My Amalfi Coast

Trying to get out of Napoli for the Amalfi Coast was an epic mission. Even trying to find the bus stop was a near tears experience. I gave myself 45 mins to get from the train station to the bus (10 min walk) and I still managed to miss my bus. The streets here are super hard to navigate and directions given are only correct half the time. After going the wrong way twice I stopped and asked the traffic cops who gave me the correct directions and couldn’t have been more friendly. They love Australia and one of them proudly showed me the kangaroo patch on his shirt sleeve (not sure why he had one?) Was I loving Italy? They wanted to know. “Yes of course” was my reply (not really, I was cursing Naples at that time), all I could think was Amalfi better bloody be worth it.

After a few hours on the “direct bus” (2 bus changes later and 3 hours) I’ve arrived finally in San Lazzaro to find the town getting geared up for a weekend long festivities held in the piazza. The hostel is right outside the piazza and I suspect, wearily eyeing the stage being constructed that it’s going to be a very loud few nights. As it turns out, for this weekend only, San Lazzaro is the town that never sleeps.

They all must be drinking the deliciously potent Caffe Creme, similar to an affogato I like to make at home but 10 times better. It’s pretty much a creamier version of a slushie and on tap nearly everywhere.

The paved terrace at the hostel has an espaliered fig tree hedge with chairs and tables under the plum and olive trees where I’ve got my snack pack of Peronis, plums, crisps and choccie biccies bought at the local shop for 3.50 Euros. Bargain. Casually draped like a sweater over an Italian’s shoulders, a deep purple wisteria is providing lovely shade from the 35 degree heat in my own little beer garden where I relax until it’s dinner time.

The smell of the wood fired oven at the back of the Trattoria (informal family style restaurant) is intoxicating where the chef is churning out pizzas to order for the locals. Little fried zucchini flowers are welcome tasty freebies to start. I order Gnocchi alla Sorrentino (Baked gnocchi with tomatoes and mozzarella). It’s hearty and delicious as expected. I love that the Pasta alla Pomodorino (pasta with fresh baby tomatoes) is described on the menu as ‘From our land’. That just sums up Italian food. What Mamma (or Papa) taught you. Fresh, simple and seasonal.

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History lesson

Naples is the perfect base for visiting the many historical sites nearby, namely Pompeii, most people’s first choice. A few of us from the hostel had vaguely organised to meet up and check it all out and I bumped into Aaron at the train station. From Naples it’s about a 35 min trip that drops you almost at the entrance gates of the site (just make sure you get on a train in the direction of Sorrento and get off at the ‘Pompeii Scavi’ stop, not the main Pompeii town itself) or you can catch a bus from Mt Vesuvius.

The scale of Pompeii is enormous, if you get a chance dedicate a full day here alone. I only had a few hours in Pompeii itself as I was squeezing Mt Vesuvius in as well. If you have further time try to include the Herculaneum ruins in the nearby town of Ercolano. I have been told they are more achievable to visit, less crowded and better preserved.

Having said that Pompeii was as impressive as expected and on a scale I had never imagined. It would have been a smelly old place in its time as open sewers lined the streets. You crossed over them on a series of giant rock stepping-stones. Just like the ‘Bog of Eternal Stench’ from the movie Labyrinth. The size of the buildings and the advanced construction methods they used were for me inspiring and I especially loved all the communal buildings. The baths and steam rooms where you gathered to exchange gossip, the bakery with its intact giant oven and the brothel. No explaining needed there.

Walking its streets and imagining that Pompeii was buried beneath layers upon layers of lapilli (volcanic pumice stone) and not unearthed again until 1594 is ghostly. The sense of mass catastrophe here is compelling and paramount to the nature and mood of Mt Vesuvius that looms above Naples, watching and waiting.

‘Sarah Michelle Smith…Will….You…Marry….Me?….I love you!’ Each part of the message was painted at intervals on the tiny winding road on the way up to Mt Vesuvius. After causing so much destruction it’s beautiful to see that it’s somebody’s special place and the start of something new. I wonder if she said yes?

Once you’re at the main parking area it’s a steep 15-20 min climb up the dusty gravel path (wear decent shoes) to the top where you can then walk halfway around the crater for some knockout views and photo ops and peer into the mouth of a living giant.

Wanting

I’ve found the last little while quite difficult in some parts with waves of unsettledness and sadness that keep washing over me, heavy in their weight, surprising me at inappropriate moments often when I’m on the bus or out at dinner.

It doesn’t help that I’m not loving my accommodation. The last few hostels have been a funny mix of people. The people you share a (very small) space with can make or break it I find. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me, and maybe (very likely) that it’s me with the issues as I’m finding it hard to engage with anyone here. I just can’t be bothered and I am needing my own space. I’m starting to get quite tired with the whole nomadic lifestyle, craving the stability of a house and a chance to make a mark somewhere or on something. Travelling solo can bring with it a sense of isolation, felt strongest on arrival at a new city/town. Simply that there is no-one to share the good, and the bad.

Oh for that sweet Australian sun and eucalyptus scented breeze so honest and alive, with the music up loud, singing along with no fear of disturbing others and the windows and doors flung open, inviting the outside in. It’s a simple want really.

The hostel rules

I’m always amazed at the amount of self-preening that people do in public, notably on public transport. Surely this is behaviour that should be done in private. Combing one’s eyebrows and eyelashes I can deal with, re-applying lippy – no problem. But plucking eyebrows and clipping fingernails. Not ok people! I have no desire to be hit by wayward nail clippings.

No plastic bags in hostel rooms. Seriously when is this rustling noise ever enjoyable? Especially at 7am when it’s obscenely amplified! As is packing/re-packing a bag at 6am. Not ok. People are sleeping, weird I know huh! If you have to leave early to catch train/bus/plane, here’s a thought. Take it outside into the hallway and pack it there. Or do it the night before. It ain’t hard.

And don’t spread bed bugs. They itch like hell.

Island escape

On Capri Island hot pink rhododendrons and oleanders compete for attention against the vine flowers that grow in a blue knotty tangle in an electric riot of colours. There’s ancient olive grove upon olive grove lining the streets and the whole island smells like lemons ripening and sweetening in the sun. Capri Town is a place to stroll at leisure and it’s such a pleasure to feel relaxed and not so conscious of my bag. I needed a break from Napoli and it’s easy to jump on a ferry over to Capri. I’ve only been here a few hours and I’ve been hugged by Nonna’s and had my hand kissed by the Nonno’s. They still have that Italian charm.

There’s no walking past Raffaele Buonacore without it breaking my willpower as the strong scent of comforting vanilla pulls you in. I watch the lady at work in charge of the gelataria expertly cooking the waffles and then shaping them into cones. I buy a feather light Caprilla al Limone (lemon and almond cake) and a crème patissiere & strawberry tartlet made with sweet and dainty alpine strawberries that glisten with freshness. The taste reminds me of picking and eating them straight from the vine in Mum’s garden, warm through from the morning sun. I take them to the Axel Munthe gardens (entry 1 Euro) for the perfect breakfast.

Capri Town is no little backwater. All the major clothing labels have a presence here (if that’s your thing) and the streets are lined with exclusive boutiques. Get there early to avoid the crowds, they start to flock in from around 11am mainly heading for the Grotto Azzurra (Blue Grotto). I wanted to visit the grotto but one look at the tourists lined up easily changed my mind. Next time. To escape a little head to Anacapri, a little town further up the hill easily reached by local bus. It looks like a yellow American school bus that’s been shrunk in the wash. The drive there has a superb view of the water below that stretches for miles and busy Capri Town nestled into the hillside. It’s a ‘watch your life flash before your eyes’ kinda drive as the bus lurches and leans into and almost over the barrier where it’s a sheer vertical plummet on the other side of the flimsy wire barrier.

Insalata Caprese is for lunch. This dish is one of Capri’s contribution to Italian cuisine. Mozzarella that peels away like the layers of bark on a gum tree teamed with slices of juicy tomatoes, fresh picked basil and a drizzle of olive oil.  Fresh and moreish. To round it all off a chilly and icy Granita al Limone (lemon granita) made from Capri’s famous giant lemons is soothing tonic against the sunshine and the thought of leaving this beautiful island.

Playlist

On repeat this week…

  • I’m Doing Fine –Colin Hay
  • 3 Little Birds – Bob Marley
  • Rabbit Heart – Florence & the Machine
  • Powerful Stuff – Sean Hayes
  • Long Ride – The Audreys
  • Willow Tree – The Waifs
  • Sweet About Me – Gabrielle Climi
  • Breathe – Pearl Jam

Meet and greet

The piazza. It’s the central heartbeat and lifeblood of Italian towns and neighbourhoods in the city. Around dusk the bella gente (beautiful people) take to the piazza for the passeggiata (evening stroll). It’s a place to be seen and catch up on the local gossip. Gangs of scugnizzi (street urchins) a fond term for the many kids playing in the piazza dominate the streets in the evening as they strut about calling out and greeting one another, only stopping to kick a soccer ball (often against church doors) or race about on bikes, all watched by their parents enjoying a drink. Life here is lived on the street, everyone knows everyone else’s business and the concept of privacy is a luxury. The drama and intensity of life here is addictive, Italy sneaks under your skin and into your veins. When they say everyone has an opinion to give, they’re not wrong. Just remember your sense of humour and a good dose of patience to tackle this passionate city.

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