Monday, June 20, 2016

The Jewel

Like a previous trip I have been extremely remiss in not staying current on these posts.  However I did use that wonder App called Track My Tour (please tell Chris that I sent you if you check it out) which did a much better job.  Here is the link to this part of the trip -- Click here.


Having taken one look at the road and even walked a decent chunk of it into and out of Amalfi from our apartment, the last thing we wanted to do was rent Vespas to scoot along the coast road like I said I'd quite like doing.  I've had a Vespa before in Bermuda and it was great and I could just imagine the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn thing with Viv on the back and the wind through our hair...  But in those days there wasn't much traffic.

Norman castle on the way to Positano.  Never a shabby view in sight.
That's the thing for even at this time of the year which is NOT high season, the roads are pretty jammed particularly when the buses and coaches get going.  We'd failed miserably trying to work out when or even where the buses went from Amalfi even though we had tickets and Amalfi was a sort of terminus for buses in the region.  We discovered we'd either just missed the hourly bus, or it was full, or even that the direction that we thought we wanted was in fact the diametrically opposite direction.  So much for bloody GPS and no maps.  It may help you finding some place but it gives you zero idea of where you are at any given point in time or where anything else is in relation to where you are.  (Apologies for this digression, we actually didn't have a GPS or car at this moment so this is more of a general rant rather than specific to where we were at this time.  This was brought about more through total lack of the language rather than anything else).

So thanks to Daniele again who suggested he should take us up and down the coast but start early because of the crowds who started to arrive in the big coaches after 11 am or so.  By that time he said we should be up in the mountains doing some other really fun stuff and of course that little surprise without which no day is complete.

Sounded good to us so we hit Positano around 9 am when we could both find parking down town and be fairly tourist free (other than us of course).

Positano is the jewel according to many and it really is very, very charming.  Water taxis go up and down the coast all the time too so if we'd been a little more energetic, we could have done that too.  But like everything else they go only once an hour and after 10 am are jam packed full so getting on isn't guaranteed at all.

It is very steep though.  Very, very steep actually.  Far more so than other little villages.  I asked Daniele why it was so popular and he said that it was down to the Americans really who were stationed here in WWII.  There wasn't a road into or out of the village so it was accessible only from the water and was hence virtually deserted.  The Roman road went up in the mountains by-passing the village.  So the GI's built a single lane road into and out of Positano which was widened (Ha!) post war to two lanes and there you are.

One thing I found interesting were the Siren Rocks just past the ubiquitous Norman watchtower.  This is where the Sirens lived and tortured poor old Odysseus in mythology.

The specks are the Siren Rocks, not very big really.  Of course it was the wind whistling between the rocks that created the 'music' of the Sirens.  Mythology sounds so much more interesting than the reality.
It was said that it was the sweetness of their singing that lured sailors to their doom on the rocks and one of the three Sirens took a fancy to Odysseus so cranked up the volume.  He managed to avoid temptation by sticking corks into his ears and sailed on safely.  Great story.  Here's The Cream singing about it!

Local industry other than tourism (90%+) is lace and sandal making.  Every shoe shop had hand made sandals for 15 euros.  Talk about Sirens sweetly singing!  Torture of a different kind for poor Viv.

But what a cool and lovely place it was.  We have to come back and spend some more time there.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lemons, lemons and more lemons... oh yes, and paper as well

Like a previous trip I have been extremely remiss in not staying current on these posts.  However I did use that wonder App called Track My Tour (please tell Chris that I sent you if you check it out) which did a much better job.  Here is the link to this part of the trip -- Click here.


You really cannot talk about this part of the world without talking about lemons... and of course the Romans and the Egyptians from whom they 'acquired' the plants and knowledge of how to grow them to this wondrous size and taste.  For you can eat the whole thing, including pith and skin which actually to me tasted rather like delicious lemony biscuits.  The pulp isn't too sour either, nor is it sweet.  Just that happy mid-point between sweet and sour.  Locals here eat them with salt.  Absolutely delicious!

In our stay we had quite a bit of spare time to bimble in between the tours organised for us by Daniele and as much of the time after Paestum was dry and sunny, it was really nice to just bimble up and down the valley in Amalfi.

The town itself is probably no more than 50 metres wide either side of the river floor up the sides of the mountains and the streets are of course very narrow.  Once you pass 1/2 mile or so up from the sea front, the houses start to come to an end and the path, or rather steps, start to get steeper... and steeper.

This is the path that the townspeople used to use when they were running away from the pirates to the little town on top of the mountain -- which may be Ravello or some other little village.

Today of course it is peace personified.

Amalfi was/is famous for paper as well as lemons.  Well they do have that river and ravine after all.  The technique for paper making was brought in from the Muslims in the 12th century (who'd learned it from the Chinese) and with trees and river, you'd have thought everything was perfect... except that it wasn't/isn't made from trees at all.  Rather other plants.  Well actually old clothes which were made out of flax and other plant material.  First of all bleach white with urine and then...

There's a paper museum in the town that I thought would be awful but it was actually fantastic.  They showed us how in this mill (right on the outskirts of town) that they diverted the river to aid the process, the stretching and drying racks and all the rest of it.  The Pope's writing paper is still from these parts.

There used to be 70 paper mills on this river, none today but the plants still remain dotting the landscape up the side of the mountains on the little footpaths into the hills.  They are now fully integrated into the landscape like the lemon plantations stepped up the valley from Amalfi proper.

Pretty amazing sight to see the steps all the way up like that.  The covers are to protect the lemon trees from both sun and frost but as we discovered not everything is well in the land of the lemon.

Daniele had organised a lemon tour for us and so we met Salvatore, an ex-tax guy from Positano who took the business over from his 82 year old dad 3 years ago.  Jam packed full of anecdotes and information, he was withering about the EU primarily and how regulations favoured large companies and hindered small ones to the point where most farmers in the area no longer bothered farming properly so a lot of those covers you see over lemon trees could have been there 5 years or more.  The plants underneath would be rotten by now (his farm is the biggest locally and was in the process of taking the screens off to give better access to nice warm air vital in this stage of cultivation).


Anyway I could go on endlessly about the EU's malign influence here but take away just a couple of things that he told us.  First is about sheep.  Why sheep?  Well the lemon trees are farmed on steps and create a lovely shady screen.  Under the screen the grass and weeds have to be kept down so the old way was to let sheep roam at will.  They couldn't use goats as they eat down to the roots whilst sheep crop the top.  Goats would turn the place into a desert as they have in many parts of Africa, for example.  The sheep would keep everything down and fertilize the soil naturally.  Eating like that would make their flesh slightly lemony itself so it was all a win-win.  The EU forbid keeping sheep without pens which farms don't have.  Futhermore they also forbid sheep fertilizer being used on lemon trees (regulation 1223768, sub paragraph 132456, footnote 19886 or something).  So now farms have to employ someone to keep the grass down and buy fertilizer for the plants.  Many have given up the ghost so lots of the farms aren't looked after at all.

Sheep used to roam here, no longer thanks to the EU
Second is about the steps themselves.  They fall down, not all the time but certainly from time to time.  When they collapse, they cost 10,000 euros to replace or repair.  Salvatore said this farm had 3 such occurrences in the previous year which was about normal.  He repairs them but others do not so the valley walls are gradually disappearing which causes soil erosion and threatens the entire eco-fabric of the region.  We met a journalist and his cameraman who are the Daily Telegraph Paris correspondents down in this region just to write an article about this. Both fascinating and disturbing.

One of the main uses of local lemons is limoncello as the cost to produce and sell is uncompetitive with other locations, so they have to do something creative and of course delicious!

And lemon risotto... just fantastic!
If you don't believe me, check out the article here.  Nice picture of Salvatore in the family museum too.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Greeks, Yanks and Garibaldi

Like a previous trip I have been extremely remiss in not staying current on these posts.  However I did use that wonder App called Track My Tour (please tell Chris that I sent you if you check it out) which did a much better job.  Here is the link to this part of the trip -- Click here.


Today was a really interesting day, not only because of the brilliant tour we went on but also because of what we learned, heard and talked about during the day.  Fortunately our driver and guide for the day, Umberto, was very garrulous but like Daniele the day before apologised profusely about his terrible English.  Oh that my Italian was as terrible as his English.

It also made me wonder what accent we English have when we attempt to speak a foreign language.  Do we all sound like Hugh Grant for example but in French or Italian?  Most non-English speakers have an enchanting accent when they speak English, is ours enchanting?  It feels terrible when I give it a go.

It rained on the way but the views were still great.  We also managed to get to know Umberto a bit and his story was pretty typical, it seems to me.  He is 30, married and still lives at home.  Like many in Amalfi, he works in the tourist industry because there is nothing else.  His degree and training were in shipping but that industry globally is in a mess so here it is.  His wife is the same.

Work here is for 6 months each year and then for 3 months, maybe more if they can get it, both go to a ski resort in the Dolomites where they are waiters.  He needs the money to live, he said.  Both earn 1500 euros per month so buying a property is out of the question as nobody locally sells and the only people that buy are from outside or foreigners who have silly money to spend.

Tough life.

Salerno in the distance
Where we were heading was over an hour away beyond Salerno and on the way down the coast.  First was a buffalo mozzarella farm that we wanted to check out.

The tour was interesting even though the guide was very grumpy.  Buffalo mozzarella is the premium brand as the milk is of a consistency and creaminess to make it that much better than regular mozzarella.  I agree, it was lovely.

The buffalo themselves are really big and very docile.  Curiously they pretty much take care of themselves which was quite startling.

When they wanted to be milked, they cheerfully took turns waiting to go into the milking machine.  I watched fascinated as the machine was robot driven and each of the 4 milking tubes had an infra red light it used to find the udder.  Once it found it, the tube simply rose up and fixed itself on all by itself.  Once all were done, milking began.  Once finished the process was reversed and the buffalo cheerily wandered off for a bite to eat.

Of course there's plenty of fertilizer for the gardens where they grow their own veggies and herbs for the top of the line restaurant located there.

Curiously they do not eat the meat.  The Italians don't like it so it goes to dog and cat meat.

As for the mozzarella itself, most interesting.  First of all the milk, swirl it around for a while until it starts to separate.  Take the part that is the curds.  Add some salt and a little water and leave it in a tub.  Get 4 burly guys to squeeze it and mold it into interesting shapes.

The other weird thing is that they don't sell their produce to the public! So how do they earn money to keep the farm going, I asked.  Tours like this (which cost 10 euros each!), the cafe and high priced restaurant (with only space for 30 covers) do the trick.  Sounds very unlikely to me!

Next and best of all was Paestum just down the road.

What a place!  This is where the first Greeks landed in the 6th century BC and where some of the best preserved temples and buildings from that time still exist.  Reason for this is that by the 2nd century AD, this place was a backwater even for the Romans so nobody lived here and therefore nobody nicked the big rocks lying around for building materials for their homes.  Also in the 4th century, a nearby river overflowed its banks and turned the entire area into a malarial swamp that deterred everyone, even the Barbarians, for the next 1200 years.

The Temple of Hera built in about 450 BC
One thing that makes this temple so interesting is that the inner part still remains so you can see how the original temple was laid out.  Also these buildings had stucco on top of the stonework which was painted.  This was pink and light blue.  I just can't imagine it today!
The entire location is approximately round and about 5 kms in diameter.  It is about 3 kms from the sea but back then was of course on the coast line.  Back in the 1850's before excavations really began in earnest, a road was built pretty much through the middle of the site because they didn't know that some of the buried buildings were there.  It was built by the then King of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (some Bourbon) who wanted a quicker way to get to the south.  The land to the north of this road had no big temples on it so was sold off to private people while the land to the south had the big temples so was preserved.  It is this part that has been excavated thoroughly according to our wonderful guide, Adele.

The swimming pool of the Temple of Vesta where all ladies congregated on one special day in the year for various ceremonies.  Men were banned on pain of death.
Again profusely apologetic for her pitiful English, she talked up a storm and how interesting it all was too.  She'd grown up only 1 km from here so used to play around these big old buildings... and therefore had a natural interest along with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge.

Interestingly this was also where the Allies landed in 1943, being pretty flat and deserted.  The local mayor apparently begged the Americans not to bomb those big old buildings as they were about to which is why they are in such great condition today.

On the way back we somehow got into a conversation with Umberto about Garibaldi (or Gari-bloody-baldi according to Umberto).  Unification was not the unalloyed joy that it has been made out to be.  Pre-1860, Italy was divided into the small bits to the north that had nothing and were dirt poor, and the large southern kingdom which had been stable for 800 years (apart from the Boney years).  The south had all the people, industry, business and network to the world.  The north was just a bunch of quarrelling farmers with nothing.

Then for some reason in 1861, the politicians decided that they would join with the Kingdom of Piedmont (Turin) and the other northern bits and with just a moment's inattention, that happened and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was no more and they had a new king... the King of Piedmont, or rather now Italy.  Vittorio Emanuelle himself.

First thing that happened was that the north stripped the south of all its infrastructure, industry and qualified people leaving them with nothing.  According to Umberto, things have not improved.  All the young people have left so the only young people remaining are the migrant immigrants who do all the menial work.  This he said is why immigrants into the US tend to come mainly from the south and Sicily.

Umberto kicked into full flow at this point going into his Grandmother's predicament.  Apparently she has a pension of some 400 euros per month which is scarcely enough to buy food.  He was nearly spitting by now when he moved onto the topic of politicians who after only 3 months service in parliament are eligible for an index linked pension that pays around 4,000 euros per month tax free.  These are the new elite.

I asked what he thought of the EU and the UK's impending referendum on membership and Umberto has an opinion here too unsurprisingly.  The EU is run by and for Germany and their puppets, France.  Nobody else has anything. No say, no money, nothing.  Everything is decided by Germany.  Umberto said that if there were to be a referendum in Italy, 80% would vote to leave.

By this time we were back on the coast road and Umberto stopped at a small village called Maiori where US rangers landed to guard the left flank of the Salerno landings.  Umberto said they landed in the wrong place and were offered pasta and wine by the surprised locals.  However the memorial says different.  I wonder which is correct.

What a great day!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Lemons, Steps and Pirates

Like a previous trip I have been extremely remiss in not staying current on these posts.  However I did use that wonder App called Track My Tour (please tell Chris that I sent you if you check it out) which did a much better job.  Here is the link to this part of the trip -- Click here.


Quite why we decided to go to the Amalfi Coast is unclear at the moment.  I cannot quite remember why we chose to do this but boy am I glad we did.  It is lovely.  Very difficult in fact to take a bad photo or see a crummy vista.

We decided to split the week up into several sections: first the Greeks and buffalo mozzarella cheese. Next the coastal villages and finally lemons and a cooking class.  We had a day in between so in those days we were able to bimble in the Amalfi area itself and the little villages around.

Amalfi was the centre of a 100,000 person plus 'empire' that was a seafaring empire that essentially took over the sea faring of the Roman Empire.  It was a great trading empire that competed on favourable terms with Genoa, Pisa and Venice in the early days pre-1100 but sadly those bloody Normans again spoiled the show and sacked Amalfi and essentially killed everyone over the next generation leaving each village with 2-3,000 persons each and subsequently irrelevant.

Just a brief aside about the Normans, this is pretty typical of how they 'colonised' places.  Slide in through the back door on the pretext of helping out against some external danger and then simply killing all your former allies and taking over.  Architecture in this region is largely Norman and bears testament not only to their presence and control, but rather more sinisterly, their utter ruthlessness in taking over.  Witness the Harrowing of the North in the years after 1066 in Great Britain for how effective this strategy was.

The duomo in Amalfi is Norman dating from the 1200s but with the usual Baroque add ons
The Normans did build a series of watch towers along the coast as Barbary pirates often came calling.  The 9 coastal villages did a very sensible thing and built 9 villages up the side of the mountains that drop straight into the sea.  When the pirates came, the villagers decamped up the tiny mountain paths ... that we walked ... to their high villages.  Sensible precaution.

Food is mainly seafood oriented with my favourite anchovies everywhere!

The drive over the mountains from Naples was interesting.  The rain stopped over there while the sun was over this side... sorry, the Amalfi side.  Just as it should be in fact!

The divide between Naples and the Amalfi Coast
As for the lemons, well the land here is so steep that the only way to farm (and incidentally stop soil erosion) is to create terraces up the side of the hills which are then cultivated.  Quite why lemons are so popular here is a mystery but not so their original source.  Egypt.

Our first view of the Amalfi Coast was definitely not shabby!
Back in the Roman era, Egypt was quite possibly the most cultivated part of the known world, specifically in the vast Nile delta.  Pre-Caesar, Egypt worked with Rome as its exclusive customer to provide all manner of foodstuffs.  Post-Caesar (and particularly post-Cleopatra) the province was decimated and taken over lock stock and barrel.  As a result of this trade, Amalfi got seeds, cuttings, plants and know how and simply made wonderful lemons.

One fine use for the local product!!
They still do.

And the views, well you cannot find a bad one.

Our balcony

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Real Thing

Like a previous trip I have been extremely remiss in not staying current on these posts.  However I did use that wonder App called Track My Tour (please tell Chris that I sent you if you check it out) which did a much better job.  Here is the link to this part of the trip -- Click here.


Disaster!  It was raining on the day we were due to move from Naples to Amalfi via a walking tour of Vesuvius and of course Pompeii.  Vesuvius was closed as the weather had closed right down but don't worry, said Daniele, we have lots to do.  Spend more time in Pompeii and then there is a nice surprise.

Well, who doesn't like surprises?  And as it turned out, this would be a recurrent theme with Daniele.  Ending up with a nice surprise.

First of all Daniele apologised for his poor English.  Really!! Our Italian is pathetic and as it turned out Daniele had no problem in out talking both of us.

Our guide in Pompeii however was another thing.  Lovely lady, she again apologised profusely for her terrible English and from that point for the next 3 hours hardly drew breath.

Our guide warming to her task
As we wandered around this huge site, the rain did abate but I don't think it would have mattered as it was such an amazing experience.

These days Pompeii is 3 miles from the sea but this is the dock which is near one of the city gates.

The story is pretty well known.  Town of 20,000 sleepily going about their business for several hundred years were abruptly drowned in ash one morning in 79 AD when Vesuvius exploded.  I told our guide that I was in the process of reading the Pompeii book and she then said that most books were historically rubbish but that one wasn't that bad.  In fact she showed us the main roads mentioned in the book.

This is one of the main roads into the Forum ending at a drinking fountain that bears symbols marking the quarter of the town and of course for drinking.  Two roads into the middle of town from each direction.  Each of these main roads leads to one of the city gates.  Ramrod straight too.
Actually it is quite amazing to reflect that the only person to ever mention Pompeii and its destruction was the Roman author Pliny.  He was an admiral in the navy and happened to be in port that day so witnessed things first hand.  Had he not done so, nobody would have known Pompeii existed and bothered to look.  That's what happened to Herculaneum after all.  It was discovered under a pile of mud in the 20th century which is why so much more of their stuff was preserved whilst Pompeii's was largely destroyed in a maelstrom of fire and ash.  Pompeii is about 8 miles away from Vesuvius so wouldn't have been touched by lava.

The block of stone in the middle of the road is to step on when you are crossing.  It keeps your feet dry.  This road is one cart width wide.  People walk along the pavements.  If it rains, the water and undoubtedly all that other nasty stuff, runs along the cart path meaning that those strategically placed stones are really important.

Now that I am on the subject, I forgot to mention something.  Right next to the Norman castle in the centre of Naples was going to be a new subway station but in the digging they found an entirely new Roman settlement so the entire area is submerged in tarpaulins and plastic as the archaeologists works away.  So it really isn't surprising that Herculaneum took so long to discover.  Unlike Pompeii nobody knew it ever existed.

The site is very large and set out in the traditional Roman manner.  In the middle is the forum with public baths off to one side.  Obviously the temples to Jupiter and Venus are there, Jupiter dominating as he should being the bigwig amongst Roman gods.  But also the shops and taverns.  They could even identify what kind of shop from its layout -- multiple counters could mean a small tavern or cafe.  Lots of marble and running water could mean fish and meat.  Very clever all of it.

The forum in Pompeii

Ruins of a theatre that is currently used for productions

Standard layout for a Roman villa.  Longish entrance into small vestibule with fountain or pond open to the elements.  This is the greeting area off which is the meeting room and other small business rooms where the man of the house conducts business.  Behind is this quadrangle with a garden in the middle and bedrooms leading off in all directions.

The largest villa in Pompeii also housed the Alexander floor mosaic from the museum.  This is just bigger than the others and is the place where all the really important pieces that still exist were found.  It was called the Pan Villa because they found a statue of Pan but in recent years this has been debunked.

Alexander, or rather a replica

You just have to go and experience it.  I could spend a couple more days there easily.

And the surprise?  Sadly I have forgotten!  But here's a video of Pink Floyd playing 'Echoes' at Pompeii in the 1972.  My gift to you.

Getting Ready for Pompeii

Like a previous trip I have been extremely remiss in not staying current on these posts.  However I did use that wonder App called Track My Tour (please tell Chris that I sent you if you check it out) which did a much better job.  Here is the link to this part of the trip -- Click here.


Probably the highlight of our sojourn in Naples was visiting the Archaeological Museum.  We hopped off the bus here for several hours which were just wonderful.

First of all, this entire region is really old.  There is loads of old stuff to house here.  But the really important raison d'etre of the museum is that anything of quality that could be found in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum were moved here.

Not recently of course.  The Farnese family of the 16th century were popes and had a taste for antiquity so moved anything and everything that he could (statues, sculptures, mosaics, etc.) to his palaces in Rome.  Once Bonaparte invaded Italy in the last years of the 18th century, Italy's map was redrawn but one thing that remained was the Kingdon of the Two Sicilies which passed under the control of Murat, his great cavalry commander.  Murat took back all these wonders and put them into his palace which ultimately morphed into this fantastic museum.

Included too is a 'naughty' room where all those artifacts found in Pompeiian brothels are displayed.  In past days, only the bigwigs could view these delights.  Later on, just men.  It is now open to all over the age of 18.  Interesting sculptures, toys, trinkets, paintings and things couldn't really be identified.  As this is a smut free zone, I will leave the details to your imagination.

The young Augustus when he was still called Octavian
Uncle Julius with a very generously sculptured profile
One of the most famous mosaics from Pompeii

Imagine this was on the floor first of all.  This is what you walk on when entering a house in the Roman era.  It is a mosaic from a house in Pompeii that we later visited taken from an old Greek painting of one of Alexander's great battles against the Persians.  A copy of the painting is to the left.  Alexander's head is all that can be seen on the left.
This is a painting taken from the wall of a house in Pompeii.  The Romans painted directly onto the plaster which is why so few paintings remain.  This is red hued due to the heat of the big day in 79 AD.
The famous bull sculpture (room size from one single piece of marble apparently) reminds us why adultery is a bad thing.  If caught you get chained to a wild bull by your children like this God from antiquity.
Hercules after his 11th labour needed a rest so leaned on his big stick.  I had a cold drink and pizza.