Spring Break: Amalfi Coast to Rome

14 Nov

I know this is obscenely overdue, but here it is — the final chapter of my spring break adventures from back in April!

When I woke up in Sorrento, I discovered that my “deluxe hostel” also had an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, complete with tasty Italian pastries and various sugar-loaded cakes. At the time, I didn’t realize that it cost an extra 5 Euros, but it was totally worth it.

The rain had cleared up and Sorrento was under bright blue skies. There is a certain charm to the place, in spite of being completely geared towards tourism. I guess at this point in the trip, I was used to hyper-touristy Italian cities and was just glad that this one was smaller and more intimate than most.

In my mind, there are two particularly peculiar aspects of Sorrento. First of all, it is inundated with Anglophones — Brits, Americans, Australians, etc. (and about 99% of them are over age 45, which shouldn’t come as a surprise for a top Rick Steves recommendation). Secondly, Sorrento has an obscene amount of stray animals — hordes of dirty cats watch you walk down the street, as you try to avoid the not-so-friendly-looking dogs running towards you. It’s sad.

Anyway, the primary reason I stayed in Sorrento was to see the Amalfi Coast, which didn’t disappoint. I boarded a bus loaded with an international cornucopia of (mostly aged) tourists. As chance would have it, a French kid sat next to me. But I was focused on the view from the window as the bus climbed up to the high, winding coastal road.

Ah! The views…

The scenery was absolutely spectacular. Comparable to, and perhaps even surpassing the Pacific Coast Highway.

However, the view was rendered slightly less enjoyable by the inevitable motion sickness caused by driving along this twisting, winding cliffside road. The road is remarkably narrow – barely wide enough to fit two cars, nevermind a bus – and the locals speed around corners like maniacs. The tunnels that pass through sections of cliff are even narrower than the road itself, which led to an interesting event that I’ll mention in a bit.

My first stop was Positano, a town whose lightly-colored Mediterranean houses are organically situated upon a staircase of rock that descends into the sea. Both the landscape and the architecture were quite different from what I had seen up to this point in the north of Italy. Of course, Positano is another tourist magnet, but I was thoroughly enchanted by its attractively decorated shops and enflowered walkways leading to the beach. There was a pleasant, almost exotic ambiance here — the feel was more “Eastern” than anything I’d experienced before, almost looking more like Greece than Cinque Terre.

But the biggest draw was the sea. I had never seen such beautiful, bright azure-tinted water with my own eyes. I followed a small cliffside path, covered with shy little green lizards, to a quiet beach distant from the hustle and bustle of the town. There were only about two other people on the beach, and I just plopped down on the rocks somewhere and enjoyed the sun’s warmth. After all the hectic moving around I had done on this trip, it was a delightful moment of peace and reflection. The bright blue water, the crash of the waves … I’m undeniably drawn to the ocean and it has a profound introspective impact on me.

After a very tranquil respite, I returned to the town and bought a lemon slushie from one of the local street vendors. They were using real, locally-grown lemons so I had to give it a try. Quite good. I then bought a bus ticket to Amalfi from a very friendly shopkeeper, who provided me with a delightful little history lesson on the region in Italian. He asked me if I was Italian, which I assume is a positive evaluation of my language skills.

I hopped on the bus towards Amalfi, the next town along the coast. The ride revealed even more dramatic scenery as we wound along the  road, passing castle ruins and a tiny beach wedged between two huge cliffs (one of which was decorated with a perpetual manger scene).

Amalfi’s bright white houses stood out in stark contrast to the green landscape and blue water. Although seemingly smaller than Positano, the town was even more bustling with tourists. I was a little put off, since there wasn’t really anywhere to escape the crowds. The exterior of Amalfi’s cathedral was stunning, but you had to pay to go inside. I ended up just getting a tasty calzone and eating it by the sea while waiting for the bus back to Sorrento.

The ride back to Sorrento was nothing short of an experience. The trouble largely began when our bus was about to enter one of the coastal road’s narrow tunnels, only to stop just in time to avoid a head-on collision with an oncoming bus. The problem was that the tunnel opened up to a sharp corner in the road, so it was very difficult for either bus driver to manoeuvre into a position to let the other one pass. The oncoming bus managed to leave a gap for the cars behind it to pass, and then decided that the best option would be to drive backwards along the cliffside road.

The oncoming bus started speeding in reverse, apparently quite confident that there wouldn’t be any cars behind it. The bus driver had to back up to a spot where the road was straight enough and wide enough for our bus to pass it, which wasn’t an easy task. He must have driven backwards at for at least 5 minutes before we managed to pass him, stopping occasionally to let perplexed motorists in his lane go by.

The initial bottleneck had already caused our bus a delay, but we were stopped for an additional 15 minutes or so when we reached a traffic jam on the road. I never discovered the reason; but I think it was either road work or fallen rocks. The most amusing thing to me was that during this whole ordeal of a trip, our bus driver was extremely amused by everything that was happening and didn’t show one sign of frustration. When we were stuck in traffic he just got out, had a smoke and chatted with some of the passengers.

Back in Sorrento, I enjoyed another relaxing night with a room to myself. Although I intended to get up early the next day with the purpose of seeing Pompeii, the best laid plans of mice and men… Instead I slept in and decided I would rather have more time in Rome than stop in Pompeii for just a couple of hours. Although I felt a little disappointed, ultimately I think it was a good decision.

It was kind of slow-goings from Sorrento to Naples to Rome, but I was happy when I arrived in the capital. It took me a while to find my hostel because it wasn’t very well-signed (the bottom floor was a café), but I called and made very good use of my Italian skills. It was warm and I was sweaty from carrying all my bags around, so the hostel owner kindly gave me a free Coke. I was shown my room and then I set off to explore the Eternal City.

My first target was the Colosseum. As I rounded a corner, it emerged right in front of me, in all its glory. It’s a very magical moment when you first set eyes on such an iconic structure — the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge — and the Colosseum was no exception. It definitely lives up to its iconic status — this thing is big. I got goosebumps and/or butterflies just looking at it. I was in freaking Rome.

I decided not to go into the Colosseum right away, but rather to get a more general overview of the city first. I had two more days in Rome, which was considerably more time than I’d spent anywhere else on this trip. As I walked past the Imperial Forum, I was simply overwhelmed. Sure, there were tourists everywhere, but the sheer awesomeness of the ubiquitous Roman architecture overshadowed any sense of “kitsch.” I had no idea that this part of central Rome was so well-preserved and undeveloped. It was incredible.

One of my few complaints about Rome is that it is not very pedestrian-friendly. There is a lack of crosswalks, even sidewalks, and walk signals; to aggravate things, the drivers are very aggressive and your chances of having one stop for you are next to zero. As I remarked to my Italian friend Claudia, “È pericoloso camminare a Roma!”

As I passed by the impressive Victor Emmanuel monument and headed towards the Tiber, it started to rain. Not a downpour, but just enough to make my evening stroll through Rome even more romantic. I found shelter beneath the virtual forest of trees along the Tiber, which was a pleasant surprise — the Seine could learn a thing or two. As the sun went down and the street lamps went on, the light reflecting on the wet cobblestones was magical.

I zig-zagged my way through Medieval Rome’s cobblestone streets, towards the Piazza Navona and the Campo de’ Fiori. The evening sky was incredible; first, the pink and blue hues of sunset clashed against massive, white cumulus clouds. As the light faded away, the sky turned an amazing dark, cobalt blue. The illuminated fountains at the Piazza Navona were just magical at this time.

I grabbed some kind of square pizza (I think) for dinner and sat at the foot of the Giordano Bruno statue in the Campo de’ Fiori whilst I ate it. I watched a group of French schoolchildren taunt and terrorize one of those “statue” street performers, although he remained completely still throughout (even when the kids pretended to kick over his money can). Eventually, though, the dramatic evening sky took a turn for the worse and it began to thunder and downpour. The street performer got out of costume and took off, and I followed his lead.

Even though I was getting soaked as I made my way back to my hostel, there was a certain romance to it all nonetheless. The lights, the rain, the thunder and lightning — there was no question that I was in the Eternal City. It felt epic. I passed through the beautifully illuminated Piazza della Repubblica before reaching my hostel, where I encountered my roommates – three college-aged Canadians from Ottawa who were drinking and blasting hip hop when I walked in.

They seemed friendly enough when we were introduced, but it didn’t take long to realise that they were pathetic jerks. The course of their conversation turned to their various sexploits and plans for the evening — each one of them expected to seduce an Italian girl and take her back to the room, and their subsequent descriptions were a little too graphic to post here. I dreaded the idea of waking up at 3am to you-know-what, but I just laughed to myself when they all came back in the middle of the night empty-handed and surprised about it.

The next morning I discovered a lovely little Roman sculpture garden nearby, then plotted a course between some of the big tourist attractions — the enchanting but inevitably overcrowded Fontana di Trevi, the ancient Pantheon, the Medieval Castel Sant’Angelo, and ultimately the Vatican. These latter two, in particular, were most impressive and grandiose.

Before crossing the Tiber to visit the Castel Sant’Angelo, I decided to eat lunch along the edge of the river. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be quite as popular in Rome as it is in Paris, so most of my company were rather sketchy homeless characters. The biggest disappointment, however, was that I accidentally dropped my precious bottle of water into the Tiber and watched it float downstream. I felt doubly bad because I was contributing to what is already a rather dirty river.

I headed to the mighty Castel and enjoyed its sweeping panoramic views of the city. From there it was on to the Vatican — I didn’t realise that you could literally walk straight in via a main boulevard, but it was cool to see the flags suddenly change from Italian to Vatican. Nuns and priests were sprinkled in among the hordes of tourists, and there were a lot of fancy cars about — I guess not everyone takes a vow of poverty. St. Peter’s was impressive and imposing from outside, and the line to get inside was just as impressive and imposing.

I survived the queue and entered the massive basilica. The ubiquitous Renaissance artwork was overwhelming. It was impossible to get a sense of the hugeness of all the statues and other artwork dozens of feet above me. Still, I was a little disappointed … I much preferred the mystique of the Gothic cathedrals I had visited in France and England. The architecture just appeals to me a lot more, I guess.

I caught a glimpse of the silly Swiss Guard, then practically blinked and was out of the Vatican, whereupon I got somewhat lost on the western side of the Tiber and couldn’t find the entrance to the Gianicolo. But I did find the Fontana dell’Acqua and enjoyed the impressive view. I began the long descent towards the river and back into the heart of Rome towards the Roman Forum.

Luckily, entrance to the Forum and the Colosseum was free on this particular day. Unfortunately, it was getting late, so I had to rush a little to see as much as I could before everything closed. I’m not sure if I had ever really paid attention to what the interior of the Colosseum looked like on TV before, so it seemed different I guess. I eavesdropped for a few minutes on a guided tour and realised that it would’ve been so worth the extra money — instead I was just walking along, trying to take everything in and read the little signs here and there, but mostly just overwhelmed.

Some Spanish tourists also asked me to take their picture, but with all the people in the Colosseum I couldn’t tell who was in their group and who wasn’t. Judging by the looks on their faces when I handed them back the camera, I think I included way too many people in the group shot whom they didn’t even know; they were on the rightmost edge of the frame.

From the Colosseum I headed to the Forum, once again completely overwhelmed (and mesmerised) by the ubiquitous ruins. But the late afternoon lighting was very dramatic and the mystique of the place was awesome. I just couldn’t get my mind to imagine what it looked like two millennia ago, partly because I really had no idea what I was looking at most of the time.

My next mission was to reach the park overlooking the Piazza del Popolo before sunset. Rome has an extremely limited subway system, but it would take me where I wanted to go. I got stuck behind some confused American tourists at the ticket machine, but still managed to reach the Piazza on time. Lovey-dovey couples abounded at the best sunset viewpoint in Rome (or so I’m told) and had to fend off aggressive Bangladeshi rose salesmen.

The sun set and filled the sky with a yellow and orange glow, as the lights of the city turned on one by one.

The next morning, I rendezvoused with my old Roman friend Claudia from Sussex. She was gracious enough to give me a tour of her city, including some of the more “authentic” parts of Rome and her old stomping grounds. We visited the beautifully enflowered Spanish Steps and gradually walked our way to an authentic Roman restaurant for lunch, which Claudia very kindly treated me to. The appetizer of salumi (mixed meat – a very Italian thing), bruschetta and beans was excellent; the penne alla carbonara was incredibly cheesy; and the tiramisu was the best I’ve ever tasted in my life.

It was a really hot day and we had done a lot of walking already, so we headed to the Gianicolo for some shade. Claudia shared her childhood memories of watching the puppet show. We then headed to another park where she had spent much of her childhood, the sprawling grounds of a former villa. It was both a Saturday and the Day of Liberation, so the park was full of Italian families. It was astonishing — while most of Rome was crawling with tourists, I suddenly discovered where all of the real Italians were.

The villa grounds were enchanting. Huge shade trees blocked out the harsh sun and all the greenery was delightful. I was so happy that I got to see this side of Rome that I would never have known about.

From there, Claudia accompanied me to the bus stop that would take me back to my hostel. I don’t remember how long we waited for the bus, but it must have been at least half an hour. We reasoned that there might have been a limited schedule due to the holiday. Claudia was nice enough to wait with me the whole time!

I returned to my hostel, which I must point out was not situated in the nicest part of the city by any means. I had never really felt unsafe anytime during my travels until this point; I think I witnessed two separate arrests in the area around my hostel. Oh well – the hostel was cheap!

I had to leave sometime around 4 in the morning to catch my bus to the airport. For some reason the bus driver was playing Amy Winehouse, which was an odd soundtrack for a 4 a.m. ride to the Ciampino airport. Anyway, I said goodbye to Italy as I boarded my plane for Paris. I was happy to be going back “home,” especially after such an exhilirating and busy Spring Break, but I also felt a strong desire to return to Italy.

My opinions on the country are mixed, in large part because I was turned off by the touristiness of the big cities and many other areas. Some Italians lament the lack of respect their countrymen have for property and cleanliness (i.e. graffiti, litter, etc.) and I think this does reduce the aesthetic appeal of many areas (Naples is probably the best example). Rome was my favourite city, but I felt that the touristiness even here was a little too much — it didn’t seem to have as many “authentic” areas in the heart of the city where you can escape the tourists, which is much easier in Paris IMO.

The subpar train system was also a little annoying, although it didn’t screw up my schedule too much. But I did really enjoy the incredible amount of history in the cities and the stunning beauty of the more rural areas I visited (Lake Como, Cinque Terre, Tuscany, Amalfi Coast). I was very interested by the cultural differences between North and South (old southern men in suits walking arm-in-arm? How Godfather). Italians seem to be an honest, outgoing people; the sense of propriety is also not as strict as in France. While some Italians called me “ragazzo,” or “giovane,” I would always be a “monsieur” to the French (although I guess I did hear “jeune homme” on occasion).

I really want to go back to Italy to get a broader view of the country. I particularly want to visit areas that are not as popular with the tourists. And I miss speaking Italian.

Photos:

Amalfi Coast – Part I

Amalfi Coast – Part II

Rome – Part I

Rome – Part II

Rome – Part III

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