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.

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