The South of Italy

Italy south of Rome seems to have a reputation as a difficult place to visit. Americans especially seem to be reticent to travel into this part of the country.

I'm here to tell you, if you don't visit here you are missing an amazingly great place. I rode the local Circumvesuviana train into Naples or Pompeii or took the bus out to Amalfi and returned to the relaxed pace and friendly face of Sorrento every afternoon. Use Sorrento as your "base of operations" and I think you'll find as I did that il mezzogiorno will fill you with wonderful memories and some amazing experiences.

Sorrento

Sorrento is a great little town opposite Naples on the bay. I stayed in Sorrento four days. The Circumvesuviana train line that arcs around the Bay of Naples is cheap and fast. The busses are great (more on that a little later).

Sorrento Sunset

Sorrento itself is "Italy light". It seems like everyone in town works for the Chamber of Commerce and speaks English. It must attract a lot of Brits because there are lots of restaurants advertising "full English breakfast". The main street has at least two "authentic" English pubs. I even met a very amusing English couple whilst doing my laundry one morning.

Sorrento sits perched along the cliffs that line the entire Bay of Naples. It's a very narrow skinny town, just a few blocks deep and no more than a few kilometers long. It's position on the bay affords a spectacular view at sunset. The islands of Capri (pronounced CAP ree) and Ischia (ISS kee ah) are silhouetted on the water. The sun's rays glance off the bay's surface and glitter gold until the sun drops below the horizon.

The south end of town ends at Punta del Capo, which is graced with a Roman villa ruin and a great place to go swimming. Those Romans definitely had an eye for the best spots; the villa overlooks the sea at the very end of the point and includes a gorgeous grotto with a narrow opening to the Tyrhennian Sea. It's the perfect place to go swimming, so I did. The water was much warmer than what I am used to in Huntington Beach.

I made friends with one of the clerks at my hotel. One night as I was returning from hanging around and chatting with people, he proclaimed as I walked into the lobby, "Ah, yes, my friend! You are here! Here, my friend! Here! For you!" He presented me with a bottle of Spumante. "For me? Really?" "Yes, please!" Sorrento Grotto

My hotel was on the main street, Corso Italia. It was a loud street, the people were up until very late and the hotel windows weren't double-paned. A few hours later the street repair crews would start work, so I had to learn to sleep through Sorrento's 50cc attack at night and the jackhammer in the morning. I managed to do it, but I'd come back and nap in the afternoon just because I'd fall asleep on a park bench or on the bus or train if I didn't.

Sorrento is famous as the source for limoncello (see my Rome, July 1997 write up for more information). As such it has many fragrant lemon groves as well as other citrus fruit trees. The train cuts right through several green, cool, wonderfully scented groves as it heads back north to Naples. I could almost reach out and grab a fruit from a branch. I did not partake in any of this wonderous liqueur this trip, however. In fact, I didn't drink much at all. If I had had an easy day I might have a small carafe of house wine, or a beer, but most days it was so hot I had trouble staying hydrated and thus didn't want to add alcohol to the equation. There were some dinners where I'd have 2 litres of acqua naturale with a pizza or a pasta and still not feel right.

Sorrento was the right place at the right time in my vacation. I was able to truly relax for a few days (a rare thing for me when I'm in Europe), reflect on many things both vacation and non-vacation related and clear out the cobwebs in my brain. I didn't have to deal with any frustrations or make any quick decisions. When you go to the south, and I know you will, stay in Sorrento.

Naples

If Sorrento is "Italy Light", Naples must be "Italy Doppelbock". The rest of Italy is an icon of Tuetonic organization compared to Naples. But that's not a slam, Naples is actually pretty fun and fascinating - the way a train wreck is fascinating.

Naples has been around in one form or another for several thousand years. It was first "Neapolis", a Greek colony, later a Roman colony and then full-fledged member of the Empire. It survived the typical medieval strife, lost a few city-state wars and eventually emerged into the 20th century. In 1984, the people of the city created a commision and funded an effort to begin a city-wide restoration campaign that has cleaned up and reopened many of the city's art and architectural treasures. In 1993, the people elected a reformist mayor who put more cops on the street and cleaned up the government's act.

Naples has the highest population density of any city in Europe and it shows. It has few parks. The buildings are stacked up one on top of the next. Spaccanapoli, the ancient street that splits the city in half lengthwise is no more than ten meters wide, with six story buildings lining each side in a two kilometer long canyon in the heart of the city.

Naples can boast a great museum in the Museo Archaeologico. It contains the great art of Pompeii (at least that which wasn't sold off to collectors in the 18th and 19th centuries). Great mosaics and frescoes, delicate glass bottles and colorful ceramics all serve to drive home the point that Pompeii was once a thriving city, full of people busily living their lives in much the same way we do today.

I saw a few of Naples' many churches during my day trip. Cappella di San Severo was a definite highlight. San Severo contains several magnificent statues includingVeiled Christ by Sanmartino, an amazing work. I was also impressed by a statue of Hercules grappling with a net, which is carved of marble just as the rest of the statue. Truly amazing. Less amazing and more macabre are the two bizarre and difficult to describe displays downstairs. They aren't statues, they were in fact real living humans; a man and a woman. Their circulatory systems were preserved after they died by injecting lead into their veins and arteries, creating lacy lead filigrees around their skeletons. The man's head is suspiciously lacking in detail, leading me to believe it may have been separated from his body at one point.

The traffic in Naples is legendary; it is completely true that in Naples, red lights are merely a suggestion. If you are crazy enough to drive in Naples, remember this; if there's space to go, Go! You will be the victim of dozens of angry, frustrated horn honkers if you don't. Further, the guy on your right has the right of way. Make sure you get out of his path be cause he won't stop for you. The pedestrians must be dodged and that space in the next lane just slightly larger than your vehicle is plenty big. Plenty. Go for it.

Pizza in Naples is legendary too. Pizza was invented here and there isn't a bad pizzeria anywhere in town; the bad ones fold almost before they open. Fascist architecture also has a large presence here. Several large banks and insurance companies are housed in two large pre-war buildings on Via Roma (part of the one of the main streets). The train station is also from that same era.

Naples is perfectly safe in the daytime. Stick to the Rick Steves walk as found in his Rick Steves Italy guidebook and you'll be fine. For an added adventure, walk up one of the nicer streets of the Spanish Quarter or take a funicular (the station is right on Via Toledo) for a great view of the city from atop the hills behind the city. Naples is truly a "doppelbock" city - dark, mysterious, opaque, complex, but ultimately refreshing and very satisfying, just by itself.

Pompeii

If you were Pompeian, 24 August, 79 ACE was a really bad day. But, the small consolation was that it would be over by about 2 pm and you'd never have another bad day again.

The upside: 1700 years later you'd become famous for a lot more than 15 minutes.

The downside: You can't enjoy it, but we can feel your pain from your plaster body cast.

Pompeii Body

If you were in the city that day, you were doomed. The eruption rained down in several layers that were roughly defined by the size of the ejected matter. The large stones came down first, smashing people and building's roofs. The successive layers became gradually finer, until, if you survived the initial rain, you eventually suffocated from the ash that floated down gracefully, covering everything with a grey powder.

Pompei was discovered in 1748 by Domenico Fontana, a contractor hired by the local town to dig a water viaduct. Instead, he hit amphitheater paydirt and the world has been excavating ever since. Giuseppe Fiorelli invented the now famous plaster body casting method in 1860. His technique has been used to not only reveal the human and animal victims of the eruption, but to also create doors and shutters of the various buildings. It is fascinating to see the garments of the people wrapped around their waists, or to see a plaster window shutter half-open to let in what cooling breeze existed that day.

The city is now roughly 80% excavated, but what's been uncovered only makes me wonder what's still buried.

Visitors to Pompeii enter through the Porta Marina, a large gate that used to be no more than about 500 meters from the shoreline. The eruption added several kilometers of coastline. The gate consists of two entrances; a small one for pedestrians and a larger one for horses and carts or chariots. Nowadays it is used only by tourists.

Pompeii was a thriving city and the excavations have proven it. Pompeii boasted a large amphitheater, two theaters next to each other, a large forum and several square kilometers of houses, shops, apartments and bordellos.

The bordello in Pompeii is probably one of the more famous buildings in this famous city. It consisted of 10 "rooms" each with a stone bed (with a mattress on it, of course). The walls were decorated with frescoes that illustrated each occupant's specialty; doggy style seemed to be a big favorite. You can still see scuff marks on the walls from the shoes of the customers.

Pompeii Street

Roman society did not segregate people by economic standing; expensive villas were next to middle class homes which were next to apartment buildings. Several of the nicer homes still have well-preserved frescoes and mosiac floors. Many of the frescoes are of subjects we as Judeo-Christians would not want in our homes. A very common icon at the doorways of many homes was in fact a phallus, usually in the form of a ceramic plaque attached to the wall near the entrance. This symbol was used to ward off evil spirits. I took a photo of one, but it is too hard to really see, since it was behind some very dirty and scratched plexiglas. I'll scan it for you all if you want.

The streets of Pompeii often have what look like traffic barrier rocks in the middle of them. They are really stepping stones. The streets were kept clean by a constant stream of running water from the many fountains in the city. They were usually at intersections of streets. The stepping stones allowed people to cross the street without geting their shoes and clothes wet. They were spaced such that cart and chariot could pass between them. In many cases, the ruts worn by their wheels can be clearly seen. The street maintenance department had to have been kept constantly busy.

Pompeii was blazingly hot and very humid the day I was there. I drank most of a litre bottle of orange juice and an entire 1.5 litre bottle of water in the 5 hours I was there. Eventually I tossed the remaining OJ because it was making me queasy. I saw pretty much everything in Pompeii and was utterly fascinated by the "everydayness" of it all. Thier loss is our gain; by dying in such a conveniently horrific fashion we have gained new insights into the every day lives of ancient Romans, even to what they ate. A plate of pasta and beans was found in the bordello. Hey, that's hard work! A girl's gotta keep her energy up!

The Amalfi Coast

Italian bus drivers are my new heroes.

The drive along the Amalfi coast is one of the great drives in the world. The cliffs drop vertically 200 meters. The road hugs the rocks with no room for guardrails. The busses pass each other with 3 inches of clearance after one of them backs up for a kilometer to find a "wide" part of the road. And then after you arrive at your destination, he gets out, has a smoke, climbs back in and goes back the other way. These guys should get "drive rules" the way pilots get "flight rules" - only 2 trips a day for each driver!

Thank God we didn't do the "Amalfi Bus Plunge Boogie" with each other.

Amalfi Coast

My bus ride along the Amalfi Coast was easily the best L9400 (less than $6) I've ever spent. The bang for the buck (or as the Brits would say, "value for money") is as high as anything I've ever experienced. And best of all, all I had to was look down the side of the bus from my seat to see the water 300 meters below me. Wheeeeee!!!!

I felt pretty smart, since my trusty guidebook urged me to sit at the window on the right side on the way out. I got on the bus and lots of folks were sitting on the "wrong" side. "Heh heh heh" I laughed evilly to myself. "Suckers!" We cruised around the Sorrento area for a few minutes and then headed up the mountain side. The engine was groaning away and the driver was shifting gears like a maniac trying to keep the revs up, but the air conditioning was working and the seat was very comfortable. As we worked our way over to the resort town of Amalfi I could sense the road and water proximity. Finally we were on the coastal part and the view was incredible.

It was Big Sur-like, but instead of carefully placed guardrails and extra expense made to cut a little more lane into the mountainside we were on the edge and getting crowded everytime someone passed the opposite direction. There were even a few times when a car would pass us on a curve, just for the hell of it, I guess.

As we came into a small town scattered along the mountainside we had to stop for what is euphemistically called a "police action" in LA. The carabinieri had stopped a couple of cars because of an accident and we all had to wait until they'd cleared things up. The driver opened the door and got out. A few of us did, too. I was stunned to see that the only thing between the bus and the sea was a 3 foot high wall. I tried to talk to the driver, but he didn't speak any English and my Italian was nowhere near to being up to the job. All I could do was point to the bus, the wall and the sea and smile. He gave me a quick single head nod, took a pull on his cigarette and smiled back. He knew what I was trying to tell him.

Eventually the line of cars, trucks and busses got moving again and we came towards another bus heading downhill. Our amazing driver took the bus as far right as he could and we passed with literally an inch between mirrors and six inches between bodies. The drivers were talking and waving and smiling at each other. The passengers were doing the same. I was very impressed at this point. Either that or completely freaked out, I can't quite remember now.

We got to Amalfi and tumbled out of the bus. The humidty was at nearly 100%; there was a fog bank on the tops of the peaks that was dropping down to the sea. It was so bad I immediately got out my return ticket, climbed back in and stamped it. The driver looked over at me, gave me the same single nod and grinned. I chuckled and walked back to the left side of the bus. The return trip was not quite as dramatic since the edge of the road was way over there about 10 feet.

Eventually the inevitable occured; the bus coming the other way couldn't pass. Back we went for 10 seconds. Stop. Check for clearances, which means the other bus pulls up and tries to pass. Not enough. Back up another 30 seconds. Stop. Check clearances again. Not enough. We'll go all the way back to Almafi if we have to, I guess. Eventually there was enough space and the other bus was able to pass, with about 3 inches of clearance. The drivers had to fold the mirrors back to give the room needed. I was even more impressed. Or maybe more freaked out.

When I returned to Sorrento at the end of the ride I walked out to the point, explored the ruins for a few minutes and went for a swim in warm waters of the grotto. It was a great day and something I will remember for the rest of my life.


Link to the pictures