Saturday, March 13, 2010

Day Three, we drive down the Amalphi Coast

Day Three:

By the way, Women hear this, in Italy the new ‘in’ color or is it the old ‘in’ color is now ‘in’ again- Royal Purple is it! Other purples and plums will work as well.

Donna had left her sun glasses in Rome when we left. This turned out to be somewhat of an emergency and she was determined to buy a new pair. Problem was, in Positano, you cannot get a pair of sun glasses for less than $150. We even went into a very small pharmacist that also had a rack of sun glasses in the window; I guess that the average Italian tourist wouldn’t be seen dead in a cheap pair of sunglasses. We departed after our continental breakfast, picked up the car and drove down into the village. At the bottom the road we met another two roads. We took the one heading south since that is the way we were heading. The other is the main road into and out of town. They widened is so that it is actually a two way road. However, I noticed that in order to widen the road, one lane was hanging out (cantilevering) in the air completely.

What can I say? The drive down the Amalfi coast was breathtaking. I became even more adept at pulling over to let faster traffic go by. This included buses and trucks. Everyone was in a hurry. I did however draw the line on the way home when these two guys on bicycles tried to pass me on a downhill grade. One can only take so much humiliation so I speeded up and lost them on an uphill grade. The drive was full of wonders. One incredible vista after the next. We wanted to stop in Amalfi but it was a zoo with buses everywhere and no place to park. We just pushed on and stopped in some other small town further down the coast. We walked on the beach, I got a Gelato, and we wandered into the town (uphill of course). I eventually found another Farmacia and went in to look for sun glasses. They had a rack with four sets of very dusty sunglasses on it. Donna liked one of the pairs and we went to buy them. How much we asked, the pharmacist said “yes” and called the lady from the back room who went over to the rack, ignored it and proceeded to rifle through a bunch of drawers full of sun glasses in packaging. She pulled out one pair after the next, how much we asked, “30€, no 20€ for you” she answered. Good price, but Donna wanted that particular pair that she had first selected and this lady would not sell the display model for anything. The lady pulled out one pair after another and Donna kept saying no, she wanted the pair she had originally selected. This was quite baffling to us. Why couldn’t we buy that pair? We weren’t getting anywhere fast so, pretty soon Donna and I are back there with this lady pulling out drawer after drawer of sun glasses in packages, opening them to check them out and putting them back. Again, Donna tried to get the lady to sell the dusty pair that had been in the rack and again the lady refused. This lady had rules and she was basically, inflexible. We did eventually get lucky and actually found a new, packaged pair of glasses identical to the pair that Donna had originally selected. Good thing too or we might still be there sorting out the contents of those drawers, there must have been over a hundred pairs stuffed into the drawers behind that counter. Up the street and around the corner we wandered into a tourist shop. Finally I had found what I was looking for. A tourist shop located in a small town with almost no tourists on a street unlikely to see many tourists because it was pretty much, way off the beaten path. The prices were much more reasonable than in Amalfi and that place that we had stopped along the ‘highway’ where all of those tourist buses had stopped as well. Donna selected the parts to make a tray with four (or was it six) espresso cups sitting around a small sugar bowl. All hand painted ceramic with some cobalt so it goes with all of the other cobalt stuff that we have in the Vista Casa. We also got a very nice signed reproduction of a typical hillside on the Amalfi coast with houses tumbling down toward the sea. I had a nice chat with the owner who seemed to think that I spoke Italian remarkably well for someone from San Diego, California.

One of the things that really amazed me was how these people had carved out this cliff for agriculture. In some places there were 20’ high retaining walls to create 8’ wide planted areas and this type of thing was all over the side of the cliffs. We decided we didn’t want to continue any further down the coast but that we had to visit Ravello which is a mountain town located essentially straight up in the air above the town of Amalfi. Well, what can you say about Ravello? Words just can’t even begin to do this mountain town justice. If you want to know what we experienced, you are just going to have to go there. You very definitely won’t be disappointed. We traipsed around the town for a number of hours, visited a castle type thing with a show on shoes and had lunch in a tratoria. I took hundreds of photos of architectural details. I think I want to start a business building new five hundred year old (mixed with two thousand year old buildings). The roads in and out of Ravello leading up that mountain may have been the narrowest that I have ever seen. On the way out we had to inch our way past a giant tourist bus with only inches to spare on either side of the car. A few minutes later as we slowly maneuvered past an Alfa Romeo in another tight spot, our mirrors kissed as we passed.

Thankfully, we made it safely back to Positano and that evening we chose to have dinner at a restaurant only somewhat down the street from the hotel instead of down by the beach so that the return uphill trip wouldn’t be so challenging. The collateral benefit of that is we sat next to a railing with the most incredible view of the town spread out before us. Donna thought the whole thing was very romantic. We ordered Spaghetti alla Carbonara and Donna Approved, it was very good.

For a lot more photos of this trip and especially Ravello, please visit my construction web site page on Antiquity Replication

Friday, March 12, 2010

Stairs and more stairs to the Hotel

First the ramp, then turn right
Then up a steep section to a landing with a good view
Another steep section, then a more gentle long stair/ramp
gets steeper along the way and we arrive at the hotel entrance with two stories worth of stairs to the lobby level
Another flight of stairs inside finally gets us to the level of our room
It was a long way up to that room in that hotel!

Day Two: Off to the Amalphi Coast and Positano

Today we leave for Positano on the Amalphi coast south of Naples, I decide to ignore the directions suggested by Google maps and got hopelessly lost trying to locate the freeway out of Rome. Thirty minutes later, we are on the right road (A1) out of town and do great until we leave the freeway south of Napoli. We need to exit because we have missed our exit somehow and are now rushing toward Salerno which is to the south of where we really want to end up. As we exit I consult with the toll collector and he gives me a long string of directions which escape me beyond the first left turn somewhere up ahead. So, we are lost all over again but basically, we need to go west since we are south of Naples and I know that the Amalfii coast is only slightly south of Naples too. We head past the signs to Pompeii and travel down a thin road through an old town that goes on and on. Eventually I feel the need to ask for directions at a gas station. I’m told that the freeway to Sorrento (near Positano) is only a few hundred meters ahead, just go right and then left. Well we go right and drive down a road that appears to be a main road, go around a corner and it dead ends. We turn around and examine a barrier that appears to be where the road used to go but doesn’t anymore. So I return up the hill the way we came and ask at another gas station. He tells me to take a left at the alley down the road. Sure enough there is a freeway sign pointing into this alley that is only 8’ wide. We go through the alley and come out the other end as it dead ends into a street. No freeway sign. We go left and pretty soon we are on our way to the Adriatic. This is not good, we want to be heading toward New York and instead we are heading toward Istanbul. We turn around again, return to the alley and this time continue the other direction. Success! Down, around a couple more obstacles and soon we are on the freeway which is where we are supposed to be on the road to Sorrento, we are actually back on the Google Maps directions again.
We had great fun once we are following the coast. This is one very thin road, barely as wide a one freeway lane with traffic going two ways above 500’ of vertical cliffs. On the way down, we are on the cliff side and giant tourist buses are going the other way. Naturally, they take the whole road and don’t really care much about the oncoming traffic. Good thing we have a car that is only six feet long and 4’ wide. Anyway, with careful navigation and luck, we arrive at the outskirts of Positano. There aren’t really any outskirts, but you do know you are almost there because this road that has been built out of the face of the cliff is now strung out with lots and lots of parked cars. Men in business suits are walking long distances down the highway toward town from their cars, very curious, we don’t understand why….. Well, according to Google Maps I could get to our Hotel called Copa D’Oro by taking the first right as we approached Positano. Note, this was not the main road and it really wasn’t apparent if I was looking for a paved road or a dirt road. Well, it was one way and that way was down. We wanted to travel slowly so that we could take in the sites and perhaps actually spot the hotel as we snaked downward toward the blue Mediterranean water below. I realized as this road went on and on down the hill that if we missed the hotel the first time, we would have to go to the bottom and then all the way back up to the top and then down again to find our hotel. Italians are always in a hurry and it took no time at all for someone to be riding my tail. As soon as possible, I pulled over and let the traffic pass by. As time went on and for the next few days that we were on the Amalfi Coast I became very adept at locating small niches in the road wide enough for me to pull over in so that someone could pass me. The roads of Positano make Lombard Street in San Francisco look like a freeway. It really isn’t safe to drive faster than 15 miles per hour but the Italians want to drive at 50 if they can and I won’t even mention the Vespas. Vespa drivers are the true daredevils of Italy. They are always going full throttle and don’t hesitate to pass a car or even a bus around a blind hairpin turn. At first I was wondering why everyone was in such a hurry on these thin dangerous roads but eventually I figured it out. It took a long time to travel very few miles between one town and the next along the Amalfi coast and up to Ravello. In fact, it would seem that a lot of the infrastructure in Italy was built by the ancient Romans when a road only needed to be wide enough for an oxen cart and a pedestrian. The roads have been widened slightly since then but aren’t any straighter now. If Italians only traveled at safe speeds, it would take forever to get around, thus the necessity is to drive like a maniac and to take your life into your hands at every turn. Dad, I now understand why you used to drive the way you did. You lived too long in Italy and absorbed their driving habits.

So anyway, down and down we go. It seems that we have come down the slope hundreds of feet as the road winds back and forth across this enormous cliff. The switch backs are incredibly tight and instant U-turns. The Micra handles the road like it was made for it but it wasn’t the first time that I wondered how I ever would have gotten around if I had been driving my truck. When I did internet searches for a place to stay in Positano, there had been perhaps twenty search results. Now that we are there, it appears that there may actually be hundreds of places to stay. When booking a room I was worried about finding a place with a view. Now I saw that it would be nearly impossible to build a house in Positano that doesn’t have a view. The buildings are practically built on top of the roofs of the houses below them. I did actually find a place on the internet that had some rooms with no windows at all so I guess it was possible to not have a view but just not very easy. We went around another corner where the cliffs hung out over our heads. There was a small scale replica village built into the base of the cliff and there in front of us, Donna spotted a sign that said parking for the Copa D’Oro. Wow, we had found our hotel. We pulled in, got out, were greeted by the parking lot attendant and as we opened up the back of the car, a very worried look came over his face. He said that there were a lot of steps leading up to the hotel. Then he emphasized that there really were a lot of steps leading up to the hotel. Then he got on the phone to the hotel and talked to the desk there. He told them that they needed to send someone down to get the bags but they did not have anyone so we were stuck. We took off toward the hotel, the first part was easy. Roll the suitcases behind us down the street to the corner and make a right down a step onto a cobblestone paved path leading away from the road. Ahead a sign indicated that the hotel was to the right. This is when things started to get tough. We should have repacked and condensed what we really needed for our three day jaunt down the coast of Italy, instead and because we had the car, we took everything with us. One largish suitcase for me, one smaller suitcase for Donna, my backpack with the laptop computer and another small roll behind for Donna plus jackets. Well, now I needed to carry all of this stuff up a vertical staircase. I have no doubt that by the time I was finished, and the luggage was in the lobby of the hotel, I had raised all of it up at least six stories worth of staircases twice. For each set of stairs that I climbed, I had to go back down to get the other half of the luggage and climb it again. To say that I was wiped out would put it mildly but I can’t complain too much since I really did need the exercise. I do wonder though how many guests have heart attacks trying to get up to the lobby of that hotel. The lady in the lobby welcomed us and said that we should have called up to the hotel and have them send down someone for the luggage. Yeah right. It was obvious that she was the only one there. She checked us in and we took an elevator to our room one more flight up from the lobby. She told us to leave the luggage and she would have it brought up. Guess what, she brought it herself. After all, she did have an elevator to use.

The hotel advertises a modest pool on the roof. When we checked in, the lady suggested that we would want to check it out. Naturally, Donna was disappointed that we hadn’t brought our bathing suits but never the less wanted to go check out the pool. I was a little skeptical because I had seen a photo on the web site and it only showed a small corner of it. Well, we get up there, and we find a Jacuzzi sitting on the deck. I experiment, push a few buttons and get the jets going but the water is cold. Donna wants to use the Jacuzzi so we go back to the desk to ask them to heat it and they tell us that it is only warm between 9:00 and 10:30 each morning. I think, yeah right 9:00 and 10:30 of alternating Sundays on leap years is more like it. So much for the pool/spa, whatever. The weather was perfect but this is the end of October after all.

The hotel was great, the view was stupendous! I had survived getting to the hotel, we showered and smiled as we sat out on the balcony and took in the view. Wow, Positano really is one of those very special places on the planet. It had been so long that I had forgotten how incredible this village truly was. So after a little rest, we put ourselves together and headed out. In Positano, there really is only one way to go and that way is downhill. The car was parked and the weather was great, and so we set out walking. As far as we had come downhill to our hotel, it seemed that we were still closer to the top than we were to the bottom. No matter, on the way down we did some window shopping, Donna looked at the clothes and eventually bought something at one of the places. I took lots of photos of alleys, the view of the town and the water; architectural details and this incredible cloud that was bit by bit enveloping the top of the cliffs above our heads. Eventually, we found ourselves on the beach at the bottom of the hill town just as it was getting dark. We found a restaurant right on the sand and had a long lazy dinner with a carafe of Vino Rosso. The restaurant had someone playing music and it really was quite idyllic. After dinner with a Gelato in hand we set off toward our hotel. No hurry, stop in the stores, check out an art gallery, after all, it is up hill all of the way, stop and admire the view, check out the wedding party in one of the restaurants along the way, and still, it is up all of the way. It had seemed a long way down, amazingly it was even further on the way back up and then, the stairs to the hotel. Well, they were terrible but after what I had gone through earlier in the day with the luggage, they were a breeze. We left the restaurant slightly inebriated and very full. When we were back in our room, we were sober and I have no doubt that we had burned off every calorie that we had taken in while getting back to the hotel but it was fun!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

We return to Rome the following year... October, 2008 Day One

Preface, Before I left, I talked to Mahlon, he said that if I rented a car without a GPS, I would be screwed; see below….driving in Italy showed me how seriously challenging something can actually be…

Day One:

We arrive at the airport; there is no custom check whatsoever. So, we ask where the rental cars are, apparently, they are upstairs. Upstairs we are told that they are on the top floor, from there we are directed across the street to a parking garage. Inside the garage is a moving sidewalk, “follow the signs toward the Hilton” we are told, we travel from one moving sidewalk to the next and we arrive at a train station. Very cool, the train goes to the airport but the car rental is not here. I ask, they tell me to follow the moving sidewalks back the way I came. I want to argue, but my Italian escapes me so we return on the path we came. Turns out, the car rental was in one of those intersections behind the central post hidden from view as we came down the other way. Renting the car was easy, we got a Nissan Micra, a very small car but with four doors and larger then a ‘Smart’.

OK, so now we start the controlled destruction derby of driving in Italy. Remember, I never had driven here before. I obtained my driver’s license in the U.S. after graduating from high school. Well, it was a little harrowing and I soon learned the rule. Stop signs are just a suggestion, I’m not sure that I ever saw a car stop at one. It isn’t even like the ‘California stop’ where we role through the stop sign and intersections slowly. In this country they just don’t actually slow down at all as they go through the stop sign. OK, I can do that too. And if you put on your blinker to make a turn or change lanes, that is the same as challenging every vehicle within sight for that space. If a car doesn’t accelerate to close off the direction or lane you had intended to turn into, for sure at least one Vespa will. The goal is to get where you want to go without letting anyone crash into you.

What they didn’t know was that I have driven in Tijuana in my F-350 4x4 truck on many occasions. I realize that the truck is a little larger than a ‘Micra’ but the concept is the same, never let them see the fear that is in your eyes. .. We decided to go to Ostia Antica first since it was right next to the airport. The place was very cool; I got lots of photos of mosaic floors and other things. We had lunch inside the ruins at the taverna dei Slavi. Is that the word for slaves? Turns out it was Scavi (excavations). Ostia was very interesting but perhaps only half excavated, it may take them another hundred years to get it finished, we shall see.

Anyway, I had printed out directions from Google for getting to the apartment on Via Siria. The directions were probably good but the problem is that in Italy, labeling roads is a fine art specifically designed to miss-guide you and assure that you never find the location that you set out to find. We got hopelessly lost looking for Via Christoforo Columbo which must be the largest road in Rome. Really, it wouldn’t have been complicated if I had known that C.C. runs from E.U.R. to the center of Rome, after all, I could see that building in E.U.R. with all of the arches. If I had headed toward that, I would have been in like Flint. As it was, we were lucky that we didn’t end up on A1 on our way to Florence. We did eventually in a very convoluted manner end up on C.C. and followed it toward downtown until it ended in the piazza in front of the Termi di Caracalla. I hesitated for a second and ended up taking a sharp right onto the adjacent street, it was spectacular, walls on either side and cobble underneath. Tourists were walking along this seemingly secluded road which was puzzling until I figured out that we were on the Via Appia Antica. Well, soon enough we were beyond the city and on our way to Brindisi and the road was one way only. We stopped in front of the catacombs of San Sebastiano to figure out how to get home. Go left, left again and floor it, pretty soon we were back at the walls of the City. We made a right, followed the walls and began navigating by dead reckoning. It just felt right; this got me to within two blocks of Via Siria which isn’t bad! For those of you who know Rome but are confused as to where we stayed, here is the simple way, go past San Giovanni in Laterano, through the Porta di San Giovanni in Laterano and follow up Via Magna Grecia, there is a name change and it becomes Britannia and then Via della Concordia as it enters Piazza Zama. Via Siria is just beyond. We finally arrive at Via Siria 23. Renzo had been worried and waiting for us. He soon took off to fix a parking ticket that had been paid but they wanted money again. Italian bureaucracy at work.

I proceeded to plug in my surge suppressor for the laptop designed to only work on 110v I think I killed it. I also blew out the electricity for the whole apartment. Everything works on electricity or has an electric spark igniter. Cold showers, quite invigorating! Search everywhere, can’t find the electrical panel. We go out searching for a phone to Call Beatrice, by the time we return, Renzo is back, he resets the breakers and tells me that it is a good thing I didn’t blow the main which is down by the entry gate to the complex. Had I done that, it would have required the Utility Company to re-activate and a number of days for them to show up.