May 14, 2005
Charley said he woke up during the night to the sounds of partying on the streets of Trastevere… people singing in our normally quiet little street at 4 am. This morning he was up early to buy breakfast pastries. The bakery is so close he can make the round trip in five minutes. We had our quick breakfast, and then Charley and Kelly walked to the post office to mail a box home while I finished packing. They were gone an incredibly long time, and the cleaning woman arrived while they were still gone. She started a load of sheets in the washing machine… I had no idea how she would dry them in this small apartment. Many people in the Italian cities hang their wash outside their windows or string clotheslines between two windows. Clothes dryers seem almost non-existent in Europe… I’m not quite sure why. Maybe there’s no room for dryers in the small apartments or maybe there are economic or energy issues. I have a whole new appreciation for my big clothes dryer at home.
Charley and Kelly finally rushed in from the post office. They said they had the slowest postal clerk in all of Italy—a trainee. They decided not to try to deal with the two smaller packages for friends, and so we crammed them in our luggage. Five minutes after they returned, we were saying “ciao” to the cleaning woman and heading out the door, carrying our luggage down the narrow steps.
We pulled and carried our luggage along the rough cobblestone street to the Piazza de Trilussa. When we were at the Vatican last Wednesday, someone handed us a flyer about a transportation service to the airport. I waved the man away, but Kelly took the flyer and thought it was something we might be interested in. Charley called for information and decided it was a good deal. We were considering taking a tram to the Trastevere train station and then taking the train to the Rome airport. This would have required hauling our bags a long way to the tram stop and then dealing with our luggage on the tram and train. The van service was normally 32 euro for three people, but we paid 40 euro because of our extra bags. A few minutes after we arrived at the square, we were in a very nice van with two women from Boston who were returning home after two weeks in Venice, Florence and Rome. It was a 30 minute trip to the airport, stress-free and well worth the 40 euro… far better than dealing with lots of walking, hauling luggage, a crowded tram, and a train.
We went to the airport to pick up our third and final car of the trip, another leased Renault. We arrived at the airport about 10:30. Our appointment to pick up the car wasn’t until 11:30, so we found a table in a nearby snack bar and had drinks and shared a small sandwich. Then Charley called the Renault office, and we waited at a designated place for the person. Near where we were waiting there were at least ten men in ill-fitting suits… there to meet people coming off the international flights. They were all holding big cards with names… drivers taking people to the countryside and tour group representatives. Finally our person arrived and fifteen minutes later we were leaving the airport in a brand new Renault station wagon… just like the car we returned in Milan two weeks ago except for a slight difference in color.
The drive from Rome to the Amalfi Coast was about three hours, mostly on a very good motorway (toll road). We stopped for gas a few exits after the airport and then stopped to use the restroom and have some lunch at one of the motorway service areas. We got pizza at a Spizzico, the same chain restaurant that the people we met at Como owned. This was probably the cheapest lunch we’ve had in our three weeks in Italy—11 euros for three big pieces of spicy salami pizza (a quarter of a pie each), two drinks, and a bowl of fruit. Charley said that it was the best pizza he’d had in Italy, but Kelly and I didn’t think so…. his piece was piping hot and our pieces had sat there for a while.
The scenery changed dramatically very quickly. Thirty minutes after leaving the Leonardo da Vinci airport in Fiumicino, we were in the Italian countryside… mountains, hilltop villages, farmland, vineyards… even some sheep and cows. Initially we thought the countryside was very pastoral—quite different from the ruggedness of Provence—but then we passed near some rocky little mountains in Abruzzo that reminded us of the Luberon. It was very hazy today and the hills were fuzzy. I’d love to make this drive on a perfectly clear day. We’ll actually travel back up this same road next Saturday, so maybe I’ll get lucky then.
Our itinerary in Italy may seem strange, because we’re doing some backtracking. I did have a logic when I put it all together…. though it’s hard to remember now. We visited Venice and Rome back-to-back because we didn’t need a car in either place. Also, I wanted to visit Venice and Rome in the spring (what turned out to be the first part of May), to avoid the heat and crowds later on. And I wanted to get down to the Amalfi Coast while the prices were still lower. So our 11-week itinerary in Italy has been: Como, Venice, Rome, Amalfi Coast (the southernmost place), then back up to Florence, Tuscany, and Umbria. We considered going all the way down to Sicily, but decided instead to spend a full month in Tuscany.
I had considered not having a car on the Amalfi Coast because the driving is supposed to be so difficult. I worried that Charley’s fear of heights would make it difficult for him to drive on the steep and narrow coastal roads. But he thought he would be fine and was hesitant to entrust his safety to bus drivers… and having our own car made it easier—and probably cheaper—to get here. It will be interesting to see how we end up getting around the area.
We took a route that bypassed the big city of Naples. At Nocera we exited the motorway and started picking our way over to a big mountain range that separated us from the Mediterranean Sea. In some places the route was well-marked—blue signs that said Ravello and brown signs that said Costiera Amalfitana—but we got confused in several places. We passed through a few depressing towns. It was hard to believe this route would lead us to the glamorous destination of the Amalfi Coast. Finally we spotted the signs again and turned up into the mountains. The little road went quickly up the steep hillside, passing fields of lemon trees and other crops. I saw one field of small artichokes. The narrow road twisted and turned, and Charley navigated carefully. Several buses passed us going down the mountain. We reached the top with a choice of two directions—another place where things weren’t clearly marked—and we had to ask for help… just eight kilometers to go. We headed down the Valico d’Chiunzi past the peak of Mont Cerreto at 4343 feet. Finally we were rewarded with a sweeping view of the bright blue sea and houses clinging to the craggy hillside. It was absolutely lovely.
Ravello sits high up on a rocky spur separating two valleys, looking across the Gulf of Salerno. We’re renting our villa directly from the owner, a lawyer who lives in Naples. I looked at a lot of options on the Amalfi Coast and considered several different locations. It’s expensive to stay here and would be even more expensive a month or two from now. I thought Ravello seemed more like us—less glitzy and touristy than Positano or Amalfi, famous resort towns which are right on the sea.
Parking in Ravello is complicated and the logistics of getting to our villa were challenging, especially with our luggage. Ravello is a pedestrian village with tiny cobblestone streets. The main square in front of the Duomo (cathedral) is very attractive… leafy shade trees, big terracotta pots of bright flowers, and groupings of tables under umbrellas. Well-dressed guests were just arriving for a wedding in the Duomo. We parked in an expensive pay lot below the square and followed our directions to the villa. We carried our backpacks and the computer bag on this first trip. Because my shoulder is still bothering me (not helped by the hauling of luggage this morning), Charley carried my pack. Kelly thinks I’m faking this, but I’m really hurting. This is very unlike me as I rarely have any kind of physical issue.
Our villa was a good ten minutes walk from the parking lot, including a fair number of steps, both up and down. It was a tough walk, and I know Charley was thinking about how we would get the rest of our luggage along this route. We passed several wonderful ceramics shops that Kelly and I can’t wait to explore. At one point we passed under the portico of a very old church, the Chiesa di San Francesco. We followed the signs to the famous Villa Cimbrone, which is located just next to our villa.
Finally we turned down a steep path (more steps), arrived at a black iron gate, and entered our villa through a pretty garden. Stanislao Frigenti was an attractive man about 40 with a nice smile and a very pleasant manner. His English was very good. He told us his family has owned this house for 25 years, and he showed us some pictures of the ruin the house had been when his father bought it. We had exchanged several e-mails about our rental, and he was interested to learn about our trip. He commented that he knew of several Americans who had done a long trip like this and that this is not something Italians would ever do. I said I thought that was because Italians have a lot of vacation every year, but Americans have relatively little time off work and must be a schoolteacher, retired or leave their jobs in order to have a trip longer than two weeks.
Stanislao’s eight-year-old son was with him, and the little boy slipped away brought back ice cream cones for he and Kelly. Very sweet! There is apparently a porter in Ravello who has a motorized cart for transporting luggage from the main square, and we talked about possibly calling this man to help us with our heavier bags. Stanislao thought it might cost 20 euro, so Charley decided to deal with the luggage himself. Charley set off back to the parking lot while Kelly and I were still getting the tour of the house and talking about Ravello. Charley returned 20 minutes later with two of the bags, sweating profusely.
While Charley was gone, the gardener came by—Signore Panteleone—an older gentleman who speaks absolutely no English and is missing about two thirds of his teeth. I know this because he gave us a very big smile. I smiled back, using one of my few Italian phrases (“Buon Giorno, Signore”), and I shook his hand, very brown from a lifetime of working in the dirt. We’ll leave the key with Signore Panteleone when we depart on Saturday morning.
After Stanislao left, Charley was anxious to get the rest of the luggage to the house and move the car out of the pay lot to a free spot somewhere in the village. I think we will end up leaving our car in this spot for much of the week and using buses and ferries to get around. The three of us walked back to the car and retrieved the other two bags—the large blue bag and the smaller red suitcase. Charley took the bigger bag and Kelly and I took turns with the red bag. A big set of stairs went right up from the parking lot—(equivalent to about a three-story building), followed by the long walk through the village, including several steep places where there was a choice of ramps or stairs. Kelly was happy to take responsibility for our bag when the route was downhill, which it was part of the way. We did see one of the little motorized carts, possibly belonging to one of the hotels. It was a strange mix of a lawnmower, a tank and a sled.
After we got the rest of our bags to the villa, we walked back to the center of the village again. The wedding was just ending at the cathedral and the guests were spilling down the steps. Tourists were watching, hoping to get a look at the bride and groom. Charley moved the car while Kelly and I started some grocery shopping. There are several small shops in the village but not a big supermarket. We went to a macelleria (butcher’s), an alimentari (small grocery shop), and a fruttivendola (fruit/produce shop), buying some staples and food for the next two days. At the alimentari, we had to ask the grocer to get many of the items that were behind his counter. Other people were waiting in the crowded shop, and I found it an awkward shopping experience, especially because of our limited Italian. The butcher was very nice and gave Kelly a scrap of meat to feed to a little dog outside. Charley joined up with us (he had been quite successful getting a parking spot), bought two bottles of wine at an enoteca (wine shop), and helped us carry our purchases back.
We had a glass of wine, relaxed on our terrace, and enjoyed the evening view of the hillside. Charley says this is probably the prettiest spot that we’ve had—and we have had some wonderful spots. We can’t see much of the sea from here (just a glimpse from the two terraces), but we have a spectacular view across the Valle del Dragone to the hillside (mountainside) rising steeply. The small village of Pontone is just below us on the other side of the valley, and there’s another village or two up much higher. The hillside is terraced most of the way— Stanislao said they grow lemons, grapes, and olives—and we can see a tiny road winding its way up through the terraces. Most of the lemon trees are still covered with a black nylon netting to protect them from the wind. It’s really quite spectacular.
Our house is just wonderful—especially the stunning views of the valley. After last week’s disappointing apartment in Rome, I was very nervous about what we would find. Charley said I’ve redeemed myself with another great location. Our house is spacious and spread out over three levels. And we have three outdoor spaces to enjoy as well. On the lower level there’s a big outdoor garden with a covered eating area, lounge chairs, a barbeque and even a wood-fired pizza oven. Stanislao showed Kelly and I how to use the outdoor oven to make pizza, though I’m not sure I remember the instructions. The little yard has beautiful shrubs and flowers, a small vegetable garden, and a big lemon tree that grows up through the pergola shading the outdoor table. Signore Panteleone has done good work!
The first level of the house has a large outdoor terrace that extends the length of the villa with a sitting area and eating table. Inside there’s a small dining room and an adjacent kitchen. The first bathroom (with the washing machine) is off the next landing of the stairs. The stairs then lead to the second level and the main living room—bright and spacious with wicker furniture. There’s a comfortable seating area and another dining table. Kelly’s room—with two single beds—is off the living room. Double doors lead from the living room to another big terrace. This terrace has a tightly woven ceiling of vines. Narrow spiral stairs lead up to the third level—a big master bedroom and the second bathroom. The master bedroom is in a cave-shaped room with sloping walls and big double windows at the end. It’s very clean, spacious, comfortable and light. There’s not another terrace, but there is a beautiful view looking across to the other side of the valley and a partial view of the sea.
I fixed a quick dinner of kind of a beef stroganoff (I didn’t end up with enough beef once I had cut off all the fat), pasta with butter, and asparagus. I got pretty stressed out while cooking since the stovetop is very small and I couldn’t have all three of my pans over burners at the same time. It took a really long time to get water to boil over the smallest burner. (I had this same problem last week in Rome.) The small kitchen got very hot, and it bothered me that both Charley and Kelly hovering around the stove.
“I don’t need any help,” I said. I might have even said, “Leave me alone!”
“Calm down Mommy,” Kelly said as I was stressing out over the cooking. It infuriates me to have an eleven-year old tell me to calm down.
“You’re never allowed to say that to me again,” I told her tonight, though I really did need to calm down. I just need to plan simpler meals while we are here.
We ate our dinner outside and watched the lights flicker on across the valley. We could hear the church bells echoing from the villages of Minuta and Scala on the other side of the valley.
I unpacked my things, but Kelly and Charley both begged off unpacking tonight because it was so late. Charley doesn’t want to maneuver his big bag up the twisty stairs, so I’m not sure what he’ll do. I don’t want his suitcase and piles of clothes in the nice living room. He really hasn’t unpacked his suitcase since we’ve left Provence. I personally don’t want to live out of a suitcase for the next several months, and have made a point of really unpacking each week. Ideally I would even like to hide the suitcases. We were sloppy in Rome last week. I think because the apartment was so cluttered, we just let ourselves be cluttered too. I have asked Kelly and Charley to help me keep this pretty place in Ravello looking neat.
We read until bedtime. Of course, Charley wanted to sleep with the windows wide open. We don’t have the street noises of Trastevere here… just fresh breezes and the smell of wisteria, jasmine, and (could it be possible?) lemon trees. We already love being here.