Thursday, September 24, 2009

Winding up then down the Amalfi Coast

Up much much earlier today for the first time in ages. Today is to be the day, and only one day that we spend on the Amalfi Coast - ohh, how I hate it that I can't just stop time and spend longer in places!

Michael has set his phone alarm with some crazy ring tone to wake us at 7 am. We have the doors on to the breakfast room from our room open to take maximum advantage of the breeze. And just as he turns off his blaring piece of technology, the Church bells start up (an hour late for the Angelus because of daylight saving!) accompanied by the howls of the neighbourhood dogs. Its amazing what you can hear with the doors open!

We say goodbye to Fabio who personally comes to say Ciao. Helen leaves him a clipable koala as a reminder of our stay which he promptly adds to his collection on the wall by his desk!

We head away from Pompei and up into the hills of the Campanian volcanic massifs (which includes Mt Vesuvio) that form part of Appennine Mountains running the entire length of Italy forming a backbone to the country. The road is narrow and very very winding. Helen has told me before how she can get car sick on really winding roads, but she's not having any problems thankfully as there is nowhere to pull over! She is however nervous as we are driving - you have to remember that we are in a British car with right-hand drive, driving on the right side of the road, so Helen sees the oncoming traffic even before me! Still, I can go no further to the right without wiping out my side of the car, so she just gasps from time to time - poor Hels!

Two things amaze us on this part of the trip. Firstly, the streets and roadsides are filthy with litter - not just the carelessness of the odd person or two. No, litter as in an accumulation of refuse and garbage. One has to ask why there is not a garbage collection. All the visible bins and refuse areas are filled to overflowing so that it appears people just drop litter anywhere. Secondly is the smoke that rises from volcanic vents all around the hills and the fact that there are plenty of houses built on these slopes! We were having trouble with the camrea today and none of the photos of the smoking vents are clear, so you'll just have to take our stunned word for it!! We are part way up the mountain and the rain sets in. Disappointing because this is the only day we have to see the Amalfi Coast and I in particular was hoping for a warm and sunny day.

And even though it is still raining lightly, as soon as we reach the top of the mountains we are rewarded with the start of the stunning views. We can see for a little way up and down the coast as well as well out to sea. There is a tanker sailing up the coast a little way out. We are still way too high though to hear the waves as they crash on the rocky shore far beneath us.

When we get close to the town of Amalfi it begins to get very very crazy. The traffic is really heavy and there are lots of tourists on the streets - they amble like Brown's cows and pay scant regard to the cars and buses that crowd the narrow road down into the town. Parking is at a real premium and all I can find is parking on the lower carpark with the water washing up over the seawall - the only spaces available would have our car getting very wet, but as I have learned, patience with parking is a virtue worth cultivating and soon one car pulls out of a space away from the washing pool, so I can move the car over there thankfully! The town is like a postcard view - with the Cathedral sitting amongst the residential and commercial buildings clinging to the side of the mountain. The houses seem to just tower up and over us, built seemingly on top of each other from where we stand below them.

Car parked, we head in to town with the first stop being at the main square for a coffee and cake. We look across the square at the impressive Cathedral of Amalfi that dominates this while space - including the air space. It is preceded by a long flight of steps up to the entry.

The original structure dates back to the ninth century, but the church was completely rebuilt in 1203 in Arabo-Normanno styles. The cathedral's front is rich with many golden mosaics, and it was rebuilt in 1861. The bronze doors of the Duomo were casted in Costantinopole in 1066, when the town of Amalfi was a powerful sea-republic and are decorated with figures of Christ, Mother Mary, and the Saints Andrew and Peter. The crypt was built in 1253 and houses the mortal remains of St Andrew.

There was a local lady Rosaria greeting everyone at the door of the Cathedral. In reality, she was checking that everyone hadf a ticket, but her manner was so gentle and sweet that you felt you were being given a personal warm welcome. And her approach was echoed in the written welcome of the Archbishop - a very welcoming people indeed.

The people of Amalfi have every reason to be very proud of their church. There is the Cloister of Paradise with its arcades housing examples of early mosaic decorations, marble burial and full and partial frescoes. Yet the highlight here is the cloister that was built in 1266 as the burial place for the noblemen of Amalfi. It is a haven of peace within the town that is so busy just a few feet away. And some of the mosaics that have been rescued from the tombs of those noblemen are in amazing condition given their age. There is a large tourist group with their guide walking through at the same time as us, and we hold back taking close up photos, giving them a little time to get well ahead of us before we venture inside.

We come into a space known as the Basilica of the Crucifix - once the Cathedral church, but now housing a museum. There are very well laid out and expertly lit display cases filled with treasures such as a mitre and chalice that date back to the 13th century. They are both jewel encrusted, reminiscent of the riches of the medieval Church. The mitre has a background of around 20,000 pearls which is overset with precious gems. Added to the collection are reliquary chests, chasubles, mostrances and jewelled crosses. The catholics amongst you all will know what I am referring to - the rest of you will need to Google them if you feel the need to learn more!

Then it is down more steps into the crypt that is described as the heart of Amalfi. For here are preserved the head and other bones of the apostle, Saint Andrew. After he was crucified in Greece, his remains were taken to Constantinople before being brought to Amalfi in 1208. The ceiling of the crypt is heavily frescoed and the altar is made of a mosaic of marbles. It is a solemn place. Each year just before the saint's holiday and sometimes at other times, a dense liquid appears on the Apostle's sepulchre (as it did in Constantinople before here in Amalfi). Hmm - not sure what to make of that!

Then it is up the matching steps on the other side of the church to enter the Cathedral proper. Steps, blasted steps! The Cathedral is a large well lit space that is both solemn and very peaceful. And unlike many of the churches we have seen recently, these columns are fully marble and not some baroque plaster!

As we are leaving Rosaria is now near the exit door. We strike up a conversation with her - such a petite lady and with such impeccable English. We ask her about the amount of rubbish that we have seen on the roads over the hills from Amalfi and she searches for the words that will at the same time as giving us an insight, will not overly paint her area in a bad light. She shrugs sadly, and very genuinely and says that this part of Napoli is an area with many many problems and just leaves it at that. Helen and I start down those stairs and Michael continues to chat with her, finally making a break but not before he leaves her with one of our cards and his own warm invitation to visit if ever she comes to Australia. I think that the looks on their faces speak volumes - don't you!

We make our way back to the car now, through the plaza and the surrounding shops. The traffic has still not abated and there is a policeman fervently blowing his whistle trying to get everyone to move in an orderly fashion. As we cross the road it is obvious that school has just finished as there are heaps of students waiting for the bus. In fact, we have a bit of a job squeezing through them all to get back to the car. Off to our left, the small pebbly beach is abandoned with the umbrellas on the tables all forlonly folded - ah, it is now autumn and they will probably not be put out too many more times this season! Back at the car, we pay the local parking attendant (€23 per day thankfully equates to less than €8 for the time we were here) and head out to join the traffic which has thinned ever so slightly.

We turn west and head for Positano, passing lots of small villages with their buildings painted in the muted pastels of a packet of fruit tingles intersperced with the bright colours that are so often associated with this part of the world and all clinging precariously to the perch in the hills! We pass lots of shrines and small grottos as well as series of caves. In one that is more open to the road than most, there is a 'shrine' of sorts to the coast - where someone with a lot of passion and time on their hands has built a miniature Amalfi Coast complete with sea brimming with fishes! The rain has picked up so we decide against stopping at Positano and keep on going for Sorrento where we have accommodation tonight. When we get there, the rain has eased, but not the traffic. Kate can't find the address we have, so when we see signs for the Tourist Information Office, I pull over and Michael dashes off to ask directions. He arrives back at the car just a few seconds before a parking officer can reach us, so off we hurry!

The Hotel & Spa Bellavista Francischiello is not in Sorrento itself they have explained, but high on the hills above, looking out to the Isle of Capri where we are headed tomorrow. As we arrive, the rain becomes heavier - Murphy's Law! But once we are in our room all that is forgotten as we gazeout over the azure blue sea beyond the bad weather that seems to be hugging the coast. As the afternoon draws to a close, the air clears and we have magnificent views across the bay that are soon being accentuated by a magnificnetly clear sunset.

The Hotel has its own restaurant that the reports in all praise. None of us can be bothered with heading back down the hill to Sorrento, so we decide to eat in. Great decision as the food was fabulous and the wait staff were friendly and helpful.
Antipasto alla Riccardo (a collection of antipasto items from a refrigerated case in the centre of the room that included baby eels, fresh sardines and anchovies, grilled vegetables, a choice of cheeses, stuffed tomatoes, dolmades, salmon and more!) Helen and Michael
Bresaola con rucola e parmigiano (Bresaola [dried beef] with rocket and parmesan) Maria
Secondi Piatta:
Pesce n costa di sale (Fish [sea bass] in a salt crust) Michael
Scaloppina al limone (Veal escalope with lemon) Helen
Grigiata mista di pesce (Mixed fish grill) Maria
Verdure di Stagione (seasonal vegetables)
Crocchette di Patate (Potato croquettes)
Delizie di limone (Lemon ice cream) Michael
Tiramisu (Tiramisu) Helen
Panna Cotta con frutti di Bosco (Panna cotta with berry sauce) Maria

The meals were all great, but we all conceded that the Antipasto and my dessert were the tops tonight!
This was one of the more memorable meals of the trip!

And finally we head back up to our room to see the light fade to darkness and the town lights of the Isle of Capri shine out across the water, beckoning us to come, come, come.

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