October 2, 2012

Italian Driving Lesson #2: Surviving the Amalfi Coast

After our long day of travel on Monday from Umbria to the Amalfi Coast, we decided to enjoy our beautiful coastal retreat on Tuesday and "stay in". We had work to get caught up on and none of us really felt much like venturing out. We did, however, need some groceries, so after some meal planning, April and I drove into the little village of Massa Lubrense to take care of our grocery shopping.

Oh how I miss Whole Foods and Fred Meyer! I am so spoiled by the sheer volume of choices we have. I was surprised that I was in Italy and couldn't find any fresh herbs except for parsley. No rosemary, no basil. Really? Aren't those herbs kind of Italian in nature? So I must adapt. Instead of beef bourguignon, we have some fairly thin pieces of what I assume is beef, braised in some local red wine (perhaps closely related to Chianti?) and instead of the fresh herb bouquet that I usually make, I made do with some garlic, onions and some assortment of dried herbs. Nonetheless, that night's dinner was quite delicious!

I'm getting pretty sick of Italian food, so I've been trying to cook some meals that are as far away from an Italian profile as you can get. And I think I did a pretty good job of it that week. Oh how I would kill for some Thai food, or Mexican food right about now. My taste buds are rebelling. They want VARIETY!

We successfully avoid any collisions with the lunatic Italian drivers and make it safely back to our villa where we have to unload 600 lbs. of groceries from the Fiat and walk down 29 very steep steps. I think the ladies at the grocery store had a good laugh about the Americans grocery shopping in their store. We left with what appeared to be enough groceries to feed a family of 10 for two weeks! Naw, it wasn't that bad, but we needed stuff. I just didn't want to have to go to the store every day we were there as I wasn't sure my nerves could take the daily chicken-and-mouse game with the seriously loco Italian drivers and parking is always such an issue. Seriously stressful, so my motto was, "let's just get 'er done."

Here's my view from my mobile office:

Not a bad view, eh? It's a little bit of paradise, although a "mosquito-free" environment would be the icing on the cake. April has so many bites, she is probably going to come home with malaria. I keep telling her it's all the wine she is drinking! Seriously, we are being EATEN ALIVE! We even found a farmacia in Massa Lubrense so we could buy some bug spray and anti-itch cream. We purchased both items and still no relief to be had.

To put myself in the "work mode" I even stayed in my normal work attire (that's pajamas for those of you who don't know me that well!). It was a lovely, relaxing day, that ended with the most beautiful sunset.

We were up bright and early on Wednesday as we had a boat to catch in Positano at 9:15 AM, about an hour drive from Massa Lubrense. We left the villa about 7:15 and proceeded to journey via Sorrento, using our not-so-trusty GPS as a guide. Somehow, we got off track in Sorrento when the GPS sent us down a dead-end road (narrow too, so turning around was a bit of a challenge). Driving merely by instinct (we knew we had to travel the opposite direction from Massa Lubrense to cross the peninsula and to the other side of the Bay of Naples), we thankfully were able to get back onto a road that actually had signs pointing towards Positano (Amalfitana road).

We were winding our way through Sorrento on some pretty narrow and winding roads when we turned a corner and we're pretty much nose-to-nose with a rather large truck (for Italy standards). The problem was that BOTH of us could not fit on that road, as it was too narrow. So with little choice to be had, I was required to drive backwards down a very steep and winding road until I could find a spot that was wide enough to allow the truck to pass. I probably had to drive at least 1/3 of a mile backwards. This was not a fun thing to do given that I couldn't see if traffic would rear-end me around blind corners that I had to navigate down (backwards) and needed to avoid a collision with other objects in the road, like rock walls. This was NOT a good way to start my morning and I hadn't even had a cup of espresso yet!

I finally was able to back into a driveway (or was it an alley?) and let the truck (and LOTS of traffic behind it) pass. I think I let out an audible breath once that near-fiasco was over. So onwards we went, climbing higher and higher up the steep mountainside. Finally, we were back along the coastal road, with a view of the ocean and perilous cliffs below. It was a beautiful view (or so I was told) as I had to concentrate very carefully on the task at hand, which was to deliver my passengers in ONE piece to Positano.

The Amalfi Drive is consists of a 50 mile stretch of road which runs along the stretch of the Amalfi Coast between Sorrento and Amalfi. The road was originally built by the Romans. For the greater part of its route, the road is carved out of the side of the coastal cliffs, giving spectacular views down to the Tyrrhenian Sea and on the other side up to the towering cliffs above. I'm pretty sure that April has permanently left her fingerprints in the dash and the passenger door panel during our drive from Sorrento to Positano.

Only 15 minutes behind schedule, we arrive in Positano, park the car in the designated parking garage and walk down a few thousand steps to the port. We have just enough time to sit down at a cafe and enjoy a cappuccino and croissant.

We had made a reservation with a Capri tour company, L'Uomo e IL Mare, for a "semi-private" boat tour to Capri, a journey that would span 8 hours. Apparently part of our tour included the opportunity to swim in one of the grottoes we would visit, but somehow I had missed that bit of information, so we did not come prepared to swim.

We were joined on the boat with about 20 other people. Our cultural mix included Australians, Canadians, Americans and two token Italians. The view of Positano from the water was beautiful.


It took us a little more than an hour to arrive at the island of Capri. We all disembarked and had 4 hours to ourselves to explore the island. Our expectations high, we rode the funicular up to the main part of the island to begin our tour.

Although the views were stunning, the rest of Capri was a huge disappointment. It was like an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" with one trendy, expensive boutique after another, next door to some swanky hotel. And talk about a tourist trap! We were elbow to elbow with hoards of rude, smelly and impatient tourists and shortly after we arrived, we were ready to leave. We had no choice but to wander around a bit until it was time to find a spot for lunch. Yes, they had some beautiful shops, but they were slightly above my budget, so just window shopping had to suffice.

We tried to find a reasonably priced restaurant with an ocean view for lunch, but you can imagine that NONE of the restaurants in this swanky little town fit those requirements. We either had the snack bar at the Funicular, or the 100 Euro per person lunch option. Down the funicular we went. When we had first arrived to Capri, our boat tour guide had pointed out some restaurants near the marina that would fit our specific budget requirements so we decided to eat our lunch at one of those recommended spots. And it was a great choice. The food and service were good, as was the view.

We finally had run out the clock on our Capri imprisonment and we were back on the boat. We all decided that it would be more fun to sit in the front of the boat this time. I suspect most of our fellow passengers enjoyed some adult beverages while on Capri as they all seemed just a bit more friendly now.
So our tour of the grottoes around the island commenced, and they did not disappoint. This was definitely the best part of the entire trip.

The water was such a beautiful turquoise blue.

Do you think some rich Italian dude has to drive his fancy Italian sports car up THIS road to reach his villa?

There were a total of 4 grottoes we were going to visit, including the famous "blue grotto" but there was a catch. Once we arrived at said grotto, you had to pay a fee of 12 Euros to gentlemen in the little rowboats to actually see the grotto, which was hidden on the other side of the cave.

Another tourist trap! Naturally, about 1/2 of the boat took the bait. Their "blue grotto tour" was about 2 minutes long, with about maybe 30 seconds actually spent inside the grotto. Thank goodness for Google. Here's what we missed:

So onto another grotto we went. This one was the "white grotto" and supposedly if you look real closely into the cave, you can sometimes see Mary and the baby Jesus. Oh, those silly Catholics!

It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the tour immensely. Capri (the island destination) was a huge disappointment, but I had a great time, nonetheless. We returned to Positano late in the day and all of us were pretty tired. Originally, we had talked about spending some time in Positano after the boat ride, but we all were in agreement that we should just head back to Massa Lubrense.

Thankfully, we returned without incident (and without getting lost). I was starting to get more comfortable with my Italian-ness and was getting more gutsy with my driving, even passing some slower-moving vehicles ahead of me, but not on blind corners. Not sure I'll ever have the guts to do that!

You can view my Capri/Positano pictures on Shutterfly.


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