November 13, 2016
The self-inflicted pain of the morning eases as we ride towards Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi. A quick recovery is needed since the day starts with about twelve tight switchbacks as we descend from Sulmare to the main street in Gaeta. Each turn is pock-marked with holes that bumpers have left behind and a few of the corners require cars to stop and reverse before continuing. The twisting and turning of our descent seems to balance the spinning remnants of my hangover and negotiating the track seem effortless – graceful even – though that may be my imagination making it all seem better than it actually is!
The twenty-something ambitions of a night on the town are fading into memory as the sea continues to create a blue blur to our right. Something about moving on the bike, the smell of the air and the cool breeze filling my helmet makes everything alright with the world. It may not last and it will likely changes should we stop but the secret seems to be simple: keep moving.
In fact, the idea of thinking about anything but the road is nearly impossible. Littered with pot-holes that would swallow a small car, the route is more video game than ride. We spend the first hour flipping back and forth between the gaps while keeping an eye out for cars approaching quickly on our left. Friends at home ask what riding in Italy is like and I’ll put it like this: imagine a place where speed-limits are ignored, where passing is done using as little of the oncoming lane as possible (unless there’s oncoming traffic in which case they use as much of that lane as possible), where no-one honks at near-death experiences but will honk if you wait at a red light, where rounding a corner almost always means crossing the center line, and where people giving you the thumbs-up as they pass (in your lane) also means they’re probably drifting towards you.
It’s quite an experience!
But today, the greatest part of our concentration is spent diligently avoiding the potholes that now draw our attention away from the growing silhouette of Vesuvius in the distance. Still, the weather is decent and my stomach is feeling better with every passing mile. After stopping for fuel and a caffè, the entry lane back onto the highway is home to the bloated body of what looks to be a Mastif. As we head south, the cats of Gaeta have been replaced by roaming dogs and this journey has already seen a fair share of them lying motionless along the roadside. There’s something about the look on this pups face that stays with me for a while – he has that look of joyful anticipation a dog has while waiting for an owner to throw a ball. Silently, I try to convince myself he passed at the height of happiness and now, like the ghosts of Pompeii, remains frozen in that moment.
Our route takes us on the Strada Statale del Vesuvio – a circle route around the volcano. As we drop into the area north of Napoli the roads go from bad to worse, as do the neighborhoods. The highway around Vesuvius is lined with garbage bags three- or four-deep – and not in spots. For miles all we see along the road is garbage. We find out that it’s the result of a scam perpetrated by the Mafia, wherein legitimate companies pay to have waste removed by “contractors” who claim to have waste-handling facilities. These contractors then take the money and dump everything from hazardous-materials to common garbage along this length of road. It’s quite something to see and a testament to the worst we have to offer this planet.
Descending into the towns on the eastern side of the volcano doesn’t improve the road or the surroundings. Generally run-down and incredibly dodgy, the towns feel more and more hostile. After riding through a series of increasingly turbid places, we eventually reach the pinnacle of undesirable neighbourhoods. Aptly named Angri, the streets seem devoid of women and children, leaving men to sit idly by, waiting for something to happen. There’s a real tension in these towns that leaves the air heavy for travellers.
Soon enough, we’re in Castellammare di Stabia which, only miles from Angri, feels a world away. The streets are alive with people going about their business and the empty, burnt-out buildings of the towns in Vesuvius’ shadow are non-existent here. Every building seems to have laundry hanging from it’s windows adding splashes of colour to an already vibrant city. As we start our ascent into the hills of the Sorrento Peninsula, the tension in our shoulders begins to pass and we stop to take in the breathtaking view of Vesuvius. It gives us a moment to catch our breath and reflect on the days journey.
Heading west the gentle curves and giant potholes of the day give way to decent tarmac and an onslaught of tight corners that wind us to our home for the next week, the Magnolia House in the lovely hill-top town of Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi.
With only twenty minutes to go we suddenly hit a stream of heavy traffic and the only thing worse than stop-and-go traffic is stop-and-go traffic up steep hills with tight corners! We manage to keep our spirits up even as our forearms begin to complain; part of the road-way has collapsed and miles of traffic are waiting to make it past the bottleneck. To keep things interesting, the GPS routes us out of the traffic and up an impossibly steep and narrow walkway. As I wonder aloud if this path is two-way, a van emerges from around the corner ahead of us and we all carefully try to pass one another – but it’s tight! Eventually, we’re guided up an even steeper hill that pops us out onto the same road we were originally on. Ah, GPS, how I love thee… Every day reminds us that life is full of adventures – great and small. How we handle them defines our journey. Today, we’re all smiles!
We’re met by the lovely Lucia, a beautiful woman who’s warm spirit makes us feel more like we’re home with family than the edge of the Amalfi coast. Her son helps us with some translation but Nita and Lucia seem to be enjoying the back and forth in Italian – and I’m thankful that Nita’s skills are getting better every day since my skills are almost non-existent. Two words I do recognize immediately are “Limoncello” and “Dolce” and although I can’t imagine drinking anything, these two words are quickly becoming a permanent part of my Italian education. Lucia welcomes us with a homemade bottle of the lemon digestivo in a decanter that’s been lovingly decorated with flowers and has also hit the local pasticceria to make sure we have some sweet treats to settle in with. She instantly receives two massive hugs.
Once we’re settled, Lucia recommends a nice restaurant in town and, with the light nearing dusk, la passeggiata is in full-effect on the streets of Sant’Agata. The town itself is quite beautiful and like so many of theses places, it’s central square is flanked by a beautiful church. Behind the church is Lo Stuzzichino, the restaurant that’s been recommended by Lucia and it looks quite fancy – perhaps too fancy for us. Further along the street is a pub and we briefly think about visiting it instead, but with the memory of Gaeta still generating moments of queasiness we give it a miss. Returning to Lo Stuzzichino is one of the best decisions we’ve made! It’s owner, Mimmo, is a tall and extremely warm man whose family-run restaurant has been a part of this community for many, many years.
It takes less than two minutes for Mimmo to ask where we’re from and, finding out we’re from Canada, he introduces us to a couple at the table beside us who are also Canadian. Actually, it turns out they’re Calgarian! Tammy and Kerry ask if we’d like to join them and, in this small town atop the hills of the Amalfi coast, we enjoy a wonderful dinner with folks from home. Life is interesting. The food at Lo Stuzzichino (Mimmo’s for short) is spectacular and, just when you think it’s over, a beautiful desert is brought to the table with “OK OK” spelled out in powdered chocolate. Mimmo’s parents Filomena and Paolo work tirelessly in the kitchen to treat every guest to something delightful. For the finish, a bottle of limoncello is brought to table and left for us to enjoy at our leisure.
The four of us make a plan to hike the Path of the Gods overlooking Positano and the Amalfi coast in the coming days before we say our goodbyes, for now.
In the morning, we have a chance to talk with world traveller and filmmaker Daniel Rintz over Skype about his latest project, which is a wonderful moment for us. He’s incredibly down to earth and beautifully shaped by his nearly three-year journey by motorcycle travelling the planet. His upcoming feature-length film, “Somewhere Else Tomorrow” looks to be an inspired movie that hopes to capture how the human experience is changed by exposure to different cultures through travel. We can’t wait!
Finally, a day arrives with a clear blue sky and a warmth we’ve missed for what seems like an age. We meet Kerry and Tammy by the church in Sant’Agata and we prepare to weave our way along the Amalfi coast toward our starting point for the Path of the Gods. Stopping for gas at the local Esso, the attendant lets us know that the total is €33 but a payment of €34 would be fine! We have a good laugh and suggest that a counter-offer of €30 should made before leaving. It’s all part of the Italian charm!
Driving along the Amalfi seems much more complicated than riding – mostly due to the width of the road! Along it’s length, the road tightens at points where two cars simply can’t pass one another. Flying around corners isn’t in the vocabulary of sane people since the corridors are often blocked with buses, trucks and cars passing other cars. The reward of a road like this is the view; not only are we flanked by water of the deepest blue, we’re also witness to towns like Positano and it’s brilliantly coloured houses that cling to an impossible hillside. In fact, this town is partly responsible for our journey as Nita used to watch a webcam of the beaches along here on her phone before bed and dreamt of one day visiting this magical place. And here we are. But Positano isn’t entirely unique as this road is lined with towns perched precariously in the hills or the caverns below the road – it’s a place that has been dreamt up in ancient tales.
Once we’re off of the main road and onto the residential streets heading high into the hills to our starting point, it gets even more bonkers. Often, we’re met with oncoming traffic that requires us to reverse a ways, fold in the mirrors and then suck in our stomachs hoping to create some kind of space large enough for both cars. Some of the gaps would be too small for both our bikes. It’s an experience that would create a little “pucker” for any driver.
After too many full-stops to count, we arrive at the starting point for our day and are met by donkeys with metal panniers full of dirt. A stranger once commented that our bike look like pack-mules and we see the resemblance! Once the panniers are full, they begin a long ascent up the stairs to a work site and as we watch them disappear over the ledge, we prepare ourselves for a little climbing of our own.To be honest, it’s been a long time since we’ve done any kind of hiking and it’s a bit of a shock to the system, but the views from this high line over the coastal towns are simply stunning. The name, Path of the Gods, is no mystery; this walking route is truly as close to heaven as we could hope to get. The beginning of the route takes us through Nocelle before becoming a proper trail that initially winds it’s way cliff-side through a series of single-tracks and stone stairs.
At every turn there’s an opportunity to simply pause and take in what are incredible views of the Amalfi coast all the way back to Termini. For the first time we get a good sense of the epic nature of this peninsula. While tourists are flocking to Positano below, this vantage point provides a breath-taking and rarified perspective of this amazing place. Four tree-covered, mountains gradually narrow in succession into the distance, seemingly pinched at the waist to give the impression that, at a different viewing angle, they could be islands. But they’re not; rather they’re connected by an amazing piece of asphalt – the SS145. From the path we easily see how the road winds itself in a seemingly impossible labyrinth along the side of the mountains.
Next we come across an abandoned stone farmhouse whose roof provides a great, unobstructed view of the hills below. We climb on, in and around the building – given more time a nap on it’s slab roof close to the hillside would seem like a great idea. We continue on to a point where my knee has had enough. The sharp pain running up through my leg is a painful reminder of an old and persistent injury. Tammy and Kerry are, thankfully, completely understanding and decide that a Limoncello overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea is in order.
Taking pause to breathe in the moment, the laughter becomes a comfortable quiet as we enjoy the sounds of the water and the warmth of the sun. The weather is perfect for a hike like todays. The quiet is broken by the sound of bells in the distance; a shepherd is herding about a hundred goats our way! We hope they’ll make it to us but in the twenty minutes we stand watching, the herd makes it about two-hundred feet – a fifth of the distance.
We retrace our tracks back to the Nocelle and find a great restaurant for lunch. Perched on the cliff overlooking the water, this place has a fantastic view of the water with the coast to Termini disappearing to our right. Over another wonderful meal together, we prepare for the second part of our hair-raising drive – this time to Amalfi and then back to Sant’Agata. Walking toward the parking lot, we come across a gathering of workmen – one of whom is perched high atop a ladder resting precariously against an electrical pole. An older gentleman asks us to wait while three men shout instructions to the man risking life and limb, struggling to free the line with a claw-tooth hammer. One of the men below already has a bloodied eye-patch and the four of us wonder aloud if he wasn’t up the ladder earlier in the day. With a final heave the wire breaks free swinging loosely along the walking path and, with a gasp, everyone suddenly realizes the wire was holding the pole in place. Luckily, the pole comes to rest about two feet from where it originally stood and the man on the ladder slowly starts to breathe again. A raucous cheer shatters the stunned silence and everyone shares a smile. No one’s hurt. This time.
Back at the parking lot we find the car blocked by a truck which turns out to belong to the workmen. As one rounds the corner he gives us the “one-moment” gesture and looks to be making his way to move the vehicle. Rather, he lights a cigarette and begins chatting on the phone. For twenty minutes! We keep wondering if this is an Italian minute. It turns out he’s waiting for a fellow workmate to arrive and, after a failed attempt at lifting our Fiat 500 into the clear, we’re on our way.
Rather than heading straight home, Kerry offers to continue down the highway for a quick visit to Amalfi. As a port, Amalfi once rivaled Pisa and Genova in importance before the rise of Venice but with those days long past, it now enjoys it’s place as a popular tourist destination. I can tell Kerry’s excited to show us something and, following him and Tammy into the main piazza, it’s hard to miss. Set atop a long set of stairs is the beautiful Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea. With our legs a little rubbery from the hike we actually take a moment to contemplate the steps before Kerry offers to scout ahead to see if it’s open. Waving from the top, we take our cue and make our way inside. The main floor has plenty of religious artifacts, but since the accompanying text is entirely in Italian, we’re only able to admire their beauty without truly understanding their relevance. The space itself is, if I’m to be honest, sparse and a bit of a let down. The incredibly beautiful exterior doesn’t seem to be reflected inside – until we make our way to the lower floor.
A crypt containing the bones of Andrew the Apostle is set in the middle of what has to be one of the most beautiful rooms we’ve ever seen. Elaborate frescoes cover the ceilings, and the inlaid marble walls and floor are the most intricate designs any of us has seen. One quarter of the room has yet to be restored and the difference between it and the rest of the hall is startling – in fact I wish they’d leave it untouched to demonstrate the difference for future travellers. The crypt itself is a work of art, bordered with gold-leaf and a statue of Andrew the Apostle himself. Crucified for his beliefs, his bones were located and transported to this spot from Constantiople in 1206.
We make our way to the streets of Amalfi and, like Sorrento, Limoncello is everywhere! It’s a lively place and the people seem incredibly friendly which again, makes it a hotspot for tourists. With the light fading and a forty minute drive ahead of us, we make our way back to the car and onto Sant’Agata. We visit Mimmos one last time and a second visit doesn’t disappoint – his flair is the same although the restaurant is incredibly busy. Before we all leave, we manage to get a photo in with the entire family before saying our own goodbyes to our new friends, Tammy and Kerry. With their time in Sorrento coming to an end, we hope for another visit but time works against us and this is our last visit. There are so many things that people can share – time, things, advice – and in this case Tammy and Kerry shared and unbelievable place with two strangers in the sky above a beautiful coast – an experience we wouldn’t have had without meeting them. We’re very thankful!
The rain finally returns and, for the next couple of days, we hunker-down inside the wonderful Magnolia House working to catch up on writing for the site while a momentary break in the clouds allows us a sun-filled coffee break at our favourite coffee house. By the time the sun slowly begins to return to Sant’Agata, we’re almost caught up with pictures and words which, to be honest, is a huge relief for us.
The following morning we decide to visit Pompeii a place that’s been a part of my psyche since I was a young lad growing up in the UK. I had a fascination with volcanoes and Vesuvius was the most famous – mostly for freezing it’s devastation of Pompeii and Herculaneum in a casing of ash forever. It’s hard to believe that we’ll finally see the site of such terrible events today. With some investigation and a large dash of hope, we decipher the bus schedule and guess the stop location. Rather than stoping at the actual bus stop, it parks across and down the street leaving it’s travellers slightly confused. We take the forty minute ride into Sorrento, an incredibly popular tourist town, with a plan to catch the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii. Unfortunately, the engineers have decided to strike today – a common event visitors should be aware of. Sudden unsanctioned or “Wildcat” strikes often disrupt services – especially to tourist hotspots. We heard about a wildcat strike by Pompeii security guards that shut the site down to thousands of visitors at one point and we can’t help but wonder if, once the trains start to roll again, we might fall victim to the same.
The man in the ticket booth suggests we return on Saturday as the strike will be over and the fares will be cheaper. With a tinge of heartbreak we head into Sorrento unsure if we can make a visit work.
There’s a reason Sorrento is so popular with it’s visitors; renowned for it’s Limoncello and inlaid woodwork, it’s a beautiful, clean and plentiful town. It’s built for visitors with menus featuring hamburgers, fish and chips, and any other fare that folks from the UK, or the US might hope for. And it’s getting results – nowhere in Italy have we seen as many English-speaking tourists. So while not always offering an entirely authentic experience to travellers, it does add some comfort. We quite enjoy our day here, sipping caffès and people watching; there’s so much happening here that losing a few hours on a patio to the colorful buildings, the blue of the ocean and the mixing of different cultures is easy. It’s also very walkable – from the narrow streets through the old town and wood inlay factory districts to the wide-open streets of the main piazza. At one store cleverly named “Typical Italian Things” I discover some beautifully made Moka pots that would work incredibly well on the camping stove. Showing a modicum of discipline I decide not to make the purchase but as I turn around I see it – the holy grail of stove-top brewing: a twenty person brewer! Picking it up I loft it to the ceiling like the trophy it is and quickly get yelled at by a cranky shop attendant. Sheepishly I return it to its dusty spot and leave without a second thought.
We grab a late lunch on a wonderful patio where we discover the delicious frizzante Gragnano reds that are local to the Vesuvius area. Noticing the absence of a Canadian flag mixed amongst the many that line the street, we mention it to the owner who assures us they’ll hoist one next year – a more political answer than that of our waiter who poignantly observes that many flags are missing. Feeling satisfied with our day, we make our way back into the hills towards to Sant’Agata and decide to make another attempt at Pompeii the following morning.
Not entirely sure if our trip to Pompeii will be successful, we catch an early bus from the Magnolia House, which parks on the opposite side of the street this time. A steady stream of people emerging from the ticket booth keeps our hopes up and in no time we manage to secure our train ride to site – now we just have to hope that the security guards at Pompeii aren’t on strike too! Soon enough we’re hurtling down the tracks and, in about forty minutes, we’re at the Pompeii station just a few minutes from the gates. We’ve read about the “dubious” cafeteria on the site and decide to grab a quick lunch by the station, where the food is decent and we’re joined by a number of Americans, Germans, Brits and a lone woman from Belgium. Soon, buses of Japanese and Chinese tourists begin to arrive, and the lanes in front of the gates are filled with visitors eager to see the ruins. Pompeii is one of the most visited archaeological site on the planet and so far it’s international reach has proven itself true.
Pompeii is hard to put into words. It’s a complex set of feelings that wrap themselves around the visitor and the words of our friend Valentina in Vicopisano run through my mind: it’s a heavy place. It is certainly an amazing ruin that gives visitors incredible insight into how life was lived in 79AD. But, unlike most ruins, here we’re able to see what remains of people in the last moments of their lives – not with a sculptors sharpness, but a ghostly echo of their shape. It’s hard to take in the beauty of the architecture and the magnificence of its scale when we see families huddled clutching one-another, or a lone person, frozen in time, squatting and sobbing into the hands shielding their face. Pompeii is a heavy place indeed. From every point in the city Vesuvius is present in the distance and it forces us to wonder: with four days of fire spewing into the atmosphere before its eventual collapse, why did people not flee to safer ground? For hours we walk the streets of the ruined city until finally our legs and hearts are quite done.
It’s a quiet train back to Sorrento, mostly spent trying to process the day. We revisit the piazza and it’s wonderfully lively streets, picking up a few supplies before settling in for an afternoon caffè on a busy corner. It’s nearly dinner time and we’re waiting for our favorite patio to open, but the mid-day sun has set and there’s still a chill in the evening air. We decide to grab a bite somewhere inside and we immediately regret the decision; instead of the lovely host from the previous day, we’ve picked a place that looks nice but lacks any personality. The owner charges around humiliating and micromanaging his staff and when they approach the table, they’re simply going through the motions. Outside, the host at the other restaurant is standing, impeccably dressed, waiting to welcome guests to his empty patio and we feel terrible for him! When the weather warms up, we’re sure he does a hefty business.
We wait for the bus home in the same place we caught it the day before, but this time the driver seems surprised that we’d wait here; the stop has moved a couple of blocks up the street which is where everyone else is waiting and, as in Sant’Agata, it seems the time of day affects where the busses stop. Our last bus ride along the hills into town is lovely and the lights of Sorrento and Massa Lubrense flicker beautifully in the distance. Soon we’re back at the Magnolia House for our final night. It’s been a wonderful stay in Sant’Agata but with thunderstorms forecast for Monday, we decide to cut our stay a day short to experience the rest of the Amalfi coastline in the sun. Tomorrow we continue south along a beautiful ribbon of road.