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Published: March 18th 2009
We had a lot to do in the five days we had an apartment in Massa Lubrense on the south coast of the Peninsula of Sorrento. This was to be our base to visit Mount Vesuvius and the ruins, the Amalfi Coast and the Island of Capri. The area has a number of villages connected by twisting narrow roads switching back and forth negotiating the steep slopes. Terraced fields held olive, orange and lemon trees as well as many gardens planted in the black earth.
Our first venture was the famous Amalfi coast - a series of little villages clinging to sides of very steep rocky mountains plunging to the sea. We had done so much reading ahead of the place it was almost like we had already been there. The road to Positano was stupefying in its engineering brilliance - roads carved from the sides of mountains high above the water. This coast has been a very popular destination for Italians and visitors for many years. In the height of summer the place is teeming but there were no crowds as we drove into Positano on a cloudy although reasonably warm day. Shops selling high fashion and jewelry lined the
streets. We carried on to Praiano, the next and smaller town. Heading toward Amalfi town from Praiano we were stopped by a barrier and could go no further. We decided to stop for lunch and inquire about the road. “A beeg rock is falling on da road,” we were told and they were busy scaling the mountains placing a curtain of heavy mesh on the near-vertical slope to prevent future disasters.
We shopped for groceries and went home to nest and wait for four o’clock. We had eaten restaurant food for some eight days and I was eager to get into the kitchen and start chopping garlic and caramelizing onions. That night we had pasta, zucchini and roasted peppers in a cream sauce along with a fresh arugula salad. The local olive oil is delicious and we picked a lemon off a tree outside to make a salad dressing. They also make a mean limoncello here and it became a nightly, after-supper ritual to sip a couple of glasses of this from-the-freezer cold, sweet and sour fragrance. Our host made his own organic vino rosso and organic limoncello. It was pricey but superior to anything we found the rest of
The next day was another blast of sun and blue as we took the bus into Sorrento and bought tickets for the 25 minute boat trip to the Isle of Capri. Some places have a magical ring to them and Capri certainly lived up to its hype. Off the boat and onto a local bus for a one euro ride up to Anacapri where we jumped on a chairlift to the top of the mountain. We were treated to a commanding view of the Bay of Naples, Mount Vesuvius, Sorrento Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun beat down. We found a grassy patch, spread our coats and snoozed in the sun for over an hour, soaking in the rays we had longed for in the past cold, cloudy week.
Later, back home we had rice, fresh, local chicken breast sauteed in butter and another arugula salad. The chicken was better than anything we get back home.
It poured with rain Wednesday morning so we choose that day to run errands and do laundry. Our little Peugeot 107 had only one low beam. We had visited the rental office to
see about getting it fixed.
“Dere is no fixa da light, only changa da car”, we were told, so we traded in our valiant little prince for a Fiat Punto, a car almost twice the size of the Peugeot. Darla, the principal driver, took immediately to the new car and proclaimed her satisfaction.
Driving back home the sun came out and we walked the 2km of switchbacked road down to the shore below Nerano. The beach was comprised of pale grey stones ranging from the size of walnuts to golf balls with a few peas and tennis balls thrown in. They were polished smooth and round...I simply had to choose a few to bring home
That evening I tackled the aubergine that had been staring at me for a few days. Slices were sauteed in olive oil and then caramelized onions and fresh tomatoes added, then simmered slowly to reduce on the lowest gas setting. In the meantime, we had bought some pancetta to make a carbonara sauce for pasta - a favourite of ours. Although two dishes were served separately on the plates, the big surprise was how well they mingled together, adding up to more than the total
of the parts. We decided then that this would be a great combo to serve our loved ones when we get home.
Friday was the day of our departure for Sicily. Time was getting short - much too short - to accomplish what we had planned: visit Herculaneum, Pompeii and climb Mount Vesuvius. Left to myself I would have opted for Vesuvius but, I was not alone and the day was very clear but also rather cold with a brisk east wind. We parked the blue Fiat in Sorrento and jumped on a little electric commuter train for the ride to Herculaneum.
For those not familiar with the story, I will be brief: in 79 AD a huge column of black ash streamed from the top of Mount Vesuvius and, blown by a strong north wind, buried the city of Pompeii, to the south, under some 60 feet of ash. The city of Herculaneum, to the north of Vesuvius, was unscathed as the inhabitants watched the ash fly in the other direction toward Pompeii. The next day, however, Vesuvius erupted in a violent pyroclastic explosion and Herculaneum was buried under 30 feet of mud and lava. So, an archaeologists dream
was created here as two Roman cities were frozen in time for almost two centuries. In the late 1800's they were dug up and all the great art was hauled off to Naples. However, there is still a whole lot to see at the two sites.
We had the grandest day together, wandering the streets of the two cities, seeing how much has been preserved and interpreted from such a long time ago. There is a feeling, especially in the great amphitheatre of Pompeii, that settles over one: horror, yes, at the violence of events, but a wave of serenity washed over us as we sat on the grass in the sun - that we were so privileged to see this society as it once was.
We had an empty-the-fridge omelette on our last night in Casa Lubrense. One of the hosts, a fifty-something woman named Lalli, joined us for supper speaking passionately (the only way Italians ever speak) about her favourite places in Italy. She drank vino rosso and we drained another little bottle of limoncello.
The next day we were up at 6:00am to pack and drive the 65 km to Salerno. Canadians may infer that this might
The Old Road
Before cars, this was the main highway.
be a drive of less than an hour. We have learned that 65 km could easily take the whole morning to cover...and it did. Once again we were reminded of Italy’s towering mountains and challenging roads. On the road to Salerno the views of the sea and the mountains were breathtaking. We took the wrong road and ended up driving through steep, narrow, cobbled streets in the centro storico - the old part of town. Finding our way to the port, we were the first of only six cars amongst the many trucks to board the ferry which was some four times larger than the big boat between Wood Islands and Caribou. The car deck was up top out in the open. We ate our picnic lunch and drank beer in the sun as the ship pulled out for the eight-hour trip to Sicily.
The approach to Sicily, down the Strait of Messina was done in the dark with lights blazing on the mainland and the island. Then the moon rose over the mountains of Calabria.
We were met at the port by our host, John Garufi, who was born to Italian parents in Montreal in the fifties. He had
also spent a few years in Halifax before tiring of Canadian winters and, in 2007, retiring to his ancestral home in Letojanni, a beach town 5km from Taormina on the side of Sicily that faces southeast. John led us down the coast for the hour-long drive with the moon glinting off the sea to our left. We have the second floor of his family home one small block from the beach. John, his wife Rosa, their three sons and his 88 year-old mother live on the main floor. The third floor has ensuite bedrooms for rent and the fourth floor is a big room with glass on three sides and a view of the sea and the mountains. All the floors except for the ground floor have wrap-around balconies where one can sit in the sun. Our floor has two bedrooms, a bathroom and an open-plan living-room and modern well-equipped kitchen...so well-equipped that there was a bottle of vino rosso on the table and some limoncello in the freezer when we arrived.
The next day, Saturday, was warm and sunny. When we stepped out onto the balcony John was below us in the street having just returned from his little
farm outside of town. “Do you want some fresh eggs for breakfast?” he asked.
This was the day Darla had been waiting for since our arrival in Italy six weeks ago. After a walk next to the shore up and down the main street where we bought groceries, we went to the beach and lay in the sun for a couple of hours. A languid day for us and for the sea which was quite still. It was warm enough that I could wear shorts and take off my shirt although the water, according to Darla, was “...as cold as Panmure in June”.
John, our host, generously had driven to meet us in Messina rather than just give us an address to find late at night. He has a big heart and has taken a special interest in us as fellow Canadians and Maritimers. He is a CA and, while in Halifax, managed a number of investments on Prince Edward Island. His first question was, “You don’t happen to have any lobster in your bags, do you?” We were invited downstairs by him to a fish barbeque on Saturday night. A number of cousins and aunties who live just next
door or around the corner were there and we were warmly welcomed. A simple, home-made barbeque was set up on the narrow street and when the coals were ready, two nameless very large round fish and four fish that looked like sea bass were placed, gutted but whole, on a grill just above the coals. Franco, the husband of John’s cousin, Franca (Francesca), was the head chef and tended the fish beautifully. It was a lot like home as the men stood around the barbeque in the street drinking wine while the women were in the house talking. Most of the talk was in Italian but occasionally there would be a few words in English to us, to include us, although we felt extremely included already just being there - mainly because John was one of them and he was just so Canadian. We had to pinch ourselves...24 hours after arriving and we are part of a Sicilian family gathering. Sicily had always been the ultimate destination for our trip and here we were, everything and more than we had hoped for.
When Franco deemed a fish cooked, he took it off the grill with a couple of forks, put
it on a plate and carefully scraped off the skin and removed the bones. As pieces of glistening, flakey, white fish began to pile up on the serving plate, olive oil with fresh basil in it was spooned on the fish as we awaited the grilling of the rest of the fish. When all was ready we sat down to eat the tender flesh, mashed potatoes and salad washed down with a mild, local vino rosso served from a large pitcher and also some delicious Sicilian sparkling wine that one of the cousins brought.
John’s Auntie had made a large flattish cake for dessert that was served along with, what else, limoncello. There was so much friendly talk. The wine and the limoncello loosened a surprising number of English words from heretofore hesitant speakers and soon we were immersed in conversation with the cousins and their spouses. Much of the talk to us was about Sicilian history; that it was the crossroads of the Mediterranean with Greek, Roman, Arab and Norman blood pulsing in every artery; that there is a strong spirit of hospitality in the Sicilian tradition and they were simply fulfilling their destiny by welcoming us. Fortunately, no
Check out the wagon ruts!
one had far to travel and we all left around 11:15pm. Enough limoncello had been absorbed that it only seemed naturally to be kissed on both cheeks by three of the male cousins on the street as we parted.
We slept in on Sunday. Darla wanted to go to the beach again so we did. We both promptly fell asleep and then walked around until it was four o’clock. We have arrived!
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