My grandma always said that the women in our family were born wearing gypsy shoes, so it doesn’t surprise me that the love of travel has passed on to my children. I married a man who loves to wander, too, so in June of 2008, six of us from our blended family headed for Italy. After we visited Rome and Florence, we ended our 2 week trip with a few days on the beautiful Amalfi coast. My husband Craig and I, as well as our kids Angela, Jack, Sandra and Ian (in ascending order, ages 14-25) rented a manual transmission minivan as we were leaving Florence and headed south on the autostratas A1 and A3, into even more heat and sunshine than the country’s unusual heat wave had already afforded us.
After exiting the autostrata in Caiano, we found our Mapquest directions for Italy left something to be desired. Fortunately we knew that in order to reach our hotel in the little town of Ravello, we needed to head uphill. We climbed up and over the beautiful, steep and rugged Lattani Mountain range, second gear all the way, before we then began the descent to the seacoast. Twenty-five map steps and 40 kilometers later, after too many hairpin turns to count, terrorized by speeding Vespas and wood trucks loaded with logs for the ovens of the local trattorias, we finally crossed over the mountain range. Switchback curves aren’t nearly as fun in a minivan as they are in a sports car. Take my word for it. Although the greater size of the minivan, necessary to accommodate the 6 of us with luggage for two weeks, turned out to be an advantage, as its height also provided dizzying, terrifying and absolutely spectacular views over the guardrails.
We knew we were getting close to our destination when we had to make a sudden stop in the middle of the road to yield to a herd of goats. Tourists that we are, we grabbed our cameras and hung out the windows to get the shot, while the goatherd gave us his best contemptuous stare over his designer sunglasses.
We had reserved rooms in Alborgo Torello, a lovely small hotel in Ravello. (http://www.alborgotorello.com – “Al Borgo Torello is a completely renovated building enchanting position where our guests can admire the incomparable view of the Amalfi Coast, from the peacefulness of our garden.”) Finding it online wasn’t nearly as challenging as finding it in real life. After several stops to ask for help, we ended up dead-ending on a very narrow farm road. The farmer, his daughter and son-in-law were nice enough to help us through a 15 point turn maneuver without landing us in a ditch, or crunching the fenders on that beast of a van. We finally found the entrance with the help of a local teenage girl, who simply looked up from where she was standing, pointed at the building on the hill right in front of us, and said, “There.” Oh, no wonder we didn’t recognize it! It really isn’t a hotel as such; it is a renovated home that dates back centuries, and it is now a 4 room inn with spectacular views of the coastal village of Minori. Roberto, the most congenial owner, has decorated the interior of his alborgo with beautiful ceramics from Ceramiche D’Arte, the business owned by his brother-in-law Pascal. If you go to one of their shops in Ravello and say, “Roberto sent me” you get a big welcome and a very fair deal on their gorgeous ceramics. Yes, of course we bought some! (Ravello Limoni Blue, in case you’re curious.) http://www.ceramichedarte.com/
After a day of hair-raising driving adventures, we were eager to get out of that van and into our hotel. Alas, in a simple parallel parking maneuver, Craig introduced the rear fender of the van to the neighbor’s stone wall. I then became the designated driver for the remainder of the trip, since I have been driving manual transmission vehicles since I was a pup. (Thanks, Dad.) The first order of business, after hauling our bags up the 18 irregular stone steps to the front door, was to cool off for a few minutes in the highly efficient air conditioning, and then head to the town center of Ravello, and the Piazza Duomo.
We visited Ravello just days before the town’s famous Music Festival, and we were able to watch some of the preparations while avoiding the crowds. The soundstage was being erected at Villa Rufulo one night as we were having dinner at The Garden Hotel’s restaurant, an outdoor cafe that overlooked the concert site. The stage actually hung off the cliff, providing concert-goers with a fantastic visual backdrop of the Mediterranean Ocean to complement the music. We enjoyed a delightful dinner with lots of fresh seafood, and the waiter presented our check accompanied by glasses of limoncello liqueur for everyone. Don’t let the stuff fool you – it’s not the innocent glass of lemonade it seems. There was a lot of giggling at the table once we all polished off those drinks.
On other visits to the village, we strolled about the piazza mingling with the local families, and eavesdropped on brides planning destination weddings in Amalfi. We agonized over which ceramics pattern to buy. We explored every little alley, footpath, and stairway we could find, and were rewarded with spectacular views, hidden gardens, vineyards, and ancient churches.
Each night we straggled back to the inn, a mere shadow of the enthusiastic party that had departed that morning. Then after a good night’s sleep, we reassembled in the garden for a fabulous breakfast, served by the unfailingly charming Roberto. He provided cup after cup of cappuccino, which was a delicious accompaniment to the fresh croissants, fruit, cheese, coffeecake, and yogurt unlike anything we had ever eaten in America. As we enjoyed our meal each morning, shaded by an ancient olive tree, we admired the view of the village of Torello, and the surrounding lemon groves.
We appreciated the fact that we were staying in a neighborhood, rather than a more touristy place, as it afforded us a chance to observe daily life. One morning the harvesters were out in full force, picking the huge lemons, piling them into large plastic crates, and then hauling them out of the groves on their backs with only pieces of foam to cushion their muscles. Another morning, we heard an odd clip-clopping sound, and hurried to the garden rail to discover its source. We were amazed to see a small mule train descending the steps on the hillside just below our garden. Each animal was carrying metal saddlebags loaded with renovation debris. The builders used mules since large construction vehicles would not have been able to pass through the narrow passageways. This struck us as such a contrast to the tower cranes being used to erect high-rise buildings, less than a mile away.
On our adventure trips back and forth to Amalfi, we quickly learned that the traffic signals seemingly without reason in the middle of nowhere indicated when the road became a one way. If the light turned red in our direction, that meant that several dozen compact cars, buses and scooters piloted by hell-bent-for-leather drivers were headed our way on the narrow road, so we needed to stay put until we got the green signal. This could take a while, as we learned when the truckful of workers in front of us unloaded, and stretched out on the grass for a cigarette and cellphone break.
Amalfi is a sparkling, very popular resort town, and 95 degree temperatures didn’t keep the crowds away. There were hordes of smiling tourists strolling, shopping, eating, lounging, sweating, picture-taking, sunbathing. We parked the kids at the beach for only 10 euros per person per day, umbrella and lounge chair included, and headed into town to explore. Craig is really good with directions, so I trudged along after him, whining and threatening heatstroke, as we hiked through streets filled with shops and churches. The side streets were purposely designed in convoluted configurations, in order to confuse invading pirates in centuries past. On one of these crooked little streets, I had to stop and ask myself what century I was in, as I watched an elderly woman lower a basket on a rope from her third story window, to the bread delivery person who stood waiting below.
A few steps farther along, we came across a playful group of choirboys, looking angelic in their robes as they ran past. We were also joined in our walk by a friendly little dog-about-town, who kept us company for a while, graciously accepted a drink of water from the kids’ cupped hands, and escorted us back to our parking spot at the end of the afternoon.
Eventually we found ourselves in a small tunnel, which led under the Duomo di Sant’Andrea and out into the Piazza Duomo, with its many cafes and wonderful fountain. We quickly learned that fountains in Italy are meant to be used – everyone splashed some water on their faces, refilled their plastic drinking bottles, and paused for a few moments’ rest on the ledge. We drank the water from nearly every fountain we came upon, in Rome, Florence, and the Amalfi Coast, and experienced no problems with it whatsoever
Our agenda for day 3 included a boat ride. From Amalfi, one can ride the passenger ferry east to Salerno or west to Positano, Capri, and Sorrento. We opted for the half-hour ride to Positano. The short cruise offered us an opportunity to see the imposing coastline as the invaders did centuries ago. Ruins of ancient watchtowers still dot the coast, and the engineering feat of the archways and tunnels of the strada statale (state road) number 163 are visible in many places from the water.
The ferry landing in Positano is in the center of town, next to the Spiaggia Grande. From the beach, the town quickly rises up the hillside. The peaks of the surrounding mountains are often hidden in the clouds.
The walking tour of each town begins in the Piazza Duomo – the cathedral plaza. Every town has one, and Positano was no exception. We quickly learned that Craig’s obsession with exploring every nook and cranny paid off in terms of finding lower prices the farther we traveled away from the beach.
Via Del Mulini is the central shopping street in Positano, and it heads uphill, away from the beach. A lovely stretch of this narrow walled street is shaded by a trellis of bright pink bougainvillea, and both sides are lined with vendors selling handcrafted jewelry, artwork, and snacks.
We explored a side alley filled with restaurants, little clothing shops, and shoemaker stalls as small as closets. Here the leatherworkers sit out front, making the sandals according to the measurements they have just taken from the customer who was walking by. At the top of the lane, we refreshed ourselves with the best Italian ice in existence, purchased from a vendor with a pushcart, who made our treat fresh on the spot using the local lemons.
From this point, the faint of heart (or weary of feet) can catch a bus back to Amalfi, instead of the ferry. The bus stops briefly, so the tourist who hesitates is left behind.
The beachfront is lined with outdoor restaurants, and the air is filled with delicious smells. Frequent refreshment stops are mandatory, especially when traveling with four young people. We enjoyed a fabulous seafood pizza, and the kids discovered the delight of caffe fredo, strong, sweet iced coffee. The beachfront is also a popular spot for local artists to set up their easels to capture the beautiful surroundings.
By mid-afternoon, our entire party was sweaty and exhausted, so we headed back to Amalfi. The ferry ride was refreshing, but it didn’t take much walking to get overheated again. So Jack and I decided to get the van, while the others stopped for a quick swim at the beach favored by the locals. This was a simple pebbly beach, without an admission charge, where you swam amidst the boats and luxury yachts moored in the harbor. Craig and a couple of the kids stayed behind at the beach, thereby missing the epic battle of the parking gate and the faulty token.
When we had arrived in Amalfi, we parked at the wharf area, in a pay parking lot. When we entered, we received a token. Upon exit, we needed to first drop the token into the payment machine, and pay the exorbitant fee demanded. We would then receive another token, to be deposited into the machine at the exit. This would signal the gate to rise, and we could then roll merrily along toward home. Except things didn’t go quite according to plan.
Maybe it was because the token sat in the hot car all day, and it was overcooked. Maybe it was because Jack dropped the token, and I had to move the car so he could retrieve it without melting his kneecaps. Whatever the reason, that payment machine deemed my particular token as unacceptable. No matter how many times we dropped it in the slot, no matter how much spin we put on it, or how hard we smacked it into that machine, it wouldn’t register. Instead of connecting with the inner workings that would then announce the precise total of arms and legs we owed for a day’s parking fee, my token instead fell uselessly into the coin return slot time and again.
Something that must be understood regarding small town life in Italy: every happening is a community event. Therefore, every passer-by or driver waiting to use the machine after us felt compelled to offer advice or condolences on our dilemma. Finally the two gentlemen seated just past the obstinately unmoving exit gate decided it was time for them to weigh in. They had nothing to do with the parking concession; they owned the little alimentari right next door. But they were clearly more experienced with this accursed machine than Jack and I were, so we let them have the obligatory seventeen tries at getting the token to perform properly. No luck.
They helpfully suggested that we call the help number posted on the machine. Great idea, except we had no cell phone. Besides, we doubted our conversational Italian would cover this particular topic. Reluctantly, our rescuers used their phone to make the call. Ah, someone would be along presently.
Twenty minutes later, our rescuers had not yet arrived. Craig and the girls had, however, wondering why we had failed to meet them as arranged. Craig’s refreshing swim was soon a distant memory as we continued to wait in the baking hot parking lot. Our heroes made another phone call to the rescue crew. Soon, soon. We continued to melt.
After another eternity, a couple of guys wearing municipal-logo shirts zoomed up on a scooter. They too tried their hand at the token game, and then after a lengthy discussion with our champions, the deli guys, who insisted we not be charged for parking because of the grievous inconvenience we had suffered in the parking inferno, the officials used their override gizmo to raise the gate, and waved us through with a flourish.
Back to the alborgo, and the beds placed so invitingly in front of the air conditioners. Had we been at home, we would at this point have refused to budge from the comfort of our cool room and crisp sheets. But this was Italy – who could waste time resting? We could rest when we got old. Back into the van, back to the piazza in Ravello. There were parking machines to battle with, side streets to be explored, cafes at which to linger. La dolce vita awaited – andiamo!