Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Monday, November 5, 2012

Middle Italy

We didn't like Napoli. We wanted to, we really wanted, but the place left me puzzled. We wanted to like it because we liked Marcello, Mihaela's boyfriend, he is from Napoli, in love with his city, he wanted us to stay here longer and he gave us advice of how to enjoy it. Antonio, the owner of our rented apartment, welcomed us to the "la città più bella del mondo!!" I think he and many other locals believe it, but raising the expectations like that is a sure recipe for disappointment. The city has some attractions and many significant problems that nobody can deny. It is dirty, crowded, noisy and dangerous. Probably the most unsafe destination so far, it didn't hold us back too much, but we kept the cameras inside, watched our bags and backs all the time, avoided most of the back alleys, crossed the street with extreme caution. At times it reminded us of the bad parts of India, maybe we forgot some things, but Napoli seemed worse. And lucky us we didn't even have a garbage collectors strike. The four huge containers across from our apartment were emptied Sunday afternoon and in a few hours were overflowing again. These people are able to produce unlimited quantities of rubbish and they don't even realize.

The gulf of Salerno

Flying in from Venice we first bypassed the city (read Maria's post on the most adventurous boarding so far).
We rented a car and drove South toward Pompeii. We passed that, drove for another half an hour and stopped in a tiny village up the mountain, above Salerno. That was our base for three nights. I parked the rented car in the street, as close as possible to the stone wall and we said a prayer. Nothing happened to the car in the next three nights. Our host, Andrea, was not surprised, but I was. The cold and the rain from Florence caught us here and the apartment didn't have any heat. The first morning looked fine. We went to Pompeii. We finished our visit soaked and the rain kept getting worse.
Maybe we'll have some luck with the weather
We all had a similar first reaction, astonished. We never pictured before how big it is, how high are the remaining walls, how much is there to see. Many of the old streets were closed and even so there were many houses to visit, my audio walking tour did a pretty good job of helping us imagine how it once was. The fast food court, the bakery, the plumbing are little details that warm up the place. Everywhere else in the world, ruins are temples and palaces only.
Images of Pompeii

Pompeii was rediscovered during the 18th century. At that time Napoli had a lazy Bourbon king. He wanted to see what it was found and they took it to him. The best sculptures, mosaics and friezes from Pompeii remained since then in Napoli. We would see those later.

Back "home" in Vietri sur Mare we spent the late afternoon and the evening huddled around the oven, the only source of heat, moving the clothes around so they would dry. The sun was back next morning, a perfect weather for the next destination. Paestum, south of Salerno, the biggest and best preserved Greek ruins in Western Europe. Way out of the way, this World Heritage Site is well known, well marked, and we were not the only tourists! One of the more important Greek colonies of the past, it had three huge temples and they are all standing in pretty good shape. It is not clear to whom these temples were dedicated, there are some clues left but does it matter anymore? We remembered our recent trip to Athens, the naming contest between Athena and Poseidon. Athena won, she got Athens, Poseidon got the second choice. This is the former city of Poseidonia! The Romans came in the second century BC, they renamed the place Paestum. They preserved the temples, they thought is bad luck to mess with other religions. They built living quarters and military structures around, they discovered some old graves and they circled them with a wall and buried them under a pile of dirt. Almost like preserving them for the modern world to rediscover. In the grave there were nine amphoras with honey and when it was discovered in the 20th century, the honey was still good. As we already learned, the Christians did not have the same respect for previous cultures. As usual they destroyed most of the statues and changed the temples in churches, but something intervened. Paestum was in a swamp area infested by malaria carrying mosquitos, so the inhabitants abandoned it, moved up the hill and left the best preserved ruins for us to enjoy.

There is a museum on site and we spent a couple of hours in there, refreshing and adding to what we just learned in Greece. (Link here)

We returned on a different road, by the sea. It is an interesting road, every 2 minutes there is a sign toward the beach, but we couldn't see anything, there was a continuous, huge, planted forest. The little roads toward the sea were all blocked or marked with a sign for no access from November 1st to March 31st. We just missed it, it was November 2nd! Eventually I found a place were we pulled over and walked to say hello to the Tyrrhenian Sea. It must be nice in the summer and very different then what I expected, it is flat land with sand and trees.

You know, besides ruins we came here for the Amalfi Coast. It starts just a few kilometers North from our village, but there is nothing like that going South. We stopped to buy mozzarella de buffala from a farm. It is famous, the region is famous because of it and it cannot be any fresher than what we got. We hurried home to try it.

Mozzarella de buffala

Then, time to move again. We said goodbye to Andrea, I went up the hill for more than a kilometer to retrieve the car, then I drove another one to find some place to turn it around. Ileana and the children took all the luggage and looked for a bend in the road to wait and jump in. It makes no sense to describe this and nobody can imagine the kind of roads they have in the area. You have to try it, but this is not fun. All the local cars are scratched, dented or bent - not an option for a rental.
There is one lane left for traffic on this mountain road
And we got on the Amalfi Coast. It is a World Heritage Site, mainly because of its beauty, but also for some historical reasons. I won't get into a technical description of what this is. I won't try to describe the challenges that it puts, there isn't a way to picture this. I read many descriptions and I was still unprepared. It's a road where, especially in the summer, drivers are advised to put the keys away and hop on a bus. At this time of the year supposedly it is manageable. It is a narrow twisting road, high above the sea, with gorgeous landscapes and picturesque villages. At some bends there are policemen directing the traffic and folding the mirrors on the cars so they can pass by each other. It is pretty much the only access so it is very congested, with no passing lanes and with very few pull outs.
I drove - I was privileged and disadvantaged in the same time. I had to direct all my attention to driving so I could hardly enjoy the views, but I knew, most of the time, that we won't be hit by that bus, or we won't fall into that ravine. The rest of my family just hoped, prayed and trusted me the best they could. It was much more beautiful than I expected, but much harder than I could imagine and after a couple of hours, after less than twenty kilometers I said I had enough. There were no complaints, everybody was happy to get out of there. We took one of the few roads that get away from the coast, crossed a few mountains over many more serpentines and finally got to the highway. We had more planned to see.
Finally we can stop to take a picture

Leaving Amalfi Coast
We went to Herculaneum. Not as famous as Pompeii, the former Roman city was buried in the same eruption. But it was different and someone should see both and compare. It had a fifth of the population of Pompeii, just about 4000 people, richer ones. It was covered in mud, not in ash, so the ruins are preserved differently. And it is great!

Mount Vesuvius

We liked it and we took our time. Meanwhile, we were glancing at the guilty fellow, Mount Vesuvius, covered in clouds. We wanted to make it to the top and take a look into the caldera. There was not enough time and with the clouds we probably wouldn't have seen much. We barely made it in time to return the car to the airport and then we took a bus into the city of Napoli. It wasn't all horrible, we had fun as soon as we got in. A van was double parked in the middle of the road and our driver couldn't get through the busy intersection. He started to honk. Everybody else joined in the honking. It took 10 minutes, enough time to see Neapolitans in action. Especially the driver. He really enjoyed annoying everybody with his useless honking. Then he called somebody and started to complain. His story was getting bigger and bigger, when a policewoman came, he was already claiming to have waited for 15 minutes. We've only been there for five. It took another five to maneuver the bus around that van and we got on. The center of the town is a construction site, the bus stopped much further than we expected. By the time we got to the apartment we walked through most of the center...

Antonio had the top of his right index finger cut off. There are Japanese mafia clans who do that to punish their members who stray off, I have no idea if the Camorra (mafia neapolitana) is doing that. The guidebook says that Mafia exists, it is not a fairy tale or a movie plot and Antonio's finger was the first thing I noticed. He was a very nice gentleman and he had a really good apartment in the most awkward position. We walked on a pedestrian-only street, Via Chiaia. Then we saw a bridge, right over the street, got in a building and took an elevator to the only stop at the sixth floor. It took 2 minutes, they had nice music. When we got out, from the top of the building we walked into a busy one lane, one way street, that was the bridge we saw earlier. After 20 meters, right in the street it was the entrance to Antonio's place, which was somehow connected to another six-story building. We entered at the first level and had another level below, that is below the street, but with view toward a tiny interior garden. I cannot explain it and I could never understand the connections there. With the crazy noise outside it was surprising how quiet our place was.
We stayed right there on the right top side of the bridge

Antonio took his time to tell us everything we had to see in Napoli. There is so much history, so many interesting attractions - it was overwhelming, so the next day we got away! We went to Capri.

The Blue Grotto. My wife was afraid to visit. She and my daughters read a fantastic book about Capri and the grotto and they knew everything about it. They could go on and on quoting the book. After learning about it and seeing some pictures on the web Ioan wanted to see it in person. OK, the two of us would go and take Maria with us. Ileana didn't want it. Mom was surprised that Maria accepted, wasn't she afraid that she'll be disappointed? Maria said that she could handle it and we started to pressure Mom. Smiling, she admitted that she actually wanted to go. Back to Ileana, Ioan was able to change her mind really fast.

It is a very expensive destination. It is all touristic and I cannot imagine what someone would do there for more than a day. But it's pretty. We did a complete boat tour of the island, the Blue Grotto was closed because of high tide. We were afraid of that and knew that it happens most of the time. We saw the entrance to it, it was tiny, we could have swam in. It is illegal and there were witnesses. Then we went to the highest point, by funicular, passed over people houses, looked around, came down to Capri town, had some ice-cream and returned by foot to the port. We were back in Napoli at 4.30 pm. We were hungry and on a mission.
Vesuvius in the morning, leaving the port

We ate original pizza. What does it mean? The real one, made in the same restaurant and in the same manner as it was invented more than 100 years ago. There is competition across the street and Marcello also recommended a restaurant, but this is the real one. The one that I knew about even before Elizabeth Gilbert wrote "Eat, Pray, Love" or Julia Roberts starred in the movie. There was a crowd in the street, waiting to be seated. I took a number, it could have been two hours away. I went inside, checked with the cashier and bought three portions. We ate it there, on some dirty steps, Mom holding all three boxes on her knees and the four of us standing around her. None of us were enthused, but I liked it and I declared it a new kind of food. It was good, with chewy, gummy dough, melted fresh "mozzarella de buffala" and a tomato sauce a little bit sour and refreshing. They bake it in a wooden stove, turning it around near burning charcoal. We were warned that after tasting it we would never ever want another kind of pizza. Nah. The "original" is something different from what the rest of the world calls pizza. Everybody is safe.

Our apartment was so central that I never figured out the public transportation options. We had to walk 45 minutes to our place, we got lost on tiny dark little alleys, the ones that we were supposed to avoid. We finally found some grocery stores and we also watched how people live, almost in the street. It was pretty scary.

Then the rain came back. In better weather we might have done more on our last day.

We walked all the way to the Archeological Museum on Via Toledo, another famous pedestrian street. It was pretty empty late Sunday morning with nothing of interest to us.

When we got to the museum we first looked on a board listing the galleries and the closure times. Because they do not have enough attendants they close some rooms early and that made our schedule. Established at the beginning of 19th century in an impressive former university, the museum is famous for the objects moved here from Pompeii and Herculaneum, but it also has a great gallery of Greek and Roman sculpture from the Thermes of Caracalla in Rome. Most statues are bigger than life, with an assortment of white and colored marble. The most interesting is Toro Farnese, the tallest marble group of the antiquity, restored by Michelangelo!

The most pleasant surprise was a recently upgraded gallery of frescoes from Pompeii, we spent a couple of hours looking at everything. An adjacent gallery has silver and bronze items along with various objects of daily use, recovered in very good condition.

The most famous part of the museum, the gallery of mosaics from Pompeii is surprisingly small yet very interesting, and then we saw a collection of statues from the Villa dei Papyri in Herculaneum. Listed like this, it might not say much, but to us, fresh from the tour of Pompeii and Herculaneum, it meant a lot. We were able to complete the picture and get some understanding of the roman life of 2000 years ago.

Detail of the Alexander Macedon mosaic

The Archeological Museum in Napoli

We guarded our pockets and our backs but on three occasions people tried to fool us. First at one toll booth on the highway. Gypsies took over the automated gates. One told me that the machine doesn't work with coins, I have to put a 10 euro bill. She handed me the rest, 4 coins, but instead of 8 euros she only gave me four. I instantly unclipped my safety belt to open the door, she apologized and gave me the other 4 euros. She was hoping people would be in a hurry and not notice, or tourists like us wouldn't know that there is only one fixed fee, of 2 euros. Then at the little grocery store, the cashier was singing an American song out loud, she appeared having a good time, she didn't even look at us, but the change was 10 euro short. She apologized and gave me the correct change, but it is hard to believe her. And last, at the museum, the cashier gave us three free tickets (for the children) and didn't give me the ones that we paid 16 euros for. I went back to him, he apologized and corrected his mistake. This being Napoli, again, I didn't take it as a mistake, he probably could have used the 16€. Maybe this happens often, maybe that's why they only accept cash.

Monday morning we left for Rome, happy to get out of here. Sorry Marcello, we tried...
Dancing and jumping on our way to the train station. We are going to Rome!

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