There were three reasons we selected Sorrento as a home base; Pompei, the Isle of Capri and the Amalfi Coast, all easily accessible from our hotel. On the first day we did something I’ve wanted to do for many years; visit Pompei. We decided there was no way we were going to drive, we’d pay the 8 Euros (in 2008) and take the train. Our hotel ran a free shuttle to the train station in the morning, so we couldn’t possibly have done it for less in the car. Now, we’ve flown a lot in the past and I always have this fear of the ultimate airline disaster every time I set foot on a plane, but let me tell you, this train, which was probably built in the sixties, went so fast that I thought, if we hit a butterfly we’ll be flying off the track into oblivion.
You all know the story: Mt. Vesuvius erupts and wipes out the whole town of Pompei in 79 AD. Did you know that the town had been devastated by an earthquake in 62 AD? The quake was so strong and the aftershocks so numerous that it took 17 years to rebuild, then Vesuvius. As if that were not enough, it suffered damage from bombing in WWII in 1943. So, the fact that there is anything left at all, is bloody amazing.
And that’s how you feel when you see it. The houses were on perfectly straight streets, each home divided to suit, really a marvel considering when it was built. Take your mind away from that and you have a modern townhouse subdivision. I enjoyed it tremendously, with a preference given to the sculptures, the artwork, the columns and the amphitheatres.
The site is amazingly well preserved given what happened and how old it is. I guess the thing that hit home the most was an area where they had laid out casts of bodies, men, women and children, frozen and covered in ash as a testament to what this is all about.
We had been reasonably lucky to this point. It was hot but not unbearably so. Although it was busy, the crowds were not too bad while we were there. At about 3 o’clock that changed dramatically as several tour buses pulled up. As the hordes filed in, we decided it was time for us to file out.
The next day we visited the Isle of Capri. The approach to Capri on the ferry is beautiful. As you dock you see the cliffs that rise right from the water, a la Na Pali Kauai. The homes, shops, etc. of the town are built right up the side of the cliff to the top. On the other hand I found the port of Capri annoying. It consists of basically one street lined with souvenir shops, restaurants, boat cruise outlets and taxis; lots of taxis.
So, what to do? About the only people who didn’t jump us the moment we set foot on dry land were the people who ran the Grotta Azzurra cruises. One young man approached us and very casually pointed to the booth commenting, “Not very crowded today.” The price was quite reasonable at 13 Euros each for a cruise around the entire island. Now, I had my heart set on seeing those huge rocks in the water so this trip was a no brainer.
We hopped on board with maybe 50 people, got a great seat on the starboard side right at the back; two clear view lines. This cruise stopped for 45 minutes at the Grotta Azzurra for anyone who wanted to take a supplemental 10 Euro excursion by rowboat into the grotto. Leaving from Marina Grande, and it certainly is, we passed by the boy on the rock, a statue set to welcome visitors to the Isle of Capri.
We went around the tip of the island, passing several grottas of various colours, past a natural arch to Faraglioni, three towering rock formations I so desperately wanted to see. As we passed through the arch in the centre I smiled and thought, my journey here is complete, my sons have cruised through this very point and now we were blessed to be able to do the same.
As we arrived at the Grotta Azzurra my initial thought to go in stopped as we noted there were about two dozen boats there, all waiting with passengers to load five at a time into the half dozen tiny rowboats waiting to usher them into the grotto. Those that went in returned in about five minutes and the last thing I wanted was photos lined with people in rowboats, so we waited onboard in the gorgeous Italian sun.
As we disembarked back at Marina Grande, we were swarmed by cab drivers, waiters waving menus and souvenir hawkers. We waved them all away because we had but one mission – we wanted to take the incline railway up to the actual town of Capri. We bought the tickets and from the time we got them in our hands to the time we got to the funicolare 90 seconds later, about 1000 people showed up. Two things wrong here. Number one, I’m not waiting an hour for this crowd to be dispersed, and number two, I don’t want to be at the top when this horde is unleashed on Capri. What should we do? The boat didn’t leave for Sorrento for another hour and a half. Hey, we’ll walk up! How hard can that be? Before we undertook the hike up the cliff we returned the funicolare tickets for a refund, which amazingly, they gave us. Well, about 20 minutes and 500 stairs later we dragged our butts onto Capri’s main street lined with restaurants and very upscale clothing stores. Do you really need a Prada store in a tourist location like this?
It was getting to about 20 minutes before the boat left so we decided we had better take the funicolare down to save time. So, we could have saved those tickets after all. By the way, it is not advised to walk UP to Capri and take the funicolare DOWN. It really would be preferable to do it the other way around. We noticed a gym in Capri across the street from the funicolare. What the hell do you need a gym for when you have 500 steps to run up and down if you want?
Back in port in Sorrento we were once again faced with finding the meeting place for the hotel shuttle. I am embarrassed to admit that we wandered into the same fruit market for directions where we asked the same question yesterday. We were dressed in the same safari outfits that we wore yesterday (we had washed them out) so I guess the clerk had a mean Groundhog Day, déjà vu thing goin’ on.
On the final day I was sitting on the balcony with a glass of wine having just returned from an awesome drive along the fabulous Amalfi Coast. Again, it was something I had always wanted to do and it really is spectacular scenery.
It was extremely busy and not even close to the terrifying drive that we had so often heard. This reference seemed to be to the fact that you are high up on the cliffs with a sheer drop off on the Mediterranean side. All very true, but there’s a two foot high one foot wide concrete wall all the way along. I found it more difficult coming back as you are forced into the mountain every time someone cuts a turn a little wide.
The road winds continuously to Amalfi some 30 kilometers away. There are a lot of large tour buses on the Amalfi coast run and, considering it was now the “shoulder” season, we saw about 100 of them. Some of the curves in the road are a little tight for them and once in a while you’ll see one stuck on a turn. It appears to be common courtesy to yield to the buses in all situations. To help make that happen on very congested sections, like through the narrow streets of the towns, they have what I affectionately referred to as “bus police.” They are crazed employees who run out onto the road frantically waving a little sign about the size of an orange with a red dot on it.
As if that wasn’t enough; shortly after, I go cruising by a line of what I thought were parked cars up to the next guard post. This one was a man who was very calm about the situation. Not only had I gone by the “parked” cars that were actually the line of traffic stopped for the bus, but about a half a dozen cars filled in behind me. So he walks down the whole line shouting, “Dido,dido,” for everyone to back up and get in the stopped line. Damn tourists!
The return drive was uneventful. The views on the way back were equally as spectacular as they were going to Amalfi. I’m glad we did Pompei and Capri earlier. They were probably both a mega zoo today. We made one last trip into Sorrento on the shuttle. Let’s hope we can find the meeting place without upsetting that gal in the fruit market again.
Much more travel writing by this author in his book, That Road Trip Book.