A Drive Down the Amalfi Coast

beach scene in Italy

The huge bus sped towards the hairpin turn.  The driver tooted his horn as he started to make the turn.  He spun the wheel around and around.  He suddenly slammed on the brakes.  A car was coming from the opposite way.  The tiny car screeched to a stop before a devastating impact with the bus.  It was another close call.

The driver was muttering various Italian obscenities while gesturing with certain fingers.  The guide said that it’s a good thing we don’t speak Italian or we might be offended.

driving in Italy
Watch out for the bus!

We couldn’t go forward until the tiny car backed up. The bus driver yelled out his window at the car and motioned with his hands.  By this time three more cars had caught up to the tiny car from behind.  The whole string had to back up about 20 yards so our bus could make the turn.

Positano, Italy
The famous view of Positano, Italy

Welcome to driving the Amalfi coast road in Italy on a Sunday afternoon in August!  It was the busiest time of year.  Many families were here for their annual vacation at the coastal resorts to beat the heat and swim in the cool Mediterranean Sea.  The traffic was horrendous and the very windy road was built into the side of the mountainous coast.  I said every five minutes that I was glad I wasn’t driving.  Our bus driver was doing a masterful job.  Every hairpin turn was handled with finesse.

A view of the Amalfi coast
Summer on the Amalfi coast

The scenery was beautiful.  It’s a cliché, I know, but in this case absolutely true.  At times I looked out the window straight down hundreds of feet to the sea.  The views of the yachts and pleasure boats out in the azure bays were entrancing.  Each sight of the small fishing villages, cliff side resorts, and the world famous town of Positano was worthy of a post card or a jigsaw puzzle.

Amalfi coast view
Let's go for a sail

In the town of Amalfi we walked around the port and the main shopping street.  Strolling the streets of an Italian coastal town while eating a gelato is a nice way to spend a sunny summer afternoon.  It was so hot that I wanted to be swimming in the sea.

Back in the bus, the driver was refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of the coastal road.  Soon we came to a tight pathway between the mountain on one side and a building on the other side.  Coming the other way this time was an enormous municipal bus.  Behind the municipal bus was a large line of traffic.  Behind us was another line of cars. No backing up this time!

the beach in Amalfi, italy
The beach in Amalfi, Italy

The buses slowed to a crawl.  They were going to pass each other on the narrow road.  Inch by inch the vehicles moved forward.  The drivers looked at each other with a grin as they slid by.  They were so close they could have picked each other’s pockets.

At one point the giant buses were about six inches apart.  There was a slight bend in the road so the drivers needed to compensate for this fact or the buses were going to scrape each other for most of the length of each bus.

Each bus curved the exact amount needed to get by.  And on we went down the Amalfi coast road, until the next hairpin turn or tight spot, when the bus driver….

beach scene in Italy
Bird's eye view of an Amalfi beach

The World’s People on a Cruise Ship

spa on cruise ship

I have long resisted the idea of taking a vacation on a cruise ship.  I like to be an independent traveler, going where I want to go when I want to go.  No organized tours for me.  Being cooped up in tiny room with a small porthole, a worn out bed, and crowds of people smoking by the elevators didn’t appeal to me.

The bow of a big cruise ship
All aboard!

With some trepidation I booked a room on the inaugural Eastern Mediterranean cruise of the Celebrity Silhouette.  It was too good of a deal to pass up, especially since we were already going to be in Rome near the sailing date.  Somebody told me later that there were thousands of cancellations by Americans after Bin Laden was killed by Navy Seal Team Six.  People were afraid of a possible Al Qaeda backlash I guess.

From the moment I stepped on board my misconceptions evaporated.  This new ship was an enormous five star resort hotel on water.

spa on cruise ship
A rare bit of solitude on a crowded ship

The world’s people were represented on the ship.  They were not represented very well, and certainly not proportionate to size of population. The ship departed from Rome, so there were many Europeans, probably 80% or more, and not very many Americans (as compared to a typical Caribbean cruise).  A ride in the elevator or a trip to the café was like a meeting of the General Assembly of the UN without the translators.  You never knew what language you were going to hear – Italian, French, Spanish, British, German, Chinese, Polish, or something I didn’t recognize.

Americans have a reputation as being loud and obnoxious travelers, but on this ship there was no national monopoly on that behavior.

It started with the Serbian in the cabin next to me who started smoking on his veranda.  We were very near the front of the ship, and his cabin was just forward of mine.  This meant that because of the movement of the ship his smoke blew backward into my veranda.  He would also spontaneously burst into snippets of operatic arias several times per day.

The French and Italians jockeyed for supremacy in the high art of reserving deck chairs.  They would scamper out first thing in the morning and put their towel and book on all of the best chairs, ignoring the rule against this selfish act.  When I wanted to sit in a chair, I simply moved the towel on the deck and sat down.  Being an innate rule-follower, if I was confronted, my strategy was to invoke the rule and tell the chair hog to go see the pool butler.  I never had to follow through.

a ppol on a cruise ship
The Pool Deck on the Celebrity Silhouette

The British were continuously getting lost on the ship and loudly arguing among themselves.  I would walk through the restaurant to find my morning allotment of fresh squeezed orange juice to hear the following conversation.

“Where ya goin’ Luv?” said the man.

“I doan know, I’m looking for me tea,” said the woman. “Café is aft.”

“Yer bloody daft, woman, tis over there.  Can’t you read the signs.  Aft is that way!” said the man.

“Whats yer ass?” she replied.

The captain of the ship is a Greek with a dry sense of humor.  Every time he spoke on the loudspeaker he had some deadpan joke to throw into the daily report.  During the opening night show, he introduced the senior crew members and noted disdainfully that some of them weren’t Greek. He said the officer who was second in command had the responsibility to lead the ship when he went to party.

There was also a smattering of Germans, Russians, and Scandinavians.  However, I saw few passengers who were not white Western Europeans or Americans.

The crew was a different story.  The cabin stewards were typically Indians.  Most of the waiters were Filipinos.  The European crew was mostly from Macedonia or Slovenia.  South America was represented by Peru and Chile as coffee bar baristas.  The only black people on board were bartenders from Jamaica (Ya mon! Red Stripe for me!).  There were no Chinese among the crew.  Their poor young workers are stuck in China making all of the goods sold at Walmart.

There were no black Africans (other than a couple of South Africans), Arabs, Pakistanis, or Indonesians.  In these times of Islamist fanatical terrorism, I suppose it would be unsettling to American or Western European passengers to be served by someone like that.  It’s hard to enjoy your vacation and forget the cares of the world if you suspect the waiter might have a suicide vest.

The Celebrity Cruise Line probably has very tolerant employment policies which are open to all.  The workers have to speak at least some English, be willing to work for peanuts, and be gone from home for months at a time.  That must restrict their pool of available workers.  But as I noticed when getting on the ship, perception is everything.  The ship must be perceived by the passengers as safe, welcoming, pampering, and relaxing.  No potential jihadists need apply.

All of the service crew were excessive polite and gracious.  It must have been drilled into them nonstop during training.  It made me feel like a colonialist.  I was the Governor General of this colony and I didn’t have to make the bed or put my dishes away.  I did, however, put the toothpaste on my toothbrush.

The excessive politeness was robotic at times.

“Good morning, Mr. Steve.  How are you today?” asked the stateroom attendant as I left my room.

“Great, thanks.  How are you?” I responded.

“Fine, thank you,” replied the attendant.

After walking 10 yards down the hall, I realized I forgot something in my room, so I went back.  Less than two minute later I saw the attendant again.

“Good morning, Mr. Steve.  How are you today?”

“I am just as good as I was 120 seconds ago, but thanks for asking.”

grass on a cruise ship
The lawn on the Celebrity Silhouette

The advertising for cruises usually show some photogenic couple lounging poolside, eating gourmet meals, and dancing the night away.  The man is typically a distinguished looking CEO type in a GQ suit.  The woman is always quite a bit younger, a big haired trophy wife with a big diamond ring.  The ads are meant to convey the idea that cruising is glamorous, exciting, and extraordinary.  If you go on the cruise, you will enjoy yourself like them, look like them.  You will be them.

I didn’t see anybody like that.  I’m sorry, but I must call it like it is.  I saw lots of fat, ugly, old people.  They weren’t just Americans.  Europeans have definitely caught up to us Americans in the obesity department.

I saw few young adults, and only a handful of children. They were some honeymooners, but younger people typically can’t afford to go on a cruise.  They’re working hard to start a career, buy a house, and raise a family.  Only richer, older people can indulge themselves in a week or more of gluttony, sloth, and late night karaoke contests.

It’s funny how you see the same people over and over on the ship even though there are 2,800 passengers on board.  Like the old Chinese man with the mysterious scar on his head, the typically loud know-it-all New Yorker, and a Russian guy who looked like either a mixed martial arts competitor or the muscle for the Moscow Mafia.  We kept running into one particular American couple and one night had a long and interesting conversation with them.  We also got to know a very nice Portuguese couple.  It’s good to make new friends.  But what I want to know is why is it that I saw the beautiful young Italian supermodel-type woman in the string bikini only once in twelve days, but saw the current champion of the world’s ugliest woman contest three or four times every day?

I did see lots of fat old women in strange looking swimwear lying in the sun with their pale white wrinkly skin getting completely fried.  Here’s a beauty tip: given your age, body type, and weight, getting sunburned or even deeply tanned will not make you more attractive.

I saw old men with enormous tanned pot bellies protruding over their tiny Speedos smoking cigars while drinking beer and reading Italian men’s magazines.  Once per hour they flipped over and rocked from side to side on their rounded bellies with the movement of the ship.

One time I walked out of the café and glanced to one side and saw a large woman sunbathing topless.  She had large dark, flat nipples, and quite a pair.  Wow, I knew there were lots of French people around but I didn’t think this was that kind of ship…  On closer inspection (but not too close…) I realized that it was a man with his head covered by a towel.  Yes, he had man boobs! From a distance they looked almost like woman boobs.  Dude, either wear a man-bra or put a shirt on before some teen-aged boy takes your photo with his cell phone and it goes viral.

And please, Ms. Middle-aged Italian woman, if you’re going to wear that small of a bikini and lie on your stomach, please get a full wax job first…

Three Days In Rome

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy

If you have a limited amount of time, you can see the main highlights of Rome in three days.  This will give you a good introduction to the city.  Here are my picks for things to do in Rome.

Day One

Most American flights arrive in the morning to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in Rome.  Catch a ride to your hotel, eat a light lunch, and take a nap.  In the late afternoon, wander the narrow backstreets of old Rome in the area by the Campo de’ Fiori.  Stop for excellent traditional thin crust pizza at the tiny Pizzeria da Bafetto (on the corner of Via Sora at Vial del Governo Vecchio 114). Take a leisurely stroll around the Piazza Navona, Rome’s most interesting night scene.  Check out the art for sale by local artists.

strolling the Piazza Navona at dusk
Strolling the Piazza Navona at dusk on a summer evening

Next, walk over to the 1,900 year old Pantheon.  At night the inside is closed, but the view of the building lit up in the dark is mesmerizing.   Stop for a chocolate hazelnut gelato in one of the many gelaterias near the square.  Keep walking these streets if you aren’t tired; else go to bed.  It will be a busy day tomorrow.

A view of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy at night
The Pantheon at night

Day Two

In the morning put on your comfortable walking shoes and take the metro or a taxi to the Colosseum.  Originally called the Flavian Ampitheater and built in 80 AD, the stadium was an arena for spectator sports in Roman times.  It’s an impressive structure.  Afterwards grab a sandwich and a drink from a food stand. Next door is the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.   The Forum is ancient Rome’s birthplace and civic center between the seven hills of Rome.  Today it is mostly ruins, but it is easy to image what happened here so many centuries ago.  Stand in the spot where Julius Caesar was murdered!  The Palatine Hill is where the Emperor’s palaces were.

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
The Colosseum

After seeing those sights, you will be ready for a snack and a rest.

fresh fruit stand in ROme
A healthy snack for the tired traveller

Next, walk most of the length of the Via del Corso, the main shopping street of Rome. Look for leather jackets, handbags, and briefcases, or whatever fashions catch your eye. Take a right at Via Condotti to the Spanish Steps.  Climb the steps for a view of the surrounding area.

By this time, your feet will probably hurt.  Maybe instead of walking, you can ride a Vespa.  But watch out for the crazy Roman traffic!

the blue Vespa
The best way to get around Rome - a Vespa!

Sit outside to eat dinner at a café in one of the side streets near the Trevi Fountain.  After dinner, sit by the fountain to see the sculptures and watch the people of the world walk by.  Try to guess which country they are from.

Day Three

This morning go to the Vatican City.  Sign up ahead of time on the Vatican’s website for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum in English. You’ll be able to avoid the long ticket line, but not the crowds you will encounter inside.  The Museum tour includes a few minutes in the Sistine Chapel, and concludes with a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica.  The end of the tour deposits you in St. Peter’s Square.

One of the ceilings in the Vatican Museum
An example of a ceiling in the Vatican Museum

If you still have the energy for more walking, take a taxi to the Villa Borghese Gardens.  It is a large park perfect for strolling or napping on the grass in the shade of a large tree.  When you are refreshed, if you are an art lover, visit the Borghese Gallery.  Next, walk down the Via Veneto, through the old Roman wall.  If you have been traveling for a while, you may be tired of the pasta and pizza menus and crave some American food. In that case, go to the Hard Rock Café on Via Veneto, just before the Piazza Bernini.

Arrivaderci!

Hill Towns of Central Italy

Siena, Italy

In the Middle Ages the people who lived in the countryside in central Italy were frequently threatened by neighboring city-states.  In response, instead of living in the valleys, the people built fortifications on the top of hills for safety.  These forts grew into towns.  Each town typically had high walls built into the top of the hill and a massive gate to protect the townspeople from attackers.  It was very difficult to attack uphill and scale such high walls.  The protection provided by the hill town allowed the people to prosper and develop their economies.

Montone
The front door of a home in Montone

There are many hill towns to visit in Italy today.  Here are a few of them.

back street in Montone, Italy
Walking the back streets of Montone, Italy

Montone

High above the valleys of Umbria is the tiny, picturesque hill town of Montone.  Little known outside of Umbria, Montone has few tourists.  As a result one can see how hill town residents live today without the crush of the tourist crowds. It is easy to walk around the town in fifteen minutes.  Get yourself a chocolate hazelnut gelato and relax in the small piazza and watch the old men outside the café argue about the politics of the day or their favorite football teams.

Cortona, Italy
The Main Square of Cortona, Italy

Cortona

The drive from Calzolaro over the mountains to Cortona in Tuscany was treacherous.  The road was very windy, but with fantastic views of the Lago Trasemino, a large lake in Central Italy.  After an hour of white knuckle driving we got to Cortona.  It gets a lot of attention and many tourists because of the “Under the Tuscan Sun” book and movie (the film is a “chick-flick” bore to me…).

man and dog in Cortona, Italy
Like me, these two were quickly bored with shopping.

We walked around the old streets and shopped.  I didn’t think there was much to see in Cortona.  It didn’t have the charm of Montone.  We had dinner at a ristorante outside of the theater.  A car pulled up and parked outside the theater.  A very British-looking gentleman, expertly attired in a hounds tooth jacket and fancy cravat, got out of the car on the right side and went in for the concert.  At first I thought the car was an old Jaguar, but when I inspected it later I realized it was an Aston Martin DB5.  It was the same model and color of car that James Bond drove in the film “Goldfinger.”   I don’t know if this one had revolving license planes, a machine gun behind the grill, and an ejector seat.

James Bond car in Cortona, Italy
Ejector seats and machine guns are standard equipment.

Siena

Siena is my favorite hill town.  I believe it is the largest hill town in Italy.  In the Middle Ages it was a powerful and wealthy city-state.  Today it survives largely on the thousands of tourists flooding into the town every day and leaving every evening.  The main square, called the Campo, is the site of a famous horse race called the Palio.  The riders race their horses around the outside of the large square at breakneck speed.  The race is a competition between neighborhoods of the town.  Each neighborhood has a horse in the race and the jockey wears racing distinctive colors.  The neighborhoods are adorned with flags in their racing colors.  While we were there, the town was preparing for the second of two annual races, coming up in a few days.

A view of Siena, Italy
The Siena skyline

I recommend stopping in at least one hill town, if possible, during any visit Italy.

Siena, Italy
The main square and clock tower in Siena.

A Villa in Umbria

La Preghiera

Calzolaro is a tiny village in the middle of Umbria.  As you drive through it, your eye catches the faded sign of the Rio Rosso café.  Old men play cards at an outside table while drinking their grappa.  Old peasant women shuffle along the sidewalk on the way back home from doing their shopping.  Boys are kicking a soccer ball around the field.

Welcome to rural Italian life in Umbria.  Where the pace of life is slow, the air is clean, and the hills are heavily forested.  Tuscany, Umbria’s neighbor to the east, gets more attention, but the small towns of Umbria are as tranquil as they come.

La Preghiera
La Preghiera, Calzolaro, Umbertide, Umbria, Italy

I found the bed and breakfast hotel called La Preghiera on the Internet.  I was looking for a place to hold a small destination wedding in Italy.  It looked very promising on its website, but you never can tell until you get there.  In my case, the villa was everything it was advertised to be and was the perfect place for the wedding.

The villa is owned by an elderly British/Uruguyan couple named John and Liliana Tunstill.  They bought the property approximately twenty years ago.  The buildings, consisting of a large house (formerly a monastery), smaller house, and chapel, had been built in the mid-19th century.  When they found the property, it was in ruins.  John, an architect, led a meticulous renovation project to transform the wreckage into a comfortable and modern, yet rustic Italian villa.

The house has nine bedrooms which can be reserved individually or as a group and a large veranda on which to sit when having breakfast or pre-dinner cocktails.  The view from the veranda is across the neighboring farm fields to the forested hills beyond. Currently the farmer next door has a tobacco crop planted.  I didn’t know they grew tobacco in Italy.  John explained that tobacco had been grown in the area for over a hundred years but was being phased out due to the health risks.  However, the farmers have hung on to tobacco as a cash crop because there is more profit in it as compared to other crops.

The view of the neighbor's field

The small house is a self-contained vacation apartment with three bedrooms.  The property also has a large pool which is a welcome respite on hot, muggy August afternoons.

View of the pool at La Preghiera

The unique feature of the property is the chapel.  Built in 1871, it is ideal for a small wedding with no more than 40 people.  In our case, there were only nine people (including the bride and groom), so we fit nicely in the first two rows of the chapel.

The Chapel at La Preghiera
inside chapel
Inside of the Chapel at La Preghiera

Despite being in the countryside, the villa is only a few hundred yards from the village of Calzolaro, and a mile or so from the small town of Trestina.  The town has the usual amenities, such as a bakery, a flower shop, small grocery stores, and a few restaurants.  We were there in August, when many locals take vacations, so the stores and restaurants were closed everyday from 1pm to 4pm.

In the evenings we ventured out to suggested local restaurants in the countryside for authentic Italian cuisine.  These restaurants were far from the poor quality and expensive tourist traps in Rome and Florence.  The food and service were good, the prices reasonable, and every dinner was a three hour affair.

Our time in rural Umbria was relaxing and pleasant.  If you are thinking of visiting Italy, I recommend getting away from the big cities and seeing how the locals live in the countryside.  Consider La Preghiera for your stay.

la Preghiera sign
The entrance gate at La Preghiera