Sunday, March 18, 2007

Belated Italy Dispatch

 Ciao all,

Internet connectivity has been in short supply for the last couple of weeks, as we have been on the road. I hope y'all continue to be well stateside. Here's a summary of our multifarious activities recently:


We (including our co-traveller T.) tackled the town of Urbino in The Marches across the mountains, via the potentially nauseating if spectacular Bocca Trabaria road that rises virtually from our back yard to 1200 meters or so (spectacular at least for those who can spare a second lifting their eyes from the hairpin turns once in a while). You pass through several isolated hamlets of an almost Swiss nature and then come down gratefully onto the straighter coastal plain road only to shoot upward again to Urbino. The town's main feature is the Palazzo Ducale, housing many rooms of art from the 14th-16th century (including Signorelli, a name from which Marx Bros. fans may get a whiff of familiarity, and Barocci, a local painter I've never heard of who seems to foreshadow the impressionists by several hundred years). Taciturn guides slogged after us making sure we did not spraypaint the masterpieces. Urbino is a college town and several students were wearing laurel wreaths denoting (I assume) their matriculation. We did the usual wandering, lunch, and gelato sampling.

Not content with one eastward journey we ventured to ancient Ravenna, like Urbino spitting distance from the Adriatic, though we did not actually sight the sea this time either, though you could definitely sense it in the air. Now, when I say ancient, I mean it -- so far we've been lolling around in mere 11th century territory, but here we were delving into the 6th century -- mosaics dating to the Byzantine (rumor has them perhaps stolen from the Hagia Sophia) and looking amazingly fresh since they don't age as frescoes do. We lunched in a very crowded cafeteria upstairs in an indoor market reminiscent of Granville Island in Vancouver. Pi and I split off from the group to bike around town while they looked as mosaics in a number of churches. Alas Pi was "too young" to ride the free bikes, insurance-wise at least, so we walked for 2 hours instead, taking photos of such things as the palazzo of Lord Byron(!) and a Roman baptistery, and yes, sampling the gelato.


The day was made unconscionably long because rather than retrace our steps through a long stretch of "badlands"-like mountains (more potential car-sickness) we made the decision to go home via the A1 autostrada. Unfortunately getting to the A1 meant making a large triangle, first west to the vastness of Bologna (where we were considerably slowed by rush hour) and thence to Florence (no, seriously) before dropping down to Arezzo and zipping back along the San Sepolcro road. Florence was also in a crush made up primarily by a literally endless stream of trucks taking up a lane or two while everyone else squoze past. Anyway we finally stopped for dinner in San Giovanni Valdarno where we feasted on Tuscan dishes at a hole in the wall place off the main square. Didn't get home till about midnight, having stretched a potential two-hour drive to about six.

San Giovanni

In between staking out new territory we introduced T. to the local pleasures such as Citta di Castello, San Sepolcro, San Giustino of course, the Arezzo antiques market, and further afield Cortona.
CiternaWhile she and Robin shopped for shoes in Anghiari I tore through the fields to took a peek into the nearby hill village of Citerna, whose main feature is a covered medieval walkway looking out over the plain. We also had dinner one night in a hotel restaurant in Anghiari -- apparently there were no guests at the hotel since we had the place to ourselves -- us and the giant TV. The favorite Italian shows at present are a sort of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" but the pacing is infuriatingly slow, with loooooong pauses and cutaways between the contestants looking pained and the emcees looking sly.


San Sepolcro

I treated the kids (Piper twice!) to a traveling (gypsy?) fun-fair in San Sepolcro where she was sadly unable to win a live bunny (or chipmunk, gerbil, or other critter) by a "game of skill and chance" but did manage to win a couple of stuffed toys and a ball. She also partook of a bungee ride, and she and Nick did bumper boats and a huge slide. Nick took a turn with a go-kart, making a spectacular re-entry upon realizing there was no brake. The fair was very cool at night all lit up.

T. unfortunately had to return to the U.S. after a mere two weeks of treating us to her humor and cooking, so we drove her to the Rome airport via Orvieto, where we stayed in our Palazzo Cardinale again. In addition to window shopping and dining in the fab La Palomba (Nick adventurously actually ordered the roast dove dish this time) we toured of a few of the 1200 caves beneath the town, which were used by the Etruscans to store food and make olive oil in (natural refrigeration!) and were later used by the Romans, and as bomb shelters during WWII


After dropping off T. (she made the flight despite massive traffic backups on the Rome ring road) we headed south with no plan other than wanting to return to Sorrento (to paraphrase the song), which Nick and I had only passed through on our school trip of 2004, and Mondragone (see below). Sorrento being a fur piece down the road, we decided to look for a place to stay en route. We were taking the coast road rather than the autostrada for obvious reasons, and the first place we hit was Ostia, an ancient Roman port area now reduced to an interminable strip of beach resorts in varying states of winter hibernation bordering on disrepair. The beach, which looked nice from a distance, remained at a distance since it was all fenced off, the closure of the hotels who "own" the strips of beach in front of them having no impact on any public desire to get their feet sandy.


As we commenced southward the towns got poorer and poorer (or more and more closed, let's say) until it began to look like a bad stretch of the Tijuana strip -- at length we arrived in Anzio, which you'll remember was a crucial WWI Allied beach-head in the rout of Nazis from Italy. We parked on the quay by some fishing boats and Robin and I treated ourselves to a fantastic seafood lunch at Ristorante Alceste (a stunning 10-dish antipasto as well as linguine con vongole) as we watched the kids play amongst the medical waste on the beach below. Well, we weren't aware of this little detail till after lunch. Spent the siesta mooching around town and scoping out hotels, turning down a quite dreary one right in town for a very nice one, L'Approdo, out of town a mile or so, where we got adjoining seaview rooms for a good price. I took the kids to that beach down the cliffside (ramshackle staircase to say the least) and then we dined in a nearby restaurant -- Nick ordered frutti di mare fritti which turned out not to be, say, fish and chips, but whole fish ( with heads) and prawns and octopus and squid, all battered and deep fried. Actually quite good but the legs and antenna and eyeballs were a little intimidating. Next morning I walked into town and failed to find any other beach access despite some prime parklike real estate; Anzio and environs continue to have a heavy military presence and some of the best land is given over to naval hospitals and the like. It started to rain and I negotiated a hat from a vendor for the return trip. We finished our stay with a trip to the museum, situated in a 17th-century villa and dedicated half to the Roman finds from the area (mosaics, statuary, coins, pottery) and half to WWII memorabilia (Allied and Axis uniforms, weapons, propaganda, even an old Nazi motorcycle, some of which has been dredged from the harbor where the troop carriers beached amid shelling and has been encrusted with shellfish residue.

Made a quick stop for fruit in Nettuno (i.e., Neptune) just down the road. It was not a WWII beach-head and so was not bombed into rubble by all concerned, so still has some medieval lanes intact, though spectacularly graffitied.

Southward we continued. The kids having tasted blood, so to speak, on the beach, they wanted more ASAP and we stuck to the coastal road. On my impulse for a photo-op I stopped at a pullout beside a field filled with large picturesque cattle on the shores of a lake, across the road from a sandy strand. As we munched on our fruit, bread and cheese, a car pulled alongside and a fellow let his two English setters out of the back. He'd forgotten to set the brake and the car began to roll back into him -- he pushed it back, shouting, "Stop, car! STOP, car! Stop, dogs!" -- as the leashed dogs were tangling in his legs. At any rate, he got to talking to us and was in fact English and very entertaining, circumlocutiously recommending routes for us to take. He was there to birdwatch. As we finally departed he gave us his number in case we headed back that way. And we were to, in a week's time (stay tuned).

Near San Felice

We were torn between wanting to make headway and stop at a nice place. First stopping for an hour at the beach to let the kids get drenched and gritty, we passed by a national park area named for Circe, and I managed to head the wrong way down a one-way street (fortunately it was a small town, San Felice) in my haste to get gelato for the kids. Robin had two. Anyway we wound up driving through some absolutely beautiful scenery, the Mediterranean on one side and subtropical hills on the other, studded with ruins of one era or another. Terracina looked nice but wasn't far enough along and frankly seemed a bit too Californian. We turned down a 5-star hotel in Formia due to expense (it was one of the few hotels we could find that were open) -- plus Formia was a claustrophobic madhouse of cars and scooters and pedestrians. Gaeta looked promising but turned out to be very industrial (fishing and shipping).


As darkness fell we lucked out in the humble resort town of Scauri at a little hotel right on the beach, called Villa Eleanora, where we got adjoining rooms -- Robin's and mine with a view of the seafront. We set the kids' wet sandy clothes to dry on the windowsill and had a nice dinner in a restaurant on the main drag, again seated right by a TV with Jim Belushi in Italian... The next morning I walked up the beach and took some shots of a derelict factory, after which we stoked up on Nutella in the hotel dining room and moved on. We almost immediately swerved off the road to visit a large Roman ruin at Minturno, with an amphitheater, baths, a market, the capitolium, etc. and a museum with statuary and other relics.

The day's goal was Mondragone, where some of Robin's forebears either lived or at least embarked for America from. Unfortunately we were not able to spend much time enjoying the town because it didn't seem to have much to enjoy. Like Formia there was far too much traffic for its tiny streets, there was no viable place to park and walk around, the seafront was inaccessible, etc etc. Quite a disappointment. We were growing desperate for lunch: first we tried the next beach village along but it was really desolate, like an African shanty town (mostly populated by blacks, it seemed); we tried an appealing "cafeteria" on the highway but it was very weird -- the owner(?) was sitting on the porch. He said there was no menu. The cafeteria had no food in the display cases. The gigantic dining room was empty. He asked us what we wanted to eat, that he could make anything for us (though he seemed stymied by the concept of panini). We said grazie, non and left.

Near Castel Volturno

At length we found a cafe bar in a slightly less bleak little town called Castel Volturno where we picked up some panini. As for good picnicking beaches the folks were not terribly helpful but pointed out that there were beaches all along the coast (duh), so we just kept going and turned in to a place called Pineta di Mare or something, which on one end had a huge Holiday Inn golf complex (!) and on the other a lot of small-scale resorts much like those we'd been seeing all along, i.e. very run down and closed anyway; we managed to locate some public access sand and had our picnic amongst the flotsam on a breakwater that had impressive breakers -- odd for the Mediterranean, which generally is pretty calm. Amusement provided by a gaggle of teenage boys, one of whom took his pants off for a nippy dip.

Decided to go for the gusto and reach Sorrento for the night. This necessitated passing by the madness that is Naples, and somewhere we missed the turnoff for the Sorrento coast and drove nearly all the way to Salerno before huffily whisking onto the Amalfi coast road at Vietri sul Mare, which is a gorgeous village scrambling along the cliff edge high above the sea. We knew it would be way past dark by the time we got to Sorrento so after a couple of false starts in towns along the way we landed at the San Francesco Hotel in the town of Maiori.


We were not hopeful since it was a 4-star place with porters in tuxes etc., but the owner showed us a lovely room for four with a view and balcony for a surprisingly low price, which we jumped on. The kids were also overjoyed to see a sandy beach. I'd never heard of Maiori but regular tourist buses came and went from the hotel and there were some nice shops and a lot of restaurants, one of which, funnily named Dedalo (like in San Giustino), we ate at that evening. The town apparently had a flood in the 1950s and now the stream that runs through the town is contained in a deep covered canal down the main street. The next morning we strolled around and enjoyed the now tropical foliage (palms, cactus) and very warm weather. We stayed on a second night because both the town and hotel seemed like a good base for the various towns on that coast, including:

  • Amalfi, about 10 klicks along the road -- and what a road, super narrow and twisty, with a sheer drop on one side and sheer wall on the other, blind corners everywhere with cars roaring around straddling the lines, not to mention buses and trucks! All along it impossible treacherous mossy stairways and the occasional nearly vertical driveway have been hacked into the rock up to houses somehow attached to the cliff side. We spent 2 hours in Amalfi prowling the picturesque alleyways that were stuffed with tourists from all over the world. We had pizza (and beer!) on the impressive steps on the church in the main square. The church domes in this neck of the woods are tiled in brilliant yellow and green. Dunno why.

  • Positano, another great hodgepodge of houses all down the hillside to the sea. Lots of shops with overpriced lacey clothes, but a lovely place for all that. Trudged along the beach in a gusty wind.

  • Ravello, billed as the aristocratic Amalfi coast town, because it has been home to E.M. Forster and Andre Gide, as well as being Wagner's inspiration for "Parsifal." It doesn't have the charm of the other villages, sitting far up on the top of the seaside hills, but then again it wasn't swamped by tourists. Of course it was dusk, and a windy cold dusk at that, when we arrived. The road up to Ravello is even sillier than the "main" road, narrower, twistier, and seemingly more full of deranged local drivers not expecting any fool in a giant Renault to be negotiating the curves.

  • Grotto di Smeralda -- a tourist trap, but amusing: you go down the cliff in an elevator and emerge at a large cavern (think Oregon's Sea Lion Caves without the sea lions). Here a fellow oars you around the interior, describing it in fractured English. The brilliant turquoise (not emerald) water is partly illuminated from an underwater tunnel to the open sea. The highlight, to some, is the submarine creche scene: "Looky looky Seattle, baby Gesu! Eetsa miracle! Looky looky!" Piper pointed out to us that the wavering illuminated figures below us were not in fact miraculous rock formations but pieces of sculpture fixed to the floor of the pool. Above the cave a man in a Piaggio Ape (pronounced ah-pay), the ubiquitous three-wheeled mini-truck with a top speed of 35 mph, was selling massive misshapen lemons out of the back.
    Grotto di Smeralda

  • Praiano, which is divided into a part along the road above the sea and the part we went to, which is a fistful of dwellings along a deep ravine opening out onto a pie-slice of beach between two headlands. Here the sea comes roaring in through the rocks and you can follow a catwalk along the cliff-edge to a couple of restaurants either perched on or actually carved into the walls.

We had a surprisingly good coffee and some freshly made sandwiches here before heading onward finally to: Sorrento! We swooped down from the hills like Assyrian wolves on the fold and again found ourselves at a remove from the desired seafront which lay at the foot of an enormous cliff and seemed to be available only as a landing stage for tourist buses coming and going from the boats to Naples or Capri. We had a typical Bentley picnic on a sunny bench in San Francesco park (oh give it a rest, there are other saints, you know) as the wind from the Mediterranean blasted us. Looking again for a swimmable beach we used tempting postcards to direct us to (a) Marina Grande to the south of the centro to (b) one of the towns (Sorrento comprises four) to the north. Of the former hotels, the most desirable seemed far too expensive so we tried the latter -- and promptly got lost in residential warrens but did take a look at Klein Wien (Little Vienna), which was fairly awful -- if indicative of Big Vienna, you can keep it, thanks. After much discussion we returned to the first hotel -- Hotel Bristol -- and bit the bullet, and here again for better or worse we opted later for a second night; it was a great room about 300 feet above Marina Grande (which is not grande at all but is picturesque nonetheless) with a sweeping view of the city and the sea, and if Vesuvius were to blow we would be among the first to notice. Dinner in the posh hotel dining room (no prices on the menu, eek). Next day the kids rested while R and I walked around town; I later took them down to the beach, which was alas unswimmable but we made up for it with, yes, GELATO. Dinner that night at L'Antica Trattoria was (Herb, take note) one of the three or four best I've had in my life, although also three times as expensive as our record so far. Highlights included my "Fantasy Vegetarian" menu (tartine of artichoke, chickpea soup, gnocchi with eggplant, salad, and local citrus sorbet), a gratis appetizer of battered zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovy, and Robin's local fish in a salt crust, which the owner warned us served two. He didn't mean it was a large fish, it meant that you buy one but PAY for two. Most of the football sized fish was the disposable salt crust, so we were a little huffy, but they gave us a bottle of apple liqueur to mollify us. Still -- 70 euros for a serving of fish!?? My Fantasy was half the price. Oh well, it was freaking delicious, all in all.


Having decimated the bank account we thought we'd better head for home. We did want to see some more ruins so we paid (accent on paid) a visit to Ercolano, known to Yanks as Herculaneum. It is essentially a suburb of Naples and features some truly insane drivers. Another picnic on the sidewalk and then a couple of hours exploring the cobbled pathways, peering into the ruined villas, taverns, baths, etc., with their wall paintings oddly architectural, the colors rust red and ochre, and pale blue. The site is nowhere as extensive as Pompeii but seems to be in better condition and has been added to, with plantings for example to make it seem friendlier. We gave a call to Nick Henson at this point and he hollered at us to come spend the night, so with some difficulty (schools of Vespas made the roundabouts particularly invigorating) we returned to the highway and traveled three hours north, cutting over the coastal range at Frosinone to the point where we'd met him a week earlier near Sabaudia.

Nick and his Australian/Italian wife Fauste and their 17-year-old daughter Flora welcomed us heartily. Flora aside, they have been living in Italy for 26 years, so we got quite a colorful history of the region and the Italian foibles regarding such things as property acquisition. Nick is perhaps the only person I've ever met who exemplifies the term "gnomic" -- in looks, humor, and temperament, as he is given to sudden loud outbursts of varying seriousness. A retired biology teacher, he is an avid birder and the following day took us to his favorite haunt where we spotted numerous waterbirds including (unbelievably) two varieties of flamingo. Flora took Piper horseback riding, and we took a short walk to the local canal and a long spell at the beach. We also had coffee at a local cafe run by "a left-wing atheist" whom they patronize for "solidarity" and here we met a certain Pasquale, who had spent 30 years living in Merseyside and returned after his childrens' deaths to the place of his birth. He loves the weather, he says, but hates the people. He also hates America but I think we made it clear that we too were not fond of the way things have been going. Pasquale had a beret like mine, and whereas I had been recently mistaken (by a Brit) for being French because of it, he said it really was a Sicilian style, and pointed his finger gun-like. This may explain some of the suspicious glances I have been getting.

Well, that pretty much brings us up to what's happenin', folks. We spent a long day in the car going overland to the A1 (lunch in a hilltown called Cori, and a stop at a gigantic PACIFICO grocery store nearby) and cutting across to our valley via Cortona, along a very mountainous road mostly in the dark. We are now taking it VERY easy for a bit before tackling any more daytripping! Still, in less than a month we will be back, it seems, so we will be filling the time with more expeditions.

Again, hope all is well with you, cats and dogs and boats.