Generally, I find it more interesting to ‘wax philosophical’ than to broadcast a fussy exposé of our day by day experiences. However, since my last blog entry, we have been bombarded with sensations as we have traveled through Italy, Sicily, Switzerland and France. We have been undergoing sensory overload, and are more than a little travel weary – I don’t expect any sympathy….hold the violins! We have had very little down time, which meant scant time to write. As we have viewed one marvel after another, I have become overwhelmed, knowing that I was overdue to write. The myriad impressions and peak moments were snowballing rapidly down the steep hills we had been climbing, possibly to be lost forever.
Some stories must be told. Today, I offer Part 1, in which I bring you up to date on Seiano through Salerno: a week in Southern Italy. In my last entry we had arrived in Seiano, where the endless stone steps down to the coast were keeping us fit in spite of our Italian calorie intake. We spent four nights in a little Airbnb, which was like a tiny country cottage in what appeared to be a gated townhouse complex. (Finding the actual “gate” had been a challenge…thank goodness our host was responsive when we texted her for assistance.)
Charlie and I are independent and adventurous travelers. Much of the meaning is in finding our way and trying to feel what it is like to really ‘live’ in the places we visit, rather than feeling like removed observers. So we choose an apartment over a hotel, always preferring to explore on our own over being part of a tour. Neither of us do ‘lemming’ very well.
One challenge is having limited access to the internet. At home, we’ve grown accustomed to consulting our devices for directions, to find a place to eat, or to get unlost. When traveling like this, such conveniences would be a godsend. But one must limit one’s data usage when abroad, unless one does not mind the ensuing charges. In Mexico, we never turn on our data. (I don’t think we did in Bali, either.) But in those places, we were not driving. Here in Europe, we have had to use cellular data on an emergency basis. For we are driving, and keep getting lost. Anyone who has ever rented a car knows that the maps the rental companies provide are crappy….can someone explain this to me? It makes no sense!
While traveling in Italy and Sicily we got lost a lot! Not lost as in we had no idea where we were…..no, we always (sort of) knew where we were. Lost in the sense that we had no idea how to find where we were going. I’m not complaining, for this experience of being lost would NOT convince me to become one of the masses who wait in line to get on tour buses and get off to wait in line again, observe the view or the world of which one is not a part, take some photos, and get back on line to board the bus again.
The experience of being unmoored is part of the adventure! When your goal is to experience a place, to feel it with all of your senses, how can you really get ‘lost’? You’re just temporarily adrift.
While staying in Seiano, we took side trips to Sorrento and Capri. Sorrento was crawling with tourists, and after spending a few hours there, roaming the streets and finally having dinner, we were actually glad to return to our little town. It is just as beautiful and dramatic in geography as Sorrento, but far less commercial. Seiano is beyond lovely, and I was happy climbing down the ancient steps besides the lemon groves, sitting at the edge of the sea, and drinking a caffe granita, with Vesuvius far in the distance, but impossible to ignore. Sorrento was overflowing with souvenir shops and restaurants, which in their plenitude sacrificed their charm. Actually, our car ride was the highlight, if you can call a near-death experience that. It was beyond hair-raising, with its hairpin curves, distracting views of the water from above, and the tailgating, honking, and generally rude Italian drivers, including motorbike drivers that pass you if they have an inch, having no discernible awareness of their own mortality.
We got a little misguided on our way out of the city, finding ourselves on a little road so narrow that even our little Fiat Panda could barely fit. Not only was this road impossibly narrow, but it was winding, with high stone walls on either side. Fortunately, at least, it was one-way. At one point, our left mirror grazed the left wall, and as we corrected the error, our right mirror scraped its wall even more seriously. (We were glad that when we ultimately returned the rental car in Sicily, it was so coated in sea salt from our ferry ride over that the scratches were unnoticeable.)
Our one day in Capri was simply a feast of the senses. It began with a ferry-ride out of Sorrento. (I had to consent to take that dreaded drive again.) We took a walk in Capri that allowed us to circumvent a good part of the island and take in the dramatic rocky coast, up and down countless, you guessed it, steps. There are no cars. We rode the funicular, a steep cable car – eeeek! – from the port to the main part of town, where we began our trek. We stumbled upon a 12th Century church, Chiesa di Sant ‘Anna, with frescoes on its walls which were recently discovered, having been painted in the 15th century, but later plastered over. I was particularly enamored with a fresco depicting the virgin mother and child, in which she was breastfeeding the baby. I had never before seen such a depiction. Not to be blasphemous, but I thought it should be the poster for La Leche League. Although the main streets were almost as crowded as in Sorrento, the long walk we took was much less peopled, quieter, allowing us to absorb the beauty without distraction. In the afternoon we joined a boat tour which circumvented the island and allowed us to view the ruins on the cliffs, and ultimately visit the famed grotta azzura, blue grotto.
It was in Sorrento and Capri that we first followed a tip that we found in our travel guidebook. It advised that hotels generally provide the best maps of a city, over the freebies that you can find on the street, or even purchased ones. When we arrived in Sorrento, Charlie entered a nice hotel, walked up to the reception, and asked for a map. Worried that they would ask if he was a guest there and throw him out on his ear, I lingered near the foliage in the entryway so as to make a quick getaway and pretend not to know him. But the concierge was more than accommodating, even giving him some directions and advice about walking through town! In Capri, which is a place that reeks of money, Charlie repeated this heist, at a very well-appointed hotel, where, I am certain, one nights’ stay would equal at least three nights at our little Airbnb. This time, I waited outside. But again, he was given a beautiful map and good local advice…very gracious treatment. We started calling ourselves ‘the hotel crashers,’ as we repeated this throughout Italy.
Departing Seiano after three days, we headed for Pompeii, which was less than an hour’s drive toward Naples. We had booked a room in Scafati, a booming small city that borders the city of Pompei so closely that they run into each other. (Fun fact: the ancient ruins are spelled Pompeii, while the new city that replaced it is spelled Pompei.) We would be in Scafati for three nights, using it as our home base to visit the ruins and also make a day trip to Naples, where I wanted, simply, to have pizza. Naples is the birthplace of pizza, and continues to be known for that delicious concoction. Furthermore, Elizabeth Gilbert had convinced me in Eat, Pray, Love that, in Naples, there was a particular pizzeria that served the best pizza in Naples, and therefore, in the world.
But first, the ruins. We were a bit skeptical going in that this would be a kind of Disney experience, crawling with tourists and rather surreal. On our first day, we visited the ruins in Herculaneum, and were awestruck, not only by the buried splendor of an ancient city and the preserved aura of the destruction that occurred, but also by the image of this ancient city that has been partially excavated from beneath the present city (Ercolano) following an accidental discovery. At the edge of the ruins, you can see both the new and the the old in one continuous landscape. I never knew that there had been more than one city ruined by Vesuvius in 79 AD. In fact there are five major distinct ruins, and many others. We only visited two.
Heculaneum and Ercolano
Our guidebook had touted Herculaneum as more impressive than Pompeii, being less touristed, and preserved in a different way. The lava flow hit Herculaneum differently, and the ruins were encased in a mud like substance that completely kept them in an oxygen free environment which allowed greater preservation. Still, we were unprepared for how impressive Pompeii turned out to be.
We wandered there for hours the next day, snapping photos and imagining the buildings in their earlier glory. Our only disappointment was that the great amphitheater was closed, due to the fact that Elton John had performed there the night before. If we had known, we would have tried to get tickets, even if it broke the bank. Can you imagine seeing a performance like that in such a setting? If we only had gone to Pompeii first instead of to Herculaneum, we would have seen the posters and at least had a chance of getting a seat. Ah, the one that got away.
A funny thing happened in Scafati. We went for dinner at the same place two nights in a row! This is unusual, especially in Italy. There are so many good choices. But if one can fall in love with a restaurant and want to marry it, it happened to me in Scafati.We found the place on TripAdvisor…..a tiny mom and pop place on a quiet back street, with a wood burning oven and authentic local food. Reviewers couldn’t rave about it enough. It was called Taverna Mascalzone. I had to go.
At first we had trouble finding it. We parked a distance away (having spent a futile hour seeking a self-service laundry that didn’t really exist. More about that later.) Charlie said we should walk from there, since parking had been so difficult, and so we took an evening stroll and were able to find the neighborhood with no trouble. There was a little square surrounding a church. We sat there for a spell and breathed in the charm. The moon was rising above the antiquated church, and it felt as if time had stood still for an eternity. Via Trieste, the street where the restaurant should be, ended on this square, so we tore ourselves away from our bench and headed towards it. But it wasn’t there! We went a few blocks past the Google Maps location, and……..nothing. We wandered back and forth along the little street to no avail. Still nothing, in fact the little street was so quiet we were essentially alone. I felt bereft. Finally, we gave up and headed back to the car. I was very frustrated. I had read the reviews! They were recent! Where had my restaurant gone???
Back in the car, Charlie proposed to search one more time as we drove toward our lodgings, since he doesn’t like to see me sad . No easy task due to the maze of one-way streets that comprised Scafati. We circled Via Trieste and drove toward the square from the opposite end. A restaurant appeared, though not in the right spot, according to the map. Is that it? Yes, there’s the sign! Taverna Mascalzone.
We parked and hurried to the door of the restaurant. It was locked! It was 9 pm, early by Italian dining standards….it wasn’t that they were closed…… but they hadn’t actually opened …..yet. Charlie really hates to see me unhappy, and he wasn’t about to give up after all our efforts. And so he knocked, persistently! The door was opened by a woman who waved us in, and once she realized that we simply wanted to eat, led us up a tiny flight of stairs. She had been stoking the wood fire, but escorted us up to a darling little dining room and gave us menus. We were the only guests.
This little restaurant took charming to a new level, and though the food was very good, what really sealed my love affair was the house wine. Five Euros for a bottle (a bit more than five dollars), the house red was sparkling, but not sweet. If you have not had such a wine you must. It is very special, and very very hard to find.
We had a long drawn out meal, typical of Italy. We met the husband/chef as well. Their English was as poor as our Italian (i.e. nonexistent) , and I deeply regretted our inability to get to know them better. Leaving, we did manage to ascertain that they would be open the following evening, our last one in Scafati. We would go back.
And so we did. It was Thursday night, and the empty streets from the evening before were teeming with people, a church event having just ended. Would we get a table in “our” little place? When we arrived, a long line of customers streamed out the door! We were crestfallen. But……they were all getting take-out pizzas! Again, we were led to the little dining room, and again, we were the only diners-in. We ordered the wine, a pizza, and a salad. Perfection. Salad wasn’t even on the menu…he threw it together for us. It included tuna, fresh corn, and tomatoes grown on Vesuvius, in addition to the usual ingredients of an insalada mista. I truly have never had a salad so fresh and delicious…….the combination of ingredients was divine. I was in heaven, even before the pizza! I wanted to remain in Scafati forever.
As for the self service laundry: When you are traveling as long as we have been, your clothes get dirty! More than once! Laundry must be done; a challenge, depending on where you are. In Bali, we had a service launder two weeks’ worth of clothes for a total of $4US, but no such bargains exist in Italy. We needed to find a place to do our own.Such a place is not easy to find in small Italian cIties or towns. Maybe in Rome, but we were no longer in Rome. We had been searching for a lavendaria, and had “found” one on the Internet on the night we located Taverna Mascalzone. But finding it in the real world was another issue.
The following morning, we set out with our bag of laundry, continuing our quest. We finally found the lavendaria, but it was a dry cleaner, not a laundromat. The owner thought there was such a place in Pompei, called American Laundry (go figure). But nobody could tell us where it was, not even the Internet. (Our data usage was beginning to get out of hand.) We had spent about three cumulative hours trying to find a laundromat! Not what one wants to be doing in a romantic foreign destination.
The solution! When we had visited Pompeii, we had been directed to park in an adjacent campground, also serving as a parking lot for the attraction. After we had parked, we had used the rest room, which in fact was the campground rest room. I had noticed a washer and dryer in that building, between the showers and the toilets. So, having despaired of ever finding a proper laundromat, we decided to return to the campground/parking lot, to pay to park, and then use the washing machine instead of going to Pompeii, for which the parking was intended.
We finally washed our clothes! We were now not only hotel crashers, but campground crashers! Charlie was of the opinion that, since we paid to park there, we had every right to use the machine….. but I still felt a bit subversive. My Catholic school upbringing has served me well. But, desperate times, desperate measures.
Our final day “on the boot,” followed. We were to take a ferry out of Salerno at 11 pm, to arrive next morning in Palermo, Sicily, the homeland of Charlie’s paternal grandfather Carlo, after whom he was named. Since we had a whole day to squander before boarding the ferry, we had devised a plan. First, my long awaited pizza in Naples, and then, a drive on the Amalfi Coast en route to Salerno.
Both stops were wrought with vehicular peril. Our guidebook had warned against driving in Naples, and parking was to be even more difficult. We considered parking elsewhere and taking the train in, but Charlie considers himself a New York driver, so he scorned the warnings. The Fiat Panda would carry us to Naples. (That disastrous train crash in Italy had been less than a week ago, so I quickly agreed.)
Our trusty guidebook provided the address of a parking lot convenient to Pizzeria da Michele. The parking lot was connected to a Ramada Inn, where we took our hotel- crashing skills to a new level. Charlie went up to the reception to inquire about a map, while I found a comfy seating area and discovered that the WiFi didn’t require a password. So armed with our new excellent map of Naples, we sat comfortably and charted our course. We also checked out email and used the clean and spacious bathrooms. This ritual would be repeated before we left town .
First, lunch. Unfortunately, it was pouring, so we wouldn’t do much sightseeing in Naples. Just a fifteen minute walk to Pizzeria da Michele. Before you remark that we had just had pizza for dinner the evening before, please remember that all food rules are suspended in Italy. We were going to this particular place for the experience as much as the pizza, and it did not disappoint on either front. The place was a beautiful, tiled restaurant with a big wood burning oven. A host of strapping Italian men were all over the place, getting the pizza ready and taking orders, like bees in a hive.
The menu was very limited….two kinds of pizza: pizza margarita and the same, with extra cheese. A few different drink options. That was it. Though we arrived just as it was opening at 11 am, people kept coming and before too long they had to open their second room. It was festive, and everybody seemed happy. I marveled that this happens there every day. The walls boasted photos of famous people who had dined there. There were two photos of Julia Roberts, one a shot from Eat Pray Love, and another of her with the staff. I didn’t see any of Elizabeth Gilbert. I think the idea that a famous and attractive American actress had been there meant a lot more to these guys than the fact that an American writer had mentioned theit restaurant in her memoir (and consequently put their restaurant on the map.) I even understand it, in spite of the fact that I would be Elizabeth Gilbert and not Julia Roberts. At least in this lifetime.
We left Naples, after freshening up at the Ramada Inn, of course. We took the highway until we reached the Amalfi Coast, and then we took the seaside road for the rest of the day, stopping when we pleased. The drive along the Amalfi Coast is not for the faint of heart. It was our second wave of anxiety for the day, the first having been driving in Naples. To our surprise, we had become much more comfortable since our first outing to Sorrento, Charlie with driving and me with being a passenger, and I could relax and enjoy the view, in spite of the dire warnings in our guide book.
My favorite spot was the little village of Vietri sul Mare, where we first exited the highway. We spent a good hour there, roaming the winding streets and enjoying the ceramics for which the little town is known. The town of Amalfi itself, though lovely, was so crowded with shops and tourists that it felt overwhelming. What I have learned is that these little medieval towns cannot withstand their own popularity, at least in the busy season. When crawling with visitors, the charm of these delightful places is lost.
But onward to Sicily.©