To Amalfi

Reflections in the Arno River in Florence

Reflections in the Arno River in Florence

Sunrise over Venice was a beautiful, if brief, experience for me.  The streets were still mostly deserted as I made the leisurely 15-minute walk to the train station.  The smaller canals reflected the ancient bricks in their stillness, and arched pontes were mirrored into symmetry.  A few street sweepers were out, using what I would call witch brooms with long, wickery broom heads.

I used the train ride to do some recording for my video journal and then read up on Firenze (Florence).  I had the luxury of an entire cabin to myself, so I didn’t have to worry much about bothering other passengers as I recorded.

By the time I arrived in Firenze, I knew exactly where to go to drop off my bag for a few hours before hitting the tourist office for a free city map.  I hopped on a city bus which took me up to the hilltop Piazzale Michelangelo, where a copper duplicate of the city’s famous David statue stands watch with a commanding view of the city.  From here I made my way down the long steps of the Al Monte and followed the Arno River to Ponte Vecchio where jewelry shops line the bridge on both sides.  Originally, the bridge was home to a meat market, but the change came with Ferdinando I de’Medici who didn’t care for the smell and the mess the butchers made as they tossed unwanted leftovers into the river.  This 14th century bridge was the only in the city not to be blown up by the Nazis in 1944.

Just on the other side of the river, I found the busy quadrangle of arches and art that is Piazza degli Uffizi, where a large (but from what I’ve read, poorly managed) art gallery drew a long line of visitors.  The scene was somewhat spoiled by a large crane and construction scaffolding at one end where the museum is finally implementing a €49-million renovation.  I walked through Palazzo Vecchio and headed east until I reached the Basilica di Santa Croce where Michelangelo is buried.  I was disappointed to find that admission required a ticket, so I only gazed briefly at what I’ve found to be a Florentine trademark of the multicolored marble façade on the building’s exterior.  Next, I walked northwest until I reached the stunningly large Duomo where the entire exterior of this massive building features the same white, green, and pink marble.  A huge, red-tiled dome crowns this city’s iconic landmark.  If I had the time, I would have paid the €6 to climb the 463 stone steps up to the top of the dome.

I ate lunch at a sidewalk trattoria across the street from the dome’s entrance, then walked north a couple of blocks for a disappointing cone of drippy gelato.  By now my time in Florence was nearly up, so I walked back to the train station by way of Piazza di Santa Maria Novella which I found to be completely under construction.  I returned to the station, picked up my backpack and boarded the train for Naples.

I used the scenic ride through the Tuscan countryside to alternately stare out the window and work on this journal.  After a 20 minute stop in Rome, we continued south to Napoli (Naples) where I boarded the well-worn and heavily graffitied Circumvesuviano train down to Sorrento.  The train seemed to stop every quarter mile or so, and though the distance wasn’t terribly far, it took over an hour.  I noticed that one of the stops not far from Sorrento was Pompei, with its infamous past waiting to be reprised in the path of the still threatening Vesuvius.

From Sorrento, I boarded what turned out to be the most exciting bus ride of my life.  It turned out that the coastal road between Amalfi and Positano was closed due to a landslide that occurred after a house fire, so our route took us on a 2 ½ hour ride north and then down through the mountains on what I’m pretty sure are the most serpentine roads I’ve ever been on.  Staring down from the high perch of a bus window made the cliff-edge views particularly vertigo-inducing.  There were times when I felt like the edge of the bus was hanging over the edge of the road, with nothing but 2,000 feet to the water below.  Of course, I know this wasn’t the case though, as the edge of the road always has some sort of wall, though it seemed hardly adequate to stop a bus should it decided to miss a corner.  My hat’s off to the driver though who handled the countless hairpin turns with aplomb.  As he approached most blind corners or even any other cars that looked like they might be in our way, he’d announce our approach with a cheerful 2-tone honk, like a rather loud version of the bicycle squeeze horn I had when I was a kid.  Often, oncoming traffic would have to stop and backup to allow us the entire road on a corner.  The most interesting times where when we met another oncoming bus.  One particular pass brought us literally within a centimeter or two from the other bus’s mirror, which had been folded completely flat to make more room.

By the time we reached Amalfi, dusk had settled and I was ready for dinner.  The hostel I had booked was in the next little village only half a kilometer down the road, so I decided to grab dinner in town before making the walk to my lodging.  I found a nice restaurant called Da Barracca in one of the smaller piazzas in this highly vertical town.  I basically told the waiter to feed me whatever he recommended, which turned out to be quite good, though it would unlikely be anything I’d normally order myself.  An appetizer of bruschetta with sardines was actually rather tasty, though I’m not a big fan of sardines.  A linguini dish with lots of seafood, including full-bodied shrimp (long antennae and all) and shellfish was also tasty enough that I pretty much cleaned the plate.  After a dessert of Tiramisu, I hoisted my backpack and walked back up the coastal road, through a small tunnel and down into the tiny village of Atrani.  A line of underwater lights illuminated a section of the bay, creating an enchanting rich blue glow, far better than any illuminated swimming pool I’ve seen.

Atrani had a very similar feel to Amalfi with a piazza and fountain being the first thing to greet me.  As I set my pack down next to the fountain to get my bearings, a girl from a nearby table walked over and asked if I was looking for a place to stay.  Assuming she worked for the hostel in town, I told her that I made an online reservation.  In fact, she worked at a different hostel back on the other side of Amalfi, and after hearing that it was better equipped and significantly cheaper, I decided to scrap my original plans and go for the other place.  She left her friends at the table and walked me back to Amalfi to catch a bus.  Unfortunately the last bus of the night had already left, so she hooked me up with “Elvis” who drove one of the white Mercedes that serve as the local taxis.  Elvis, long sideburns and all, must be a friend of hers, because he agreed to cut the normal but exorbitant €20 rate in half.  As we left town, he saw a friend on the street and picked him up to chat during the 7 minute ride.  The taxi dropped me off at one of the hairpin corners a short walk from my destination.  Elvis explained that his next opportunity to turn around would be another kilometer away, and he told me to just walk up the road a short way and then take the steps on my right up to the hostel.  Fortunately, a guy named Ross from the hostel was there to meet me and show me the way up what turned out to be 270+ steep steps to where the hostel was located on the side of the mountain.  When we finally reached the hostel, I saw no sign at its gate, so I’m almost sure I would have never found it on my own.  Slowly I was realizing why this hostel is so much cheaper.  Fortunately, I’m not one to mind a climb.

The hostel is actually located in another small town called Vettica.  It seemed to be a town in name only, as there is no town center like in Amalfi.  I found that the hostel is actually a British guy’s house that he inherited from his Italian grandmother.  The 800-year-old stone house has high, arched ceilings and, like many of the structures here, a slightly cobbled-together feel to it.  For example the doorway between the kitchen and one of the dorm rooms is low enough that I have to duck through it.

I opted to spend my first two nights here in one of their tents outside.  Sleeping in the tent without my self-inflating air mattress is not terribly comfortable, but at only €10/night it was worth the discomfort.  My third night here I will afford myself the luxury of one of the dorm rooms for €7 more.

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