Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ciao Roma!

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.


One major purpose on this trip was to catch the Italian Open tennis tournament with tennis friends from Bermuda and Canada (ex-Bermuda). Formerly it had been an all guys trip but with Viv and I starting earlier and going on to other places, this would be the first year that that holiest of holies had been broken.

The format is quite simple. Play tennis at 9, elevensies at 11, tennis by 1 pm and leave probably around 7 pm for dinner and other frivolities.  Usually there'd be an excursion involved and this year wouldn't be any different as that lovely little hill town, Frascati, was only a short haul away. We had a wine tour booked!

We'd booked an apartment through AirBNB and found the experience fantastic.  Furthermore the apartment was terrific too.  Situated right on Piazza dei Populo near the street cars and metro.  That means right next to the Centro Storico, the old part of the City which is where we have always chosen to hang out.  Realistically why wouldn't you?  There's the choice between Roman, medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, etc. in the old part and then there's the 1950's rebuilding projects, glass buildings and some weird Mussolini hangovers in the new.  No choice at all.

Populo is a big piazza and the place where they created a tournament set complete with mini courts that we tried but couldn't get to play on.  But it's only a short hop from the Enoteca Antica, our bar!  

Nick, Viv and David of Il Parti fame

It has been a while since our last tour (5 years I think) so getting refamiliarised was a must.  With an old city though with so many city ordinances, UNESCO World Heritage sites and the general lack of money, virtually nothing had been done which was just great as far as I was concerned.  The feel of the city remains as good as ever.

Il Parti 2016 is complete with Gary on the right
One of the joys about being in great cities like Rome is the ability to wander fairly aimlessly and come across wonderful random sites.  I don't think Rome has a historical or cultural comparison anywhere in the world.  For sure there is a better Colliseum in a couple of places (Nimes and some place in North Africa spring to mind immediately).  But for the sheer vast amount of simply fabulous antiquity, it has no equal.

Rather a gruesome colour but the Tiber (Tevere) is still picturesque
Coming back and revisiting gives an opportunity to remember our high point associated with a particular place.  Piazza Navona for example is the place where each of the 5 or 6 strolling musical combos had as part of their repertoire 'Stealing Our Religion'.  Campo di Fiore is where the Guinness Bar is.  No matter that Navona used to be the place where in Roman times they staged naval battles by flooding an arena that is no longer there and Campo di Fiore is a famous place of execution, for Il Parti it is the song and the bar!  

One thing I noticed is that this time the Forum is enclosed.  You have to have a ticket to wander through it.  Not so last time we visited.  I just hope it is not being transported into being something along the lines of a "Realistic Roman Forum Experience" complete with IMAX, rides and a gift shop like so many other places like this.  I do understand that funding is always going to be short but in a time when we are living through the noxious fumes of Quantitative Easing when governments almost the world over are throwing insane amounts of money at favoured industries in order to keep them going and perpetuating whatever nonsense they were doing to get into the pickle in the first place.  The ECB is buying 80 billion euros per month of various bonds driving interest rates and yields into negative territory.  To what end?  Officialdom says that it is to shore up the financial sector.  Really?  They made that big mistakes?  18 months of that equals 1.5 trillion euros.  The Roman forum probably needs 50 million to make a real difference.  Where are the priorities?

Renovations at the Spanish Steps.  Aargh!
I really like the little things that create some sort of connection even if tenuous and imagined.  In Trastevere for example there were the 2,000 year old graffiti (a Roman tradition carried on widely to this day) and as I remember outside the gates on the Via Appia all the old standards of legions from 2,000 years ago set in stone to commemorate their departure on some campaign or other.  Just wonderful.

2000 year old graffiti
For me though, one of the things I had been looking forward to above others is eating Linguine Carbonara at Maccherone near the Pantheon.  No fuss, nothing fancy.  Just fantastic.  What Rome is all about.

Walking versus Riding on the Amalfi Coast

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.


I've droned on and on about the narrowness of the roads and the large numbers of traffic on them in past posts but I don't think I've done it full justice.  Certainly we simply avoided the entire issue by not hiring a car and handing ourselves over totally to Daniele and his mates. In doing that we didn't have to drive, worry about other cars, worry about having a drink here or there or worry about where on earth we were in a land where roadsigns are to say the least open to question (if available).  For sure it cost us money to do that but on the other hand we were able to really enjoy ourselves and not wonder what some total plonker coming at us will do in that tiny gap in the traffic (hint: they won't wait and wave you on).

On the days we had no adventures we felt imbued to walk everywhere.  Being based just outside Amalfi itself, this was no real issue.  Had we wanted to go to other villages, both bus and water taxi were available but on the one occasion we tried the bus, it was full, the next one was an hour away and in any event the bus may not have been going where we wanted.

Further leaving early would certainly mean getting onto your preferred means of public transport but given the crowd numbers, that didn't automatically guarantee your return visit would be available to you.  So we didn't bother trying.

What we did discover is that the entire area is actually very small.  With headlands and mountains everywhere you tend to forget that the next village is only 1/2 a mile away and in any event the local inhabitants had found a short cut there years ago... over the top.

The short cut
That's what we did with Atrani, home to the best colatura pasta on the coast (according to who else but Daniele?  "Mention my name to the owner and he will..." You probably can guess the drill here).  Even though it was only 1/2 kilometre away (had we walked on the road around the headland) it took us over 3 hours walking up and down hillsides, viewing the cemetary on the side of the hill, various churches, monasteries and cathedrals and all manner of lovely stuff.

We'd meant that it would take us this time as we needed the exercise for sure after the wonderful food and drink we'd had.

We walked the Via Valle dei Dragone nearly up (a lot of steps and steep paths) to Ravello before turning around and strolling the lanes over to Atrani, a village with an 11th century cathedral that was in use for a family funeral... with 1,000 attendees (the village itself has 1,300 full time inhabitants and is the smallest city around).  Of course everyone in the village turned up!

The best colatura on the coast according to Daniele
The cathedral itself is right on the point where the coast road turns around over 90 degrees from Amalfi and with parked cars everywhere, it was a trial for normal sized cars to pass, let alone the two buses that came to a grinding halt facing each other.

This is the point where someone would normally reverse or say something like 'after you' but in Italy neither happen of course.  Both buses started edging forward gently whilst any Vespas in the vicinity nipped in and out of the cars and between the buses generally being thoroughly annoying and unhelpful.

Duelling buses
It was fascinating so we found a vantage and watched.

To us it was improbable in the extreme that either bus could pass the other given the space available yet within no more than 15 minutes of edging around that happened and the traffic started to flow again leaving me with this thought: if it doesn't work, don't worry.  Go to Italy.  It will there!

The view from the cathedral at Atrani.  Decidedly unshabby.
Despite itself seemingly, Italy just works... just. Don't ask me how but I love it!

We'd booked train tickets from Salerno to Rome for our departure and asked the landlord to give us a lift to the station (a service he does for all guests apparently) some 40 minutes away at the end of the coast road.  The gentleman in question was about 70 and had a car that was quite old.  I'd spotted him banging something on or in the car to get it going before he'd announced his arrival. Clearly this would not be a luxurious ride like we'd been enjoying with Daniele and the others.  This would be a real local experience and so it proved.

The coast road winds through a series of little villages and in one of them there was quite a long promenade for the region.  That meant people walking along a sea walk and... wait for it... pedestrian crossings.  We'd seen how pointless these were in Naples already on this trip and experienced for ourselves that feeling of 'will they won't they' when cars approached the crossing that we were thinking about crossing.  Random results.  Some stopped, others didn't.

Traditional traffic.  Plenty of room to pass.

At this village there were several such crossings and quite a lot of people around.  At one an elderly couple, one with either a walking stick or zimmer frame was slowly crossing the road and our driver simply didn't stop.  Or rather it did but with a screeching of brakes and the car somehow stopping just and I do mean just before ploughing into this little procession.

Both were Italian as all around people started shouting, gesticulating and banging on the bonnet of the car.  The response was not a 'sorry, my bad' or equivalent, it was zero to total maniac in a nanosecond.  He started shouting and screaming too.  How I wish I spoke Italian!  I'm sure if he'd had a gun, he'd have used it.  Everyone by this point was totally beside themselves.

Then it stopped.  The elderly couple shuffled off and we started off again.  Our driver showed absolutely no sign of either remembering the incident or showing remorse over it.  It just happened and now it was over!  Had he been able to wash his hands like Pontius Pilate, I think he would have.

Like I said, I don't know how it works, but it does!

Mozzarella, Vino and the best view in the world!

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.


One great thing about Daniele is his enthusiasm for life.  Everything is in absolutes.  The best mozzarella, the best wine in the region and the best view in the world.  All today!  Who couldn't be excited by all this?

Meet Daniele! On the left.
First stop along the coast road was half way up between Positano and Ravello on one of the many hairpin turns.  Of course being Italy there were cars everywhere, even here, but I suppose it was still just about walking distance from the jammed streets and lanes of Positano.  Easier to walk in and out than struggle with the traffic.

Not a bad view!
The scenic overlook was spectacular though.

Ravello as far as I can make out is the 3rd biggest attraction in this region after Positano and the coast road itself.  It is a very pretty little village but it is not at the top of the hills here like all the other high villages which were created as refuges from marauding pirates.  It is sort of about half way up and on either side of a ravine through which a river passes.  Swanky hotels are here a-plenty.  This is definitely the place where the rich and famous come.

The other side of the ravine with Ravello in the centre
Our purpose here though was rather more prosaic -- we'd asked for a day of local gastronomy and of course the local vino and this was it.

First stop was a childhood friend of Daniele who just happened to be the local cheesemaker but not just any cheese but the local mozzarella -- not buffalo milk, just cow this time.  His name is Biagio and he owns the local cheese factory... which just happened to be next to a bar owned by Eugenio, an Anglo-Italian who sounds more English than I do but whose family comes from Ravello.  And if there's one thing the Italians do well (other than pasta, cheese, wine...) is family.  The call home even if he'd never lived there was too strong.  Factor in a young lady also from Ravello and really there's not much chance Croydon has it over this little jewel of the Amalfi Coast.

Together they thought of starting up a hands on thing for tourists on a lovely shady spot opposite their respective business fronts also overlooking the spectacular ravine.

Viv and I were experts on Mozzarella now but have never actually handled the stuff which is what Biagio made us do.  The cutting, kneading and stretching are all pretty simple.  The stumbling block comes with tearing the perfect little balls you've made off the larger chunk of the stuff.  Mozzarella when stretched and kneaded has the consistency of rubber so to rip off the lovingly moulded little ball without mangling it beyond recognition did not come as second nature to us.  Biagio of course soothed our grumblings and said they were really very good, symmetrical and perfect to serve in any 5 star restaurant.

Biagio at work. Nest step is to tear the little ball off the dangly bits without making it look odd
Just to prove a point he went away leaving us to sip wine with Daniele and eat some little deep fried appetizers from Eugenio's bar, returning with a huge tray of artistically arranged mozzarella based treats.

He served our creations alongside his and looking at them arranged on a tray it did make us think how much they looked like a sperm.  Or rather the pictures of them you see in a biology book from school. Sort of like an early stage tadpole but that white colour.  I think I better stop here before this segment becomes too mixed up with the wrong kind of thing.  Really it was all about the mozzarella, not the... OK, you see what I mean.  Move on.

See what I mean?

The final word on the mozzarella interlude will come from Monty Python. Good luck Biagio and Eugenio.

The trouble with sipping a little wine with deep fried yummies and some odd shaped mozzarella meant that our immediate next stop at Tramonte in the mountains at yet another friend of Daniele's vineyard for lunch promised to be an all out assault on our stomachs and our very ability to keep going.  As it turned out we gritted our teeth and managed a good showing courtesy of a reasonable delay while they got things ready after we arrived.

The vineyard
This part of the region is actually over the hills and on the other side so has no sea view at all.  Just more pretty hills and valleys.  The region has been farmed since the pre-Roman era and is very fertile.

Our favourite was the rose
Daniele filled the gap by manfully uncorking wines seemingly by the gallon.  They were very good indeed particularly the rose which was a simply lovely colour, the same as the local roses as Viv pointed out.

Daniele is really something.  His background like so many Italians seemingly is the hospitality industry.  He has worked in hotels and restaurants and has a background as sommelier meaning he could talk with enthusiam and knowledge about the wines we were drinking.  The local varietals of course include some of the common grapes but many date back to Roman times which are very unusual.

Lunch was home made pasta with fava beans and veal with local broccoli and just the 4 wines: 1 white, 1 rose and 2 reds.  We of course agreed to buy a mixed case of wines to be shipped home which will probably make them the single most expensive wines ever once landed.  Ah well.  It was a great lunch and terrific time.  We just hoped the next segment would not include food or drink.

We made it to Ravello around 5 pm which was when things were gradually winding down and Daniele dropped us off in the central piazza which like many things here is on the side of a ravine and which is home to a whole bunch of tourist shoppes (of course), bars and restaurants and just down a little, actually not so little, lane to the Villa Cremoni which these days is a very swanky hotel.  However they do allow people to stroll around the gardens and take in the view which just may be the best view on the Amalfi Coast.

Ravello from the central piazza. Ravines everywhere!
That bit is right at the very end of the gardens on a long terrace with Romanesque busts of probably emperors or gods at every turn.

As for the best view in the whole world.  You decide.