we are not home for the beginning of school or no longer active in an “industry”, of missing family and friends.   Hopefully we will figure it out and it will all pass before we hit the Middle East.   I have a feeling we will need all the sleep we can get to tackle Istanbul.

At the end of the evening we are back home once again catching up on life and telling tales of travel.

Day One Hundred and Three September 28th

I travelled a lot as a kid: even more as an adult.  And where ever we go there are a few places that I always use for comparison.  The memories of past visits are used to judge, rank and file the present day experience.  Visiting Pompeii as a kid is one of my benchmarks.  

I have distinct memories of Pompeii that flash about and wander around in my head.  It was very hot on a blistering summer day.  We walked forever in the sun.  The ruins were unlike anything we had seen before: they appeared to be massive and endless.  It was one of the first times in my life that came to understand and experience historical perspective.  At least that I remember.  It impressed me that people lived there a thousand years ago.  In a city much like our cities today. 

Now I get to return and test those memories to see if they still hold true.  I also get the rare gift of creating a lasting impression with my children like my parents did with me.   Such promise as we drive over the mountains on the narrow, winding roads.

Antonio, our driver, is from this neck of the woods so we are in good hands on the twists and turns.   He spends his day driving a cab, hunting for truffles with his trained “wild ‘ boar, checking in with his brother  (a very successful restaurateur in the States – Vegas and Georgetown) and spending time with his wife and kids.  He gives a familiar honk to people he knows as we drive by.  You notice that he seems to be very happy and content with life.

The first sight of Vesuvius takes us by surprise.  When you crest the last mountain and start down towards the valley floor it looms over everything.   The upper third is gone, blown away during the eruption, much like Mt. St. Helens back home.  A friend of mine gave me a great book, Volcano Chaser’s, that talks about the great eruptions and the power and force they release.  All I can think about are the descriptions of the magnitude of these events as we look down on the small towns below.  From this perspective the people of Pompeii had not chance what-so-ever. 

The entrance way is a bit chaotic.  Somehow we get caught up with a Japanese tour group and it takes us a while to shake them.  It really doesn’t matter though as the place is jammed with people.  When you first come in it is totally overwhelming.  There are people everywhere trying to follow some crazy numbering system that makes no sense to any of us, we wander guidebook in hand, map unfolded, pointing and flipping pages.

We do what we usually do in these situations and instinctively move in the opposite direction of the crowds.  Within a few minutes we are all alone on a quiet side street standing amongst the rubble.  

Our time here exceeds expectations.  After four hours of touring we mange to tear ourselves away having done only about a third of what there is to see.  Hunger and a 2:30 scheduled pickup drive us outside to find a restaurant.  Yes, it is another mediocre meal, but at least this time we have adjusted our expectations.  On the way back home we manage a quick stop at the grocery store and stock up the rest of the week.

When we get back, the hotel has opened up the lower gates and we are able to swim in the sea!  We can dive right off a platform on the rocks at the base of the lower landing.  When you swim out you realize why the tour boats keep driving by our hotel.  It looks like a castle!  Plus, there are huge sea caves along our coast.  

Adele is now diving in headfirst and swimming back to the ladder on her own, seemingly without fear though it is hard to tell.  She does however insist someone is in with her at all times. Even Vince goes in with me and floats around for a bit.  The salt content is so high you can’t help but to float.

We return to the room where Adele and Denise prepare our evening meal of salad, chicken, fresh spinach and assorted cheeses.  Both are very excellent cooks and Adele is beside herself with joy as she has been talking about doing this for weeks!

The sage continues with our new computer.  The fire wire does not seem to connect the two together so we can’t transfer Teri’s files to the new machine.  As if that’s not enough, somewhere along the way all of the Microsoft Office files have vanished from my section so I can’t open any files, including our budget and my journal.  I wish I had a little IT guy in a box we could carry around with us to solve all these issues.  These are the things that take up huge amounts of time for common folk like us.

After dinner Vince is totally out of control and refuses to go down.  Adele is equally out of sorts as she wants to stay up until we all go to bed so she does not miss anything.  It seems the evening dynamic is one that needs to and must change.  It better or we may not make it.

Just to add to the frustration level I have the unpleasant task of writing to the Cooking Vacations people again outlining our understanding of the contract, countering their last email and once again requesting our money back.  Overall its a tough end to a great day.

Pompeii remains a benchmark in my mind.
Day One Hundred and Four September 29th 

It was a restless night of sleep or, better yet, non-sleep.  Believe it or not at times the logistics and dynamics of travel make for stress and that has to manifest itself somehow.  With me it’s the 2a wake up call.  

We have breakfast on the veranda with the rest of the other guests and plan out the day.  In an attempt to make up for the cooking fiasco in Tuscany we have arranged for Denise and Adele to attend a one day class up the hill in Ravello.  It is in one of these agri-tourism deals with all natural ingredients picked fresh form the garden.

Everyone heads out around 10:30a leaving me to do bills and catch up on journal writing.  It is a nice couple of hours of solitude, most of it spent on logistics.  

It turns out the class is more of a lecture: they don’t actually cook as a group but instead watch a chef do so and explain away in Italian.  Adele hangs in there the entire time and seems to have enjoyed it.  It is hard to tell.  Why we can’t catch a break and have a place where they actually roll dough and make pasta is beyond me.  That’s all the kids want to do.

The rest of the day passes slowly by with a home cooked meal, a swim in the sea and another tough time getting everyone to bed.  Life in Ravello happens in slow motion.  Probably just what we need right now.

Day One Hundred and Five September 30th

I have been wearing my Italian horn for almost forty years. It has brought me incredible luck in life and thus far fought off any evil spirits that have come my way.  Once or twice is has gone missing but it always comes back.  I can’t imagine life without it.

My Italian horn hails from the Isle of Capri, a small island about an hour and a half by ferry.  Today we are setting off to find one for Adele so she can be like her dad.  The fact that she actually wants to be like her dad fills me with joy.  The deal is she needs to come back forty years later with her kids and pass on the tradition.  For me it is one of the highlights of the trip.

One of the nice things about our hotel is that the set up allows you to get to know the other guests.  At this point we are all on a first name basis and we go out of our way to say hello if we run into each other in Amalfi or at Pompeii.  As we check in on plans for the day it seems everyone at breakfast is heading out on the 9:45a boat to take advantage of the calm seas.

The ferry holds a few hundred people by the looks of it.  There are two sections: an upper deck with outside seating and an inside seating area below.  We grab the inside seats and settle in.  

As we hug the shoreline heading towards the end of the peninsula and out into open seas, we pass countless small towns and villages, some reachable only by boat.  Remains of castles sit on hilltops: a few single houses standalone on rocky cliffs.  Lemon trees are terraced on steep hillsides and grape vines drape over ancient stonewalls.  It is exactly what you think of when Italy comes to mind.

It is our first glorious day in a while and the warm sunshine helps keep the chill from the wind and sea at bay.  In no time we are pulling into the main harbor on Capri. So is everyone else in Europe.  

The place is crawling with people.  There are so many people that we can not figure out how to get from the base of the cliff where the ferry drops you off up to town which is about two and a half kilometers up the hill.  The line for the cable car is insane. There is a bus that holds about twenty people but it looks like only one is running per hour and there are probably over a hundred people waiting in line.   A few hearty souls are starting to walk, not really an option with the stroller.  The thought of turning around and heading back to the mainland cross everyone’s mind:  but not those of us in search of horns!

Luckily, as if by fate, we hook up with a really nice Canadian family that is also staying at our hotel and we all decide to bite the bullet and take a cab. It is an excellent idea!  For twenty Euro, just a bit more than a cable car would be for all of us, we are up to the top in no time.  

Our new friends are a wonderful family from Toronto.  They have a girl a year or two older than Adele and in short order the two of them are off together being kids and having fun.  We all wander together along the main street past the high end shops and boutiques.  It looks as though all of the shopping is over the top expensive.  Its funny, the streets are jammed, but very few people have shopping bags.  I have no idea how these places survive.  

Our meandering soon leads us to the other side of the island and to a lookout onto several rocks jetting from the sea that sort of remind me of Cabo.  Down at the base for the cliff, along the waters edge, we spy a few umbrellas and what appears to be a place for lunch.  Let’s go down to the waterline. 

The lunch spot sits on the edge of a little cove with a sitting area and several boat slips carved into rock.  Our table is pretty much on the water, overlooking the bay.  I have no idea how they built the place: must have brought all of it around by boat.  The kitchen in big and airy, the tables and eating area are all clean and inviting.  They are serving a catch of the day, salads and pastas, all fresh and delicious.  It is just what we are looking for.

We waste away an hour or two in great conversation, enjoying quality time with newly found friends.  Toronto sounds like a great place to visit!  By the end of lunch we are already planning a trip to the new spa they are building just outside of Blue Mountain.  

The hike up goes better than expected, largely due to a lollypop and the promise of gelato.  Incentives always work in these situations, much better than carrying kids on your shoulders let me tell you. 

On the way back into town Adele finds her Italian horn in the window of one of the jewelry stores.  She is jumping for joy! We head in together and start shopping.  The first one has too may twists and looks like a hot pepper.  The second one is too big and the third too small.  After several more attempts we finally find just the right one, and it looks perfect on her. 

We pass on a chain, thinking it best to get one next week in Istanbul.  We do however get a horn for Vince as a Christmas gift.  I let Adele know that the condition of getting one and explain that she needs to bring her kids back to get one someday.  She listens intently and solemnly nods her head.  In the end we leave with two little boxes and one very excited eight-year-old girl (and her dad!).

The 5:15p boat is fast!  The one and an half hour trip this morning turns into a forty-five minute barnburner of a return.  In no time we are back in town, with groceries in hand, hailing a cab to go back to the hotel.  

Somehow, I have no idea how these guys do it, our regular cab driver Antonio is waiting there for us at the taxi stand.  I can’t believe it: we never told him when we were coming in.  And it is all so natural, he is just there as if he should be there and so should we.  So, we all pile in and everything is great.  However these things happen they certainly add to the overall experience and make you want to come back again.

With fresh food and wine, we all gather on the balcony overlooking the ocean and have a party.  It is our family, the Canadians and two couples we have been hanging out with from Boston.  It is a great time that turns into a long dinner at our place and several hours of great conversation and much, much fun!  

Everyone gets to bed very late, including the kids, as we finish the dishes well after midnight.  

It is true that the people you meet along the way make for the best memories.  I am sure this day, and this week, will linger for quite a while. 

Day One Hundred and Six October 1st

Today is a catch up day.  We all need to plug in and get some logistics done before we head over the edge and drift even further off the grid into Turkey.  

Teri and Denise spend the morning on dueling computers, booking flights, hotels, rental cars and expeditions.  By mid-afternoon the month of October is shaping up to be stellar. 

I spend the day with the kids swimming in the pool and down at in the sea.  The jellyfish are gone so we can safely dive off the dock into the salty, warm waters.  There is nothing like swimming in the ocean to sooth the soul.

At around 2p or so, Teri and Denise head to Positano while the rest of us stay behind and rest.  Everyone is a bit tired after a full week and a late night last evening.

With the girls out late, the rest of us decide to bed down early, for tomorrow we leave the comforts and familiarity or Europe and we fly to the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

It is time for a magic carpet ride!

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