Friday, May 31, 2013

The Amalfi Coast, an Unforgettable Drive!

Once again it was hard to move on to our next destination, both of us loved Sorrento and we wished we had more time there, but who knew? We wanted to see Positano, the closest major town to Sorrento and we knew once we were in Amalfi, we wouldn't have a chance to backtrack since we only had two nights and so we took a day trip from Sorrento to Positano on the notorious SITA bus.

The Amalfi coast is an absolutely stunning stretch of Italian coastline stretching loosely from Sorrento to Salerno, a busy port city South of Sorrento. This area is steeped in history going back to Ancient Greece and beyond. It once was a colony of Greece known as Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, and at a location south of Salerno called Paestum, there is a magnificent collection of ancient Greek temples. Unfortunately we just couldn't make a visit to Paestum work out, but maybe next time.

I was a little nervous about taking this bus, people say how rugged and beautiful (narrow and winding) this road is and they aren't kidding. I guess I would have less of a problem with these roads if there was a proper barrier between the bus and certain death on the drop of doom, but in reality for most of the way it looks like an angry cub scout could kick this railing right over the edge and into the ocean.

Excuse me sir, should the road we just traveled on be beside us?

I have developed a deep appreciation for the heavy, interlocking concrete barriers that we use in Canada, especially since the drivers of these buses are often so nonchalant about the danger. We've taken these buses 6 times over the few days to various towns and so far I've seen the driver: seriously distracted by a passenger several times, just chatting and waving his hands all over the place, talking on the phone, and completely unable to see the mirrors because the bus was dangerously overloaded.

On one memorable occasion a woman (whose initials are Rose Petry) dropped her water bottle on the floor, said water bottle made a beeline for the front of the bus and for a moment seemed destined to lodge under the brake pedal, thereby causing the bus to careen through the the antique guardrail and over the cliff and onto the rocks far below.

But.....fortunately a swiftly moving fellow passenger snatched it up and with a somewhat stern admonishment to "hold onto this thing" I handed it back to my much relieved wife. Seriously, these roads are ridiculously curvy and fortunately for us there was very little oncoming traffic so it wasn't as bad as it could be, I don't think I would like trying them in the summer time, not one little bit!

Positano was lovely though and we enjoyed a spectacular afternoon exploring the narrow alleys and beautiful beach. This town is famous for shopping and every ten steps there is a woman's clothing store or an art gallery or antique store. Some of the art was just spectacular and we enjoyed browsing through the galleries and they were very laid back and didn't seem to mind browsers.


Of course it rained a bit (like every other day) but we spent an enjoyable few minutes sheltering under a rock overhang chatting to a nice lady from somewhere just south of Toronto. It was in Positano that I had a very special experience while photographing a beautiful spot on a raised walkway that happened to pass an ancient lookout tower now converted into a house.

Rose was well ahead of me admiring the view (and looking for a place to have lunch) while I was distracted trying to shoot this amazing scene. There was a tower, a rock wall, some trees and bushes, a little balcony on the tower, also some flowers lying around and behind it all, the cliffs and houses of Positano.

It was one of those great conjunctions of elements and light and subject and photographer and camera that absolutely demand and require a little extra care and attention to get it just right. I spent about ten minutes trying different angles and camera settings and moving flower petals around into what I felt was the right arrangement to make it as good as I am capable of doing. As I was working an older local fellow came up and said to me, "you, you are artist!"

Well, that is of course what most of us who love photography long to hear and are constantly striving to achieve, so I was greatly gratified to hear the appreciation in his voice from witnessing the care that I had taken in photographing the beautiful scene. Right behind him was his daughter who asked where I was from, "Canada" I replied. "Papa, Canadiansa, Canadiansa Papa!" she called out to her father. It was obvious they had been watching me for a while and wondered where such an "artist" could possibly be from. I guess Rose isn't the only "ambassador" for Canada! (Dear head, stop swelling!)


We talked to another local who designed and made beautiful men's shirts right there in Positano, unfortunately the price was just a little too much for me, but he seemed to appreciate our comments about the quality and design of his shirts. We had a nice inexpensive lunch on the beach before visiting the church and making our way back to the bus stop.

The problem trying to catch the bus in Positano is that it is in the middle between Sorrento and Amalfi and when it stops it might be full or close to it already.

On this occasion it was very nearly full and even though we were fairly close to the front of the line it looked like we might not make it on. That's when we noticed a curious thing about taking buses in Italy. Even though you are supposed to validate your ticket at the box by the driver, when the rear doors open on the bus, people just start getting on from the rear, (making the line practically meaningless). OHHH, now we get it, good to know these things!

We did manage to cram on and I was not really super happy to be standing up in the wheel well looking straight through the front window (with a better view than the driver) as we made the return trip over the most ridiculous, scary, winding, narrow, switchback roads in the world! But I didn't have much choice but to suck it up and be a big boy, at least Rose didn't have a water bottle in her hand on this trip.

A couple of days later we made the same trip with our luggage as we moved on to Amalfi for two nights. We had a reservation at Residence Pansa B&B and when we got there I immediately saw a sign and leaving Rose with the luggage (in the rain again) I plodded up the stairs through narrow little alleys to our new lodgings.

There I met Margo, a very nice Dutch lady who checked us in and dispatched "the boys" a free porter service that the hotel subscribed to and I returned to the piazza to bring Rose up to the room. The porters are a great idea and I applaud the hotels of Amalfi for setting it up, (clap, clap) since it is so hilly and hauling your luggage up a bunch of steps is really a pain!

Our room was very nice and had a great sunny patio with a view of the marina and we were very comfortable there over our two day stay.

 The bronze doors of Amalfi Cathedral

Since the next day was a Sunday, we thought we had better scout out the famous Duomo of Amalfi, where the bones of St. Andrew the apostle apparently rest in a little room under an alter in a subterranean crypt. This church is amazing, from the imposing staircase leading up to it, to the cloister of paradise to the attached museum, to the crypt and the church itself with it's 1000 year old bronze doors, made in Constantinople.

A wedding at the Amalfi Cathedral

We both loved it and spent a couple of hours there before checking out a nice restaurant just steps from our steps that led to the other steps that took us up the steps to the steps to our room, where we rested.

The ceiling of the crypt, Amalfi Cathedral

We only had one full day in Amalfi so of course we used it up to take a bus to Ravello. I thought the roads of the coast were goofy but the road to Ravello is worse and we watched in amusement (because it wasn't us) as one poor guy was forced to back up quite a ways to get out of the way of the bus, while dozens of bus passengers and other motorists watched and waited.

Ravello was another beautiful town, a little away from the ocean but sitting up higher in the hills and commanding a lovely view. It was a Sunday when we visited and when we entered the town square where the church was located a service was underway and with the ancient bronze doors (famous for their 54 raised panels) wide open, we enjoyed the sound of music and voices raised in song. It was a special moment and we lingered a while, listening to the service until they eventually closed the doors.

From the piazza we noticed a stone walled alley leading down towards the bluff with the amazing views of the valley and ocean beyond and we headed down, looking for a good vantage point. We found some great spots to get good shots of the two towers of some old building, maybe a church or monastery lower on the hillside.

The view from Ravello

There is an ancient villa opening onto the piazza and after paying an entry fee of a few euros, we went exploring. Of course it started to rain but we ducked into a little chapel and watched a sort of time lapse slide show of many years of famous people attending the outdoor concerts held yearly on the villa grounds.

We really liked Ravello and Rose would have liked to stay there, she liked the "vibe" she got from the place and liked the fact it was a little harder to get to, so was spared the worst of the tourist crowds of Amalfi.

If you spend any time in Italy, you will likely come to loath (as we did) the arrival of the herds of tour groups, mindlessly following badly trained (it seemed to us) tour guides who would invariably pick the most inconvenient, congested area to halt their group and blather on about who knows what, seemingly forever.

From about 9:30am to 7:00pm they are everywhere, clogging up the works and barreling down the sidewalks and alleys like they own the world. There seems to be a mindless, herd mentality that takes over when you are on a tour, in a group, trying to stay with your scarf on a stick toting tour guide, VERY annoying for everyone else in the universe!

We kept saying to each other, "please, let that never be us." But of course it is definitely helpful to have a guide and there might be times when it makes sense to travel that way, but I wish people would just remember that rules of polite society still exist, even for members of a tour group!

So we liked Positano but we opted to head back before the big rush to return on the bus and we enjoyed the rest of the afternoon in Amalfi, visiting the paper museum where I got to help make paper. Way back when, before cheap cotton was available, they made paper in Amalfi from old rags, pounding them with water driven hammers until the shredded pulp could be collected and made into paper. It was interesting to see the caves and workplaces where they've made paper for centuries and still do for the tourist trade.

Making paper in Amalfi

Rose was ready for a rest but it had turned nice, (after raining in Positano) so I headed for the high ground in Amalfi to catch the sun going down, from the cemetery way up high on the hillside. It was a long way up but I love those treks through the back lanes and staircases far away from the maddening crowds.

The view from the cemetery, with a little  bit of my sunshade hat visible, oops

I passed an old lady and her daughter on the way up, laboriously making their way up the steep stairs and saw them once again at the cemetery, probably making the weekly Sunday visit to the grave of a loved one, perhaps the old woman's husband.

The locals are sometimes a bit surprised to see me in their midst, but are always friendly when I try my best to greet them with a badly mangled version of "buonasera" which I'm told means something like "good afternoon". The locals tend to shorten it further to something like, "sera" and I've tried that a few times but always feel a bit foolish when I do.

I got some great images from up high and started down to collect Rose and go out for our last dinner on the Amalfi coast. We opted for a new, ultramodern "steakhouse" restaurant but we both had pasta after looking at the price of steak. It seemed a bit pricey at $5 per 100 grams, or about $40 for a steak, yikes, we decided steak can wait until we're back in Alberta!

That was it for the Amalfi coast, except for another harrowing bus ride with a young bus driver with a half shaved head who apparently had a death wish and insisted on speeding, careening around corners on 2 wheels (it seemed) and scaring the baloney out of me!

Except for this one driver, I noticed that you never see young bus drivers on these routes, unless perhaps they really are young and the grey hair and worried look are a result of driving these crazy roads.

But of course, we did make it to Salerno where we hopped a direct train to the eternal city of Rome, and that for sure, is another story.

All Contents Copyrighted by the Author, Doug Petry

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