Italy Trip 2001 – In Sorrento

Monday 25 June

Of course, that would be too easy and when we get our bags mine is broken. After some discussion requiring the presence of a manager, Alitalia comes across with a voucher or a new bag at the luggage store in the airport. After more bureaucratic confusion over paperwork in the store and the transfer of my things out of the old, broken bag into the new one on the store’s floor, we go for our rental car.

EuropCar has one for us but also gives us the good news that Sorrento is a 90 minute drive, triple what we expected. Then-bam bam bam-we have trouble finding the shuttle to the parking lot, our car is a smaller than expected Hyundai Lantos (smaller than what I felt we’d paid for), and we get lost just finding the highway.

Sorrento, distance-wise, isn’t that far from the airport, 56 kilometers, so why the long ride? Ah, well, we have are only on the Autostrada (highway) the first portion of the drive. The majority of the time we are on a single lane road that goes through the center of several towns and villages, curving and twitching its way along the hilly Sorrentine Peninsula. Happily for us, once we get to Sorrento finding our hotel is no problem since the Hotel Central is on the right side of the road.

No parking for the Hotel Central, we must pay L20,000 per night to the nice folks at the Hotel Gardenia next door. Being way too tired to protest, and what good would that do anyway, I pay the US$56 for the week and park the car.

By now its 6:00 and our rooms are tiny, so Dad and I go for a short walk down the main drag. When we get back to the hotel, the restaurant is open so we go in to eat (you may notice I haven’t mentioned lunch). Seems nice enough but the menu has few choices, is of the price fixe variety, and no price is listed but we forgot to ask anyway. Food tasted okay, not great, but a day later when I’m writing this entry I wonder what it cost. [At checkout I find out the charge is L60,000/person (US$28) and does not include beverages or water. Water is L5,000 per liter bottle.]

Thinking we’ll relax a little, we go up to Dad’s room. I laid down on the bed and the next thing I know, its two hours later. I walked down one flight to my room and fell sound asleep for nine more hours (hooray!).

Tuesday 26 June

This hotel is typical of European hotels, or so I’m told, in that the rooms are very small. I thought that our rooms in the Hotel Centrale Palace in Palermo were small but these are even smaller. Especially the bathroom, in which you can either shit or use the sink but not both at the same time. And the shower is barely big enough to wash in and floods the bathroom floor to boot since it can’t drain the water as fast as it comes out.

After breakfast buffet-also not as good as Palermo-we got a copy of today’s USA Today. Printed in Europe and not as many pages as the American version, I was happy to get this as we never saw an English language paper in Palermo. The newsstand also had the International Herald-Tribune, Wall Street Journal Europe, and several British newspapers; maybe tomorrow I’ll get two!

We spent the day at the pool, very nice, plenty of chairs with good sun and shade, food and beverage service, and the water was nice when got too hot to just sit in the sun. Still something to complain about, of course! Even hotel guests must pay L5,000 for use of a towel and you can’t bring a towel from the room.

I spent most of the day reading the first Harry Potter book. Just after I finished it, a group of American high school students showed up at the pool. Dad and I struck up a conversation with two of the Jesuit priests (teachers) who where chaperoning the 15 boys (they attend an all-boys Catholic school). Sorrento is their last stop before heading home to Washington D.C.; they’ve been to Venice, Florence, and Rome already and had a blast. Good for them.

Greg and Mike, the Jesuits, told me that Pompei is a wonderful place to see, they had just gone this morning. This is good since we’re going tomorrow.

Last night after dinner we took our dirty clothes downstairs to be washed and were told to expect them this evening. Good timing since I was out of clean underwear but I could get by for the day in a swimsuit. By 5:30 we’d had enough at the pool and went up to our rooms. I was hoping to see clean laundry waiting but no such luck. A call to the desk informed us that the clothes wouldn’t be ready until 10 a.m. tomorrow. The clerk told me that they wash the clothes by hand and just sit them out to dry, no machines. (Where are we, darkest Africa?) Wanting clean underwear to go out in tonight, I pressed her but the best I could get was a promise to bring up whatever is ready by 8 p.m.

A few minutes after 8:00 we still had nothing and called again. 10 minutes later, no call back but instead a knock at the door. Thankfully the small bag had our underwear and socks!

Wednesday 27 June

Drove up to Pompei this morning and free parking courtesy of EuropCar was nice (in Italy, you pay for everything). Overall, this amazing example of ancient Roman living is interesting but doesn’t give me the same sense of personal connection as the temples on Sicily.

Pompei was a summer resort for Roman nobles and a flourishing commercial center with 20,000 inhabitants until on August 24, 79 A.D. nearby Mount Vesuvius flipped its lid and buried the town under a deep mantle of pebbles, mud and ash. In the 17th century some of its remains were discovered by chance and in 1754 the first systematic excavations were begun here and at Hercolaneum. Over the past two hundred years, scientists have been studying and restoring this fairly large site-there are hundreds of structures including homes, stores, restaurants, theaters, and a couple of palestras (large playing fields).

The morning was hot and very humid and my neck was in a good (bad?) bit of pain, perhaps explaining why I wasn’t enjoying the visit too much. Also, many of the structures are very similar in appearance albeit somewhat different in layout and this repetitiveness didn’t help much either.

On our way out Dad and I were both dried out and thirsty (but sweating profusely) so we stopped at the first food place, which was just inside the park. And re-learned the old lesson after paying L6,000 per glass of lemonade, compared to L2-3,000 generally paid elsewhere. A nice two hour walk in the sun, though, and I’m glad we went.

We were both ready to eat after arriving back at our hotel around 2:00. Walking around to see what might be open during siesta time, we ended up at Master Hosts. This place hadn’t looked like much when we first walked by it but it turned out to have good pizza (Dad) and Lasagna (me). Even after a nice meal and serious rehydration (I drank nearly a liter of water), we were worn out and just spent the rest of the afternoon by the pool.

Dad asked at the desk for a restaurant recommendation and we made reservations. The place is down by the docks, so they send around a car to get patrons. After the ride, I could see why! The name of the restaurant is Vela Bianco and its inside the Hotel Il Faro. Nice decor, good views, and wonderful French formal style service (our captains were Franco and Michele). The specialty is Italian seafood, tasty and well-prepared.

While taking our order, Franco not only describes the day’s specials, he brings along a cart and shows them to you. Dad and I both had the baby calamari appetizer, lightly fried, and they were oh so tender and yummy! The dessert was chocolate cake disappointingly soaked in some liquid (not rum, but not sure what) but otherwise the food was very good.

In most restaurants the food is simply brought out of the kitchen on the plates from which one eats. Not here, though; the food comes up from the kitchen on covered silver platters and then portioned onto plates by the captains. Some of the dishes, like seafood mixed grill, provided show-like entertainment watching Michele or Franco’s artistry at work. Our most expensive meal of the trip but definitely worth it.

Oh yeah: the rest of our laundry finally showed up.

Thursday 28 June

Very easy day at the pool, we were simply tuckered out from the Pompei trip. Lunch at poolside, dinner at the hotel restaurant. Reading and napping.

Late in the afternoon Dad and I did chat with an American couple, Joe and Joanne. He lives in San Francisco, small world; she in Buffalo, but they grew up together on Long Island. Didn’t really probe on the relationship but it seemed odd that although they spent much time by the pool the two never sat next to each other.

Also met up with Mike and Greg, the Jesuits. They spent their last day in Italy on a scuba dive out in the bay. Only a one tank dive, they said, but very pretty with lots of marine life including squids.

Friday 29 June

Shopping day! We walked down to ‘Old’ Sorrento, which had the typical European six foot wide streets. More interesting shopping than in Palermo, so Dad and I were able to get presents. First, I bought several colorful large barrettes for Christine and Nikki to share and Dad bought some for Joanne. Afterwards he remembered that Joanne just cut her hair short! A little later we came across a leather goods store and Dad bought a wallet for Mom.

Most of the stores were becoming repetitive, lots of jewelry and capodemonte and leather. Capodemonte is a form of porcelain, a specialty of the region with colorful (especially blue) dishes and figurines. One store had cute infant and toddler Sorrento t-shirts so we popped in to get Nikki a pink one with animals.

After about 90 minutes, we needed a break and sat down in an outdoor cafe on the Piazza Tessia. A stereotypical little old Italian waiter, graying hair, gruff attitude, and a vest served us; I had a caffe freddo, which is not quite your standard iced coffee but espresso over crushed ice.

Refreshed we headed back towards our hotel. I’ve been looking for a store that carries Tag Heur watches since I broke my watchband three months ago but could only find a cheap, inferior replacement and sure enough we found such a place on the next block. Not only did they have the band I needed but I also bought a stylish, super thin Swatch Dauntless watch with a stainless steel band for Christine.

She’s pretty hard to shop for, unless you’re buying Chevy Corvettes, and I had a tough time until I saw the watch. Hooray! [Post trip update: she loves the watch.] And sure enough, at a store across the street from our hotel, I found a really nice silver and wood picture frame for her too-one thing Christine likes to get on every trip is a picture frame.

The afternoon was a little overcast but hot and muggy, so we passed it laying on a couple of chaise lounges in the shade. Dinner was at another recommended restaurant, Trattoria Il Buco. A nice walk from the hotel to just off the Piazza Tessia, Buco is built into one of the oldest buildings in Sorrento, the Porto Marinella. This is one of the original four gates in the walls of Old Sorrento and first raised around 700 A.D. Too bad the trattoria isn’t of the same historic quality. The service was poor, very poor; we had to ask three times over 20 minutes for a second bottle of water and they brought out our main course before the first course. We both had the Canneloni (bean) Soup as a starter and at least that was good.

Saturday 30 June

Our last day in Italy! So of course we spent it sitting in the shade poolside. Actually, this was good as the place was quiet until late in the afternoon when a tour group with a dozen American teens got back from their day’s exploration. I began reading Poul Anderson’s Starfarers but, despite trying my best, couldn’t get into what should have been VB10. Oh well, can’t win them all. Anderson is an SF grandmaster but he was just pushing the keys on this one-finding a way to push humanity out to the stars as a religion, the writing all breathless and exclamations. Anderson has written many far, far better stories.

So, running short on books, Dad and I went for a late afternoon hunt for a bookstore selling English language titles. I knew of one place but it turned out to have a (too) small selection and nothing to my liking. We pushed on all the way to the old city with no luck at all and turned back. Dad had one novel that seemed promising and perhaps I could get something in the airport.

Just as we’d almost passed it, Dad spotted a possibility across the street called Libri i Dischi (Books and Disks). This store had two large racks of English language titles and I was able to pick up three! Amusingly, the store had two of my friend Harlan Coben’s mystery novels and when I mentioned this to the shopkeeper, he showed me a hardcover version of one of them in Italian. Way to go Harlan!

Dinner at the hotel, two last games of Gin (Dad won the vacation series six games to five), and early to bed after packing up.

Sunday 1 July

Up at 6:30, shower, breakfast, and a couple of visits to the little general’s room and Dad and I are off to Napoli Aeroporto. I’m real glad we’re heading off the peninsula and not onto it because even at 8:00 the traffic coming the other direction is at a complete standstill for at least eight-ten kilometers. Seriously. I have difficulty believing the Italians only built one lane in each direction on this major route.

Have I mentioned that much of the highway signage in Italy sucks? Well, of course, we missed the turn for the airport because the sign that mentions this fact comes less than 100 meters before the turnoff. Finding ourselves of the streets of an industrial section of Naples, we were confident enough in our manhood to stop at the first gas station and ask for directions.

After that, things went well, got to the airport with no more trouble, checked in and got the seats we wanted (for the Milan-Newark leg too), and an almost on time departure. Lucky to be leaving today since the unions have announced a strike for this coming Friday.

Milan Malpensa is a big airport, perhaps the busiest in Europe (according to posters I saw in the airport). Remember the TV commercial with the soccer players who are kicking the ball around while walking to their plane? Shot it here. Anyway, very nice place with lots of upscale designer shopping. The kind of place you’d want to have a layover if you had to change planes anywhere in central Europe. I took advantage of the duty free shop to get an excellent chocolate bar for the ride home.

Some things in life are consistent, whether you want them to be or not. Our plane was an hour late leaving. [Skip ahead six hours…] And we’ve run into some serious headwinds gusting anywhere from 140 to over 200 kph that are slowing us down, keeping our groundspeed under 740 kph when the plane can go 870 in clear air. One can imagine the impact on a 6000 km flight!

Eventually, we landed at Newark Airport, found our luggage after an only slightly ridiculous wait and passed through Customs. Which consisted of checking the passport, checking the declaration form, and asking if any plant or vegetable matter was being brought through. I didn’t see anyone being asked to open a bag. A family friend was waiting to drive us to my folk’s house, where a banquet of bagels, lox, cream cheese, whitefish spread, fruit, coffee cake, and coffee awaited us.

The End!

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