Friday, January 12, 2007

Day 8 - Amalfi - Ravello

We wake to a beautiful January morning, the few clouds dominated by a chalky blue sky that seems to be the color of choice this winter season, in contrast to the deep blue of the spring and summer. The sea is calm and a cool breeze freshens the room. We enjoy the buffet for breakfast but don’t linger, for today we are off to drive along the Amalfi Coast and visit our friend and supplier, Pasquale Sorrentino in the beautiful hilltown of Ravello. We ask for directions to Amalfi and our jaded concierge smirks and tells us to follow the signs. Okay, so just stay precariously on the waters’ edge, a few thousand feet high and you will eventually find Amalfi. Getting out of Sorrento is an unpleasant chore; the road is narrow and windy and the traffic is heavy all day long. We finally get to the coast road and the view is breathtaking. Unfortunately, we can’t stop to take photos because the road is wide enough for perhaps one and a half cars, and there is nowhere to stop along the way. Unless, of course, you are Italian, in which case parking in the middle of the coast road is not a problem at all.

About a half hour after leaving Sorrento we arrive in Positano, the internationally renowned jet-setter’s dream come true. Another 30 minutes and we are in the more charming coastal town of Amalfi, which despite its image as a humble seaside town and tourist magnet, was at one time the center of a worldwide empire, controlling towns as far away as Pisa.

After cursing local parking attendants and drivers, we find an illegal parking space not far from the main square and we walk to it, where steep steps lead up to the entrance of the Duomo the Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea. The streets are full of little bars selling coffees, gelato and slices of pizza and there is a bustle of activity in every direction. There are several jewelry shops selling coral and cameos and plenty of silver and gold pieces. It wouldn’t be Amalfi without the little food shops selling local pasta, sauces, cookies and candies. The entire coast seems to be one enormous lemon orchard and the lemon theme runs deep – the shops are selling lemon soap, lemon candy, lemon cookies, lemon crackers, limoncello liqueur. The fruit stands have lemons as small as a walnut and as large as a grapefruit.

The drive to Ravello is beautiful although the two way road, which snakes its way ever upward is even narrower than the coast road. We arrive at the car park below the city square and walk up the stairs to the main square and down a small quiet street to Pasquale’s beautiful shop. As usual Pasquale is full of energy and plans for the next year. We discuss which ceramic pieces have sold well and he shows us new designs available to be shipped in the spring. We are still recovering from our Christmas season, but Pasquale is ready to begin the new year. We make lists of pieces and designers and promise place an order as soon as we get back home.

What is special about this day, however, is not the business that transpires, even though that is our primary purpose. Instead, Pasquale offers to spend a couple of hours with us exploring the jewel that is Ravello. We are ready, overdue in fact, for a little unscheduled time and when he offers to take us to the Villa Cimbrone, one of Ravello’s more famous landmarks, we agree. The group of five begins a leisurely, albeit sometimes strenuous walk through the narrow, winding streets of Ravello, up steep inclines, past beautiful private homes and classy hotels, each sharing staggeringly beautiful views from vantage points perched high above the cliffs and valleys below, views that inevitably lead to the expanse of the sea that stretches to the limits of sight, disappearing into the chalky haze of the sky. For fifteen minutes we indulge ourselves in this cardiovascular and sensory workout until we arrive at the gates of the Villa Cimbrone. Although it is written about in all of the guidebooks, we know little about it, save what Pasquale tells us. A privately owned villa, it, and more importantly, its gardens, are open to the public, giving everyone (who pays an entry fee) an opportunity to walk down tree lined avenues, relax in geometric gardens and sit in solitude, bathed in warm sunshine and crisp, fresh air that has made a journey from the sea below, across the citrus groves and baking, rocky cliffs until it, too, finds relaxation and sanctuary in this special place.

We stroll, and I use that word carefully, because one does not walk or saunter, one languidly strolls along the lanes here at the Villa, for a time, spying old ruins, bronze sculptures and heroic statues from days gone by, until we reach the belvedere, a word from the Italian bel (meaning beautiful) and vedere (to see), a sort of gallery at the end of the park, with a few benches and a few terraced porches with marble railings topped with busts that have been worn away by the elements over time. On the other side of the railing the terrain falls away, completely and absolutely, as the belvedere is perched on the edge of the cliff that marks the property boundary of the Villa. From here the view is breathtaking but after the initial gasp it becomes almost karmic, if I use that word correctly, because the sight before you is the single and central stimulus that floods the senses, not overwhelming them, but purging them, cleansing them, allowing you to find your center, without even thinking about it. Yes, the belvedere at the Villa Cimbrone is a zen experience. Your eyes slowly move from one hill to another, from a tiny white settlement in the mountains to a shiny seaside town, to the sparkling blue green ocean. Your eyes and brain enjoy the beauty of all that it sees, but all the while your soul is taking a long, deep, cleansing exhale. You find peace here.

It is hard to top an experience such as this, particularly as we are not aware of how this brief sojourn has refreshed us. The beauty of it all is that there is no need to try to outdo ourselves. In Italy, and especially in Ravello we are finding, experiences come in all shapes and sizes, and not always positive. But the experiences themselves are what is important, so we return to Ravello’s main square and decide to make a brief visit to the Villa Rufolo, a villa much smaller than the Villa Cimbrone, just a few paces off the main square. We enter and pass a building where chorale music is softly playing in the background, leading Pasquale to mention the numerous outdoor musical events that take place in Ravello throughout the year, especially in the summer. We pass ancient Roman ruins and newly excavated bread ovens, a reminder of the ancient settlements that covered this distant mountain outpost. After a relaxing stroll and more beautiful views we say our goodbyes to Pasquale and begin our descent from Ravello, bound for Sorrento.

Dusk has begun to fall and our drive back is in the dark. Bill thinks perhaps it is easier driving the coastal road in the dark because the headlights warn you of oncoming cars. The rest of us in the car are happy not to be driving the narrow road with or without warning headlights.

We arrive back in Sorrento exhausted from the day. We spend an hour or two packing, catching up on our travel notes and finally relaxing on the balcony with a glass of white wine. Norma wisely decides to call it a night but around 9:00 the rest of us set out for dinner. We decide on a restaurant called Caruso’s which looks a little fancy for our taste, but it is the last of the open restaurants we have found. The restaurant is named after the tenor Enrico Caruso and the walls are covered with framed photos and concert programs. Of course the music playing over the speakers is opera. There is a nice crowd in the restaurant and we appreciate not eating in an almost empty room for a change. The waiter brings us a glass of prosecco as we look over the menu. We are also brought a plate of freshly baked bread bits. We smother them in olive oil and begin snacking. Bill orders the vermicelli with clams, Suzy has her usual pappardelle with shellfish and Austin has risotto with artichokes and clams. The first course is impressive and we dig in with gusto. For a second course Bill has the fish acqua pazza (fish with crazy water), Suzy has breaded fish with clams, Austin, who has had enough seafood on this trip, orders Veal Caruso – which turns out to be veal with shrimp. We order fresh pineapple for dessert, which is tasteless and tough, but we are full so it is not a problem.

The waiter offers us limoncello with our coffee, when in Sorrento…. Bill enjoys the icy glass but Suzy thinks it tastes like chemicals. We settle up and walk back to the hotel to finish packing for our departure in the morning.

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