Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Day 5 - Bari - Rome - Sorrento

We wake to a gray sky – perfect to match our mood because today we leave Puglia. Our room at the hotel is in a separate building across the street from the main hotel and while we have enjoyed our room and our balcony we decide to have our morning coffee in the hotel and check it out. The breakfast room is empty and we have our choice of tables next to an enormous plate glass window. The view is spectacular. The water is rougher and the waves are crashing up on the cliffs. It is a beautiful spot to drink our coffee.

We leave Polignano a Mare and drive to Bari to catch our flight to Rome. Flying internally in Italy is very efficient and can be inexpensive. It is important to remember that you can only check two bags and that you are limited to a baggage weight of 20 kilos per person. Of course our bags are already too heavy and we are told we will be charged an additional 5euros per kilo. We scramble to move our heavier items into our carry-on and lower the weight being checked. Unfortunately we have forgotten the new laws regarding liquids and when going through security we have to say goodbye to our shampoo and other cosmetics.

We fly into Rome, pickup our rental car and wait for our son Austin and Norma (who pretty much runs Bella Italia) to arrive. Their flight from London is slightly delayed and it seems their baggage is the last to arrive, but finally they emerge from the baggage pickup and we head straight for Sorrento. We have scouted out this drive earlier – going as far as Naples and are confident we will make good time. The road is fast and traffic is light. We stop at an Autogrill for sandwiches and a coffee and despite their best intentions to admire the views along the way, both Austin and Norma drift in and out of sleep. And then it happens, somewhere just past Naples we make a wrong turn, following what should be a major highway that turns out to be a different major highway, unfortunately heading away from Sorrento. We double check the map and can’t figure where the mistake was made but it seems from the tiny rental car company map that if we continue on we can just go for a tiny bit on a small road (shown in yellow) and connect back with the major autostrada without losing much time. This is a big mistake. NEVER go on a little small road, even for a little bit, especially on the Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi Coast or anywhere in the mountains. If it is not green or red on the map, stay away. Yellow is not the color of caution in Italy, it is a toxic color. Invariably when our Italian friends give us directions they always seem to loop us around on the autostrada even when it seems clear on the map that there is a much more direct route on a slightly smaller road. There is a good reason to never use the little roads – they don’t necessarily connect to anything, sometimes they just end and they are always slow. We wind around and around as traffic on this little one lane road becomes heavier and heavier and goes in and out of one little town after another. What looked like about a five minute drive on this road turns into a very frustating hour and we finally drive over the A3 and loop around for another 15 minutes before we arrive at the entrance. As we near the coast, the road becomes narrower, and the descending darkness and unbelievably heavy traffic make it a nightmare scenario. We drive steadily on and the 11 kilometers to Sorrento takes almost 45 minutes. It is too dark to enjoy the view, but as we drive up and down through the cliffs we are anxious for what we will see in the morning light.
It is off season in Sorrento, which like the towns along the Amalfi Coast on the other side of the peninsula is a town. Much of the area is shut down during the winter and we have had to look at almost 20 hotels to find one that was open this week. After exhaustive research and much phone calling we have booked a couple of nice rooms at the five star Hotel Grand Excelsior Vittoria. While the summer is beautiful in Sorrento the prices are much less expensive and the crowds very small in January. We check in to a very quiet hotel and are lead to our rooms which have an unbelievable seaview. The hotel, which like many luxury hotels in Italy (at least in our limited experience), has a stiff, formal feel to it, but it is located high above the ferry dock and has a commanding view of Gulf of Naples. Before dinner we take advantage of the chilled bottle of Prosecco left in our room and sit on the balcony watching the ferry return from Capri as the lights of Naples flicker in the distance.

We take a small walk before dinner to get a sense of the town. The shops are all familiar and are still open at 8:00pm. We stop at the restaurant recommended by the hotel and are not impressed with the façade or the menu presentation out front. But we are tired and there is a good crowd of people inside so we wander in. We sit downstairs next to an animated group of American college students. The waiter is impatient with us but warms up as Bill speaks to him in his best Italian. For Austin and Norma it is a lot of food, but after yesterday, it feels like a small snack. Bill and I have pasta with shellfish, Norma tries the housemade gnocchi with tomato sauce and Austin has the mushroom risotto. Before the pasta arrives the waiters appears with a plate of baked dough fresh from the wood burning oven drizzled in olive oil. What a great treat! The fresh fish is a sea bass which we have grilled, Norma has the local sausage grilled and Austin is treated to a plate of fried fish. We clean our plates and truly pass up the offer of dessert. We have just enough room for a coffee and a grappa, which we quaff before returning to the Excelsior Vittoria and put this rather dull day of traveling behind us.

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