Tuesday, October 6, 2009

2 Continents - 4 Countries - 1 Ocean

As predicted, the moped girl did not show up to prepare our breakfast this morning. That's all right. We had a good nights sleep, the sun is shining, our French neighbor/housemates have not been heard from and we have a full ten hours to get from San Donato to Nice for our 7:00 pm flight to Paris. It's been a great trip, certainly one of the more diverse we've taken. Packing light with a five day wash cycle has worked out very well, and I can't see us lugging huge suitcases anytime in the future. Time to go.

Monday - October 5, 2009 - Tuesday October 6, 2009

Our original plan was to highway drive to Bologna to see Michelangelo's statues of St. Proculus and St Petronius. They are in the Church of San Domenico, which looked to fairly easy to get to. However, we were so mellowed out that we didn't want to spoil the mood, so instead decided to take the back roads up to Pisa, then drive along the coast to Monaco and then to Nice. Bologna would have to wait for another day.

The roads less traveled to Pisa were great, and reminiscent of driving around the Bordeaux countryside with Rich and Lu. Misty valleys with vineyards and olive trees interspersed among the farms. We passed through picturesque farm villages, and by small wine cooperatives. Sure we got stuck behind some slow trucks for a while, but couldn't have cared less.

At Pisa we hopped onto the Autostrada and headed around Genoa, back through all the tunnels, and toward the French border. I was really in the mood for a French omelet and shortly after we passed Monaco, I pulled off the highway toward Eze Village (nice name). It sounded perfect. Making one wrong turn after another, we ended up down the hill at Eze Bord de Mer, which everyone (except us) knows is a beach community and has no places to eat. Foiled. Hugging the coast, we passed through Beaulieu-sur-Mer and down into Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Every cafe or brasserie we passed in these little towns had NO parking available anywhere.

Finally in Villefrance-sur-Mer we spotted a little bay-side restaurant and a parking spot about a quarter mile away. Right on the water, with beautiful boats docked feet away. Perfect; except the kitchen was closed, so we had to settle for beer. Oh well.

Our idyllic little beach side towns suddenly gave way to the city of Nice, and it was bustling for a Monday afternoon. When we were here with Alicia and Ed they had wanted to drive down Promenade des Anglais with the tall expensive hotels on one side and the beautiful azure blue French Riviera on the other. Driving through Monte Carlo cured them of that. This was similar except instead of a single lane in each direction there were three and stop lights every 5 feet. Add to that the double parking in the right lane and the buzzing of motorcycles, scooters and bikes, the traffic kind of squeezed it's way along like a long sausage.

We saw our share of beautiful cars and the beautiful people. Everyone seemed happy, everyone except the guy and girl on the motorcycle who plowed into the back of the car in front of them just before we got to the airport. We were going to have trouble getting that image out of our minds. How quickly life can change.

So that was our trip The rest passed without incident. We flew to Paris, overnight-ed at the Marriott at CDG, had my omelet for breakfast, flew to Philadelphia, flew to Richmond and was home in Studley by 7:00 pm, tired and pleased.


It was a great trip, with lots of new sights, time with Richard and Lucy, and a bunch of different cultures.

We liked our B&B experience in Ireland, in fact we liked everything about Ireland.

We didn't spend any time in downtown Belfast and after reading about it on our return (figures) wish we had.

Newgrange was a waste. We could have taken another walk around Trim castle instead.

Trip Advisor reviews for everywhere we stayed were right on target and we're religious about adding our reviews on the places we stayed. Should have looked up Casserta before we left, but I figured Dr. Melfi's hometown had to be OK.

Three weeks (20 days for the purists) was just right. Packing for 5 days worked like a charm.

You can't see the mosquitoes in Italy, but when they bite the itch lasts for at least a week.

The inspiration for what to see in Italy came from reading The Agony and the Ecstasy. Great literature will do that for you.

To the kids and grandkids (and farther down or across the Silveira tree) who are reading this: I hope it has encouraged you to get on a plane and go somewhere, and I hope you are able to share your experiences with someone as special as Kathy. She has a wonderful way of making the best day in your life better.

I've included some pictures on this page that didn't fit with the narrative from my journal. I just like them.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


What a pleasant place Sorrento is. Had we known when we were making our plans, we might have scheduled a full day's stay here. It is said that the locals go out of their way to be as unlike their neighbors just to the west (the lively Neapolitans), as possible. It shows. Instead we will hit the road for the next 5 plus hours heading toward another little town that is highly recommended in all the tourists books: the beautiful and difficult to pronounce San Gimignano (San-gee to us); the 3rd century BC walled Etruscan village up in Siena province. With full bellies and a full tank of diesel (46.5 Euros or $72.60 worth if you're interested) we headed north.

Sunday - October 4, 2009 - San Donato, Italy

Nothing like a Sunday drive through the Italian countryside to put you in a great frame of mind. The roads are first class and there was very little traffic to contend with as we made our way up the western side of the boot. Our little Skoda is pretty comfortable and has all the amenities we need. We made excellent time on the road, and left the highway heading west about half way between Siena and Firenze. With any luck we would check into our hotel (Antica Dimora) in plenty of time to head up the hill to San-gee for some afternoon sightseeing and a nice dinner.

There were two problems with this plan. First, San Donato where our hotel is located is not part of San Gimignano as we had thought, and second, we had no idea where it was, as our Google map directions left a lot to be desired. We approached the rotary at the bottom of San-gee and wedded ourselves to it, passing the same signs over and over again on our little merry-go-round. There were only four roads off the rotary, and the first two headed up the hill, one on either side (we know this because we had become explorers). The third one headed south and didn't look promising, and the fourth one is the one we came in on. Down road number three we went and a split second before we were about to turn around and head back to our rotary Kat spotted a little sign on the left marked "San Donato 1 --->" pointing down a littler road. Sure enough we came upon a cluster of buildings, the prettiest of which bore a small "Antica Dimora" sign. We were home.

The place was charming. It was also deserted; locked up tight with no sign of life. Thankfully, right next door was a charming gentleman who spoke excellent English to save the day. We believe he is the proprietor of Fattoria San Donato, and noting the signs that offered rooms a direct competitor with Antica. He explained to us that our choice for the evening was owned by a family that was a tad bit dysfunctional at the moment. Without getting into too many details he told us about a family feud between brothers and sisters-in-law owners and that if we wished, he would call one of them to see if they would come out to check us in. We wished, he did, and fifteen minutes later a young lady on a moped pulled up and ushered us into a beautifully appointed country inn. She imprinted our credit card, gave us the keys to the whole place, asked us to lock the door and leave the keys in the kitchen when we left, and just like that, was gone like the wind. We felt like we had just become the proud owners of an Italian B&B. Weird, weird, weird experience.

It was mid-afternoon when we parked outside the wall of San Gimignano and trekked our way up and into the quintessential Tuscan hill town. It was crowded and filled with pretty and well dressed people(one picture I took could be a Conde Nast ad for Armani or Breitling), definitely not the type we would hang with. It is unique and it's easy to see why so many people are attracted to this little town. There are winding streets, cutesy shops, and 14 towers (out of the original 60 that were built) everywhere you look.

Meandering through the tiny streets we bumped into and along with our fellow travelers. The main square is called Piazza della Cisterna, named for the old well and cistern smack dab in the middle. For over a thousand years the townsfolk have gathered here for civic events and the weekly (Thursday unfortunately) farmers market. That is something we would liked to have seen.

We climbed the stairs to the Rocca e Parco (Rock and Park, we think), and were rewarded with a beautiful view of the San-gee skyline and surrounding countryside. This was the place we sought. It was quiet with olive trees all around. It made the trip up here worthwhile. As late afternoon turned to early evening the town began emptying out, so we headed over to the square by St. Agostino to grab an early dinner at the aptly named Locanda di Saint Agostino.

The food was excellent, the insalata Caprese was served with style, (I guess you would call it insalata Caprese alla San Gimignano in homage to the towers), and along with the views made our visit a success.

It was a piece of cake to find our B&B (and I hesitate to call it that since clearly given the family dynamic there was going to be no one there first thing in the morning to provide the second B), and were shocked to find another couple in our house. A very pleasant, young French couple were just exiting their room about to head off to dinner when we unlocked the front door. We chatted for a bit, wished them well and headed off to our room.

Monday - October 5, 2009 - Still in San Donato, Italy

Normally I'd start another page given the new day, but I have to comment on our surroundings before heading to France. This little medieval village is absolutely beautiful in the early morning light. When the bright Tuscan sun paints the buildings here they glow with all kinds of colors from the red/brown and blue/grey palettes. The church across the street is surrounded by flowering vines, and bushes (including the first ever for me: pomegranate).

Our room is filled with light. A lot of care has gone into the furnishing of this inn, and it shows in every detail. Normally I would find a large copy of Botticelli's seashell nymph over the bed a bit tacky, but it is pleasing here. (And, by the way, better looking than the original we had just seen in the Uffizi).

It all got me to wondering if maybe Kat and I could pick up this little gem for a song from the Montagues and Capulets and become the Eddie and Geraldine of San Donato. Quite the fantasy, but there is something so charming about this little collection of buildings, and so peaceful among the vineyards that crazy ideas run unchecked. And I guess that tells you that you're having a good trip.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Boom Boom Vesuvio

It is a spectacular day to be alive in the beautiful bay-side town of Sorrento. The city is spread across the side of a mountain that drops gently into the bay of Napoli. Today the water is a deep blue and the sky is crystal clear, the rain having pulled out all the moisture. Our hotel (Hotel Angelina) is about a quarter mile up a narrow winding street and is bordered by very old homes. Going down for breakfast, the windows on the side of the stairway have been left open, and off in the distance we can see the bit of topography that dominates every view in the area - Mt. Vesuvius. It looks so benign.

Saturday - October 3, 2009 - Sorrento, Italy

We had a very aggressive schedule laid out for ourselves. We were going to visit both Herculaneum (Ercolano) and Pompeii, the two major cities buried under twenty feet of ash back on August 24, 79 (weird to write a date with a 2 digit year). But first we took advantage of the included breakfast at the hotel. We generally skip the Italian breakfasts, but the Hotel Angelina does it right. There were fresh fruits and breads, cereals, eggs, and a nice assortment of yogurts, cheeses and meats.

As we found last night, it is a short walk to the train station, and since we are on a peninsula and close to the last stop on the rail line, it was easy to buy the tickets and take the right train in the right direction (towards Naples). We decided to go to Herculaneum first as it was the farthest away, and then backtrack to Pompeii before returning to Sorrento. With the bay of Naples to our left and Mt. Vesuvius to our right the 45 minute train ride was relaxing and pleasant.

Exiting the train station in Ercolono, there is really only one way to go, and that is down toward the bay, and toward the once buried town of Herculaneum. We passed through the large park gates and descended the tree lined path to the ticket office, paid the entrance fee and entered another world. What really caught our attention was looking back at the demarcation line where the paved streets of the new city rested meters above the extant roofs of the old city. It made us wonder what we had walked over as we made our way down to the entrance gate.

Not as famous as Pompeii it doesn't draw the crowds, and like Paestum we had the place mostly to ourselves. There are very few off limit areas, and there are a minimum of modern era distractions (handrails, covered walkways, and plastic domes over open skylights). The effect is that you think you are either in 1st century Italy or some Disneyworld creation. I had to keep reminding myself this stuff was original.

There are statues in the squares, and marble faced atria (I thought it was atriums but looked it up) with inset pools. On some walls the frescoes are vivid (red seems the favorite color of the period), and on some the cursed graffiti miscreants have ruined what 1900 years and 20 feet of ash couldn't. There are public baths with intact filling and draining troughs. There are two story houses, with original wood in some. The flows of pyroclastic rock that covered Herculaneum preserved materials that the ash in Pompeii destroyed.

The mosaics are wonderful, some decorative on walls, some covering the entire first floor of the home. Some of the artwork is interesting. Behind one tavern bar is a painted priapus to keep the evil eye away (insert your own joke here). A larger tavern down the road has a marble covered counter in which jars are inserted.

There is a painted sign outside the doorway of the Cucumas shop and as quoted from the tourist guide: "four pitchers of different colors, with the drinks sold here and a listing of the price of wine. The inscription "NOLA" is the announcement of a show; unusually, here we can also read the name of who wrote it: scr(i)ptor Aprilis a Capua."

It is much more interesting than I am making it sound (and this from someone who has a short attention span for this sort of thing). I left Kat to wander on looking at details as I climbed back to present day street level for a cigar and some contemplation at a lower magnification. I couldn't see Vesuvius from where I sat, and neither could the 4,000 inhabitants on that fateful day in 79. This city was buried and built upon for 1,600 years before the first digs started in 1738. There is still more to be excavated beneath present day Ercolono. Wow.

At midday we climbed back to the train station for our trip east to Pompeii. You would think this would easy. Not once, but twice did we catch the wrong train and have to wait at the little Boscotrecase train platform. One of the local train workers (we must have seemed familiar to him the second time we plunked ourselves on the bench) encouraged us by saying tourists often made that mistake, and then muttered something about never having seen one make it twice.

Pompeii. First impressions: it sits flat on a plain, consists mostly of one story buildings, and most striking to me has a perfect view of big old Mr. Vesuvius. In fact it looks almost touchable from where we stand in the center of the old town. Couldn't they have seen this one coming? It's also larger and more populated (est. at 8 to 12 thousand) than Herculaneum was back in 79. It is more organized here with lots of tour groups and a few more rules than are in my opinion, necessary (I got kicked off the roof of the very busy and very packed cafeteria style restaurant. First time I've been yelled at in Italian, and not that unpleasant). Having said all that it is spectacular and belongs on life's must see places list.

We made the rounds and saw all the main sites as indicated in the little guide book they give you with your admission ticket. We were not as impressed with the plaster cast people as I thought we would be. Looked a little too staged. Had to go through the Lupanare whorehouse (there is a warning in English that it may not be appropriate for younger viewers), and check out the "positional frescoes" (you figure it out) above the doorways. In one of the taverns there was a marble counter with embedded jugs identical to the one in Herculaneum. That indicates to me there was only one restaurant supply company back in the day. We both liked the large stepping stones in the streets that allowed you to keep your sandals dry when it rained.

Some of the houses were pretty fancy with anterooms and mosaic floors and frescoed walls. We did find the beware of dog (CAVE CANEM) mosaic floor in the House of the Tragic Poet that every guide book mentions, and dutifully took our picture of it. And that's the feeling I had after a while; we were making the rounds, seeing what should be seen, unlike in Herculaneum where we were exploring. So the moral for me was: see one or the other - there's more to see in Pompeii and if we had gone there first we would probably have been disappointed with Herculaneum.

The train ride back to the hotel gave us a little time to reflect on what we had seen this day. It was like being in a time machine and a great experience.

We really liked Sorrento. The people are friendly and gregarious and they smile. A lot. Everywhere we walked we saw people out enjoying themselves and it was contagious. Dinner was in the little restaurant (The Taverna Rossa - definitely a local clientele) just up the hill from the Angelina. The food was simple and good and inexpensive (30 Euros, start to finish, including wine). And once again the insalata Caprese was mouth-watering with the local cheese.

Following our after dinner promenade along the coastal overlook we returned to our little hotel, parked ourselves on the patio, and attempted to put some serious contemplation into our trek toward home. A difficult thing to do when you are this relaxed.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Buffalo of Paestum

So, Caserta wasn't the smartest place to stay. I'll admit it. But it sounded so nice, something about the name that sort of rolls off the tongue. The hotel itself is geared to the business traveler, and was a little too upscale to suit us. We stayed in many like this while traveling on business and thought we had left that behind us. There was no joy to be found in the restaurant or lobby, littered with "broomstick-up-the-butt" people who seemed very impressed with their successes. I'll take the genial little two star pensione with story telling proprietor any time. Besides, any place where the car dealers have take the inventory in every night (like a jeweler with their display cases) should probably be avoided.

Friday - October 2, 2009 - Sorrento, Italy

Our day began with a pleasant drive under overcast skies from Caserta to Paestum. The roads are good but the drivers are a bit manic. The major roads are three lanes on each side and the right two lanes are populated with really large tandem trucks and little white underpowered minivans, each trying to beat the other to their destinations. The trucks win on the downhill stretches, the minis on the uphills. We mostly stayed in the left lane cruising along between 130 and 160 kms/hour (81-100 miles/hr) and we were often passed on the right. Driving here is a blood sport.

Exiting the autostrada we rolled up the little country road to the ancient city of Poseidon (as the Greeks called it in the 6th century BC), or Paestum as it was renamed by the Romans around 270 BC. It was deserted in the 9th century AD (a lot of mosquitoes the story goes, all carrying malaria). It was rediscovered in the 18th century, around the time the United States was becoming a country. Given this little bit of history we asked ourselves what took 900 years for someone in the area to suggest we take a hike down this side road and see if there are any old towns down there. Another mystery.

We parked in a recently vacated spot right on the main road. I was busy congratulating myself on how smart I was to find a public parking place rather than risk a probably overpriced tourist parking lot farther along when an elderly gentleman with a semi-official looking plastic badge walked up and explained through sign language that there was a "car watching" fee of 1 Euro, payable in advance, and in cash, to him. It reminded me of the kids in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia who would charge a couple of riyals to ensure that no one (themselves probably) would molest your car. We laughed, paid the extortion and entered the world of the far distant past.

For the first hour I was enthralled. We were looking at and sitting in buildings that were over 2500 years old and walking on old chariot-wide roads. There is a large forum, a cool senate building, and 3 temples that are said to be in better shape than the Parthenon in Greece. Then you've got half of the old amphitheater, the other half of which remains buried under the asphalt road and a row of tourist souvenir stalls. We had the place mostly to ourselves, and wandered and imagined and felt pretty good that we had included Paestum in our plans. I had never even heard of the place before stumbling across it in one of Rick Steves' books.

Somewhere in the middle of the second hour, I realized I had seen enough piled rocks to satisfy my curiosity, and my imagination had run dry. Exiting the park, and with time to kill, we made our way to the museum across the street. Inside were some of the statuary, and facing materials that had adorned the structures back in the day. I was taken by the painted carved female torso in a display case. It was one of hundreds that had lined the top of the temple. After so much time the paint looked pretty good. Note the swastikas - a good sign before appropriation by the Nazis. Our imaginations were once again engaged and we found it more enjoyable than expected.

Light rain had begun falling and our stomachs were growling so we set off to find lunch. Just behind one of the free parking lots (I bet no one was watching their cars for them), is La Basilica Cafè, probably named for the church that constitutes their back wall. It was packed which explains why no one else was walking the ruins with us. Checking out our fellow lunch mates I realized with the exception of the wait staff we were the youngest people in the place. For some reason we found this pleasing.

I think our waitress was pleased with us as well. She didn't have to yell when she talked to us, and we had a few laughs with her. The fact that we couldn't speak Italian and she didn't speak English was not an impediment. She belly laughed when I grabbed a bug out of mid air, threw it to the ground, stomped on it and said: "Mortè." It's probably the quickest reaction time she'd seen in the restaurant in quite a while.

Now, I know I'm prone to hyperbole on occasion, but it is absolutely true that the buffalo mozzarella served here was the best we have ever eaten. In fact this region has the "AOC" designation for it's cheese, similar to how Italy recognizes the Parmigiano-Reggiano up north, and France designates its wines. It was wonderful in our Insalata Caprese (which I learned was named for the Isle of Capri). We split a pizza, drank some Italian beer, and called it a great lunch. All for 19 Euros, by the way. A bargain.

We returned to our very safe, very well looked after car and found everything in order, but no sign of the old man. I had guessed that he would try to squeeze one more Euro out of us to get our car out of bondage, but he didn't show.

On the drive to Sorrento we encountered the first real rain of the trip. This was unfortunate because I had been looking forward to this drive, and the spectacular views of the scenery it would afford. Instead we made our way through long grim tunnels, and down tricky switch-backed roads in rain and fog. The speed limit was 50 kms (about 35 mph) in some places and we contentedly followed the old guy in the mini in front of us who was doing 30 kms (which seemed excessive). Had it been a sunlit day we'd have put that Skoda through it's paces.

We arrived late in the afternoon at our hotel (Hotel Angelina on Via Cappuccini) and was greeted by name by Paolo. He could not have been nicer, showing us to our room, mapping out everywhere we wanted to go, lending us an umbrella and offering to park our car for us. What a stark contrast from Casserta.

By 6:30 we were on our way down to "My Beautiful Launderette" for our last clothes washing cycle. We liked the name and wondered if, other than restaurants, there were any businesses in the US with Italian names. Anyway, packing light and doing the wash as we went has really worked out well. It's kind of nice spending some quality time at the local laundromat listening to the people who are not on vacation chatter away. They all seem so friendly here.

Our first impressions of Sorrento were all positive. The rain stopped before the dryer did, and we had a pleasant walk back to the hotel. The people seemed happy and smiled a lot, and were constantly talking. The sky was clearing and it was a perfect night to stroll around the town. Our hotel (we found out) was just a five minute walk to the Circumvesuviana train station in one direction and a ten minute walk to the scenic overlook of the harbor in the other. Everything sparkled after the rain.

So, we spent the next couple of hours of this warm Italian coastal night, walking hand in hand like the lovers we were.