Beauty And The Beasts

As our plane gains height above Naples we get a fantastic view of the lights of the city spreading out before us, the dark shadow of Vesuvius just visible in the background. The last night-time takeoff we experienced was at Los Angeles, and we remember being impressed by the clearly laid out grid structure, each ‘block’ in sharp definition. Here perhaps it’s no coincidence that the city from the air resembles a plate of spaghetti, with the sodium lamps even adding the hue of tomato sauce.

So what are my impressions of Italy after our first visit?

It’s tempting to continue the American comparison, not least because the place is full with Yanks. I’m sure that Sorrento, our home for the last week, is no more representative of Italy than L.A. is of the States, but it’s all I’ve got. I’m sure you’ll draw your own conclusions if you’re familiar with the country.

Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast are very lovely to behold. Yesterday we took the boat to the island of Capri, probably the jewel in the area’s glittering crown. Riding the chairlift to the highest point on the island was an amazing experience, and the views from the top were stunning, not least the near 2,000 foot sheer drop to the sea below. The limestone cliffs, the sun reflecting off the azure sea, the multicolored buildings below – if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean, and also agree that words can’t do it justice.

Capri View

Capri View

One reason that the Americans come here in droves is clearly because of the antiquity of the place. In San Diego, California, our bus driver proudly showed us the City’s oldest building, dating back to 1850. Here, our walking tour of Sorrento included a visit to a pub proudly displaying a portion of original 2,000 year-old Roman wall in its basement along with a number of earthenware pots discovered during renovations. It could easily have been part of the pub run by the landlords’ ancestors.

Of course, many Americans have Italian roots, their own ancestors moving continents only a generation or two ago. No wonder they want to explore their past.

It’s no wonder either that Americans are so entrepreneurial given our experience in Sorrento. Every restaurant, it seems, has a staffer stationed outside ready to explain why you should visit their establishment, pushing a menu into your hand whilst pointing out the chef’s recommendations. Every shop beckons you inside, and they all have their sales pitch. Capitalism is in full swing here.

So why is Italy apparently in such economic trouble whilst it’s sons and daughters in the US are racing ahead?

I don’t know the answer to that one, although I suspect it is to do with a combination of politics, Eurozone austerity and demographics. However one factor that I’m sure is a contributor is the absence of the large corporation.

In America the streets are dominated by the big chains, from McDonalds’ to Applebee’s, from Days Inn to Marriott, and from Starbucks to Dunkin Donuts. Here there is no sign of any of them. On the contrary, every establishment we visit seems to be owned and run by a family, anxious to please and committed to great service. It’s one of the features that makes a visit here so enjoyable.

We order some bottles of Limoncello, the delicious local liqueur speciality. We are served by Roberto, who proudly tells us that he is the sixth and youngest child in his family. His parents run the farm that supplies produce to the shop, whilst his sister manages the fashion store across the road that is another family venture. He seems very happy, with no plans for world domination. This is a family business, not a corporation.

I’m intrigued by this so I look up the statistics. According to a report from PwC, in 2014 American companies accounted for 47 of the top 100 firms in the world. Italy had 1, Eni Spa whose oil and gas business was ranked 92nd (the UK had 6). I’m not at all surprised.

Now I’m a fan of business, and I understand that they need to grow to survive. But I have to say that it would be a real shame if Italy – or at least the bit of Italy we got to see – got taken over by mega-corporations. It’s happened elsewhere, not least in the States where many people lament the loss of the ‘mom and pop’ stores that used to be the backbone of small town retailing across America, squeezed out by the Wal-Mart’s and the Safeway’s.

Ultimately it will be the consumer who chooses where and with whom they want to shop, and times of austerity make it easier for the retail big guns to attract business, so who knows what the future may bring.

But I suspect that, so far as Sorrento and the Amalfi coast area is concerned, it will be business as usual for a while yet. So if you haven’t yet discovered this lovely area, come and visit Roberto and friends. I’m sure that, like us, you’ll get a very warm welcome.


The Loveliest Coast In The World

Tuesday, 28th October 2014

Roger Moore’s house is beautiful. It’s a white painted villa set in the cliffs near Amalfi, with a stunning setting and amazing views across the Mediterranean Sea.

It pales besides Gina Lollobrigida’s pink painted home, however. And that in turn looks small next to Sophia Loren’s lovely villa atop a crag, framed by the glorious Amalfi mountain coastal backdrop. And looking down on them all from on high is Gore Vidal’s white mansion, all 70 million euros worth of it according to our skipper.

The Amalfi coast is generally reckoned to be the most gorgeous in the world, and we’ve come out by bus and boat to see for ourselves. We’re strongly inclined to agree.

Gina, we love your house!

Gina, we love your house!

We’ve driven across from Sorrento, following the coast road to Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. At Amalfi our guide has arranged a boat excursion to view the coast as it should be viewed, from the sea. And what a fabulous view it is.

It’s the complexity of the scene that is its key. The multi-textured cliffs are full of interest, changing constantly as layer builds upon layer. Interwoven into the cliffs are houses, villas, churches and other buildings forming a riot of colour. Added to them are the vineyards, rosemary gardens, inlets, caves, crags and beaches that have been threaded into the picture like silks in an intricate embroidery.

I’m reminded of the coast of Southern Ireland that I visited last year. That was glorious for its emptiness, its remoteness. Here the contrast is clear. The beauty of the Amalfi coast is in its vibrant humanity, its ancient relationship with the peoples of the area, and its modern-day connection with the beauty and confidence that is Italy.

I could write a lot more about it, and many others have done so. But there are some places that you just have to experience to understand. Here is one of them.

Sharpen your passport now.




The Biggest Bang in Europe

Monday 27th October 2014

Steam is rising in gentle plumes from the rock face. It’s evidence of the heat that’s present several kilometres below, gradually building in intensity. We’re standing on top of the release valve of a gigantic pressure cooker, and one day it’s going to blow. When it does, the results will be spectacular and lethal. This is Vesuvius, Europe’s biggest active volcano.

It last went off in 1944, but notable as that eruption was, it was a mere fizzle compared with the most famous bang in the year 79. Apparently on that occasion 1.5 million tons of rocks, earth and ash spewed out every second for days, reaching over 20 miles high before it started falling to earth. There was enough material to cover the whole surrounding area to a depth of many metres, including the complete town of Pompeii which would remain buried for another one and a half millennia.

It’s probably appropriate that we’re here a week before Guy Fawkes night, because that must have been the firework display to end all firework displays. And we’re standing right on its top lip, looking down at the blue touch paper.

We’ve come up the lower slopes by 4×4 bus, feeling as though we’re in an Indiana Jones adventure as we bounce and lurch from pothole to pothole along the rough mountain track as we climb the peak, often inches from a sudden rapid descent as we peer down to the valley below. Our last few minutes are on foot, kicking through the grey ash that this mountain seems to be made of. We reach the summit to find the inevitable wooden shack selling volcanic gifts, postcards and Coke before we meet our guide who explains in heavily-accented English the main features of the volcano.

There are two adjacent peaks that are part of the mountain, he explains, Vesuvio (as the Italians know it) and Monte Somme sit alongside each other. Volcanologists now believe that instead of forming two separate channels with Vesuvio being the source of the AD 79 eruption, they are instead both what’s left of a much bigger, single peak that was massively reduced in size by the scale of the explosion. Considering the amount of material that was launched skyward it’s a theory that’s easy to believe.

What strikes me as we gaze down into the huge caldera is the perpendicular nature of the rock face. It’s clear that this is the visible end of a huge pipe, and I get a sense of the massive pressure behind the eruption as it forced upwards and outwards from its start point many, many miles below.

Caldera posing

Caldera posing

The views from the top are magnificent, with the panorama of the Bay of Napoli stretching away to the west, and the Monti Lattari – the Milk Mountains – to the south-east. It’s a lovely sunny day and our guide points out Pompeii, 8 kilometres away. Despite being impressed by its scale when we visited a couple of days ago, it looks insignificant now, swallowed into the heavily built up landscape.

Adding to the beauty of the vista is the heavily wooded National Park land adorning Vesuvio’s slopes. This, we learn, is a deliberate ploy to limit the number of people within the volcano’s immediate vicinity, part of the evacuation master plan in case the numerous sensors and monitors strategically placed around the caldera start to give their warning signals.

Sorrento coast from Vesuvius

Sorrento coast from Vesuvius

On the return journey we stop for lunch at a winery located on the lower slopes, in the mountain’s shadow. They proudly tell us the history of their wine, a family business since it began in the1940’s. They’ve obviously grown up living with the threat of possible annihilation and don’t seem concerned by it. This is their home, just as it’s home for another million+ people within the bay area. Judging by the density of development just a mile or two away, when the next big bang finally comes – as it inevitably will – that evacuation plan is going to have to be pretty slick.

Let’s hope it doesn’t have to be tested in our lifetimes.



The Empty Streets of Pompeii

Saturday, 25th October 2014

It’s a man, stretched out on the ground. His hands are to his mouth, fighting for breath. He’s been in this pose for nearly 2,000 years, since the day in 79AD when the sky fell in.

The sight leaves us with mixed feelings. We’re fascinated by the antiquity, and by the drama of the story of life suddenly cut short for thousands of people as a result of this most famous of natural disasters, but at the same time we feel like interlopers, voyeurs on the moment when a whole town was obliterated in minutes. Pompeii is a grand mausoleum, a monument to its residents who died that day. It’s a huge site and amazingly preserved, but it’s sterile and curiously silent, with grey walls and fragments of Roman tiles where there were once people, smells and noise.

Pompeii street

Pompeii street

Our experience of Pompeii stands in contrast to our journey to find it. We weave through the vibrant streets of Sorrento, dodging people, cars and the ubiquitous scooters thronging the roads like noisy insects. We negotiate the hordes to buy our tickets and catch the train, arriving early to a half empty carriage that gradually fills with young people as the departure time nears. We guess they are just out of school – it’s early afternoon – and like most young teenagers they are boisterous. The volume rises as the babble grows.

We set off towards Naples past busy apartment blocks, washing lines full to overflowing. One false move with a clothes peg means certain loss of lingerie as it plummets to earth several floors below. The impression is of life being lived, in all it’s daily grime and glory.

The train speeds us on its way, making numerous stops at which teenagers leave and enter, along with men in suits, men in overalls, women with designer bags and designer children, and old people with walking sticks, all off to who knows where. By the time we reach Pompeii it’s standing room only. It reminds me of London Underground, especially when we go through the numerous tunnels that line the route.

The entrance to Pompeii is a short walk from the ‘Stazione’, and the approach road is lined with alfresco restaurants. “Come in to our garden,” pleads the swarthy sentry outside one of them, “bring your…. money!” He grins widely and we accept, admiring his honesty. The garden is indeed pleasant, with a lovely herb garden at the rear making for a delightful feature on this pleasant late October afternoon.

So the contrast once we enter the impressive walled city is stark. We’ve been told that Pompeii is huge, but we didn’t begin to appreciate it’s scale until we experienced it for ourselves. The streets go on for what seems like miles, the buildings are overwhelming in their number as well as their state of preservation, and there are high points including the amazing amphitheatre and the two-millennia-old frescoes. We’re glad we came.

Pompeii amphitheatre

Pompeii amphitheatre

But comparing notes afterwards, we both had a real sense of being intruders, as though we shouldn’t really be disturbing these ancient stones. We realise that we needed to visit to understand it, and reading about it later we appreciate the huge wealth of knowledge that this place has revealed about daily life in an important Roman town at the time of Christ. But neither of us feels especially drawn to return.

In the evening we find a family restaurant in a side street of Sorrento where the host again pulls us in with his enthusiasm. As we enjoy our meal whilst he entertains his guests with his version of ‘My Way’ accompanied by his friend on the guitar, we reflect that life is for the living. And perhaps Pompeii should be left to the historians.

My first visit to Italy – again!

Friday, 24th October 2014

I get the distinct feeling that I’ve been here before.

The flat landscape densely populated by cultivated trees with a periodic patch of tightly spaced vines filling in the gaps. The brick, gold, russet and amber coloured farmhouses dotted amongst the orchards. The sense of every spare centimetre of land having been put to productive use. And the long, arrow-straight road cutting directly through the middle.

Except that last time I experienced these things the trees were almonds, not olives. The cars were big Dodge and Ford trucks, not Fiat 500s and Opel Corsas. And the signs were mostly in Spanish, not Italian.

The similarity, though, is striking and it doesn’t abate as we climb into the hills. Even the huge bank of wind turbines stretching across the hills were present in California.

We’ve landed at Bari airport on the eastern side of Italy, flying in over the Adriatic. We should have been heading for Naples, but they’re on strike and Thomas Cook has taken the decision to divert. Neither our fellow passengers nor the ground staff seem to have heard of Bari, much less know where it is.

But we’ve arrived and filtered through the airport. We get the impression that an international arrival here is a big event, but perhaps that’s unfair. They’ve clearly seen planes before. Perhaps it’s tourists that are new.

All credit to Thomas Cook, the whole thing runs seamlessly. We are welcomed out of the airport and guided to our coach by the helpful and bubbly Andrea. “I’ve never been to Bari before,” she chirpily informs us as we set off, “and don’t make me come again!”

The main difference between here and California Central Valley is that here it’s heavily overcast and a bit chilly. “It’s beauuuuutiful in Sorrento,” Andrea informs us as the rain starts to batter the coach windscreen, clearly not appreciating her excursion.

Together with a comfort break at a motorway service area (much the same wherever you go) it’s about four hours in the coach to add to the three spent in the air. But for me I find this opportunity to witness the different landscape in the east, and the journey over the hills to the Amalfi coast as very much part of the experience. Thank you, Neapolitan strikers.

The foothills rising up from the plain are again reminiscent of our drive across California a couple of years ago, as the rich farmland turns into rolling hills and green slopes. But as we carve deeper into the country, the landscape changes. The patchwork of colours, the intensity of the land, and especially the frequency and design of the buildings start to take on a distinct feel, looking much more like the Italy I might have expected. Villages cluster atop some of the hills like barnacles in a very unAmerican way, houses jostling for space as they cling on to avoid dropping off the tops into the valleys below.

We reach Avellino and the hills have turned to mountains, meaning less cultivation as the trees become a tangle of dark green foliage instead of neat rows of olives, and the buildings cluster the sides and base of the slopes as they abandon the peaks. We stop for a break, and soon after setting off again I’m struck by the unusual shape of one mountain, curious ridges running down its sides as though it has been concertina folded. As I’m pondering how it acquired this design, Andrea picks up her mike to fill me in. We are passing Mount Vesuvio, most famous of Europe’s volcanoes. That explains it, then.

The Bay of Naples

The Bay of Naples

We skirt Naples, a jumbled riot of concrete spreading across the Bay area. Again every spare metre of land is occupied, this time by a block of homes, all appearing to have a line of washing hanging outside. The buildings aren’t in great condition, in fact the vast majority could do with a repaint and some repair work. Andrea tells us that Al Capone’s parents came from here, and despite the beauty of the bay as it conjoins with the sea and the mountains it’s clear that this is a land of contrasts for the people who live here.

We head towards Sorrento and our coach enters a series of tunnels. We emerge from the last one into a land that’s different again. This is the scenic Amalfi coast that poets and princes have visited for centuries to find their inspiration, and it’s why we’re here too. The view across the bay is outstanding, the sky is blue and the road is tortuous as it grips the coastline. Sorrento awaits. Our holiday has begun!