Driving South to Sicily: Part One – Herculaneum to Sorrento, or “They Have You by the Coglioni!”

The car rental agent across from the Naples train station enthusiastically informed us that we were the first drivers of a brand-new Peugeot. Leading us to a shiny set of wheels, parked on busy street in front of the office, he offered a rudimentary description of the car’s technological features, a collision avoidance system and satellite navigation that would show every radar speed camera on the Italian highways.

With our luggage in the trunk and a friendly wave we were off, or so we thought.  Just barely moving forward, the collision avoidance system screeched alive with alarms and red blinking threats on the dashboard display.  It happened frequently as we worked our way through heavy Neapolitan traffic. Scooters, cars, trucks and pedestrians getting close to our bumpers set the system into a frenzy of piercing alarms and flashing lights.  Nerve wracking – it felt like I was Luke Skywalker thundering along in an X-wing fighter while R2D2 whizzed with anxiety, as we tried to evade the Empire’s eradication. In reality we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Fortunately, the congestion eased, and Herculaneum was only a twenty-minute drive from Naples.

We had visited Pompei years earlier, one June when Italy was having an early heat wave and the temperature was over 100F.  As interesting as Pompei was, the size of the site and the heat dampened our enthusiasm for it. This day was quite a different experience, as the weather in November was very agreeable for visiting Herculaneum.

We descended into its excavated ruins, which were destroyed and covered with 53ft of ash on the same fateful night as Pompeii in 79AD.  The towering black walls of solidified ash surrounding the site reinforced the magnitude of the catastrophe. The coastal town was popular with wealthy Romans who built Domus style homes which were richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics.  Arched workshops of boatbuilders lined the shore and were the last refuge of citizens trying to flee, their agony now eternally preserved in casts of their bodies.  The massive amount of ash and volcanic rock that fell created a new shoreline on the Bay of Naples, 2000ft farther west. 

Only a fraction of the size of Pompeii, the Herculaneum archeological area doesn’t draw the immense crowds of the larger site, but is just as interesting and in some ways more so. Unlike Pompeii, which was engulfed in a scorching lava flow which destroyed most of the wood and decorative elements of the homes there, the cooler ash and poisonous gases that killed the populace of Herculaneum preserved the homes to a greater degree, leaving the wooden internal structure of buildings and their interior décors intact.  This combined with an earlier visit to the Naples National Archaeological Museum to see the finest examples of relics recovered from the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii provided us with deeper insight into the opulent lifestyle of the 1st century AD Roman Empire.  Herculaneum was easily explored in a half day and enabled us to continue to Sorrento in a timely manner.

With fond memories of the serpentine Amalfi Coast from a trip a fifteen years earlier, we decided to base our new weeklong exploration of the Sorrentine Peninsula in Sorrento.  The route into town along SS145 didn’t disappoint us when rounding a cliff-hugging bend of the road revealed a view all the way out to the Isle of Capri. By staying in the largest town of the region we didn’t have to worry about seasonal closures, which unfortunately were beginning to happen in mid-November.  Only a short walk from the center of town and the waterfront with Mount Vesuvius commanding the horizon across the Bay of Naples, the lovely Villa Rosa Sorrento with its modest off-season pricing and free parking was a terrific value and perfect for us.

With our attempts at immersive travel, we avoid scratching off a list of designated tourist highlights; rather,  we explore a place seeking how to experience how folks live, the everydayness of a place, and whether we would enjoy living there. “Walk a little, then café,” is our slow travel approach as we soak up the ambience of a locale.

La Tana Del Vino on Via Parsano was a delightful find. This small enoteca features regionally produced wines that they decant for you from large stainless-steel vats into your own glass or plastic bottles.  A variety of red, white and rose’ wines were available, most between 3-4€ per liter.  Samples were freely poured and we very pleased with our selection of these table wines. 

Sorrento with its ferry service to Capri gears itself to the high season.  There were still tourists out and about, but the large tour buses and groups were absent in November, the beginning of the rainy season.  We ran between rain drops the best we could on several occasions. 

With the port as our destination for lunch, it was a pleasant stroll along near empty sidewalks to Chiostro di San Francesco, a 14th century convent with a lush, greenery-filled cloister that now hosted other activities and concerts.  On the top floor Raffaele Celentano’s photography school and gallery had a marvelous patio shaded by the canopy of stately tree. A wooden swing hanging from its branches brought smiles to the faces of many gallery visitors as they playfully took a turn.

The panoramic balcony in the public garden across from the convent is a magnet for sunset worshippers.  In the garden the city operates the Sorrento Lift, two elevators that take tourists and residents down to the harbor level where hydrofoils and ferry service is available to Capri, Ischia, Positano and Naples, along with access to the beach clubs and the city’s public beach. 

After washing our clothes in various sinks for two weeks it was time for a thorough laundering, and we lugged our bundle to a laundromat in town. It was a very clean facility. We were amused to notice that the vending machine that dispensed soap products also offered a very broad selection of marijuana products as well, presumably to allay the tedium of the task.  The selections weren’t inexpensive, with many items costing over twenty euros.  This was something unique that we had never come across before in our travels.  The world is changing so quickly, but we can’t imagine dropping a twenty euro note into a vending machine for anything.

With our clothes in the dryer, we decided to head to lunch, and immediately got drenched to the bone in a sudden downpour.  Looking like water rats, we sought shelter under the awning of a pizzeria. Seeing us, the proprietor of Master Hosts (not a very atmospheric name) ushered us inside and kindly insisted we warm ourselves in front of the pizza oven.  Even if we hadn’t been so extremely grateful for his hospitality, this was some of the best pizza and wine we had in Italy, while our fingers de-wrinkled. His graciousness turned a gloomy day into a wonderful afternoon. 

Another rainy night we made our way early to La Cantinaccia del Popolo, a rustic neighborhood restaurant that stays open all year to cater to its loyal following.  Part deli, part gourmet restaurant, the open kitchen is fronted by a glass charcuterie case with an exotic display of dried meats, cheeses, pates, terrines, and olives. The gastronomic delights from the kitchen are plated in their signature deep dish pans.  Packed and noisy, with a friendly staff, delicious food, and a good house wine, this was a cozy place to enjoy the evening. Fortified with a great meal and drink, we faced a cold November rain as we walked back to our inn.  If you prefer to dine later in the evening, reservations are suggested after 8 PM.

Lemons, lemons everywhere!  Regional seafood, pasta, rice, chicken, pastry, and gelato recipes all use this tart fruit in delectable ways. And remember limoncello! The cool breezes of the Mediterranean that blow against the steep mountains of the Amalfi coast create a unique microclimate where lemons flourish and are harvested multiple times of the year, though the most desirable crop is picked between March and July.  This is a strenuous labor-intensive activity as the steep terrain requires all the fruit to be picked by hand and the heavy grates are carried out of the orchards on the backs of men. 

A morning drive along the sinuous coast and a turn into the mountains brought us to Ravello in time for lunch at a small restaurant with only six indoor tables.  Fifteen years ago, as a wedding present to each other, we splurged and purchased a dinnerware set of ceramics featuring the iconic Amalfi lemons, set against a rich blue background.  Over the years everyday use had taken its toll on our plates.  Fortunately, Pascal Ceramiche d’Arte was still painting our pattern and they ship internationally, so we were able to fill in a few gaps in our service.

After coffee we wandered the town’s narrow, high walled lanes down the hill towards the Monastero Di S. Chiara.  Along the way we encountered a construction worker leading a team of donkeys with rigid saddlebags full of sand to a worksite, the ancient alley too tight for any vehicle to maneuver through.

There’s no way around it, “they have you by the coglioni!” when you are trying to find a parking garage in Positano.  In this most beautiful village on the Amalfi Coast we paid through the nose for the privilege of parking.  Water, café, food and parking, even in the off season, are exorbitantly priced.  But on a sunny day, when the sky clears after a morning storm, the dramatic setting of the terraced village is at its best. Positano rises steeply into the mountains from the sea sparkling like a spectacular Byzantine mosaic, radiating light and color.  It’s well worth the splurge even if you have to eat Ramen noodles for the next three days to get back on budget.

To our delight we found a wonderful, affordable spot for a late lunch in Agerola called Jerla as we navigated our way across the mountaintop on the way back to Sorrento.

Getting there required a breathtaking drive through the numerous switchbacks of Strada Statale 366, also referred to as the Via Panoramica, that climbed through the terraced vineyards of San Michele and had incredible views of the Amalfi Coast below.

We each wanted to be in control on this treacherous road. We argued about who got to drive as we sped around the curves, and who was relegated to digging their fingernails into the dashboard.

Til next time, Craig & Donna

Naples – Historic, Gritty and Wonderful

The Italian countryside seemed to extend forever, a wonderful accomplishment for this region of southern Italy that has supported civilization for several millennia, though it ended abruptly when we rounded a highway curve and came to a halt in traffic. Naples, we had arrived.

It wasn’t until we saw Naples from above that we realized the extent of this metropolis.  From our apartment in the historic center of Naples, near the Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, we walked to the daily market along busy streets lined with ancient 17th and 18th century palazzo, once noble homes of the Neapolitan elite, now subdivided into apartments, their fine architectural details often hidden under graffiti, that lined Via Pignasecca.

Vegetable, cheese, meat and especially bountiful seafood vendors were in a constant state of motion readying their stalls and calling aloud what was available.  It was fascinating and gritty with an underlying character of toughness that street life in Naples demands.

Everything looked wonderful as we planned dinner in our minds and agreed to return later after our day’s activity; how disappointed we were to find the street all tidied up and swept clean by mid-afternoon.  We consoled ourselves with a purchase of a bottle of Piedirosso Campania, a red Italian wine grape that is a specialty of the region. For two euros it was a good everyday wine. Later in the week we purchased a fresh tuna fillet that was excellent.

The funicular at the Montesanto train station saved us from a long and incredibly steep set of stairs that would have otherwise led us to Castel Sant’Elmo. Its six-pointed star design dates from Spanish rule of the Kingdom of Naples in the 1500’s, and is the highest point on Vomero hill.

The thirteenth century fortress dominates Naples’ skyline and has an incredible panoramic vista of the vast metropolitan area that hugs the Bay of Naples. Mount Vesuvius overshadows the scene that extends past Sorrento to the Isle of Capri.

Under the citadel walls in what was once a wealthy monastery the Certosa e Museo di San Martino exhibits a collection of art and artifacts devoted to the monastery’s and Naples’ history, in richly decorated cloisters. 

Outside the formal gardens, the paths along the cliff edge were a quiet retreat.  If you don’t feel the need to tour another fortress or monastery, the Belvedere San Martino scenic overlook offers the same views and is a very popular place to watch the sunset. 

After lunch we followed the stairs of Pedamentina a San Martino downhill to Corso Vittorrio Emanuele which cuts across the mid-section of Vomero hill above Quartieri Spagnoli, the old Spanish quarter. The district gets its name from the garrisons of Spanish troops housed there in the 16th century to quell any rebellions from the restive Neapolitan citizenry. From the sidewalk here we looked down upon canyons of TV satellite dishes and flapping laundry hanging from balconies that extended for block upon block, the sheer number of folks living above one another unimaginable.

Over centuries it has evolved to have the densest population of any neighborhood in Italy. After the second world war, post-war public housing was built for tens of thousands of displaced Italian families that fled the war-ravaged countryside, looking for work and shelter in Naples, though Naples itself was in near ruins, having been bombed over 100 times by Allied forces prior to the liberation of the Italian peninsula from Nazi occupation.  Before retreating from Naples, the Nazis destroyed all of the city’s port facilities along with the water, electricity, and gas infrastructures.  Thus began an era of poverty and destitution that was further fueled by neglect from the central government in Rome.  A century earlier, before fighting against Italian unification, the Kingdom of Naples was the most prosperous, wealthy and industrialized of the pre-unitary Italian states with the largest number of students enrolled in public schools along with the peninsula’s lowest infant mortality rate.  The city was a treasured destination of 17th and 18th century upper-class Europeans on their “Grand Tours.” The poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is credited with coining the phrase “See Naples and die” to reflect the city’s grandeur on one such tour.  Though I’m sure he never envisioned how a growing Mafia influence in the mid-1950’s co-opted the phrase.

We worked our way along Corso Vittorrio searching for the Giardino del Claustro, a scenic overlook, but finally gave up when we realized it was behind the entrance to a university. This wandering led us serendipitously to the Church of St. Nicholas of Tolentino where a chorus of angelic voices suddenly filled the sanctuary as we crossed its threshold, stopping us in our tracks. Seeing no one, we listened intently to the anthem, trying to determine its unseen source, until we finally heard the bellowing voice of the choir director.  We were in the school’s chapel!

If anyplace is likely to induce a religious overdose it’s Naples. “The city of 500 domes,” reportedly has 1000 churches, five hundred of which have historical significance and I swear they are all in the ancient center of the city.  Starting at the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo on the piazza that bears its name, we walked along Via Benedetto Croce in a large loop that brought us first to the majolica-tiled cloisters of the 14th century Complesso Monumentale di Santa Chiarato.

Continuing straight, we eventually came to a street mural of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. This large tribute was painted in the contemporary style of Jorit Agoch, a Neapolitan graffiti artist, in 2015, above the entrance to a bar that stands next to Chiesa Parrocchiale di S. Giorgio Maggiore on Via Duomo.

Earlier we passed a small memorial to Antonio Varvella, nicknamed O’Barone, a sometimes-gruff character, a beloved homeless man who was a fixture in the historic center for many years until his death one wintry night in 2014.

Backtracking, we turned onto Via San Gregorio Armeno, a street famous for its numerous workshops that craft unique, highly detailed hand-made presepi, nativity scenes.  

Almost lost amidst the store fronts of the crèche workshops, the Church of San Gregorio Armeno has a lavish gilded baroque interior. It is a 1500’s renovation of the original 9th century church built over a Roman temple of worship to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. 

At the end of the lane, the Basilica di San Paolo Maggiore dominates the square.  

Back at our starting point we rested in front of St. Giuseppe Moscati’s statue, the hand of the sculpture shiny from parishioners holding it as they prayed for cures. A local doctor, he dedicated his life to serving the poor of Naples and is credited with many miracles. He was canonized in 1987.  

Facades of many of these churches pale in comparison to their rich interiors. If the door to the church was open, we entered. Some were grander than others, but all of them were interesting.  

Alternating with stops for café, gelato or the ever so refreshing Aperol spritz, we spent several afternoons ping-ponging our way from church to church through the center of a city that has been inhabited since the eight century B.C. when the Greeks named their colony, Neapolis. 

Subsequent civilizations buried the ruins of earlier ones.  The cobbled lanes and churches we toured had been built over Underground Naples, 120 feet of ancient detritus along with ruins of millennia old cisterns, aqueducts, Roman alleys and shops that spread extensively under historic and modern Naples. 

The reward for one of our daily explorations was a savory Margarita pizza from Di Matteo, recommended by our friend Marina, a lifelong Neapolitan, who affirmed, “It’s the only place my family eats pizza.”  A round pizza folded twice to form a triangle is the perfect street food, but when you order it inside and sit at a table to dine it is customary in Italy to use a knife and fork to politely carve these culinary creations that have become so popular the world over.

By the end of the week the hard cobblestones were fatiguing, and we decided to take a cab to Galleria Umberto, an old fashioned, glass domed shopping mall.  A five-minute trip according to Google Maps. It’s a landmark by the waterfront, near Castel Nuovo and Piazza del Plebiscito which we planned to visit afterwards.  

There were several taxis in queue at Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, all pointing in the direction we needed to go, a good omen or so I thought, as we hopped into the first cab.  Hearing our destination, the driver promptly did a U-turn, then another left turn taking us in the wrong direction. I spoke up from the backseat and pointed to the map, my question confidently waved away by the driver. “Donna, he’s taking us in the wrong direction.” “Give him a few more minutes. He’s local – maybe he knows a shortcut.” With a left turn out of the historic center the driver would have redeemed himself, and put us on a course to the waterfront. Instead, he turned right and floored it while ignoring my protest from the backseat. Finally, at a red light he rolled down his window and asked for directions from a police officer.  Oddly, the police officer made eye contact with me and winked.  A right turn brought us into a one lane road where traffic was at a standstill.  By this time what should have been a very reasonable fare was now approaching twenty euros and we were still over twenty minutes away, in the opposite direction from our destination. I believe he had intentionally taken us in the wrong direction to jack up his fee.  It was time to abandon ship. We got out in the middle of the traffic jam, and I handed him five euros.  An eruption of Italian we did not understand pursued us onto the sidewalk as we walked away, and I swear the buildings blushed from embarrassment. Never have I met a cabbie who didn’t know where a landmark was. 

A few moments later as we were walking down the sidewalk, voices called from behind. “Attenzione!”  Two smartly dressed female police officers were telling us to pay the cabbie. These officers looked serious, with handcuffs! My mind raced as I told them he was a thief, and no way was he going to extort more money from us!  Much of this intense discussion was hindered by our lack of Italian.  Twenty-three euros were now on the meter and the driver wanted to be paid.  I repeated, “no way!” multiple times.  Thank goodness for Google Maps.  With it we were able to show the officers our pickup point and what our original route should have been and the time it should have taken.  They immediately saw how deliberately off course we were. They agreed with us and reprimanded the driver and told him he was lucky he got the 5 Euros.  The police officers apologized for his behavior and were sorry that it happened to us.  From where we got out of the cab it took us an hour to walk to Galleria Umberto where two “caffé corretto,” espresso with grappa, were ordered to sooth our frustration. For this very reason we prefer to use the transparency of Uber or Lyft for transportation when traveling; unfortunately, those services were not licensed to operate in Naples.

With our Naples Pass in hand we headed to the National Archaeological Museum.  This was a wonderful museum with a fascinating collection of artifacts, ancient pottery, classical sculptures, and mosaics discovered across the Campania region.  There is also an extensive collection of antiquities from the ruins of Pompei.

Walking back to our apartment we stopped at a small bacari with a few outside tables for aperitivi, the Italian version of happy hour, to savor the golden hour as the sun began to brighten the historic buildings along the boulevard on our last day in Naples.

Sharing the afternoon with friends and sipping Aperol spritzes accompanied with small snacks called cicchetti is a ubiquitous activity in Italy and reflective of “la dolce vita,” the sweet life. It’s a tradition we plan to continue.

Cin cin! Till next time,

Craig & Donna