Tuesday, October 20, 2015

An Italian Journey


We flew into Rome's Ciampino airport with Ryanair. This is a good tactic if you're heading south as even someone as useless with directions as I am can quickly find their way onto the main autostrada between Rome and Naples. It's a very busy route with loads of trucks but as it's mostly three lanes so progress is excellent. The Italians like to drive fast.

Our first stop is Herculaneum to see the petrified city that was buried by Vesuvius in 79 AD. We planned to stay in a nearby hotel so I cunningly saved the directions from the hotel website and had them displayed on my iPAD. That's when our heartaches began. We got to the outskirts of Ercolano no problem but then were thwarted by multiple sets of roadworks. The directions took us up on pavements, through tiny streets, into a teeming ghetto, and finally to a dead end where stern featured loiterers observed our impotent manoeuvres. Eventually, sweat pouring from me, we managed to reverse back up to a main road and began to drive around in speculative circles. Lost, irreparably lost and no GPS to offer advice. At a busy junction I saw a police car parked off the road so I pulled in to ask directions to the hotel. He pointed over my shoulder to a building directly opposite where I'd parked. A lucky break. We were at our destination - the Hotel Herculaneum. The surrounding area was pretty scummy (filthy streets and slums) - but the hotel was clean and roomy with very helpful staff. Their car park was down an alley way nearby and it had a tiny chicken run in the corner. I distributed bread to the doleful fowl.

The visit to the site was well worth this detour on our road to Ravello. Fascinating glimpses of mosaics, frescoes, bath houses, and bakeries indicating a wealthy and sophisticated society. The ghoulish were catered for in the clusters of grinning skeletons in the cellar areas. Vesuvius stood green-clad and benign overlooking its handiwork. There were absolutely no decent restaurants in the vicinity of our hotel so we settled for a cheap and cheerful pizzeria. And so to bed.

We were due in Ravello by late afternoon and so decided to take the scenic route via Sorrento, Positano and Amalfi - rather than the direct route towards Salerno. It was an interesting ride. We mostly hugged the coast on a very narrow road perched high above the sea - a precipitous drop just to my right as I weaved past the heavy oncoming traffic. Every now and then a bus would appear necessitating careful manoeuvring and occasional reversing. A feature of the towns on the way such as Positano and Amalfi was the lines of cars parked along the edges of the road on the approaches. These left us with one and a half lanes to operate with. The locals all live on houses up the sheer mountain side where cars presumably cannot go. Hence the debacle. God knows what it's like at the height of summer. Eventually we got to Amalfi - a beautiful town but teeming with tourists. We continued up the mountains towards Ravello. After a few miles we came to a dead halt as there was a traffic light ahead. We waited for nearly 15 minutes before we could take off again. Half the road up was pretty much reduced to one lane.

Ravello doesn't allow cars enter but our hotel (the Carouso) mercifully took our car from us and we settled in to enjoy the revels. A lengthy session of aperitifs and canap├ęs followed before we settled down to a meal of roast suckling pig and many refills of wine. We kept our powder dry for the gala dinner the next day and headed to bed early. We set out the following morning on a tour of Ravello accompanied by a large umbrella. It was pissing rain. The cathedral is a reasonable sight but the Villa Rufolo is the prime target for tourists with its spectacular views, wonderful selection of trees, and poignant reminders of former glories. I could have done without the Guido Harari exhibition of photography inside featuring artfully arranged portraits of Tom Waits, David Crosby, Keith Jarrett etc.

Back then to the Carouso for lunch which featured parmigiana, pizzas, a delicious pasta dish and umpteen salads, meats and cheeses. I won't even mention the desserts which I righteously eschewed. For the afternoon I withdrew to my bed-chamber and watched the Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet which was available from the hotel's superb video library. The gorgeous Jean Simmons, a fantasy female from my teenage years, played Ophelia.

The main event of the weekend began at 7.30 pm with the gathering for aperitifs. I was chagrined to see that most of the men had turned up suited and tied. I had gone for an elegant pair of dark trousers and a sportive orange shirt. Time showed me the wiser in this regard as the weather turned decidedly humid with an electric storm burgeoning Wagnerishly outside. The food continued to excel wth a pasta and clam starter followed by a grilled sea bass confection. Then there were speeches in which the three birthday boys received their rightful dues. Their generosity in sponsoring the lavish event was rightly acknowledged. After the meal and the speechifying some hard-core dancing ensued. I have retired from that sphere of activity but can still appreciate the pleasure it gives to its adepts - particularly the women who come alive on the floor. After a decent interval I retired to my room to continue my reading - Andrew Robert's fine biography of Napoleon.

The next day we had to return precipitously to Dublin for medical reasons (an interesting but transient condition). The quick route over the mountains was blocked my mud-slides so we had to descend to Amalfi and follow the tedious (but scenically stunning) coast road to Salerno. Not for the nervous driver - one moment of inattention will certainly cause disaster. The autostrada back to Rome airport caused little excitement until I almost careered into the back of a traffic jam on the outskirts of the city. Great brakes on that little Corsa. A full weekend we had of it.