Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sorrento and Capri

The Blue Grotto was an elusive dream I've had ever since I read that kissing your mate while inside meant spending a lifetime together - it sounded so romantic and I was always a hopeless romantic.

Our journey started in Verona, Italy. We took the fast train to Rome. Because I speak Italian, we maneuvered easily among the crowds, purchased our tickets from the automated machines placed all over the station and thus avoided the crowds and the long lines.

First class tickets were twice as expensive so we settled for second class. I am used to being a second class citizen, traveling in cramped quarters, and flying with my knees bent to my chin.

Fast trains in Italy, however, even in second class are very comfortable, clean, and right down luxurious when compared to other countries.

Italian train stations are clean, crowded, with insufficient, smelly, and out of the way bathrooms. Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence, our first stop, was no exception.

The fast train, run by Trenitalia, Gruppo Ferrovie Dello Stato, a state-run system, had meal service brought by a steward with a well-appointed cart. The food was fresh and inexpensive.

We stopped in Florence for five days with plans to re-board the train later for Rome. We took in the sights, the Duomo, the Boboli Gardens, the Uffizi Gallery, Ponte Vecchio, Piti Palace, the open-air Loggia, David's Statue, the Medici Chapel by Michaelangelo, the colorful open air markets, Piazza della Signoria, Santa Maria della Croce with its walled and floored tombs of famous politicians, musicians and writers, the gold shops, and the famous leather makers.

Upon our arrival in the Roma Termini station, named after the ancient Baths of Diocletian, against our better judgment, we hired a taxi to take us to our hotel, two blocks from the Vatican. I can honestly say that I was relieved to get out of the tin can taxi with no seat belts. It was very clean and inexpensive, but the driver was so aggressive, we were generally within inches of most cars on both sides, front and back. Italians were honking angrily, shouting obscenities out the window, or flipping each other. This when they were not stopping right in the middle of traffic, getting out of their cars, and engaging in a direct fist fight.

We spent the days at the Vatican and taking in the sights and sounds of Rome, the out-of-the way churches with hidden tombs, eery and smelly catacombs, exquisite statues, monuments, parks, and museums.

It was not scary enough to visit Domitila's catacombs once, I had to go a second time with David. Against my better judgment, I agreed. I can honestly say that it was the first and last time I had gotten mosquito bites underground.

We were so overwhelmed by beauty, art, and architecture, after a while, we became like the rest of Italians, appreciative of everything surrounding us but unable to find the words or feelings to express its beauty anymore. How will it feel like returning to our simple, unadorned surroundings in America?

Fontana di Trevi and the Spanish steps were required stops - we threw coins in the fountain to make sure that we return to Rome someday.

The highlight was the Cappuccin Monks chapel with its bone collection of thousands and thousands who had been exhumed and turned into decorative art in the chapel. As much as I had wanted to see it, I had missed it on three previous trips because it was under repairs, we could not leave it fast enough, it gave me the creeps and the stench of death was nauseating.

Next stop was five days in Sorrento. We had spent five days visiting Florence, five days visiting Rome and we had traveled by fast train every leg of the journey. We abandoned the rail and decided to join a busload of people of all ages and nationalities to Sorrento and the Island of Capri.

The tour guide was a dashing Italian with a boundless love of women and little patience for anything else. We had to run on Guido's time or no time at all. I had promised David that I would behave and abide by Guido's schedule and outlandish rules. While holding my fingers crossed behind my back, I promised that I would not slip into Ileana's time machine and take my sweet time for pictures or sightseeing.

Guido preferred sitting in a busy cafe, feast his eyes on women, drink wine, smoke, and look sophisticated while in bad need of a bath. I wanted to walk all over town, I did not want to miss a thing - the vistas, the architecture, the blooming flowers, the shops, the people, the street vendors, the fruit stands, the dizzying drops to the sea, and the Roman road markers. I was on a quest for the perfect Sorrento music box to add to my collection with the melody, "Torno a Sorriento." I was definitely a thorn in Guido's side.

Sorrento would be a sleepy provincial town if it was not for an unending stream of tourists, foreign and domestic, coming by bus loads struggling to inch away from the rocks flanking the narrow roads.

Sorrento is nestled in the cliffs overlooking the Bay of Naples, a small town in Campania, southern Italy, with some 16,500 inhabitants. It is a very popular tourist destination which can be reached easily from Naples and Pompeii. Many viewpoints from the city allow sight of Naples, Vesuvius and the Isle of Capri.

The Amalfi Drive which connects Sorrento and Amalfi is a narrow road that threads along the high cliffs above the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a "mamma mia" moment to look over my shoulder to the mile drop below.

Ferry boats and hydrofoils provide services to Naples, Amalfi, Positano, Capri and Ischia. Sorrento's sea cliffs and luxury hotels are very famous. Dave and I stayed in a gorgeous four star hotel with hand-painted tiled floors. Our balcony overlooked the bay. The beauty was not just in the perfect scenery, the carved rock formations, wild flowers, azzure blue waters, sunshine, and spectacular vistas, but the accommodations and the food were fit for kings.

You cannot go to Sorrento without tasting its famous limoncello, a digestif made from lemon rinds, alcohol, water and sugar. The balmy, Mediterranean climate grows huge citrus fruit, grapes, nuts and olives.

Wood craftsmanship is a fine art; like everything else, Italians do it to perfection. On a factory visit, I witnessed the carving of the intricate cameos, made from sea shells, carved on a end of a short stick, nestled in the bleeding, blistered palms of a master craftsman. I finally understood why cameos were so expensive and precious, they were literally carved in sweat and pain.

We took a ferry boat to reach the Island of Capri. From there, we were planning to take a hydrofoil, a smaller boat, and finally a dingy in order to reach the Blue Grotto. It was early June and the sea was agitated but not as bad as it could have been in winter time. It was dicey to actually enter the naturally carved cave.

We were determined to climb Capri on foot to the top in order to visit the remains of the Roman Emperor Tiberius' villa. It took us a good three and a half hours, but it was worth every effort. The historical significance and the breathtaking views were indescribable. Forgotten was the fact that we could only find one bathroom on the way to the top and did not have enough water by the time we reached the summit. We overlooked simple things such as food and water. We were in awe of Roman history and archeology.

Tiberius was a cruel emperor who habitually hurled his enemies and people he disliked or crossed him over the top wall of his villa into the foaming sea below. It was scary peering down the very spot where so many Romans met a swift and cruel death. We paused to admire the ruins and to imagine what must have been like living under such duress in Tiberius' villa.

Capri is not a very populated island, it has roughly 7,300 inhabitants. Anacapri is the opposing side of the island. The name comes from wild goats or from the Greek for wild boars. None of these wild animals are currently residing on the island.

There is a small beach area with smooth rocks instead of sand, quite difficult and painful to walk on or sit on. Once you hit the turquoise waters though, it is worth the pain.

The naturally carved rock formations are absolutely spectacular from a distance and up close. The most interesting is the Grotta Azzura, a naturally occurring cave which reflects light from two holes, one above the water and one below, giving the cave water its unusual filtered bright turquoise blue appearance. Visitors can only access it with a small two-passenger row boat. The Italian rower, as well as the passengers must lie back in the boat in order to clear the short and narrow opening without being decapitated. Once inside, the cave is quite large. Statues had been found inside dating back to Roman times.

We were treated to an Italian canzone while inside The Blue Grotto and I finally got the romantic kiss from the love of my life.