Posted by: jility | October 14, 2011

Heaven on Earth

The road to Amalfi

It has been written that one should never die without first experiencing the Amalfi Coast of Italy. Now I can die. And when I do, I want heaven to be the Amalfi Coast, or, more specifically, the town of Amalfi (before the tourists discovered it).

If you ever wondered what Heaven would be like, just travel to the Amalfi Coast and you will know. Located south of Napoli (Naples to those not in the know ;)), Amalfi was an undiscovered paradise until it was outed in the early 70s.

We gathered in the Manhattan Room at 7:15 to wait for the cattle call to board our bus. With only four buses for this tour, the group was small in comparison to other days. I think all the old and/or infirm were done in on the previous day’s demanding trip to Rome. Good thing too! Not only do they need to have a bus for old, slow fat fu@k%s, they need to ban them from the regular busses.  I consider myself old, fat and slow but I am a speed demon compared to these oxygen toting, cigarette smoking, heavy drinking, delusional folks on their last legs. Now, I know you all think of me as a kind and empathetic person, but REALLY? REALLY??? ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

I thought a few of the folks on the tour of Rome were going to keel over and gasp their last coughing breath on more than one occasion! They held up the rest of us and nearly made us miss our 1 PM appointment to enter the Vatican. They need their OWN BUS FOR GOD’S SAKE! I prayed for as much while in the St. Peter’s too! I think he listened because they were conspicuous by their absence on our trip to Amalfi and Pompeii.  OK, now you know the real me and it AIN’T PRETTY! I hope if I ever get in that condition, others will have more empathy for me than I have at this time in my life.

They need the following groups on these tours:

  1. Fast
  2. Moderate
  3. Slow
  4. HELL NO YOU SHOULDN’T GO!

Jane (aka Bert) says that they won’t be honest about their ability and they would sign up for the fast group anyway. Maybe she is right but I still think it is a good idea!

The bus pulled away from the ship about 8 AM. Our driver was a very handsome young man named Vincenzo and our guide, Pierluigi (but he said to just call him Luigi) was an obviously well educated middle aged man. We seemed to have a pretty good group as well! There was only one smoker and, as much as he smoked, he looked like he was trying to elect the Pope! He was a very short and very heavy guy in his late forties. He wheezed, coughed and struggled to walk at times but he never complained and he kept up pretty well. My only complaint was that he stunk of cigarette smoke and I always seemed to be downwind of him when he lit up at every stop.

Why do people who smoke not know how much they stink to those of us who actually enjoy breathing? I remember when I smoked two packs a day. I didn’t care what others thought about my smoking and got quite annoyed when they complained about the stench. I will be eternally sorry to all those folks, especially Sir Cussalot, who happened to be inside my wall of smokey self destruction. Second hand smoke is horrible! Every time  we have to walk through the disgusting smokey casino onboard, I am reminded of the misery of second hand smoke through which I put  my loved ones during my time as a smoker, not to mention their worry about my health!

But, as usual, I digress.

The guide explained in excellent English and a hint of a lovely Italian accent, that the population density of Napoli was roughly 12,000 people per square kilometer. To put it in perspective, he continued, New York City was only 10,000 people per square kilometer! Napoli is also the birthplace of PIZZA! I swore I was going to break my vegan vow and indulge in a Margarita Pizza (tomatoes, several squares of mozzarella cheese, basil and garlic) from Napoli before I left. Sadly, it never happened. I kept searching for the perfect looking pizza but I never saw one that really looked amazing so it never happened.

Our tour guide Pierluigi

We started up the hill that led to the other side of the mountains. Our bus, only 28 feet long, wound its way quite easily though the narrow hairpin turns. Sometimes it looked like only an inch or two separated the bus from the retaining wall on my right. I had a strange sense of confidence in Vincenzo’s driving abilities though I wonder if I would have felt the same way had he not been so handsome. Luigi explained the flora to us and I asked a million questioned (as usual). I really have a need to know the whys, wheres and hows of everything people tell me. This seems to irritate a lot of people, which mystifies me! It drove my father insane as it did my early teachers. What I learned was to stop caring what those people, especially my teachers, had to say because they made me feel like shit for never accepting anything at face value.

At the top of the mountain (sorry, I can’t remember the name), we came to the town that invented mozzarella cheese. Luigi explained that you go to market every day to buy your cheese because after a couple of days, it is “only good for hockey pucks.” I have never eaten fresh mozzarella and, I am sad to say, probably never will. Perhaps on my next trip to Italy. There were signs announcing the Mozzarella festival that takes place the first week in August. Luigi said that Italians take their holidays in August so all the small town are doing everything they can to draw tourism to their festival.

After Mozzarella, we headed down the mountain towards Amalfi and I that is where my life became nearly complete (I say nearly because I have not yet tasted the perfect slice of cheese pizza). It was everything I have always expected to see on the Mediterranean and then some. Small homes dotted the steep cliffs that fell into the deep blue sea. Each home had their own terraced garden with lemon, lime and olive trees as well as grapes vines either along the edges or in the center of their garden beds. Nets hung below the vines and trees to catch the edible prizes before they fell to the ground.

What more does one need in this life besides, olives, lemons, grapes, fresh basil, a few veggies and garlic? OK, throw in some thick pasta, cooked to perfection, the transparent deep blue Mediterranean and you have heaven on earth. I have never found a place outside of California where I could spend the rest of my days but the Amalfi Coast has gone to the top of my list. Near the shore you can see right through the sea all the way down to the rocks, sand, fish and kelp that decorate the sea floor.

Magnificence

It was a NeNeNeNeNeNeNeeeeeeee drive down the mountainside (those who remember the old Bill Cosby bit from his Fat Albert and the soap box car driving record will understand what  the NeNeNeNeNeNeNeeeeeeee is all about). Vincenzo did an amazing job, however, and we all had great trust in him. To put it into perspective, along the 20 miles of the Amalfi Coast drive, there are more than 1200 turns, most of which are hairpins! Ernie and I had  both taken a meclazine (not sure of the spelling) for motion sickness but those switchbacks had proven too much for Ernie. The farther we went, the greener he got. Luckily, they were sitting in front of us or I fear I would have been slimed at some point.

When we pulled into Amalfi, I knew I had found home. It might have been from another life but I was most definitely home. The air temperature was a perfect 70 degrees and the humidity was about the same. The cool breeze from the sea kept the body at the perfect temperature and a smile plastered on my face. PURE HEAVEN!

No matter where you look in Amalfi, you see beauty

Sir C and I walked across the street from the bus and headed up the main shopping street of Amalfi. Poor Ernie, still feeling pukey thanks to the road from hell that had lead us to heaven, went to lie down someplace to try to convince his stomach contents to stay put. Jane (aka Bert), wandered off in another direction, so that left Sir C and me to wander on our own through the streets of Amalfi.

Sir C in downtown Amalfi

This was where I wanted to have that elusive slice of the perfect pizza. We asked a shop owner, who had the best pizza and she was Maria’s. We continued walking, looking and buying small shit for people back home. We read the menus and looked at  the beautiful gelato in the freezer cases. When I had asked Luigi the difference between what we call ice cream and the Italians call gelato. Luigi said they are the same. Well, I am here to tell you, THEY ARE MOST DEFINITELY NOT THE SAME! The gelato almost looks like taffy the way it is folded into the containers. Sir C said, “You know, there are times when being vegan SUCKS.” I looked at him and said, “Nobody is holding a gun to your head!” If you want something, have it! We can be perfect at home.”

I realized how silly it was to deprive myself of the gelato experience so I made the decision to have some. I love lemon and because we were in the lemon capitol of the Universe, I decided on lemon. The unusual chubby but very pretty young woman behind the counter saw me struggling to decide which flavor to get so she offered me a taste. One was whitish, while the other had a green cast to it. I asked the difference and she said one was from yellow lemon and the other from green lemon (OF COURSE! DUH! It was lime!). I decided to go with the green lemon until my chubby little friend suggested I get a scoop of each! BLOODY BRILLIANT! Why hadn’t I thought of that? She placed the forbidden frozen delight into the cup, placed a miniature cone on top, smiled and handed it to me. Everything after that is a blur. I got lost in the creamy, sensual texture and the incredibly intense lemon flavor of this homemade wonder.

To say that ice cream and gelato are the same is like saying a Ford and a Ferrari are both cars. Sure, each will get you where you want to go but the Ferrari experience will be mind blowing, where the Ford is just a ride. The texture of the gelato is indescribable. The reason it is indescribable is because there is nothing else like it on earth. It is creamier than ice cream, yet more like a sorbet than an ice cream. Soy Delicious used to make a sorbet that came close but, of course, I must have been the only person on the planet who bought it because they discontinued it last year!

The beach in Amalfi

I savored the flavor of my orgasmic gelato experience as we continued walking along the beyond quaint and narrow, cobblestone street. Soon we spotted Maria’s on our left. Coincidentally, the best pizza I have ever had in my life was at Maria’s in Gloucester, Mass where I grew up. By this time, Sir C had decided that he too would break his steadfast rule and try the original pizza, the Margarita (created for and named after some queen or princess or some other such royalty during some great Napoli celebration). Primed for the cheat, we entered the restaurant only to find that no food is served until noon! It was only 10:30 and we were leaving soon. RATZ!

Sadly, we left Amalfi, hungry and pizzaless but I vowed to return and spend at least a week there and eat pizza and gelato and then go to church and confess my dietary indiscretions.

We boarded the bus and headed up a different road out of Amalfi towards Salerno. About 10 minutes into the trip, Ernie was feeling sick again. The gods were shining on him though because soon we were at a stand still on the narrow mountain road. An Italian cop stood in the middle of the road making sure no cars passed him. We wondered what was going on. Vincenzo was on the radio trying to get answers and Luigi translated what he was told by the non English speaking driver. Then we saw it! A HUGE 18 wheeler was trying to make its way down the mountain to Amalfi to deliver his goods. This truck was as large as any you might see in the States. Even with NO other cars on the road it would be impossible for this big rig to make those tight turns on the way down to Amalfi!

It seems that the farther south you go in Italy, the more impatient the people get. Horns honked and arms waved in typical Italian fashion as we watched the truck driver trying to maneuver his way through traffic and turns. Finally, he made it down to where we were waiting but that was the end of the road for him. As he tried to come around a particularly tight turn, I heard “WOAH!” and other yells from the passengers sitting on the other side of the bus. Evidently, he had smashed into a house along the side of the road and was now wedged between a rock and a hard place (literally!).

The policeman motioned the driver to step out of the truck, now right in front of us. The driver was a stocky man with closely cropped dirty blond hair and a good gut on him. He was obviously not from those parts. Most of the local Italians are very small and very thin. They don’t get fat as they age, they just get thicker. For some reason, they don’t have big guts or big butts or big anything that is out of proportion like we do in the US. They just get equally thicker all over.

Luigi explained to us that the truck and driver were from Bulgaria and that a GPS had taken him down the wrong road to Amalfi. Dumb ass GPSs! The driver stood by the side of the road listening as the policeman gestured towards his rig and then back to him. Wondering if either one understood what the other was saying, we watched as the drama played on. Finally, the Bulgarian did the Universal gesture of despair. He rubbed both hands along the top of his shaved head in a way that you knew he was saying, “I’M FU@KED!” Yes, yes he was. Knowing the roads that lay ahead of him, there was no way on earth he would get that rig down the mountain in one piece.

One by one, the cars behind him that had been held up for many miles, passed. We waited a very long time before the policeman let us pass. There was a bus in front of us and the driver, not nearly as good as our fearless leader, Vincenzo, was afraid to go forward past the truck. Vincenzo exited our bus and went out to help direct the chicken past the 18 wheeler. It took some jockeying to get it done but eventually, the bus was able to pass without so much as a scratch.

Vincenzo leaped back into our bus, threw it in drive and, without so much as a hare’s breath separating us from the big truck and nobody to guide him, Vincenzo stepped on the gas and flew past that truck! It was like magic or threading a missile through the eye of a needle. How he did it is beyond me but the bus erupted into applause and cheers! Vincenzo smiled, which made him even more handsome, and proceeded up the hill with the chicken driver in front of us.

Luigi said that the bus in front was our scout and that is was good he was ahead, kinda like the canary in the mine. Several times, Luigi had to put our bus in park, get out and direct the chicken out of a tight spot. Then, aided by nothing more than his eyes, his mirrors and his incredible driving ability, Vincenzo confidently roared on. He was a god among gods! At each stop we all told him so too! He would just smile and look pleased.

This photo does not do Vincenzo justice

Our next stop was for a delicious lunch at a beautiful spot overlooking the Mediterranean. We really enjoyed the stop, the view and the food. I am gaining a million pounds but I have the rest of my life to worry about that. Right now, I am enjoying every bite as I eat my way across the Mediterranean.

The view from the Amalfi Coast restaurant

After lunch, we boarded the bus and headed towards the ancient ruins of Pompeii.

Living only thirty miles from Mount Saint Helens can sometimes be a scary thing. Even more so now that I have seen the ruins of Pompeii close up and personal. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, the homes in the city of Pompeii were covered in no less than thirty feet of ash, mud and other volcanic debris. Thousands of people perished trying to flee. My theory as to why the people in the area are so impatient is that the only people who made it to safety were the impatient ones and now all these folks are descended from the original impatient Italians of the area.

A giant among gladiators. Sir C stamding in front of a gladiator’s cell.

Seeing what’s left of the devastated city up close was indescribable. The city was a well organized masterpiece in its time. It was huge! The roads were paved with stones and the homes of the rich were elaborate with painted walls, gardens and fountains.

One of the theaters where they watched murder for sport

There were lots of slaves in Pompeii. Some from Greece, some from Africa and some from wherever they could catch them. They said the Greeks were mostly used to educate the children and the others for laborers, cooks and prostitutes. They even had a sign carved in paver stones at various places that let you know where those prostitutes could be found.

Some symbols need no explanation!

We saw the barracks of the gladiators and where they exercised and where they fought. The doors to their rooms we very short. Luigi said the average height of the men of that time was about 5’3” tall. They are not much taller than that now! The woman were only four and a haft feet at most.

They had casts that were taken where the bodies lay when they died. Only a very small portion of the 10,000 or so bodies have been discovered as only a very small portion of the city has been excavated at this time. More is being done all the time.

The agony of death in Pompeii

We visited the cameo shop across from the ruins where masters carve beautiful cameo figures from seashells. The layers of the shells give color and depth to the carvings. They were lovely to see but much too expensive to buy.

Master cameo carver

The finished product

With the long day behind us, we hauled our weary bodies onto the bus and made the trip back to the ship for dinner. Today is a day off, THANK GOD! It is a travel day that will take us from Napoli to the Island of Mallorca. I am sorry this trip is almost over. I must come back! If not for the scenery, the climate and the sea, then surely for that elusive perfect piece of pizza and more gelato.


Responses

  1. Love hearing about your travels! What an adventure. It’s like I am transported there myself!! 🙂 Thanks guys

  2. Loving your trip Helen! Thanks so much for sharing! My family is from Italy, so it has been great seeing the photos. I think they are from Bari; not absolutely positive though…Enjoy that gelato and I hope you can find that great piece of pizza even if it isn’t from Maria’s!

  3. We must be related! My fave flaves sont citron, et citron verte!


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