Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Day 6 - Gragnano - Castelammare di Stabia - Sorrento

Every trip has at least one day from Hell and we can only hope that this one is our only. That this is the nadir. Because if it gets any more dreadful than today, we should consider packing up our bags and heading home!

The day starts off on a decent note. We sleep a bit later than planned, which is especially nice for Austin and Norma who have just arrived from the U.S. We meet in the breakfast room at 9:45, just minutes before they close and are treated to a wonderful buffet of meats, cheeses and fresh fruits. In addition, there is an American breakfast table complete with eggs, bacon and various cold cereals. We eat light and have extra servings of the thick hot coffee with milk. With internet access limited to the one hotel computer, we all take an opportunity to check back on important matters at home. (Go Gators!)

We begin our day in earnest around noon, headed for the town of Gragnano, which is known across Italy as the country’s premier pasta making town. We are looking forward to seeing the production of pasta, meeting a few suppliers and having a memorable meal of Gragnano pasta at a charming osteria. We leave our secluded little compound, which is connected to the main square in Sorrento by a private garden and emerge into the bustle of the Sorrentine Peninsula. Traffic in Sorrento is abysmal, alternately jammed to a crawl and then lurching forward, with whiny Vespas zipping in and out to keep you on your toes. The whole traffic pattern and street layout seems to have been designed by someone with a pathological dislike of straight lines, opting instead for manic swirls and violent turns, up steep hills and plunging down even steeper ravines. The weather, however, is nice, with bright sunshine and cool air.

Daylight reveals terrain that we were unable to see the day before as arrived in Sorrento after dark. It is for the most part an ugly landscape of soulless modern but rundown cities, connected together by windy roads, which stands in stark contrast to the overwhelming beauty of the cliffs that fall off into the clear blue Mediterranean. The absolute nadir of this drive is the repulsive town of Castelammare di Stabbia, a town totally lacking in Italian charm and, unfortunately, one which we seem to drive through forever. The icing on this most inedible cake is the enormous piles of garbage, some of which stretch for an entire city block, and that leap into view around nearly every corner. We can only imagine that the local garbage workers are on strike, hoping against hope that this situation is temporary. After a while the mountains of trash begin to lose their shock value and we even begin to see beauty in the various colored trashbags, the slope of these moutains, an occasional special item to attract the attention. We even stop to take pictures, selecting only the best trash piles, while turning our noses up on mere garbage piles. Our son Austin take a particularly artistic shot of one collection, which he dubs “EuroTrash.” A budding photographic career is born.

After an eternity we arrive in Gragnano and pull right in to a parking spot, just like they do in the movies. We walk up and down the street noticing several small shops and bakeries that are open, but as we find the doors for the pasta shops they are locked up as tight as a drum. We find, too, that the main (read only decent) restaurant in town is closed on Wednesdays, so we decide to drive a little further up the mountain to find a nice spot for lunch, preferably with a view, and then return around 3:00 or 4:00 when the shops should be open.

Thus begins our journey half way to the sun. We climb the mountain, following sign after sign for pizzerias, trattorias and restaurants. Each time our efforts are rewarded with a closed establishment, most of them shut down for the winter, with drop cloths over the tables and doors chained shut. We press on, following the narrow road higher and higher into the countryside, past run down villages, grand hotels (closed for the season), parked buses (parked for the season) until we decide that going on is futile. Our assumption, our belief, our fervent hope that someone in this region must eat out somewhere occasionally has been proven wrong. We admit defeat and head back down the mountain, alighting after an hour at the single restaurant has shown any signs of life. It is located in, you guessed it, Castelammare di Stabia.

The port area in Castelammare is rough and rundown looking, but our restaurant, il Dubbio, is like finding a needle in a haystack, or rather a jewel in a trash heap. Despite the late hour, they welcome us in and we happily take our seats. We are rewarded with a wonderful plate of octopus salad and spaghetti frutti di mare and dentice (snapper with a potato sauce.

After lunch we get back in the car (clearly a mistake) and head back up the mountain to Gragnano, passing some of our favorite junk heaps only to find that the famed pasta shops, including one described as a “pasta university” are not reopening this day. Everything is locked up still – perhaps they are closed on Wednesday afternoons. It only makes sense on a day like today.

So, we begin the long, slow drive back to Sorrento. A drive always seems shorter when you have achieved your goal for the day. Today is no such day. We make a quick stop just outside of Sorrento where there is a local produce market which is just closing – we stock up on oranges and apples and take a quick walk around, mostly just for the fresh air.

We return to the Excelsior Vittoria, thinking we will take a few minutes to relax before dinner, but decide instead to make a quick dash to the phone store before it closes to see if they have a high speed wireless internet access card that might solve our internet access problem. With mounting excitement we are shown the very answer to our technological prayers, a UMTS/HSDPA card from Telecom Italia. It does everything we want relatively cheaply. Now we will have the ability to check our emails, read the news and post our trip reports on time. Only one glitch, however. It cannot be activated until tomorrow. On a day like today, however, even this delay seems like a major victory.

While Norma has wisely decided to call it a night we head out with Austin in search of a light dinner. The front desk calls the Trattoria Tasso to make sure they are open and after a great recommendation of their pizzas we head out. The restaurant is enormous – in the summer it is probably filled to the seams, but tonight we are just one of 5 or 6 tables. The waiter is friendly and we order a pizza capricciosa, mushrooms, cooked ham and artichokes, and a pizza with spicy salami and a pasta from Gragnano (we are still determined to try the pasta) with a tomato fish sauce. One salad to share and we still have too much food. The restaurant begins to get more crowded as the evening goes on. We arrived just after 9:00 and it seems that we are on the early side. The food is good and we have a lot of laughs and head home to get a good nights sleep.

Perhaps tomorrow our luck will change.

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