Friday, February 10, 2006

Day 2 - Rome-Salerno-Vietri sul Mare-Amalfi

As we arise on day two, yesterday’s grey dampness is replaced by blue crispness, and the masses walking past our windows are noticeably less bundled than the previous day. It’s February in Rome and our desire for a mild Roman winter seem to have been fulfilled.
We eat the obligatory cheese, prosciutto and bread washed down by exceptional coffee (in Italy, it seems, everyone is a barista, capable of making the best coffee), check out and, with a sense of dread of impending disaster if not financial ruin, board a taxi for the Stazione Termini. The stazione is Rome’s main train station and from the map it looks like a close call whether we can wheel the luggage armada there on foot or throw financial caution to the winds and go by taxi. Taxi wins out and 15 minutes and what seems like a dozen kilometers later we arrive at the shiny, modern station. Note to self: take taxi to station.

We have reserved tickets and seats on a Eurostar train, something we highly recommend. Tickets are available on, which, if you are able to navigate rudimentary Italian, displays timetables on the dates between the locations you select. Ticket delivery options include ticket by mail (which is not available for those living outside the country), pickup from a ticket dispensing machine or e-ticket. If you choose the latter, you print out your confirmation, written entirely in Italian, of course, and bring it on board with you. Fearing that we may not have fully understood all of the legal disclaimers, we have chosen to print out our ticket from the automatic ticket machine. We select the prepaid internet ticket option (instructions in English), type in our confirmation number and a single ticket, with the number of passengers and seat number printed on it is dispensed. We head to track 9 with several hundred cubic meters of luggage in tow.

The Italian national train system is designed to punish those who refuse to travel light. We board the train, groaning, grunting and straining to lift bag after bag, seemingly hewn out of granite up stairs that, like the cable cars in San Francisco, seem to go halfway to the stars. A small but growing mass of scowling Italians, not appreciating American excess, waits "patiently" behind us as we complete our rock climbing adventure. We have completely screwed up our seat reservations as well, selecting seats that are cattycornered from on another in separate rows that don’t as we believed, face each other, but rather face the same way. Taking the only possible option, we simply sit in the seats that we want, figuring we may be mistaken for Italians. Unfortunately our loud English and boorish manners betray us and an Italian gentleman informs us that one of us is in his seat. He generously offers to change with us when he realizes that we are not only foreigners, but incredibly stupid.

The Eurostar train hurtles through the countryside toward Naples, except at random stations where there must be a pretty woman standing on the platform, because here and there we slow to a crawl, only to speed up again. The effect makes Suzy change colors like a chameleon, her obvious favorites being green and white.

We alight in Salerno two and a half hours after we departed Rome. Or did we alight in Sorrento? There seems to be some confusion here. Our tickets say Roma a Salerno. A quick check of the rental car confirmation says EuropeCar Salerno city office. But all of Bill’s crack research regarding what to see and where to eat centers on the lovely coastal town of Sorrento a hundred miles and, by windy coastal roads, several hours away. Salerno, too, is a coastal town, but from our vantage point that is where the similarity ends. We ease out into traffic and reacquaint ourselves with the adventure that is driving in Italy, starting off on our hourlong journey from Salerno to Amalfi, via the tiny village of Vietri sul Mare and along the famed Amalfi coast road.

We settle in for a short drive from Salerno to Vietri sul Mare but we were not expecting the drive to be under two minutes. Perhaps it will take some getting used to the scale of the map, but we expected at least five to ten minutes of twisty coastal road, the glimmering sea on the left beyond a sheer dropoff, towering mountains on the right. Instead, we leave Salerno (or is it Sorrento?), make one or two twists, enough to bring back memories of the Eurostar, and nearly shoot past the town of Vietri sul Mare. Having visited it a couple of years back we recognize a horribly ugly ceramics factory/showroom apparently designed by a disciple of Gaudi who either has no architectural ability or so hates the profession and mankind that he left us this monument. Fortunately it is not missable and we avoid completely passing by Vietri sul Mare.

To many Americans, the name Vietri is recognizable, for it is a well known brand name for ceramics imported from the town of Vietri sul Mare. The distinctive patterns include vibrant primary colors with primitive designs of fish, rabbits, pigs and the like painted around the rims of plates, bowls and mugs. A group of women in North Carolina so liked the designs that they began importing them and selling them across the country. This is a success story we certainly are all in favor of.

We park in the town’s main square. Vietri sul Mare consists of about 3 streets carved into the cliffs facing the ocean. One street reaches down to the sea, one tilts up toward the "highway" and the third meanders around in a loop, a few tributaries splitting off of it and petering out into dead ends. Incredibly we get lost on the main street, unable to find any signs of civilization or commerce, drawing stares from a few locals as we head toward what we think is centro, the town center, only to dead end at the local duomo, from which the only exit is to retrace our steps.
We finally reconnect with the main street and find a couple of restaurants. February along the Amalfi coast is definitely off season, however. The hordes of tourists that pack the streets, shops and restaurants of Vietri sul Mare, Amalfi, Positano and Capri are simply not here in February and, consequently, the hotels, restaurants and nightclubs that cater to these tourists are for the most part closed during the winter months. Fortunately even the locals need to eat out occasionally, so we find an small restaurant, la Locanda, open for lunch.

La Locanda seems to be run by a husband and wife team and the only other patrons are an American mother-daughter-grandmother (this is not a word game, there are three people there), which, surprisingly, we don’t find the least bit annoying. Being on the coast we opt for the mixed grilled seafood entrée, enjoying another grilled artichoke and a huge ball of delicate mozzarella di buffalo, a specialty of this region of Campagnia. The grilled plate is so simple yet so sublime, an indifferent grilled shrimp that is flanked by a light white fish filet that is made for the olive oil and lemon dressing that is spread over it and in which it bathes. The crown jewel is a smoky grilled squid, which is flattened and lightly grilled, which renders this often tough frutto di mare a tender sensation. Wash all of this down with a bottle of local falanghina white wine and life seems to be pretty good.

After lunch we wander from store to store (to store to store to store . . .), each displaying a small twist on the famed Vietri designs. We stop in our tracks, however, when we pass an alleyway with a few ceramics pieces displayed on the corners of the recessed building. It is the home of Ceramiche di Klaus, whose real name is Claudio. Inside his studio there is a collection of some of the most original and beautiful designs that we have ever seen. Combining modern designs evoking Picasso on unusual shapes, we immediately fall in love and express that love through commerce, buying piece after piece. (We’ve include this to see if you are reading, Wendy.) According to the delightful old man minding the store (who turns out to be Claudio’s brother), Klaus is in Paris at a trade show. The old man and his young son are basically acting as caretakers while the maestro is away and, with few tourists in town, no one can be expecting a big day at the till. We hope and think that we made their day the same way that Klaus made ours.

We leave Vietri sul Mare bound for Amalfi, the principle town in a once powerful maritime republic. The road to Amalfi is the stuff of legends (I will find a link to our previous writing on the subject) and we narrowly avoid several incidente along the way, some peace of mind deriving from the mandatory collision insurance that is included in all Italian car rentals. A half hour later, we pull up in front of the Hotel Luna, an ex convent founded of St. Francis of Assisi and converted into a hotel hundreds of years ago. We are shown to the "special suite" with two private terraces, one that overlooks the convent, the higher one off of our bedroom that overlooks Amalfi and the ocean. More on the hotel tomorrow.

We unpack and head into town which is deader than a vampire with two wooden stakes through his heart, taking an hour to find a decent place to sit and enjoy a glass of wine. We try a promising spot, a beach bar with a couple of dozen locals standing partially inside and partially on the beach. When we arrive we discover the commotion is the result of the fact that the beach bar is also the off track betting parlor and lottery ticket distribution center. The crowd definitely looks like the horsey set – gamblers, not breeders.

We walk the town, eying potential dining spots and settle on Risto, named after the owner/chef. The menu talks about Risto’s facility in making and adorning sciacatielli, a local hand made pasta and that is enough to seal the deal for us. We enter, are seated and begin a several hour adventure as the only diners in the restaurant that evening. Signore Risto brings out two beautiful fat red fish with enormous clear eyes, explaining to us that he wishes to prepare a special fish dish using these beauties, which are called occhio bello or pretty eyes. We agree and a little while later he brings us a pasta dish with a local sauce called acqua pazza (crazy water) that is a light, tomato based sauce, with potatoes, capers and shellfish. It is the perfect food for this place and we follow it with the occhio bello in a similar acqua pazza sauce, which Risto claims to have invented. A local white Fiano di Avellino completes the meal, which comes to a close when Signore Risto brings us a plate of local monaco cheese and pears, drizzled with raspberry sauce and two grappas. We celebrate 36 hours in Italy with full stomachs and sweet memories as we return to the Hotel Luna and fall asleep in the same spot that St. Francis did centuries ago after he, too, dined on seafood acqua pazza and drank the local grappa.

Sweet dreams, St. Francis.

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