Montepertusso on the Amalfi Coast of Italy

Montepertusso on the Amalfi Coast of Italy
Montepertusso on the Amalfi Coast of Italy

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

09-29-2018 Day 5 Montepertusso, the Hole in the Mountain

Montepertusso, Italy, Clear and 22C 72F

After our very long day yesterday, Deanna and I thought that it would be great to have a nice quiet day at home We imagined a perfect “jammie day”.  We did realize that we would have to dress to walk to the nearby market in the local square to get more bottled drinking water.  I put on my most comfy shorts and top, a pair of sandals, bringing my walking stick and the phone. The short walk is still a bit rough, so the stick was a good choice.  Who knows about the phone, but I thought it might be nice to get a photo of the square and anything else that popped up.

The market is small,and quite charming, with a very good deli in the back, a small hidden area for household items, some fresh produce, and lots of yummy pasta and olive choices.  We chose a fat swirly pasta called Trecce to go with the homemade tomato sauce from Sara’s garden offered to us this morning.  At the register the kind woman was very helpful with figuring out our change and what we needed to pay.  Somehow the 16 EU charged on the register became 36 EU after she helped us with the currency.  First lesson learned.  Don’t be stupid and think that just because the sweet little lady in the market has served you several times and been really sweet that she won’t attempt to confuse you and cheat you.  The market is called Marrone New Shop Di Cuccaro F.  As I said a delightful little shop, but know your euros and count your change.

Leaving the market we counted our losses, laughed at ourselves a bit in frustration, and wandered off through the square toward the back of Il Ritrovo  This restaurant is highly recommended however we will not have time to try it out.  A beautiful colorful map posted by a nearby stairway showed us the route we had been wondering about: how to get to the famous Hole in the Mountain, Montepertuso il buco.

We looked at each other and said, “Why not?”  I had on sandals but I at least had my stick for hiking the stairs and my phone for taking photos.

The stairs looked quite familiar, but unlike the stairs down to Positano, the stair depth was more like real stairs.  One step per stair instead of 3 or 4.  Up up up we went with a group of young people sometimes in front of us and sometimes behind us, but never intrusive.  A few other folks my age were huffing and puffing and stopping now and then to catch their breath, so I didn’t feel too badly when I had to stop as well. We loved being slowed a bit by a young man sweeping the steps, taking care of all the debris from the previous night’s winds.

I also enjoyed stepping aside at several terraced gardens, rich with ripening squashes, grapes heavy on the vines, and tomatoes at the end of their cycle.  These terraces are the rich legacy of centuries of farming  and eons of rich volcanic soils.

On our return trip we encountered a farmer with his machinery going down the steps.  Can you imagine having to do this to get to your gardens every day?  Notice the tracks on the garden machine for climbing the stairs.

For me, however, the biggest problem was the dang vertigo that I have been fighting for some time now (like years).  It gets to me at the most inopportune times, like when climbing stuff.  Such a pain.  I have discovered that I can crawl up really steep weird things, and have also learned that with one stick, all I need to do is simply touch something with my other hand to make it ok.  Deanna’s shoulder was a very welcome addition to the hike, both up and down.

Not too far from the summit is a “park area”, and I was happy for a flat place to get my balance.  I guess you can see from my expression I was a bit unnerved.

The last portion of the hike is quite steep and a bit rough, with crazy steps and rocks, and I was very happy when we reached the top. The small group of young people were ahead of us, standing around in the magnificent arched opening in the mountain. 

One of them kindly took our photo and then Deanna decided to walk out on a very narrow rock ledge to a pinnacle overlooking the village below and the sea.  I wasn’t able to get a photo of her adventure since she had the phone with her, but the resulting photo is one of my favorites of our trip so far.

We waited a bit for the young folks to come down, but when it seemed they weren’t about to go anywhere we joined them in the arch.  They were very sweet, and I got a kick out of the fact that I wasn’t the only one wearing sandals.  Actually the sandals were a great idea, since they are the least slippy of any of my hiking shoes, have plenty of toe room, and I love hiking in them. 

After exchanges mostly in broken Italian, I asked, “Di Dove Sei?”, and it turned out they were Italians from a town just over the mountain near Sorrento.  The young men were in suits and the women in dresses, and they were carrying man purses, which seemed a little strange for a hike.  One young man finally spoke to me in English saying, “We are here to share the Bible knocking on doors of homes.  We are Jehovah Witness”.  Wow.  In Italy, where 99 percent of the population is Catholic. They were sweet kids, and with the language barrier, they at least declined from asking us if we wanted to learn about the Bible and Jesus. 

The hike down was a piece of cake, with the elevation difference of only 300 feet or so and Deanna’s shoulder in front of  me for balance, we made it in no time.  Returning through the square in the gorgeously brilliant sunshine, we ambled back to our home and spent the rest of the afternoon “doing nothing”. This meant we spent several hours processing photos from the previous days, and making sure we had all our spending tracked and recorded.

Supper was early by Italian standards, with the yummy pasta, a fresh zucchini stir fried as an addition to Sara’s tomato sauce, and a yummy salad with fresh greens, tomatoes, a truly fabulous balsamic from Valenti’s and some of Sara’s olive oil.  The zucchini wasn’t anything like ours at home, much more dense and flavorful, and less watery.  Fabulous.  The tomatoes are a treat in themselves and can only be found with flavor even close this at home in farmer’s markets.

Dessert was the last of our pistachio cannoli we had saved from our walk in Positano and a sip of the incredible limoncello we purchased the night before at Valenti’s. (See the post from Day 4 with more about this)

I fell into bed so looking forward to a night of good sleep.  As lovely as our little BnB has been, the beds are not the least bit lovely.  The bedding is fresh cotton, all ironed and embroidered, the coverlet is nice, the blanket is good, however the mattress feels a bit like cardboard with a plank of plywood beneath it.  I have only managed to figure out a bit of comfort by adjusting some of the 4 large pillows around my body here and there to try to get the pressure off the hips.  Not a surprise, as I do remember some hard beds from previous trips on this side of the pond.  Deanna and I are both really hoping that our bed in Florence is a bit better.  Firm is good, but hard isn’t so much.

With all the photos we took, with two cameras and two phones, we had a bit of trouble trying to keep track and attempted to process and upload often so as not to lose them.  We didn’t completely succeed, and some of the photos I took of the interior of our apartment are forever lost.  If you would like to check out the space, here is the link to the Airbnb website for La Selva Santa, our Home Away from Home.  The people in the photo sitting at the table are Enzo and Sara.

A link to the photos for this day that I did not manage to lose is here

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

09-28-2018 Day 4 Herculaneum, Vesuvius, and Pompeii

Near Naples, Italy on a gorgeous sunny day at 72 to 78 F / 22 to 25 C

An example of some of the amazing relief sculptures on the walls of homes in Erculano

Writing about visiting world famous sites filled with history is fairly challenging.  Deanna and I took a ton of photos, kept brochures and bought books.  Needless to say we were a bit overwhelmed by the volume of information and the sites that we visited on this very long day. Most everyone has heard of Pompeii.  Do I write about all that history, all that detail, or do I simply write how I felt about all of it?  I suppose the answer to this will evolve as I write.

It was a day we both looked forward to with great anticipation.  Shortly after we arrived in Montepertuso we made arrangements with Enzo to drive us to Pompeii.  Enzo suggested that we also visit Herculaneum (locally referred to as Erculano) and Mt. Vesuvius in addition to Pompeii. After a couple of days of discussion, we agreed on a price.  Enzo said that 45 EU per hour was the going rate for drivers, but for us! (sure) he would only charge 35 EU.  (Just an FYI, all the possibilities for typing the euro symbol on my keyboard in LiveWriter do NOT work, hence the EU).

The excavations at Erculano extend beneath the city toward the back of this photo.  Excavations are always in progress.

After reviewing some of the options for tours of the three sites available in Positano, we decided that Enzo’s offer was a very good deal and were glad to have such a great guy who spoke flawless English to be our guide for the day. Enzo said that it would probably take at least 8 and possibly 10 hours to do all three sites justice.  We were up early and left Montepertuso in the brilliant morning sunshine for our big day. 

Enzo drove along the cliffs as we had come the first day, but then took some back roads into Sorrento and on to Naples since it was still the busy morning traffic hour.  He deposited us at the entrance gate to Erculano precisely at 10AM and told us to take about 2 hours to visit because he wanted to be sure  we would have enough time to climb Vesuvius and also see Pompeii.  According to many, Erculano is the nicer site to visit, although after seeing Pompeii I would agree with another traveler we met who insisted that each has its own special character, and neither should be missed.

Erculano is less well known of the two cities lying in the shadow of Vesuvius, both buried in 79 AD when the mighty volcano unleashed her power.  Much smaller than Pompeii, Erculano was a seaside town with gorgeous villas filled with art belonging to many illustrious people of that time.  Unlike Pompeii, where several buildings remained partly uncovered by the eruption, Erculano was completely buried under a blanket of volcanic ash ranging from 9 to 21 meters / 30 to 68 feet.  During the 16th century, wells were dug that revealed the site of the town, but excavations didn’t begin until 1709. The excavations continue to the present day, with much of the buried town of Erculano beneath the current town of Erculano which is part of the metropolitan area of Naples.

We visited the site without a guide, following the guidebooks as best we could, simply enthralled by the colorful frescoes, jewelry, pots, and other pieces of everyday life that were displayed along the streets and in the homes of the people who lived there at the time of the eruption. 

Two hours wasn’t nearly enough time to really see the place in depth, and we could have easily spent the entire day wandering the stone pavements.  Near the end of our visit, we walked down a long path to the fornici (vaulted spaces) that were once right on the beach.  Here there were bones and skeletons which at the time we thought were real.  Only later did we learn that these bones were excavated in 1980 and casts were made and placed in their original positions.  It was probably the most dramatic site at the ruins, if not the most lovely.

When we saw these bones, we did not know they were casts of the originals

Choosing photos to keep from our explorations was difficult, there was so much.  Yet choosing photos for the blog is even more daunting.  What I have used here is just a smattering of the images we kept.

Enzo met us at the gate at exactly noon, and took us on some more winding back roads.  We rose quickly in elevation on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius “Vesuvio”. Views of the huge metropolitan city of Naples spread out below us, with the sea reflecting the sunlight and Capri hazy in the distance.  Enzo was enthralled with the “clarity” of the day, saying that often the skies are clouded over and that we were exceptionally lucky.  The haziness was attributed to humidity over the sea, not smog or pollution of any kind.  He mentioned the lovely island of Ischia to the north of Capri, insisting that it was much nicer than Capri, just as lovely and less crowded.  It seems that Ischia is the Napolitino’s favorite vacation spot.

Enzo paid an extra 5 Eu to park farther up the road than the tour buses so that we could hike the mountain without the extra miles required from the public parking lot.  The trail to the summit is wide and fairly steep, covered in volcanic ash and cinders and a bit like walking on marbles.  Step slide step slide step.  There were a lot of people on the trail, but according to Enzo it wasn’t a busy day in the least.

I am not sure how long the hike was in miles or kilometers, but it took us about 90 minutes round trip to go up and back, including our time enjoying the view at the top.  Living as we do, in the shadow of the Ring of Fire volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest, Vesuvio looks a lot like just another big volcano to us.  Still, it is dramatic to think of how active it is and of the nearly 3 million people that are in the path of her wrath if she decides to blow again, which she last did in 1944.

When we got back to the car, it was early afternoon and we were getting hungry.  Enzo drove through the back corridors of Naples to the freeway and to the entrance to Pompeii, very near the center of Naples. I had somehow never imagined Pompeii to be in a populated area like this, picturing ruins out in the country.

Enzo knew the owner of the cafe at the entrance to the ruins, and arranged a table for us to have lunch.  It was a nice gesture, and made things much easier for us.  As the day progressed, Deanna and I found ourselves feeling incredibly appreciative of Enzo and his kindness and driving skills, his knowledge of the area and his willingness to accommodate us in any way he could.

Our late lunch in the outdoor dining room was one of our more memorable meals in Italy.  Deanna had a classic carbonara pasta and I had a fabulous salad with the sweetest, freshest tuna I have ever tasted anywhere!  We had plenty to switch plates and share with each other. Once again, perfect tomatoes, rich balsamic, fresh everything made a perfect lunch.

I loved this artist rendition of what Pompeii looked like before 79AD

Fully sated, we wandered into the entrance to the city of Pompeii, a bit overwhelmed at the huge size of the city.  This time we made sure we had the appropriate guidebooks so that we could at least begin to understand what we were viewing.  Still, the site is huge and somewhat overwhelming.  So much has been done to preserve the feeling of what it must have been like to live in this lovely city.  Wandering the stone roads, looking into the houses, thinking about life in Roman life in 79 AD was fascinating.

A not so busy day in Pompeii with Vesuvio looming in the background

We walked and walked, realizing too late that we would have to walk all the way back to the entrance to meet Enzo at our designated spot.  By this time I was worn to a nubbin, with my knee giving me trouble and feeling like I couldn’t take one more step.  We were at the farthest end of the city, near the coliseum, and saw another entrance gate where we thought maybe we could reach Enzo.

I have forgotten to mention another lovely thing about Enzo.  I told him our phones were not turned on for making calls so he gave us his phone to call him if we needed him.  We made use of that phone, calling him to ask if he could meet us at the Coliseum gate instead of the entrance gate where we had agreed originally.  Only problem was I called the wrong number, and reached some guy back in Positano who was a co worker of his, and the guy called Enzo and said, “Your people are waiting at the Coliseum Gate”.  Enzo found us at the gate in time and got a great laugh out of the kerfuffle.

Evening approached as we returned to Positano via the crooked narrow road we were accustomed to by now.  Enzo started telling us all about the wonderful Limoncello that could be found in Positano and Deanna told him that she had bought some that said it was “made in Positano” and it was truly awful.  Deanna had been so excited to buy it when we were in town that first day and I couldn’t imagine why.  Most of the time when I have had Limoncello it is bitter and not all that great.  Enzo had a solution for that problem, and insisted on taking us to his friend’s factory in Positano, Veneti and his wife and kids were busy cutting lemon rinds behind the glass in his small shop.  We tasted his Limoncello, Limoncello cream, and all sorts of other goodies before succumbing to the lure of something uniquely linked to the Amalfi Coast.  We purchased several bottles, and filled the shipping boxes to 10 kilo, which is the limit we could ship for a set fee.  Pretty sure the fee was 75 EU, but those bottles arrived this week and I can say that it was worth every penny.  A sip of that Limoncello brings back all the beauty of the Amalfi coast and the lemony Southern Italian sunshine.

It was dark and late when we finally arrived back home at our apartment, tired, happy, filled with visions of our adventures, and so very grateful for Enzo who made the day as easy as it was.

As I close this blog, I can see that I haven’t even begun to touch on the complex history of these two magnificent ruins. I can also see that I haven’t expressed what a wonder it was to stand atop Mt Vesuvius with all of Naples, Erculano, and Pompeii, the Isle of Capri, all in view. There is always the internet, and hopefully some of the photos I have put up will pique your interest.  Deanna and I spent many days trying to figure out how to remember this day, how to process all those photos, how to decide which to keep and which to dump.  There was so very much to assimilate.  We could have easily spent a day at each place and would have still had a hard time taking it all in. 

When it comes to buying Limoncello in Positano, buyer beware.  We gave that first bottle that Deanna bought to Sara and Enzo, saying maybe they could clean the sinks with it.

Photos of our day in Erculano are linked here

Photos of our time at Vesuvio are here

Photos of Pompeii are here

09-27-2018 Day 3 The Amalfi Coast

A classic image of Positano from the ferry as we departed from the dock for our short cruise down the coast

Deanna and I woke this morning to a lovely pastel sky.  We both noticed after a few days with this view that the pastel colors were something that we don’t often see in our world of the west.  Dramatic sunsets are not unusual, but pastel skies with so many colors are more rare.

Another walk to Positano wasn’t something we cared to repeat. Instead we decided to walk to the square and wait for the Mobility bus scheduled to run on the hour.  The bus was half an hour late, something we discovered was quite common. We bought several tickets at the grocery store, making sure we had enough for the next few days on the coast.

The weather was gorgeous in spite of the strong breezes.  Brilliant sunshine lit up the sea and the colorful houses cascading down the cliffs.  The bus passed us on the way to Nocellle, a few kilometers up the hill, turned around and traveled back our way and we boarded for the trip down to town.  It was almost noon by the time we actually made it down to Positano Spiaggia (beach).

Enzo had warned us, “Don’t even think of taking the Sita bus to Amalfi, it is much easier and quicker to go on the ferry, and only 8 Euro.”  The square was a bit crowded with long lines for the various ferries, but we got our tickets without a problem.  We chose only one way tickets so that we could experience the wild ride along the coast in the Siti bus.  These buses are a bit larger than the local mobility buses, and the cost between the town of Amalfi and Positano was just 8 Euro, exactly the cost of the ferry.

We were happy to see that the ferries were operating since they had been closed the previous day.  We had to wait about an hour for the next ferry to Amalfi and that required another gelato.  This time we chose the cup since gelato is very soft and melts very quickly in the warm sunshine.

One of the advantages of taking the ferry is the chance to view all the charming cliffside towns from the vantage point of the water.  Priano lies between Positano and Amalfi, but there are a few other small towns dotting the hillsides. 

We sat on the top floor in the warm, bright sunshine.  Deanna and few other passengers managed to get the shades closed so that we had a bit of protection from the glare.

The trip only lasts about half an hour and in the beginning the winds were slight.  However, before we reached Amalfi, the winds shifted and great gusts began throwing the boat around and lots of spray reached the decks. As the ferry approached Amalfi we looked up to see huge clouds of smoke billowing from the hillsides above town. 

With the high winds the flames looked frightening and we could hear sirens.  The emergency vehicles have a terrible time trying to get anywhere with the narrow roads and all the tourist traffic.  We read later about these fires that have been plaguing the Italian coast this past summer and much like the western US, there is a drought and lots of dry fuel to burn in terrain that is terribly difficult to manage.

Once we landed in Amalfi we were inundated by throngs of tourists, even more so than in crowded Positano.  With our offline Google maps we attempted to navigate a bit and found the main square in town and the lovely cathedral. 

The town of Amalfi didn’t seem as charming to us as Positano.  There were many side roads with many shops and a lot of people, however it didn’t seem as clean and was much more touristy.  We thought perhaps that with more time to wander the back roads it may have seemed nicer but those roads seemed to go off in directions that were much farther than we wanted to walk.

The cathedral Duomo di Sant'Andrea is quite lovely and as is often the case in Italy there is a charge to enter. I think we paid just 3 Euro and it was well worth it. The exterior is dramatic and colorful although the colorful marble and colored stone façade was refurbished in 1891.

From Wiki:

“The first church, now the Diocesan Museum of Amalfi was built on the 9th century on the ruins of a previous temple.[2] A second church was built to the south in 10th century, and this is now the Cathedral. By the 12th century the two churches formed a single 6 aisle Romanesque church, which was reduced to 5 in the 13th century to allow the construction of the cloister of Paradise, in the Arab-Norman style.

The remains of St. Andrew were reportedly brought to Amalfi from Constantinople in 1206 during the Fourth Crusade[3] by Cardinal Peter of Capua. In 1208, the crypt was completed and the relics were turned over to the church.[2] It said that later on manna issued from the saint's bones.[4]

The bell tower was constructed between the 12th and 13th centuries in front of the first church, topped by an elaborate crown decorated with marble and majolica in the Arab-Norman style, also seen in other churches in southern Italy in this period. The chapels inside are variously Gothic and Renaissance, with the nave decorated in the Baroque style in the 18th century.

In 1861, part of the facade collapsed, damaging the atrium. The whole front of the church was then rebuilt to a design by architect Errico Alvino in a richly decorated manner drawing on Italian Gothic and especially Arab-Norman styles, similar to but more ornate that the original, completed in 1891.”

The main altar depicting Saint Andrew

We were impressed with the gorgeous stone mosaics in this cathedral

The bronze doors to the cathedral were cast in Constantinople before 1066

After our visit inside the cathedral we joined others on the cathedral steps to enjoy a light lunch of breakfast leftovers while we people-watched.

By this time, it was getting a bit late in the afternoon and we decided that it was time to make an attempt to return to Positano.  Winding our way through the crowds, we found a tabacchi  (tobacco shop) on the main thoroughfare to purchase Sita tickets for the ride home.  This is where the crazy Italian bus system first reared its ugly head.  There were dozens of buses in the square and many of them had no names in the destination window at the top of the bus.  No one seemed to know which bus went to Positano, or to Ravello, or perhaps on to Sorrento without stopping in Positano.  We did finally discover that we needed the Sorrento bus, but to be sure to get one that actually stopped in Positano.  People were crowding around the entrances of all the buses, but no one seemed to have a clue about anything and the bus drivers were all yelling at each other and gesturing wildly.  Lines mean nothing in Italy and people pushed and shoved to get to the head of a line only to have the bus drivers yell at us saying laggiu, laggiu!!  “Over there” we later learned.  Then all the people wildly went “over there”, willy nilly, with people in the front of the line ending up in the back of the line.  It was important to catch a bus because the next one might leave in over an hour and then be late as well.  We managed to get on the bus but it was definitely a bit stressful

Once on the bus we were in for the ride of our lives.  The road from Amalfi to Positano is narrow and winding and just a tiny bit wider than the little roads on the hill between Positano and Montepertuso.  It took an hour of craziness with amazing views and fascinating exchanges between car drivers and bus drivers, and many contorted negotiations between vehicles and cliff sides.  An interesting trip that I loved doing and wouldn’t want to do on a regular basis.

We were thrilled to at last reach our little town of Positano, getting off the bus at the upper end of town near a restaurant and a water closet.  Have I mentioned that these are few and far between in these small Italian towns?  We had a delightful lunch at a streetside sidewalk table overlooking the sea where we laughed about our day.

We still had to get back home and this required another crazy bus ride.  At first we thought we would walk up to the Mobility bus stop we had seen where the Siti bus also stopped, but decided instead to walk down toward town where we had boarded the Mobility bus the previous day.  This turned out to be a great idea.  We had to wait half an hour or so for the bus and once again do the pushing and shoving routine required to get on a bus in Italy.  It was a good thing we chose the lower stop because by the time we arrived at the upper stop the bus was jammed full and it didn’t even stop!

Winding up the roads on the smaller Mobility bus was becoming almost routine to us by this time and we were incredibly grateful to disembark at the square and walk down the path to our lovely quiet little apartment.

Photos from this day are linked here and include many shots from inside the cathedral with frescoes and more of the crazy bus ride.