Published: April 19th 2008April 18th 2008
This was after the rain blew over in Amalfi.
I am not a morning person by any means. Full sentences, coherent thoughts and clear vision usually don't set in until around 10:00 a.m. on a good day. Ma quando vado in gita
(But when I go on a short trip), no hour is too early to get a head start on the day.
This weekend, I left Florence at 6 a.m. on an early bird train to Rome with my friend Nicole, la mia amica preferita
from my italian class. We were shocked at our high levels of coordination and comprehension at such an ungodly hour and somehow managed to communicate with the non-english-speaking ticket window despite our obvious a.m. handicaps: "Noi vogliamo due biglietti economica per il treno a Napoli, SUBITO! Per favore?"
My mangled italian and Nicole's enthusiastic charades got the job done, and we boarded our train with time to spare. To our astonishment, we were wide awake by that time and chatted rather loudly the whole ride there.
Once in Rome, we bought a few snacks in the station (peach tea, yogurt and cookies), grabbed an italian newspaper and attempted to translate our horoscopes as we waited for our next
I Tre Amici
Nicole, Pam and I at a particularly scenic overview in Positano.
train. For some reason, we chose to sit on the ground below a flat screen TV that kept playing the same two commercials over and over. Now, I absolutely love foreign commercials; I never have any idea how what's on the screen coordinates with the product being advertised, and this was no exception. One commercial was for a set of speakers, advertised by a bunch of creepy ladies in white masks irish step-dancing on a skyscraper with glasses of champaign. The other was for the musical "Hair" and kept repeating the song, "This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius!" Those two commercials probably played 40 times each as we sat there, and the Aquarius song was stuck in my head for the rest of the weekend.
Our next stop was Naples, which I can accurately summarize in one word: INSANE. I had been told I would encounter this atmosphere, but the level of mass chaos even in the train station was impressive. Outside was even crazier: heavy traffic, people running in all directions and shouting at each other; honking horns and angry cab drivers; urban high-rises and dingy street-markets blocking our views. The only way to cross
A typical scene one faces when rounding a corner in Sorrento.
the street in Naples is to close your eyes, pray hard and walk fast. Cars won't slow down unless you take the initiative to enter the street, even in the middle of intense traffic. We only braved one crossing, and not without a great deal of shrieking. We stayed long enough to eat a slice of delicious pizza at a corner pizzeria (Naples invented pizza, after all) and then ran back to the station to get the heck out of there.
This turned out to be more difficult than we expected. The impatient lady behind the ticket counter sold us tickets that clearly weren't train tickets. About the size of a credit card, we didn't know how to read them or make use of them. We asked several people, "Scusi!
Is this a train ticket? Perhaps a BUS? Where do we go?!" The person would then give us what they believed to be a very clear answer. We'd glance at each other awkwardly, smile and say, "Ah, grazie."
We'd walk away and ask each other, "Did you get a word of that?" to which the other would answer, "Nope!" Just another day in Naples, apparently. After asking six
Listen to the Lemon.
It is very wise. And huge.
or seven people, we finally figured out that we were holding metro tickets, and we found our way underground to the Sorrento-bound train.
Sorrento by contrast is idyllic, its charm probably heightened after the whirlwind craziness of Naples. It's a beautiful little town located on the edge of picturesque cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, full of shopping districts, fishing wharfs, quiet neighborhoods and hundreds of lemon groves. The south of Italy is apparently famous for its citrus fruit, which I wasn't aware of before. Some of the lemons are the size of footballs. We bought a giant lemon from a toothless farmer selling fruit out of the back of his truck and a few oranges as well. We never peeled the lemon (a friend we met took it home) but I ate my orange on a bench by the sea and its juice left a puddle on the ground.
Our hostel was a deluxe converted hotel that travel guru Rick Steves recommends booking fast before the staff regains their sanity. We coincidentally shared a room with two girls from our school in Florence, making this the second time this has happened during my travels. A fifth girl, Pam,
Positano from the Bus
Looks more like a dream than a real place, don't you think?
also stayed in our room and we became immediate friends, and she ended up spending the weekend with Nicole and me. The first night, we walked around Sorrento under the palm trees and the orange trees, taking millions of pictures, eating citrus gelato, sampling the lemoncello (a regional specialty) and lemon candies, admiring the ceramic shops and gasping with delight every time we walked around a corner because each turn was prettier than the last. We found a fantastic overlook on the edge of the cliffs that stretched way out to the horizon, and the color of the water looked photoshopped -- pure, bright turquoise. We hiked down the cliff just to dip our toes in the Mediterranean and then climbed all the way back up without a problem. That hike would have killed me at the beginning of the semester.
The next morning was dreary and rainy, but it didn't stop us from walking to the train station to catch a bus down the fabled Amalfi Coast to the town of Amalfi itself. The bus ride took an hour and a half and was the definition of a white-knuckle ride. It's one of the most famous stretches of
My Favorite Flowers!
I can still smell them....
road in the world: a tiny, narrow highway that clings to the sides of the cliffs for dear life. The road is only wide enough for two buses to pass side-by-side within inches of each other, and all the corners are blind. Sitting on the right side of the bus, I could peer out the window, over the edge of the road and way down onto the rocky shores hundreds of feet below. Even in the rain it was jaw-dropping, a little nauseating and entirely unforgettable.
The town of Amalfi is full of winding roads and stone stairways that glisten in the rain; extensive fruit markets complete with giant lemons that we apparently weren't supposed to touch (oops); towering cliffs with apricot, cream and butter-yellow square buildings rising up from the turquoise shore. Addresses and names of homes and businesses are written with the beautiful ceramic tiles that are sold everywhere. It seemed to be the perfect blend of tourism and small-town charm. We spontaneously wandered off the main road a few times to see where this intriguing stairway or that beckoning alleyway led. We ate slices of pizza margherita
at an outdoor cafe when it stopped
What's A Tall Girl to Do??
I could never have lived in ancient Pompeii.
raining, and then toured the town all over again because it looked so different in the sun. By the time we returned to the waterfront, the clouds had blown in a bright spring day. We lost no time in removing our shoes and rolling up our jeans to play on the beach of dark grey sand. I found a piece of terra-cotta tile, painted blue on one side, that had been buffed and smoothed by the ocean, and Nicole is now in the process of turning it into a necklace for me.
When we were done playing on the beach and dodging the volleyballs of a few crazy italian teenagers, we took the bus to Positano, one of the larger towns on the Amalfi Coast. After another ridiculously gorgeous and treacherous bus ride, we got off at the top of the town and worked our way down the cliffs to the water. Oh, the flowers.... everywhere I turned they were beckoning. On the stone walls, growing around lanterns, dangling over the cliffs above the water, in elegant backyard gardens, and over the alleys in between the shops. Spring is without a doubt the best season to travel. My very
Bodies in Pompeii
These people tried to hide from the volcano's fury, but it didn't work out so well.
favorite were beautiful purple lilac-like hanging flowers that I could smell from meters away (ha, the metric system!). They have bigger blooms than lilacs but are SO much more fragrant. We passed a wedding in a local chapel; what a dream to be married on the Amalfi coast under the hanging purple flowers, the turquoise ocean in the distance.
After Positano we headed back to Sorrento for the most fabulous dinner I have had in a long time: homemade pasta with fresh mussels and clams. We sat outside with our wine glasses and red-checkered tablecloth at a picture-perfect outdoor restaurant, complete with an accordian/drum/bass playing group serenading us at one point. I was so full I could barely move, but still managed to eat part of Nicole's creamy citrus-filled cannoli. On the way home, I laughed really hard because a guy on a vespa rode past with another guy on the back holding a table over their heads. Yes, a table, legs in the air. I guess that's how you would transport a table if you didn't have a car, but that didn't make it any less of an obscure spectacle.
Sunday was another early morning, but we
were off to POMPEII. We checked our luggage at the entrance and walked among the ruins for a good three hours. I had no idea that the ruins were so enormous; Pompeii was an entire city when it was buried, and the whole city is still there. You can still see the wagon ruts in the streets; the amphitheater is the oldest and best preserved in the world, even over the Colosseum; there are neighborhoods that just keep twisting and turning, never ending. There are still frescos on the walls in some places, and I loved the crosswalks -- big slabs of stone raised to the same height as the sidewalks so that people could hop across the streets without stepping down. Nicole and I did an Abbey Road impression across one. We saw theaters and stages; bedrooms, courtyards and restaurants; temples, government buildings, marketplaces and the forum in the middle of it all. We even found an olive garden that had plaster casts of fugitives in the places where they had been buried by the volcano. It was very eerie in that garden. In fact, whenever the mountain would loom into the background it would give me the chills.
Up, Up, Up the Stairs We Go!
Actually there were no stairs, but it was quite a hike up the volcano!
(And I kept thinking about how everything we're building in the 21st century will never be another Pompeii. We don't build anything strong enough to last centuries. Everything is temporary, torn down and remodeled every 50 years or so. Are we going to leave anything behind? It's rather depressing, really.)
Speaking of the mountain, Mount Vesuvius was the second part of our adventure that day.... because we climbed it! We jumped back on the metro, rode down a few stops, and took the fourth white-knuckle ride of the weekend to the top of the volcano. The driver was a madman; we were sliding around on the seats and knocking into each other as he inappropriately passed cars on narrow roads and whizzed around hairpin turns. The batman figurine dangling from the rearview mirror needed all his super hero strength to hang on. But we made it up in one piece, and from the drop-off point it was another half-hour hike to the top. The view from up there was astounding -- I felt like I could have seen Florence on the horizon if I knew where to look. Not even my killer camera could do it justice. The volcano
was smoking, and the colors of the rocks in the giant crater varied from reds and pinks all the way into shades of green and blue. We took a lot of King Of The Mountain pictures and then headed back down for the long train ride home.
What an incredible weekend -- great friends, beaches, mountains, ruins, lemons and cannolis.... who could ask for anything more?