|Italy's Earthly Paradise: Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast|
Photos: Kip Miller
Not to worry, we wont be visiting Naples, Chiara announces as we race through the Campania countryside, past giant wind turbines whirring above wheat fields, by well-tended farmsteads stretching far into the horizon, on our way to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. Ah, Naples! Italys notorious wild child and third largest city has a long reputation for being wicked, even ungovernable. But I think we should cut it some slack. Yes, weve all heard about its crime syndicates and pickpockets, its nocturnal squalor and open-air drug scene. But how about its colorful markets, museums and palaces packed with treasures, plus a labyrinth of eerie tunnels and crypts? And lets not forget the best pizza in the world! Naples pulses under the brooding presence of Mount Vesuvius, an explosive volcano that has wreaked havoc in the area through the centuries, yet also preserved some of the worlds finest archaeological riches. Maybe well brave Naples on another trip, I suggest to my husband.
Sorrentos indented coastline overlooks the Bay of Naples and the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Its the ideal base for exploring the entire Amalfi Coast area.
Chiara dips into her tour directors arsenal on Italy as we approach our destination: The Sorrentine Peninsula is a UNESCO-designated site for outstanding Mediterranean landscape, she boasts. I can almost visualize it: sheer limestone cliffs plunging into an aquamarine sea, majolica-tiled villages glinting in the sun, endless citrus orchards and splashes of bougainvillea. Here, each bend of the coastline provides balcony views of jagged rocks and islands, with Vesuvius looming in the north and the Gulf of Salerno in the south. This area first became a playground more than two thousand years ago, when Emperor Tiberius built several villas on the island of Capri, and the worlds literati and glitterati plus hordes of ordinary folks have been coming here ever since. Wow, this place sure exceeds my expectations, says our friend Kathy on the final stretch to Sorrento.
Odysseus put wax in his sailors ears so they would not hear the song of the Sirens as they sailed past this coastline, notes Chiara, for if they did they would be doomed! She points toward the shimmering bay where a tiny islet was their legendary home. I can spot the bigger islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida rising in the distance. We trail behind an endless line of vehicles inching their way to town. Finally! I sigh as we arrive at Tasso Square, the center of town where our hotel, the four-star Antiche Mura, sits back in a lemon grove complete with pool and solarium. You will love our huge buffet breakfast, they announce at the desk as we rush out to explore.
But Sorrento is wall to wall people in late afternoon, its cafes and bars jammed with visitors from all over the world. We head toward pedestrian-only Via San Cesareo, a cobbled street lined with souvenir stalls, boutiques and gelaterias. On my right rival shops are offering tastes of locally-made, iced Limoncello, purportedly Italys best. I smile at a group of English matrons who have commandeered a huge barrel of lemon soaps, counting out purchases for their entire gift list. Minutes later they rush off, shrieking with shopaholic glee, to a booth stocked with knock-off designer handbags. A few doors away, a music box is blaring Verdis Aida. Its a shop selling intarsia, traditional inlaid wood products including jewelry boxes, chests and table tops that are a specialty of Sorrento. Entra per favore, motions the solicitous proprietor. Too many people, my husband replies. Well come back on another day.
On the north
side of Tasso Square an iron gate leads to the luxurious Grand Excelsior
Vittoria, the oldest hotel in Southern Italy and an exclusive watering
hole for world leaders and celebrities since the 1830s. Here one can sleep
in Enrico Carusos favorite room and finger his piano keys, or gaze
at frescoed ceilings in the palatial dining room where Otto von Bismarck
and Admiral Nelson entertained guests. If only these walls could
talk, I muse, envisioning Luciano Pavarotti, whose bed had to be
enlarged as he gained in girth, and Hollywood luminaries Sophia Loren
and Audrey Hepburn, who alternated between the Excelsior and villas in
Capri or Amalfi. Just recently George Clooney and Daniel Craig stayed
here, and according to the concierge, the Excelsiors lavish 180th
anniversary party will be hosted by Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli.
The hotels interconnected buildings are surrounded by lush Mediterranean
gardens plus a swimming pool and boutique spa. A dramatic bar-terrace
hangs on the edge of the sea over Marina Piccola, accessed by a private
elevator. We stroll along the sea wall, lingering past sunset. Lights
streak the darkened bay and Vesuvius hides under coastal clouds.
Mt. Vesuvius hides behind night clouds as lights shimmer on the glamorous Sorrento promontory.
In the cool of morning, we make the short journey to Pompeii, surely the most evocative archaeological site in the entire world. Once a bustling Roman port of some 20,000 souls, it was stopped dead in its tracks on August 25, 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius blew its top, covering this industrious town in ash and pumice, its sulfurous sky and intense heat suffocating those unfortunates who had stayed behind beseeching the gods to save them. But neither amulets nor deities could protect them, says our local guide, Patritsia, as we begin our exploration of the site. The scorching gases and ash were instantly asphyxiating, she emphasizes. Today, thanks to an ingenious plaster cast method that fills the empty spaces left in the ash by their bodies, we catch them as they died, with horror on their faces!
a less-crowded approach to the ruins, down a long path lined with sycamores
and cypresses. We pass through Stabia Gate near two theaters and the Temple
of Isis, not far from the heart of the town. Patritsia points in the direction
of Nocera Gate where Pompeiis well-preserved amphitheater is sited,
a venue large enough for 20,000 spectators who came to cheer gladiatorial
combat, wild animal hunts, and public executions. Pompeii was situated
right on the Bay of Naples at that time, she comments, but
so much ash fell that it filled in the harbor area completely. About
two-thirds of the site has been excavated and work has been going on here
continuously since the middle of the 18th century. I wonder whats
still buried waiting to be discovered? asks Kathy.
At Pompeii, visitors make their way on streets paved in volcanic basalt stones. A unique archaeological site,
this provincial Roman town reveals a myriad of detail about the lives of its residents.
Irregular basalt stones pave streets edged with narrow sidewalks. Apparently, sewage ran right in the middle of the streets where ruts from the wheels of chariots can still be seen. We enter Menanders House, the opulent home of a wealthy merchant where a horde of silver was unearthed. It name refers to a painting of the Greek dramatist in its peristyle. A small atrium features an enclosed herb garden where a sunken tank collected rainwater. I can make out faded frescoes in red, orange and black depicting scenes from The Iliad. There is a small triclinium for dining, and a shrine room for household gods. About 25 people lived in this domus (house), says Patritsia. The slaves slept above and the family and guests on the main floor.
We continue on Via dellAbbondanza, the Rodeo Drive of Pompeii, to the Stabian Baths, one of several bath sites in the city. Wall frescoes, statuary and niches create a sense of opulence. To the left in a room for dressing and undressing, two body casts covered in a dusting of ash are displayed in cases. The hot room (caldarium) has tanks for boiling water and terra cotta pipes to channel steam into the room. The spaces are airy and elegant, in amazingly good condition. With a little refurbishing they could almost be ready for business today, says my husband. The baths were a great place for socializing and gossiping, Patritsia injects, and people usually bathed at least twice a week. Locals also loved to frequent brothels, the lupanare, so named for the wolf calls vocalized by prostitutes to attract business. In its heyday Pompeii had about 25 such establishments. At a corner lupanar, we join a line of visitors gaping at erotic wall murals, probably a menu of services offered. There are several built-in stone beds. One is overhung by a giant phallus, probably the domain of a popular hooker.
food was very big in Pompeii, Patricia remarks as we explore a broad
avenue. Here, amazingly modern food shops were shaded with front awnings
draped above brick counters with built-in receptacles from which plebs
could select hot and cold dishes. Fried fish, pork sausages, stews and
boiled greens were served up with coarse bread and often accompanied with
garum, a pungent fish sauce, plus plenty of diluted wine. The city
had numerous public fountains and water was channeled from the Lower Appenines
by an aqueduct, she explains as we stop to admire a sculpted horn-of-plenty
fountain. Water was always available for free.
Pompeiis victims were instantly asphyxiated, and as their bodies decomposed, they left a hollow area in the ash. Modern scientists developed a unique cast method to fill that space, even capturing their facial expressions.
Back in Sorrento, Pompeiis dust all washed away, we head out to a late afternoon cooking class at Masseria Fondo Galatea, an organic farm in the hills above town known for its olive oil and liqueurs. The views are breathtaking in all directions on our ascent. At a nondescript gate, a shuttle awaits to take us to the farm. Galatea uses traditional methods to produce quality products that are sold to the public on the premises. I survey the steep four-acre site planted with some 300 olive trees: Its a pretty vertical farm! How can they harvest in this terrain? Interspersed are numerous lemon and orange trees covered with protective netting and I find their fresh scent energizing. Benvenuti, amici! chirp Inana Aiello and Mary Lu Masturzo, our hostesses this afternoon. Our farm has been in one family for several generations, they begin, proud of the English they mastered in school. We grow fruits and vegetables and make jams and liqueurs. We also sell fresh eggs and milk. But our specialty is DOP cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil. We produce about 1700 liters per year.
We stroll down a steep drive to a fenced area housing cows, goats, pigs, ducks and chickens. All our animals have names, brags Mary Lu, patting a plump cow. I like this place already, I tell my husband. She leads us to their centuries-old, stone olive press. To get cold pressed oil we use only green olives. Out of each batch, the yield is about twenty percent. You can appreciate why good olive oil is expensive. Purple olives are just for eating, Mary Lu explains. At the farmhouse shop, bottles of limoncello, wine and olive oil are lined up next to jars of marmalade and jam. Now, lets go upstairs for some tastings, Inana announces. We sample their flavorsome bruschetta, salami, tangy olives and chunks of soft caciotta and firmer caciocavallo cheeses between sips of house wines.
is in charge of our cooking class in the farms well-equipped kitchen.
Today we are making potato gnocchi and Sorrentos famous lemon
tart, she says. We gather around a stainless work table, mashing
pre-boiled potatoes, adding salt, flour and eggs, quickly kneading the
mixture into a ball. Now I am turning this ball into a cylinder
and I will pinch off small bits which I will shape with a fork,
she explains. We follow her directions, dropping our finished gnocchi
into a huge pot of boiling water. When they are done, they will
rise to the surface, Zianna remarks, ready to be served with
a sauce of fresh, crushed tomatoes and chopped basil. Salute!
We lift our glasses to our hosts in their spacious dining room. The gnocchi
are delectable, accompanied by steamed escarole plucked the garden and
dressed with currants, pine nuts and sliced olives. Our lemon tarts are
fragrant and tangy. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,
says Chiara, quoting an Italian proverb.
Capris rugged limestone cliffs plunge into a limpid, aquamarine sea.
Its a perfect morning for a sea journey. Sorrentos harbor is already swarming with day-trippers bound for Capri, a 40-minute hydrofoil ride away. Even though it is early May, we expect the island to be mobbed. There is always a very long wait for the Blue Grotto boat trip, so we will skip it, Chiara advises. Instead, we can hike beyond the town to a secluded spot where a dramatic natural arch overlooks the water. Ahead of us Capri appears craggy and intensely green, with massive rocks rising above a turquoise sea. Squawking sea gulls soar overhead. There is an air of exclusivity and mystery, qualities that appealed to Russian writer Gorky and the Chilean poet Neruda who found inspiration here. Rumor has it that in the early 60s Jackie Kennedy, a guest on the Onassis yacht, came here to buy capri pants and was secretly wooed by the shipping magnate. Paul Allen has a secluded villa here, and the Ferragamo family keeps several yachts in a secret cove, Chiara reveals. They exemplify the rich and famous who come here to hide and relax, she adds. Ive heard that Capri has a very naughty side, with wild parties and other unmentionable excesses, I whisper to Chiara. The naughtiness must be a direct legacy of Tiberiuss habit of tossing discarded lovers off the cliff at Villa Jovis, she smirks.
Capri is about three times the size of New Yorks Central Park, crowned by two rugged mountains where the towns of Capri and Anacapri are sited. Its marina is teeming with activity: waterfront cafes packed with rowdy tourists in Capri T-shirts and hats, ferries and hydrofoils moving in and out, luxury yachts maneuvering between fishing skiffs. We wait in line for the funicular that transports visitors to Capri town, breaking into a good humored rendition of Luigi Denzas campy Neapolitan song, Funiculi, Funiculà, a staple of Italian schoolchildren. The ascent is spectacular: villas, vineyards and citrus groves give way to wide valleys and precipitous cliffs, the pellucid sea lapping the shoreline and the Bay of Naples etched on the horizon.
Capris Piazzetta is the number one hangout, a place to see and be seen. Here, four busy bars are catering to the needs of customers relaxing on padded chairs. Above the usual tourist chatter, I overhear a super-charged conversation from a table of bejeweled matrons and unbuttoned-to-the-waist businessmen sharing the latest local scandal over their newspapers and espressos. Dozens of designer shops await ahead, including Gucci, Prada, and Carthusia Perfumery, the latter famed for Fiori di Capri, the islands floral fragrance. Specialty stores display art glass and jewel-studded sandals, and enotecas showcase Italys finest wines. The lineup of luxury hotels and restaurants is staggering. We wind our way to Augustus Gardens, a series of manicured, flower-filled terraces overlooking the sea, built by German industrialist Friedrich Krupp a century ago as part of his residence. At the top is the islands favorite picture spot, a 180 degree view encompassing Marina Piccola, the Bay of Naples and the iconic Faraglioni, three towering rock formations sculpted by wind and sea. I gaze at the middle one with its archway passage, watching sea spray shoot up, unleashing hues of iridescent blue. Below, Krupps switchback road, originally built to connect the gardens to his yacht, is closed today due to falling rocks. I turn back and sit on a tiled bench, surrounded by beds of geraniums, wondering how many gardeners it takes to maintain this slice of paradise.
Chiara leads a few of us beyond the town, far from the glitz and polish of the shops, on rolling Via Matermania lined with country villas and more modest houses where many locals live, toward arco naturale, a limestone arch formation, all that remains of a collapsed grotto from Paleolithic times. Snippets of island life unfold: gardens planted with vegetables, a rooster crowing behind a hen house, two tethered English bulldogs barking under a lemon tree, bougainvillea spilling over crumbling walls, church bells tolling on a distant hill. We turn to the left, passing Trattoria Le Grotelle, the only spot for lunch in this remote area. Keep walking. Its about 100 steps down to the arch, and there is a stunning view of the sea below, says Chiara. Its too many steps for some of us and especially for my husbands sore knee. We find a table for nine and peruse the menu until the others return. Spectacular! Arco Naturale is about 18 meters high and 12 meters wide, Eric reports after the exhilarating walk. We feast on Caprese salads with tiny tomatoes, followed by house-made spaghetti with octopus. I turn toward the shimmering bay. A small fishing boat creeps in the distance. There is a gentle breeze and the scent of the sea wafts above the coastal pines. This is the Capri I will inscribe in memory, I tell myself.
a balmy Saturday night in Sorrento. Our party of six heads to Ristorante
La Favorita O Parrucchiano, founded in 1868 by an ex-priest
on Corsa Italia. Popular with locals for special occasions, its spacious
rooms are spread over multiple levels. This almost looks like a
greenhouse, a huge one, says Kathy, admiring exotic potted plants
and walls of glass opening to the garden. Even though the restaurant is
world famous for inventing cannelloni, the seafood on the menu proves
irresistible: warm calamari salad, grilled prawns, sea bass with lemon
sauce, and a memorable seared tuna with oregano. Lets take
a stroll, suggests Eric, the stores are all open late.
Less crowded in the evening, Sorrentos shops are especially enticing
and we pick up some last minute gifts. At Gelateria Zini, hazelnut and
pistachio are standouts among some two dozen flavors, the perfect finish.
On the breathtaking Amalfi drive, fashionable Positano clings to its hilly terrain connected by steep stairs
that tumble down to the beach.
I am glad someone else is driving! I hold my breath and release a shriek as our fearless bus driver dodges passing cars with barely an inch to spare! But what else would you expect on Amalfis white-knuckle coastal drive? Its a perfect morning and we have started out early to catch all the highpoints. As we cross the spine of the peninsula toward the Gulf of Salerno, the tiny Galli islands rise ahead. This is where the most dramatic part of the Amalfi Drive begins, Chiara explains. Clinging to tortuous cliffs, the road is often cantilevered over the turquoise sea below. We wind from one breathtaking cove to the next. There are narrow inlets resembling tiny fjords fringed with mini beaches. At every turn, the transparent sea glints beneath terraced hills planted with lemon trees. We stop to admire the view of Positano, once a quiet fishing village and now a posh resort famed for its majolica church domes and upscale shops. The streets are almost vertical, a cascade of pastel-hued houses connected by hundreds of steep steps that tumble down to the beach area.
Amalfis imposing Cattedrale diSant Andrea contains the relics of its patron saint. A blend of Arab, Norman,
Byzantine and Romanesque styles, it is approached by a sweeping flight of stairs.
driver Vittorio speaks perfect English, says Chiara, who has arranged
for a private van to take seven of us to Paestum. We are headed to the
largest Greek archaeological site on the Italian mainland, boasting three
intact temples and an exceptional museum. Vittorio does double duty as
driver and guide. I love America! he admits, boasting that
he has visited New York, Boston and California. He motions toward the
towns of Atrani and Maiori, followed by Minori, his personal favorite.
You must stay there on your next trip! he shouts against the
wind. The coastline grows wilder, pocked with deep ravines dense with
pines and cedars. A sign marks Vietri sul Mare, famed for its polychrome
ceramics. Bypassing Salerno, we zoom straight to Paestum, sited in a vast
agricultural plain where the buffalo literally roam. You will pretty
much have the place to yourselves, says Vittorio as he goes off
to lunch. Look for the van in the parking lot in about two and a
new exhibit explains the use of color in ancient temples, but the highpoint
of the museum is a series of tomb paintings discovered in 1968 at a small
necropolis near Paestum. Among them, the Tomb of the Diver is the jewel,
painted in classical style and depicting a young man diving into the waves,
symbolizing the passage from life to death. There is much more to see,
including a series of archaic metopes from a small excavation near the
River Sele, but were eager to explore the site.
Paestums oldest Doric temple was dedicated to both Hera and Zeus.
Built around 580 BC, it has simple capitals and sense of horizontality.
our final evening in Italy, time for a grand farewell dinner. Our entire
group convenes at Ristorante Museo Caruso located on a quiet lane off
Tasso Square, a labor of love for owner and Caruso devotee Paolo Esposito.
Every inch of wall space here is dedicated to the Italian tenor, from
photos and posters to press clippings and opera memorabilia. Playing softly
in the background is a soundtrack of his favorite arias. A long table
draped in damask awaits us with an amuse bouche and prosecco set in each
place. Chef Giuseppe Persicos team has personally selected tonights
menu of shrimp salad, delicate pasta with zucchini, anchovy strozzapreti
with mussels, and Sorrentine filet of sole, all paired with regional wines.
How I wish we werent leaving tomorrow! I confess to
the group. We smile at each other with a tinge of sadness, raising our
glasses high to Chiara, whose breadth of knowledge and attention to detail
enriched our time in Italy immeasurably.