Motoring to Matera

June 12, 2011

We left the villa early, leaving the key on the terrace table, as instructed, and pulled the green door tightly behind us. After a nervous wait at the bus stop, a blue SITA bus finally came rumbling through the tunnel and stopped right where we stood.

Waiting for the SITA bus in Praiano

The passengers at this hour were mostly locals, possibly heading to work or shop in the larger towns south of Praiano. I know that cars despise these lumbering behemoths that take more than their share of this already constricted road, but I always admire the deftness with which the drivers maneuver them along, navigating the ubiquitous hairpin turns with ease. Their signature horns that warn oncoming drivers rounding the bend always make me laugh, sounding more like clowns trying yodel than a bus honk.

I sat back to enjoy the ride, gulping in our last glimpses of La Costiera Amalfitana. I craned my neck to keep sight of a moped in front us — there was a dog perched on the back, looking quite content as his owner leaned right and leaned left.

Salerno, a large city compared to the villages along the coast, shortly loomed into view and the bus pulled up to a bustling transportation hub at the edge of the water. Our car rental office turned out to be just a couple of streets away.

The clerk took us outside to inspect our pristine silvery-blue Toyota — some unfamiliar European model — and handed us our keys. Saying goodbye to the Mediterranean, we headed due east, in the direction of the Adriatic. We zipped across Basilicata, skirting Eboli (where “Christ stopped”) and through Potenza. The autostrada was a breeze.

Frankly, I don’t know what all the crying is about regarding driving in Italy being so frightening. If you stay on the main roads and out of the big cities, it is truly “nothing to the problem.” It is something to the problem if you are crazy enough to take your car into Firenze or Roma. You’d have to be nuts to do that.

But generally, the rules are much the same as ours here in the U.S.A., and the drivers often less dangerous than the idiots I see zooming along the freeway from Sacramento to San Francisco. It is not the act of driving in Italy that can make you crazy once you get into a town, small or otherwise. The problem is getting lost.

Our road map was impeccable. After about two and a half hours of easy driving, the signs announced Matera just ahead. Gliding effortlessly along, we consulted our Google Maps printout, ostensibly stating the way to the parking garage in Matera where we had already reserved a space. But, as you might guess, the map — or more likely the town’s miserable signage — failed us.

We got close, recognizing a few of the street names, but never the one where our elusive garage was hiding. Twice I pulled over to ask someone on the street. We were driving in circles, getting frustrated. Finally, there it was. It was not well marked; we were just glad to find it.

I pulled into the opening that led steeply down into the covered garage. Coming from the street, I had to swing around a stucco wall that curved precipitously towards the space below. I miscalculated and the passenger side was dangerously close to the wall. Gino yelled, “STOP!”  I pressed the brakes and noticed that his door was inches from the rough wall.

I drive a five-speed sportscar at home. I learned how to drive on a stick-shift 42 years ago. I detest automatics. I know how to drive. But this entrance was straight down, rivaling the steepest San Francisco street, and I was teetering on the crest. I put the car into reverse, but at that angle, only succeeded in squealing the tires.

With every attempt, I came closer and closer to the wall, not making any headway and actually making things worse. In my haste, I didn’t think to put on the emergency brake and ease it off as I tried to reverse.

Finally, I muttered, “Screw it,” and gently let the car roll forward, wincing as the door scraped the stucco, a sickening, gagging sound. So much for the pristine paint job. The attendant below waved us into our designated spot and we hopped out to inspect the damage.

“No dent,” I said. “And the scrapes just look like surface damage.” I licked my finger to wipe off the dust. But the scratches were deep and it would take more than buffing to get these out. For a fleeting moment I wished I had purchased the extra insurance. But I shook it off, accepting the mishap as just one of those things. I’d deal with any ensuing problems from home. We were in Matera now and we had things to do and places to see.

[Note: I recently read a TripAdvisor review of our hotel which was posted a month or so after we had been there. I cackled, calling Gino over to see it. Feeling much redeemed, I read aloud to him: “If arriving by car, the parking (which is underground) is also quite hard to find and has a very bendy, steep and narrow entrance (a lot of car paint on the wall)…beware!]



Hike To The Top Of The World

June 11, 2011

Everyone was gone. But the villa was still ours until tomorrow and we had the whole day before us. The sun was blazing, the skies were clear. And we were on the Amalfi Coast!

Do you see the convent way up on the mountain?

Even though Gino would have preferred to spend the day on the upper deck of the villa by the pool, I cajoled him into hiking up to a gleaming white building that I had spied way up high on the mountain facing the sea. Our map indicated this was the church of Santa Maria a Castro and an abandoned convent. I knew the views would be stupendous and I couldn’t wait to see.

We started along the trail, trudging upwards until the path turned to dirt. Trees offered some shade along the way, but mostly we were exposed to the blazing sun. As we ascended, we met no one. Several rustic benches placed along the way provided periodic resting points and we welcomed the smooth wooden seats more than once.

The tiny white convent and church drew closer and closer. A small grotto appeared around a corner, a statue of the Madonna tucked inside. A religious scene in painted tiles was framed into a whitewashed block on the outside of the grotto.

As we finally reached the convent, a small terraced vineyard came into view. Although it appeared to be well-tended, there was no sign of life. Wide stone steps led us alongside the church and into a small tree-lined courtyard.

The door to the church was open so we went in. No one was about. Inside, it was cool and quiet. We poked around, peering at the misshapen wooden altar distorted from time, and the faint 15th century frescoes that adorned the crumbly walls. Bits of refuse littered the floor, but despite the disarray, the sanctity of this ancient church was palpable in the pervading stillness.

This precipitous site has been used for religious worship since the area’s first human settlements. Over time, the church of Santa Maria a Castro was built, and later, the Convento di San Domenico. Monks abandoned the convent in the 1800’s, but this spot is still venerated as a spiritual gathering point at certain times of the year. Today, we had it all to ourselves.

We found a drinking faucet and refreshed ourselves. While Gino sat under a tree to rest, I walked over to inspect a majolica sign commemorating the foundation of the convent in 1599. In doing so, I spied the continuing trail, heading farther up the mountain. Of course, I had to follow it, at least for a bit, especially when a wooden arrow indicated that the Path of the Gods was not far off.

Beyond the convent, the trail became quite rocky. I scrabbled around boulders, careful not to let my camera bang as I strained upwards. Out of nowhere, I came upon a lemon grove. Way up here? I paused on a rocky outcrop to look back on my progress and spotted Gino far below. I waved, and he waved back.

But the path had become precarious, and reluctantly, I abandoned my climb. As I carefully picked my way back down to the church, I stopped more than once to stare in disbelief at the dramatic sweep of La Costiera Amalfitana stretching out as far as I could see. The town of Praiano was a teensy speck below. I felt like I was flying, but without having left the ground.

Gino and I took last gulps of water before starting our descent back to town. As we passed the small vineyard again, we were surprised to see a woman working amongst the vines. We greeted her and plodded down the dry trail, finally emerging onto the main road of Praiano.

It was time for a rest. Bar del Sole was open, so we sat on the outside deck and ordered Spritz al’ Aperol, a refreshing, slightly bitter aperitivo made with prosecco, Pellegrino, and with an orange-colored liqueur called Aperol. Delizioso!

Back at the villa, we lounged on the upper deck awhile, luxuriating in its spaciousness, but wistful of its emptiness. We wandered from room to room, remembering the great times we had all shared over the past week. Sadly, we packed up for our morning departure.

For dinner that night, we went to Hotel Margherita one last time. Sitting at a cozy table at the edge of the rooftop terrace, we gazed out at the deepening sky, blurry where it met the sea — a muted watercolor come to life.

But something was changing. It appeared the weather goddess was unhappy that our group had disbanded: a breeze kept extinguishing our candle. In the fading light we could see faint clouds gathering in the distance. It was time to move on.

Rome On Their Own, continued

After those huge beers, they were quite revived, and so continued their explorations.

I like this photo very much. Not only is it a characteristic scene, I love the Italian flag hanging there, and the tiny Guinness sign barely visible in lower right corner.

Time to mangia!

Nichole enjoys a gelato at my favorite place near the Pantheon

Allie and Nichole find some Venezia style masks to try on

What are the chances of this??? The kids run into Gianni and Tony, who stopped into Rome for a quick tour themselves!

Behave, or these guys will get you!

After their coins have been tossed into the Trevi Fountain to ensure their return, Kris and Nichole head back to the hotel. In the morning, they will be flying home.

While the kids have been wandering through Rome, Gino and I have been doing some wandering of our own…

Last Day in Praiano

Our last day in Praiano, the heart of the Amalfi Coast

Everyone was set to depart.  Sharon and Dan had left in their rental car very early in the morning before the rest of us had woken up. They wanted to tackle the Amalfi Coast road when there was little traffic.

Tony and Gianni were next to leave. The two of them would spend a few days sightseeing in the Mercedes as they meandered north through Italy. Tony would catch a plane home from Milano.

Donatella and Nakita left at the same time. They were driving straight home in the camper. It would be a long drive to their house in Ranco, on the south shore of Lago Maggiore.

The kids were going to Rome to spend the day and night. They would fly home from there the next morning. It was time to drag their baggage down to Hotel Margherita, one last time. We shuffled down together, excited for our respective adventures just around the corner, but also sad for the end of our time together at the villa.

We had decided to splurge and arrange for a car to transport them to Roma. With all the wedding gear, it would be so much easier. Unfortunately, Andrea wouldn’t be driving them this time.

A small van was waiting when we walked up to Hotel Margherita. They stacked their bags into the back, Nichole’s precious wedding dress lying on top of the pile. Then it was time to say goodbye. I knew they would be fine, but I was so sad to see them go.

The driver and the kids, ready for their adventure in Rome

We all hugged, and they piled in, jabbering excitedly.  I waved forlornly, holding back the tears as the van pulled away.  I watched until their smiling faces in the windows had disappeared from sight. They were going to have a great time in Roma.

No one was left but Gino and me. And that villa. But we wouldn’t be leaving Praiano until the next day. In the morning, we would head farther south into Puglia in a rental car. Today seemed like a perfect day to hike to the top of the world.

But first, peek in on what the kids did in Rome, on their own.

Dinner at Ristorante Marina Grande

The wedding group

We arrived at Ristorante Marina Grande a bit early, but they were ready for us, placing us at a long table along one side of the restaurant, right next to the sea. Thankfully, it was a warm evening since we were dining al fresco.

Sharon and Dan peruse the menu

The centerpieces were unique

The table was elegant, but not overly lavish. Just right. Nichole’s orange bouquet added a spot of color to the simple white tablecloth. The attentive waiters served us wine and brought bread in small burlap sacks, kept fresh with drawstring tops.

How can a small hunk of bread look so elegant?

Dinner was indescribable. I won’t even try. I will let you see for yourself.

This lemon dessert made with Amalfi lemons was the bomb!

OK, now Im REALLY hungry!

Dan didnt like his much...

Andrea arrived in time to join us for dessert and plunked himself down near Tony and Gianni, the three of them gabbing away.

Andrea and Tony

But by now, everyone was getting tired

This momentous day was finally drawing to a close. It was getting late, and we were getting tired. It was time to return home. The bride and groom rode in the van with rest of us, Andrea at the wheel.  Tony and Nakita rode with Gianni in his Mercedes.

The van riders arrived back at the villa before Tony and the others. As we dragged ourselves up the steep steps, we realized that Tony had the key to get in. We would have to wait outside the green door for him to arrive.

Chris, part mountain goat

But Chris surprised us. In a flash he scaled the stone wall like a mountain goat and jumped down the other side, opening the door to let us in. So much for security. But we were grateful for his agility and clambered up the last flight of steps to the villa door.

The bride hikes up her dress to hike up the steps

Sadly, we all said goodnight. Tomorrow, we’d have to say goodbye.  In the morning, our little group was going separate ways.

Auguri in Amalfi

Andrea’s van lumbered along the serpentine coastal road to the south and soon we arrived at the foot of Amalfi, where the town meets the sea.  Andrea declined our invitation to join us for dinner, but promised to come in time to share dessert and caffé.

Cattedrale di Sant Andrea -- Amalfis amazing duomo

We poured out of the van and set about finding Kris and Nichole. Being early evening, the passeggiata was in full swing.  Everyone was out and about, strolling through Piazza Duomo which sits at the bottom of Amalfi’s dramatic duomo: the Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea.

Everyone shouts, "Auguri!" to any wedding couple they see

We spotted the wedding couple a few minutes later, smack in the middle of the piazza. They had been posing for the photographer at the top of the 62 steps leading up to the cathedral, Amalfi’s 13th century architectural masterpiece.

Now it was time to meander along as a group while the photographer clicked away. Tourists and locals alike eyed us, shouting out “Auguri!” as the couple strolled past. It is customary in Italy to call this out to passing brides and grooms, their version of  “Best wishes!”

The sun was setting as we made our way back to the waterfront. Ambling down a jetty that jutted straight into the sea, we ran into another wedding party, this one from Sweden. The two brides exchanged congratulations.

This bride is from Sweden

At the very end of the pier, a group of young adults were huddled on the ground, playing guitars and hanging out. Gianni joked with them while the photographer snapped photos of the newlyweds.

It looks like a sing-a-long, doesnt it?

It was breezy, but warm

I love this picture of my cugine Italiane, Nakita and Donatella

Candace, Allie, Chris, and Gino kick up their heels

More pictures of gli sposi and then it was time to make our way to Ristorante Marina Grande, an easy stroll away.