Oct 25, 2006

Italy Retrospective

So I managed to bide my time at Heathrow, and my baggage made it through the flight intact, albeit a bit less new looking than it started out. I felt like one of the youngest people on a flight of retirees; I managed to sit beside a chatty, retired British couple, which meant I didn't manage much sleep on this leg of the flight either. The conversation was notably less salacious then the two (rather unattractive) Vegas party girls I sat near on the previous flight.

The Napoli airport is a rather dingy affair; there wasn't much going on there. I spent about an hour and a half wandering around the airport, waiting for the other three people with whom I was sharing a cab. It only took about 10 minutes to see the airport, the rest of the time was spent wandering aimlessly. Eventually their flight arrived, but the driver that was supposed to meet us was nowhere to be found. We waited around for a bit, then called. He showed up sometime after, almost an hour late.

The drive from Napoli to Ravello wasn't too bad. It took about an hour and a half, some over the motorway, and the rest through narrow roads weaving up the mountain. The sunset over the Bay of Naples was visible through the tinted windows of the van; it was gorgeous. It was the only sunset I caught, as Ravello was on the other side of the mountain, and the weather was uncooperative for the next few days.

The cab dropped us off at the entrance of Ravello. The streets of the tiny hillside town are strictly pedestrian; cars can go as far as a tunnel just before the town square, at the bottom of the hill. The Villa Cimbrone (Villa Chim-bron-neh), the hotel for the wedding, and where most of the guests were staying, were on the far side of town. They send porters down for the luggage, but with no sign of the porter when we arrived, we decided to have dinner instead. There were a couple of restaurants there, we picked one at random, the Restaurant Garden.

The restaurant had a covered patio, overlooking the Bay of Sorrento, with gas heat lamps. There were two other couples when we arrived at 8pm or so. The sun had already set, so it felt considerably later than that. Eventually, the tables filled up, dining times are much later in Italy (and Spain) than California. The food was pretty decent, I was pleased with the pick. I ordered figs and prosciutto, and a pasta with clams. The prosciutto was only so so, the figs, which came peeled, were delicious, the clams were incredibly tasty. Others had ordered calamary (way overcooked), an aubergine gnocchi (incredibly fluffy), and a pasta with impressive shrimp.
It turns out that Hotel Graal, where I was staying, was just beside the restaurant (did I mention Ravello was tiny?). For 95 euro, I thought it was a pretty good deal. The extremely friendly receptionist identified me by name as I stepped through the door, took my passport, and sent the porter to my room with my luggage (I came back to retrieve my passport later). The room was small, but the view from the spacious balcony was exceptional. The unit had a Carrier aircon/heater. Although I was able to turn it on, I wasn't able to figure out how to get either the aircon or heat working. I eventually gave up on the unit halfway in the night when it kept triggering the circuit breaker and was constantly turning itself on and off.
Through most of the trip I found myself feeling dehydrated. By Friday night, I had been up at least 24 hours, and was starting to feel unwell. I suspect it was something in the typhoid/polio/tetanus/diptheria/percussis/flu shots on Wednesday. I managed a shower before I conked out completely.

I had thought the blinds were rather thick, but a crack was enough for me to wake up to the blinding morning sun into the corner of the room.
After snapping a few shots of the view, I headed down to the restaurant, where two American families and an old Brit couple were already having breakfast. There were a selection of cereals, fruits, cold pastries, cheese and salami, and breads and local commercial marmalades (orange, lemon, grapfruit, and combined citrus). By 10am I was out of the hotel with my camera. I scouted out Ravello and made my way to the Villa Cimbrone. I wandered the villa and the grounds a bit, but not recognizing any of the tourists (the villa has an entrance fee, but I got in for free claiming that I was there for a wedding), I left and decided to head down the stairs to Amalfi, a bigger town on the coast, at the bottom of the hill.
While the walk looked far, it ended up being further than I had thought. The narrow stairs led to a path that went between small terraced plots of fruits and vegetables that lined the mountain, and little houses that were accessible only by foot. There were plenty of small yapping dogs as I passed through the trail; luckilly most stayed behind small fences. They had me worried since I hadn't had my rabies shot. The trail eventually hit the road (the narrow, curvy one), and I walked the rest of the way worrying about cars and busses rather than dogs. I had once thought I'd come to Europe when I'm old, but there's plenty of places to hike on the Amalfi coast.
Down by Amalfi, the water was a luxurious blue. I walked into the town square, lined with shops selling gelato and limoncello. I saw one of the groom's friends sitting on the patio of a gelateria, and joined him. He introduced me to a number of other people who were also there for the wedding. Amalfi's, although still being small, was considerably bigger and had many more tourists than Ravello. We spent a couple of hours walking around, which was enough to cover the area around the town square, although I probably could have sat around with a good book for the rest of the day. The rest of the group decided to break for lunch, but not being very hungry, I picked up some pastries (sfogliatelle with lemon cream and a fancy biscotti) and joined them.
One of them had rented a car, so I hitched a ride back up. It was around 2:30pm and I was already feeling pretty tired, which pretty much confirmed that I was down with something. Clouds were rolling in during the drive up the hill. I had time for a short break, just enough time to get all my camera gear together and dig out my raincoat before having to shower and change and walk over to the villa for the 4:30pm wedding. On the way up, it had started raining. I walked a brisk pace up the hill, and although I hadn't gotten too wet from the rain, I was starting to sweat under my jacket. The wedding was originally planned for the gardens, but given the inclement weather, it was moved to a location called the "crypt", a verandah of sorts underneath the villa, with vaulted ceilings, but also and open wall facing the bay.
The ceremony itself was rather short, but just long enough for the rain to stop so that the couple and guests could go back out to the garden for photos. Somehow the timing ended up just right; as the bride and groom finished with their photos and joined everyone else for cocktails inside, the rain started to pick up again. It rained throughout the dinner, and by the time people started to leave, it was a downpour. I was rather glad I had managed to bring my raincoat for the walk back out, although the villa did provide umbrellas for guests. It might have been a reason for staying at the villa itself, but probably not worth the 250 euro difference in price.

I had originally planned on returning to Napoli on Sunday with the same group I had came with, and then make my way to Pompei or otherwise entertain myself for the day before heading for Milan in the evening. As things happened to go, someone else had booked a car for Pompei, while his travelling companion actually preferred to head stright to Napoli. We easily swapped and I joined the car that went for the tour of Pompei. We took the scenic route along the coast to the Roman ruins, passing through Salerno and a few other small coastal towns along the way. As a kid, I had read the National Geographic articles featuring the mumified remains of the buried city, frozen in its dying throes. I didn't realize that was just one element, and the main draw was the city itself. Our driver arranged a tour for us (115 euro, not including the 11 euro per person entry fee). Divided 3 ways, it seemed like a lot to pay just to get an old guy to walk around for you for two hours and talk about how great the Romans were. He only covered the area close to the forum; afterwards we wandered the rest of the ruins ourselves. I couldn't help but get the feeling that this was one of those tourist towns where tourists get ripped off. From Pompei, we had to spend quite some time in traffic, as the main motorway to Napoli had been flooded from the rain the night before. When we arrived in Naples, we spent some time wandering around the city square. I didn't actually have time to check out the palace (will have to save that for next time).
The driver dropped the other two wedding guests off at their hotel in Naples, and took me to the airport. I spent some time wandering around, looking for a courier to send my formal attire back home, but came up empty, meaning I would have to check my backpack again, since EasyJet only allowed for 1 carry on item. I had my biscotti (which had sat in my bag till now), as well as a prosciutto and provolone panini purchased at the airport, for dinner. I couldn't help but notice that a lot of Italians were having Burger King instead. Many passengers however, were carrying little styrofoam boxes of mozzerella di bufula.
It was almost 11pm when I arrived in Milan via EasyJet. I had originally booked the flight to Milan, since the Milan-Malaga flight was only 30 euro with all the taxes included. What I figured afterwards was that the airport was actually quite far from the city core (70km). There's a reasonably priced train connecting the airport to the city, but it would not start early enough for us to catch our early flight to Malaga. I tried booking a hotel closer to the airport, the UNA Hotel Malpensa (Malpensa being the name of the airport). Arriving at Malpensa however, I realised that the cab fare was still 45 euro to the hotel. In retrospect it might have been more worthwhile just to stay in the city center, and live with the incrementally higher cab fare. It wasn't much of a loss though, since I was still feeling pretty sick, I didn't really have much desire to explore, just to go to bed. Luckily the hotel was quite nice, with modern decor in its oversized rooms and excellent beds.
Things to love about Napoli/Amalfi Coast:
- perfect temperatures (at least, in October)
- the amazing vista
- incredibly friendly people (it is tourist country, after all)
- seafood
- mozzerella di bufula
- tall skinny girls in tall skinny jeans tucked into tall skinny boots with tall skinny heels :)

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