Thursday, December 12, 2013


As you travel down the Italian boot, the Appenine Mountains run down the middle like a tongue and on the west side of this formidable dividing range, about 140 miles south of Rome, sits the World War II beachhead of Salerno on the Amalfi Coast. This is a land of volcanoes, peaks, and cliffs rising out of the seaa vertical world of stunning vistas, fairy tale villages, and pinch yourself beauty.

As we docked in Salerno in the pre-dawn glow, it was already lights, camera, ACTION around the waterfront.  This was clearly a working town.  And as the sun came up behind the ship, it back lit a city of striking architecture.  Maybe architecture is the wrong word.  Perhaps clever faith captures the scene more accurately.  Crème-colored, limestone apartment buildings lined the blue-green sea in stair step levels, hanging along insanely steep, tree-covered volcanic hillsides where bridged highways ran overtop of one another like an ancient city of the future – sort of like an Italian version of the Anasazi village of Hovenweep in southwestern Colorado, but with trucks and cars.  The whole thing looked like it might fall into the sea at any second.
Pointed grey crags crowned a breathtaking skyline adorned with giant white crosses and ancient stone ruins.  Near the top of the mountains many of the old monasteries and convents had been converted into hotels and jutted out onto precarious ledges like ancient grey birds of prey.

Salerno is a bustling seaport with a population of 300,000. This is one of the command centers for the Grimaldi Shipping
Line as in the fabulously rich Monaco Grimaldis –  and Salerno is the main Italian port for new cars coming into Europe for delivery.

The Royal Caribbean dock was surrounded by a futuristic marina and in the center sat a spacey yacht club that looked like a long, grey stealth ship surrounded by a million little blue and white motorboats.  But Salerno isn’t the playground of the rich and famous.  There were no large yachts and only a few small sailboats.

Fishing is still a major industry in Salerno, mostly comprised of 50-foot trawlers with ramps on their sterns that slide small, brightly-colored motorized dinghies into the sea to spread their long nets around the mother ship as scavenging seagulls mob the catch.

Blue Tuna and anchovies are the main fisheries but the tuna industry has diminished in the last few years and is getting perilously close to collapse due to overharvesting and pollution.
As in every other place in the world, there is a North versus South rivalry dividing Italy.  The people who live in the industrial north think that the people of the south are lazy and a constant drain on the national economy. The south has the highest unemployment rate, hovering around 20%.  And the warm southern climate certainly breeds a more laid back attitude about life and work.  But the south feeds the north, so it’s a two way street.  Flaming these regional tensions are the waves of immigrants entering the country from Syria and Africa.  These new arrivals usually come by boat, and they tend to settle where they first land, putting more stress on the resources of the south.   

And to add a little spice to the mix, even within each geographical area, there are subtle language differences between every city, like Salerno and Naples.  This may help to explain why Italians can rarely agree on anything – even their own language.

The Greeks and Etruscans predate the Romans in southern Italy, and several of the first Roman rulers were Etruscan. The Romans eventually absorbed Salerno and for centuries the city prospered under the protection of the Empire, but when Rome fell, many Romans fled the Vandals and Goths and settled along the Amalfi Coast because of its splendid isolation.  These folks were later conquered by the Normans, then the French, and then the Spanish.  The history of Italy is pretty brutal.

Even though we didn’t have to deal with getting from our port to a faraway city, like in Florence or Rome, we still decided to book another shore excursion – Amalfi Coast by Motor Launch and Pompeii.

Experience the spectacular Amalfi coast, the most famous in all of Italy, from the brilliant blue waters of the Mediterranean. Majestic rock formations and lush grottos line the coast during your scenic roundtrip cruise. Then drive to Pompeii for a guided tour of the famous ruins.

- Amalfi Coast: Enjoy the scenery of the beautiful coast from the sea on a 45 minute cruise.
- Amalfi: Explore the narrow streets of this maritime village.
- Pompeii: Explore one of the world’s most amazing archaeological wonders.
- Lunch will be served on the Amalfi Coast or Pompeii.

Full Description:
Begin with a short transfer to your waiting motor launch and enjoy a 45-minute cruise, viewing the Dolomitic cliffs, which rise out of the sea. They have been sculpted by nature into fantastic shapes.

Amalfi is situated at the mouth of a deep gorge along the coast. You’ll hear interesting commentary about how this was once a major shipping port during the Middle Ages, and also an independent maritime state. Your guide will escort you into Amalfi's main square where you will stop to see the facade of the 12th-century cathedral. Enjoy some free time to explore this famous maritime village before re-boarding your motor launch and returning to Salerno.

From there, drive by coach to Pompeii, where you will enjoy a typical lunch with wine. Then, visit Pompeii with your guide and explore the old streets of this ancient town. You’ll learn about life in ancient Rome, and how the tragedy of Mt. Vesuvius created this amazing city frozen in time. Before Vesuvius erupted in August of 79 A.D, Pompeii was a prosperous place with more than 20,000 inhabitants. Today, two-thirds of the city has been excavated and the ruins of a flourishing civilization have been brought to life once more. After a short stop at a local cameo factory, return by coach to Salerno.

We gathered at nine in a giant parking lot by the ship, boarded another fancy tour bus, drove a short distance through the hectic town, disembarked in a crowded little square, and were led by our happy guide Guido to a bustling dock that was filled to the gills with slightly dazed tourons.  Large tour boats were docking and departing like a choreographed water ballet and within a few minutes we boarded a large motor launch with an open observation deck and rows of white benches, like the maritime church of holy tourism, and we were off down the coast.

The Amalfi Coast is perilously rocky and unlike anything I had ever seen.  There were very few beaches.  It was pretty much an uninterrupted wall of gnarly, white rock and if you tried to swim to shore you would have been bashed into a pulp in a heartbeat.  When we did spot a small beach, usually in some small harbor, the sand was volcanic grey with black, time-polished rocks the size of large pebbles.  Beachgoers sat in lawn chairs because there was no place to lay a towel and lie down that wasn’t covered in a blanket of stones.

As we motored south along the coast, heading toward the famed island of Capri, we passed storybook little seaside towns, usually with a single Byzantine domed church in their center, squeezed tightly into the semi-flat bottom land below the looming mountains, with a small rocky beach and a few little fishing boats bobbing at anchor or beached above the tide line. There were few houses.  It was all terraced, three storied apartment buildings that seemed to be connected to one another like a brightly-painted Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon.  It definitely had a Southwest feel to it, at least from an architectural standpoint.

The Amalfi Coast Road is world famous.  It’s the kind of road where they film speedy car commercials.  The tourist brochures claim that it has 3,000 twists and turns.  I’m not sure exactly who counted them all, but that's how the story goes.  One of the couples who we dined with at dinner each night took the drive and said they had their eyes closed in fear most of the time.  Basically, there’s the mountain on one side of the road and sheer cliffs on the other, without any shoulder, and there are cars and trucks constantly passing one another on blind turns.

The winding narrow coastal highway runs mid-cliff with improbable – almost invisible – switchback single tracks leading down to exquisitely beautiful square Mediterranean villas perched on cliff faces over the sea.  They looked like they had sprouted right out of the rock.

Lemon groves contoured across the vertical face of the cliffs in staircases terraces that reminded me of some Impressionist painting by Van Gogh.  And adding to the magical nature of the whole scene, there were glass pieces strung on lines of nets that reflected the sun and made the hillsides twinkle in the sun like silvery jewels. These were to keep the birds away from the lemon trees that were in full bloom.

For the first time on the trip, bugs became a problem.  Nasty black flies drove us friggin crazy wherever we went.  Fall is when all of the fruit trees are in bloom ­– pomegranates, lemons, oranges, and olives – and that attracts the flies.
The cliffs were covered in all sorts of interesting sights.  There was a Christmas crèche Nativity scene in the mouth of a high lonesome cave.  Cell phone towers and small power lines ran along the ridges and short, stubby evergreens covered the stony crags like green moss.  It reminded me of a train set landscape. 

High above this fairly land, clouds engulfed the highest peaks like ribbons of smoke.

In truth, if a dragon, or a pterodactyl, or even God had suddenly come soaring into view, it would have fit right in and seemed like a natural part of the show.

After about a forty-five minute boat ride, we landed in the picturesque harbor of Amalfi, sitting at the bottom of a deep ravine below Monte Cerreto (4,315 feet).  The town is built into the side of the mountain so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.  It’s a world where monkeys or birds would feel right at home.

The people of Amalfi were sea folk and mermaid myths are part of their oral history.  There was a big wooden board with a brightly colored mermaid near the dock and the shops were filled with a variety of mermaid trinkets.  Amalfi was one of the leading maritime trading centers on the Mediterranean as far back as the Sixth Century, predating Rome.  Its roots are Greek and there has always been a strong Arabian influence.  In its heyday, around the Tenth Century, there were 70,000 people shoehorned into an area much smaller than Central Park and it was known far and wide as a center for law and mathematics.

Over the years, Amalfi was conquered by the Normans, Saracens, Pisans, Salernitans, and Sicilians.  And in 1343, the lower part of town was wiped out by a tsunami.  Life in Amalfi has always been a bit tenuous.

The British aristocracy stumbled on the place at the turn of the last century and for awhile it was the happening spot to vacation if you were part of the idle rich.  Amalfi is still primarily a tourist town and was officially designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

These days the Amalfi Coast is known for its lemons and paper.  Limoncello liqueur is very popular with the visiting hordes.  And its thick, hand-made paper is exported around the world for wedding and formal invitations.  Today, about 5,000 people reside in Amalfi and English is a second language.  Given its isolated location, goods and services don’t come cheap.

We disembarked at a long dock and Guido led us to the city center where a small square was rimmed by cute little shops and Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, an Eleventh Century Byzantine treasure chest filled with relics from the Crusades, including body parts from the wandering Apostle himself.  We were given an hour to go exploring and instructed to meet back at the dock by eleven.

There weren’t a lot of choices in terms of where to go.  There was only one street in town, running from the sea straight up into the rough mountains.  Short yellow busses and large golf cart delivery trucks weaved their way through the narrow winding Main Street that was about 12-feet-wide, like a paved bike trail with five-feet-wide parking lanes on each side and buildings flush against the street.  Shaded sidewalks snaked up to the terraced levels of stone houses jammed atop one another like limestone Legos and sprouting old wire TV antennas.  It’s old school in Amalfi, no cable or Direct TV.

Inna and I walked up the steep cobbled street, checking out the funky little shops, the local seafood stores with their brightly-colored fish gaping at us from their icy beds, trendy boutiques sparsely stocked with over-priced men’s and women’s clothes, outdoor cafes getting ready for the lunch crowd, and the always popular gelato stores.  Up and up we went, dodging the occasional small car and old ladies carrying their groceries in little wheeled hand carts like luggage, until the commercial area petered out and there were only houses, schools and offices.  When Main Street finally intersected with a narrow lane that had been chiseled out of the side of the rugged mountain, about a half-mile above the sea, we turned around and headed back down.

On our way to the harbor, I bought a small cup of limoncello gelato ice cream that was to die for.  I don’t normally go in for that sort of thing, but the combination of sweet and sour was really quite mouth watering.

Our group gathered by the mermaid wall and we were soon back on the boat and heading up the coast to Salerno.  As we motored out of the harbor we passed several small fishing boats, but there were no recreational boats in sight, which seemed a little odd.

Looking back at our way-too-short visit to Amalfi, Inna and I both agreed that it would be a great place to rent a villa for a week and then head over to Rome for a few weeks of fun and games.

Our bus ride to Pompeii took us around the outskirts of Naples, Italy’s third largest city with a population of 960,000 and another two million people spread throughout the lush valley.  Naples is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back to the Second Century BC.  It was the most heavily bombed Italian city during World War II.  And these days it is most famous as the Home of Mozzarella.

But what totally dominates the entire Naples valley is Mt. Vesuvius – a 4,000- feet-high active volcano that last erupted in 1944.

There are 18 little towns with 700,000 people currently living in the Red Zone – the blast area likely to be covered in lava when the volcano next erupts.  Vesuvius is constantly venting smoke and ash and blows its top with alarming regularity.  It’s just a matter of time, and the next big eruption is already long overdue.

As we approached the smoldering volcano I couldn’t help but conclude that only a complete fool would live in the shadow of such clear and present danger.

Our bus parked near the entrance to the old city of Pompeii and we followed Guido through a lush olive and lemon tree garden to a large open-air restaurant where we feasted on a tasty three course lunch, complete with local wine and desert, before heading for the ruins.  They had free WiFi – most commercial establishments prominently display the password to their network on a sign near the entrance – and we were able to check our e-mail for the first time in days.  I got the crazy news that the U.S. government had shut down and realized that no news was good news.  I put my phone away until Venice, where I was to get a real good lesson in what an incredible nuisance modern technology can be.  But that it a story for later on …

After lunch, we walked up to the Piazza Porta Marina Pompeii, which had nothing to do with a marina or water – there being no large body of water or boats in the vicinity – and which was actually a plaza of tourist shops lined with vendors in small stalls, hawking souvenirs galore.

Guido led us into one of the larger buildings on the plaza where a friendly guide gave us a tour the Donadio Cameo Factory which opened for business in 1885, selling decorated corals and cameos.  Cameo is actually a technique, rather than an object.  Cameos appeared before Christ and were found in the ruins of Pompeii.  The Pompeii cameo shops follow the Renaissance tradition of carving their cameos from Cornelian or Sardonican sea shells. The faces on the cameos are usually mythological figures utilizing the natural crème and pink coloring of the shell to highlight the carved image. 

We watched a master jeweler turn a mounted oval seashell into a cameo depicting some long forgotten beauty, and then we were given about fifteen minutes to sample the lovely wares and buy anything that might strike our fancy. 

I have always associated cameos as something worn by granny, and they all look pretty much the same to me, but it’s still one of those crafts that makes you just shake your head at the creative ingenuity of humans.

Guido paid the entrance fee for our group and we entered Pompeii along the Via Delle Ginstre walkway, running around the southern perimeter wall of ancient city.

Two thousand years ago, in 79 AD, the town of Pompeii, with nearly 20,000 inhabitants, was buried under 27 feet of pyroclastic flow that preserved almost everything.  Nearby Herculanum was covered under about 15 feet of ash which took 200 years to uncover and a lot of the solidified ash went into the building of the local highways.

The ruins of Pompeii and Herculanium were first discovered by a farmer in 1500, but no one really thought too much about it until 1700.  For the past 250 years tourons have been visiting this UNESCO World Heritage site and it is now one of Italy’s most popular attractions, bringing almost three million people a year to the area and pumping tons of money into the regional economy.

Much of Pompeii is still underground because they ran out of money for archeological research back in the 60s, and they don't want to expose the ruins to the elements and vandals.
And to further protect the ruins from the hordes of daily visitors, only about a third of the city is open to the public.  That said, you could spend days checking out all there is to see.   

Pompeii dates back to the 6th century BC.  So it was already 700 years old when Mt. Vesuvius erupted, and had been there for 500 years before the Romans came along.

According to legend, there were some obvious warning signs that went unheeded by the people of Pompeii.  Let’s start with the fact that they built their town atop a mountain of basalt, a clear indication that there had been previous lava flows covering that exact area.  And there were several large earthquakes in the weeks and days leading up to the blast.  So they foolishly ignored their impending doom – much as, I guess you might say, we are doing today with climate change.

I had heard of Pompeii since I was a young boy – about all of the people being covered by molten lava inside their homes – and the vision I had in my head was of a fairly small village.  So the first thing that struck me about Pompeii was how big it was.  It covers almost 200 acres of hillside and has streets and alleys just like a modern town.  Hell, it made Amalfi look like a small neighborhood.

You can book a specialized tour that will get you into some places closed to the great unwashed.  Many of the Chinese groups had booked these VIP tours and had handsome Italian guides nattily dressed like movie stars.

For most visitors to Pompeii, there is a designated walking tour that all visitors must follow.  It covers the Teatro Grande (Big Theater); Teatro Piccolo (Small Theater); the commercial district; the home of a wealthy merchant; the Baths; the Red Light District; the Venere Temple; and ends at the Basillica, overlooking Mt. Vesuvius to the north.

As we walked the cobbled streets of the entombed town, our guide Guido bombarded us with all sorts of interesting tidbits.

Frank Sinatra once did an evening show in the Big Theater where plays had been staged in the time of Christ, but the taste police stopped all the shows a few years back, and now its stone seats sit empty.  It has amazing acoustics, and I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to see ol’ Blue eyes perform there for the elegant elite by starlight.

There were fast food places and whores working the busy streets outside both of the theaters.

At varying intervals along the wider streets, there were raised stones that functioned like crosswalks and kept one’s feet out of the dirty water running down the gutters.  And they did not allow vehicles on the Main Street.  It was pedestrian only.

At the bakeries, which were easily identified because of their large brick ovens that looked just like the ones you might see in a fancy pizza parlor, they found bread still sitting there waiting to be baked.  The eruption took place at noon and many people were just sitting down to lunch.

The luxurious baths had a huge boiler room serviced by an army of wood-bearing slaves.  The baths also had a gym, just like in our modern facilities, and accommodated hundreds of men and women each day.  The baths were the social hub of the town where people shared news and cut deals.

There was a very large Red Light District in Pompeii – they have excavated 25 brothels – where elaborate pornographic frescos depicting imaginative sex acts were painted on the walls.  Prostitution was legal and highly taxed.  The beds were made of stone. They spread straw on top of the raised rock pallets and then would hose the whole place clean when it got too unsavory.  The funniest thing I saw were the phallic symbol directional arrows chiseled into the cobble stones of several of the surrounding streets.  When these erotic aspects of Pompeii life were first uncovered, the Catholic Church said that the evil lust of the people had brought down the wrath of God in the form of the Vesuvius eruption.

Many of the homes in Pompeii have the phrase Cava Canum painted around their doorways. This means, "Beware the Dog", which is ironic because these days there are stray dogs lounging around the ruins like they own the place, even after the local "Adopt A Pompeii Dog" program had found homes for many of the lazy beasts.

At our final stop, we learned that Basilica is a Greek word meaning King's Palace and was usually associated with a place of justice. The Christians co-opted the word for their most important place of worship.  At the Vatican we had been told that a Basilica is a place where a saint or apostle was killed.  It’s always amusing to see how so much of the Christian religious foundations were originally pagan.

We ended our tour back at the tourist village where they sold all things Pompeii – limoncello; wine; cameos; and my favorite, large brass dildos.  They even charged us .50€ to use the public restroom.


And therein lays one of the underlying truths we uncovered during our travels:  NOTHING is free in Italy.

Next Stop –  Venice

1 comment :