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…

5 Tips for Parking in Cinque Terre – Driving in Italy, Episode 3

Monterosso by the sea

Cinque Terre. Five Lands.  A magical destination on the Mediterranean coast of Italy of five villages on five bays below terraced mountainsides interlinked by hiking paths and a railroad line, but no roads.  We drove effortlessly across the Tuscan hills to the outskirts of Florence, then veered west to the coast and north to Shangri-La.  There are actually some roads that go into a couple of the towns.  We took one road from the Autostrada which connected to a road into Monterosso al Mare.

Monterosso by the sea
Anchovies, anyone?

As we came down the steep hill towards the town, we noticed there were many cars parked along the road for hundreds of meters.  Oblivious to this fact, we kept going, only to discover that at the town entrance there was a gate blocking our path.  Only residents can drive into the town.  Many Italian cities and towns have zones where only residents can drive.  The zones are enforced by automatic cameras that record the license plates of cars being driven in the zone.  I had heard stories of tourists receiving tickets in the mail many months after their vacations because they (sometimes inadvertently and sometimes multiple times) had driven in one of these zones.

OK, we can deal with that.  We reversed course back up the hill, and came across a small parking lot.  Defying the odds, I somehow knew there was a spot for us in this parking lot, even on this glorious and spectacular summer day.  I knew that we could park on the road up the hill about a mile or two away and walk down, but I was not looking forward to the walk back up the hill to the car later in the day.  Didn’t we deserve a spot in the miniscule town parking lot?  I mean we came all the way from America to see this picture perfect little town by the Mediterranean Sea.

Yes!  There is somebody leaving!  Lucky day!  We patiently waited for a couple to load their stroller, their child, and their dog into their Fiat so we can greedily claim their spot.  As we pulled in, I shouted “I proudly claim this parking spot in the interests of our Italian tour and aching feet!”

Of course, we couldn’t park there for free.  So I went to do battle with the automatic parking lot fee machine.  The first thing I noticed is that it would not take a credit card, only cash.  On top of that, it would only take coins.  What kind of country is this where the parking lot machines don’t take credit?  I rummaged through my pockets for one and two euro coins.  I found a couple, but not enough for the entire afternoon.  I went back to the car and checked with Lisa.

“Uhmm, we need more coins.  Do you have any?” I politely asked my dear wife.

“I don’t know.  I think so. Let me look in my purse,” she replied.

I call Lisa’s purse “the magic sack” because you never know what you might find in there, it is large and holds many things, but it doesn’t seem to exhibit the weight it should, based on its contents. Thus, it is like a sack used in a fantasy adventure computer game.  You can put many things into it, but the weights don’t count against your limit of what you can carry.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I have any euro coins right now.  I think I spent mine on a macchiato this morning.  Would any of these small coins work?”

“I don’t think you understand the gravity of our situation.  We want to walk on the beach and the boardwalk in this beautiful seaside town.  But if we don’t have one more one euro coin, we are going to have to choose from one of two choices.  Behind door number one is the choice of vacating this preordained ultimate parking spot and driving two miles up the hillside and parallel parking on a steep, narrow road driving a manual transmission car in the midst of crazy traffic.  Then we have to walk back up the hill later this afternoon.  Behind door number two is the choice of leaving the car here and trusting the parking lot gods to not come and check our windshield for a parking pass.  Because if they do come, they will tow our car with our luggage in it back to some faraway place where tourist rental cars go to die.  We’ll have to take a very expensive taxi ride to wherever that place is, then pay some ridiculous fine, plus exorbitant storage fees.”

“Let’s search the car!”

We checked the glove box.  We checked the floors, and under the floor mats.  We checked the trunk.  We searched our luggage, our backpacks, and camera case.  Finally, nearing exhaustion and utter defeat, I spied a shiny object tucked in the crack of the back seat.  It was not a chewing gum wrapper.  It was not a bottle cap.  It was a one euro coin!

“Hallelujah!  We can rightfully and legally claim our God-given parking spot!” I cheered.

I raced back to the machine to input the coin and receive my cherished parking day pass.  The coin was in, and my itchy fingers were waiting to pounce on that pass as soon as it emerged, newborn baby-like from the parking lot machine womb.  And then, nothing happened.  I waited, with a perplexed and worried look on my face. Nothing.  Na da.  The machine sat there doing nothing, like a stone face on an ancient totem pole, mocking me.  I shook the machine a little bit, in the naïve belief that it would move things along. Then I started to get angry.  Really angry.  Un-vacation-like mad.  I shook the machine harder and harder. It did nothing.

Maybe some time limit had expired on entering coins in a single transaction.  I didn’t know.  I didn’t care.  I resolved to keep that ultimate parking space, whatever the cost.

“Let’s go.  We’ve wasted enough time in this parking lot.  I want to see Monterosso.” I said as we sauntered away.

It was truly a glorious afternoon on the Mediterranean coast.  We walked along the boardwalk, had a nice lunch in a café overlooking the beach, and had our daily gelato fix.  By 5pm I knew it was time to go.  We were pushing our luck with the parking lot gods.

Sometimes when I know I am parking in an unauthorized location, as I walk towards the parking lot I get an uneasy feeling, deep in my stomach.  Is it there?  Or is it gone?  Has it been towed to the creepy impound lot under the freeway where the guy running the impound lot looks like Charles Manson?  The closer I get, the more anxious I turn.  It’s just around the next bend, I can almost see it, is it there?

Yes! My lucky day again!  The car is still where we left it. But, remember one must inspect the windshield.  Alright!  There is no ticket under the wipers!  I have run the gauntlet and emerged supreme.  Parking in the ultimate parking spot for free, saving our aching feet from walking two miles up hill, and getting away with it.  The euphoria was extreme.  I had never felt so alive.

We drove high on the ridge above the sea, curving around the beautiful bays.  The late afternoon sun was shining on the sea, highlighting the sailboats coming in from a time of leisure.  In time, we turned inland, back to the Autostrada and the road to Florence.

Cinque Terre view
A splendid late summer day at Monterosso