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!