Italy Travel: Rome to Amalfi
If you ever consider buying a horseshoe-shaped neck cushion to potentially use as a seat cushion—don’t. Just don’t. Take it from a backside that knows.
Since the in-flight wifi is a no-go (what would be a recurring trend throughout this trip), I pull out my Kindle with its olive green, tooled-leather cover and drift along with lines of poetry for some time before I slide into a contorted state of jerking sleep. My final thought before my eyes close—please let our luggage be waiting for us at the claim….please don’t let it be like the last time we were in Rome….no luggage for 3 days…
At Fiumicino Airport, we are relieved to see our suitcases tumble down the conveyor belt, meaning there would be no need to visit the “slip” store this trip.
The weather is cool, crisp with just a slight shimmer of sun to warm the back as we load into our cab and hurtle towards the city center. The streets begin to take on a familiarity, and we soon recognize the crumbling ruins decaying alongside modernity, layer upon layer, and it starts to make sense where Italians got the inspiration for lasagna.
There was the Altare della Patria, or the Vittorio Emanuele II monument building, or the “Wedding Cake” (depending on whom you talk to) signifying the unification of Rome, all white and bright against the cool blue sky with the snarling circle of traffic coiling in front of it and vivid Vespas zipping by with men in tailored suits and Gucci shoes.
The cab bolts into the Via del Corso, past Hadrian’s, once colorful, swirling column, and then we are on the Via Veneto where our hotel—the Hotel Majestic Roma—is situated. A member of The Leading Hotels of the World, it’s a beautiful structure perched on the picturesque street with revolving doors that gently nudge you into the marble foyer and up the few steps to the check-in desk.
Our room wasn’t ready, but no matter. We left our bags with the concierge and stepped out, unencumbered, into the March morning sunshine for a short stroll up the Via Veneto to the Borghese gardens. Through the black iron gates, we cross the narrow paths until we come upon our first statue–a graceful lady (in spite of the fact she had lost her head).
We leave the still, whispering green garden paths for the city, with Trevi Fountain as our next stop. Cafes and white umbrellas are perched on every corner and narrow cobblestone side streets offer hidden allure as we seek out the path to the famed fountain.
Our last time in the Eternal City, the fountains seemed eternally closed for renovations, so we had yet to see the waterworks in all of its Bernini-esque glory.
You hear the surging spray first, then you see the people, and for brief glimpses in between those hordes of people, you see sculpted Carrara marble and travertine; it’s no matter that the place is a tourist nightmare with people elbowing into the crowded piazza, each trying to get a better view, fighting off (or paying off) the relentless selfie-stick sellers and other cheap trinket hawkers trying to catch any corner of an eye as a means to bombard you with their wares.
The travel fatigue begins to set in, so we turn our toes back towards the hotel. Our room now ready, we are led to a tiny brass elevator with bars through which you can see the encircling stairs behind you, reminding us both of the elevator scene in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. Thankfully, no fights to the death ever broke out (at least not while we were in it).
A padded walk down the soft red-trimmed blue carpeted hallway with red lamp shades lights the way to our 4th-floor room with an ornate white door and single brass knob perfectly placed in the center, hobbit style.
Large by European standards, the room has soaring ceilings, a sitting area, an all-white marble bathroom, and windows that open out to views of sun-burnished terracotta rooftops.
While we unpack, we discuss where our first dinner should be. The first words out of our mouths — The Osteria Barberini— our favorite spot from the first trip to Rome. But, oh, how its fame has grown. I call and somewhat smoothly ask for a dinner reservation, but my Italian falters when the response is “no dinner reservations available” uttered by the older man of very few English words who always seems to man the telephone.
So, rather than miss out completely, we take our chances and walk there for a late lunch. While crowded, the host finds a cozy downstairs corner table for us. Two glasses of bubbling prosecco start us off, complemented by savory appetizers, followed by creamy bolognese and lasagna with tender porcini mushrooms, black truffle, mozzarella & parmesan cheese. We end the meal with a little dolce and a shot of espresso.
The evening found us back at the Trevi Fountain, this time lighting up the night with its otherworldly aqua glow. Although still swarming with people, we wedge ourselves through to get one perfect view of its cascading waters of aquamarine.
Dinner that evening was actually the result of a mistaken reservation made at the wrong restaurant, but we go anyway. Hey, you never know…
It’s only a few streets away from Trevi on a side alleyway, and, within minutes of entering, we discover it’s a spot for locals. The menu is completely in Italian, everyone eating is completely Italian, and we most certainly are not Italian. The best part of the experience? The waiter’s suggested appetizer of fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese and artichokes — Carciofe. An absolute treat! The tastiest discovery of the night.
THE BATHS OF CARACALLA
The walk in the cool of the morning is refreshingly pleasant as we stroll along down the deep green sun-dappled avenues past the shadowy ruins of Palatine Hill.
The Baths of Caracalla are such a massive ruin; so much so that when you look about at the towering walls and remains of the columns, it’s difficult to even know what you’re seeing.
It’s the fragments that catch you first.
These still-colorful fragments of tile, miraculously intact in many areas, spark visions of what once was. Of course, there are the guideposts to help the mind reconstruct the glory that these baths must have been–large still pools, rushing fountains, strength-inspiring sculptures of Hercules–now faded and crumbling yet still vivid with a little imagining.
I don’t see myself ever visiting here again, but it is a strikingly memorable experience; the place imparts a strangely quiet peace, a sense of relaxation, a spa to end all spas….no matter the screeching and scuffling of school children on a field trip forcing their way into my memory. Maybe it’s better that way. According to Seneca, it wasn’t exactly a quiet place during its hey-day.
“Picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones.
Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummeling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch.
Add to this the arresting of an occasional roysterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing.
Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice,–for purposes of advertisement,–continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead.”
Seneca, Moral Epistles (LVI)
Thirsty–a snack truck is conveniently parked at the base of the baths, and I inadvertently order a lemon beer thinking it’s a lemon soda. If only all surprises were that pleasant.
Having had no breakfast, lunch was a looming necessity, so we requested an Uber to drive us to the Trastevere across the Tiber. We had never been to that area of Rome before, and, in a moment of odd realization, we realize we hadn’t even seen the Tiber on our previous trip.
Not quite sure how we managed not to do that.
Although the driver dropped us off at our requested cafe, we didn’t love the posted menu, so we set out walking along the banks of the Tiber towards what we hoped would be something better. (Aren’t we always?)
The waters of the Tiber are not exactly beautiful in their muddled green, but the river does have its points of interest in the architectural variety of bridges and rapid drop-offs.
We arrive at our second restaurant choice, and it—unfortunately—is closed. Ready to sit down just about anywhere at this point, we decide to eat at the convenient cafe next to it. We sit outside under the welcome shade of a yellow umbrella while a French couple proceeds to smoke through what actually was, a half a pack of cigarettes.
Still, the food is good and the cold prosecco helps to lessen our cares about the cigarette smoke wafting our way.
As luck would have it, a mere few streets over, there it was: the charming, bustling hive of the Trastevere I had read about, brimming with picturesque trattorias, bars, osterias, and ristorantes just waiting for us to try.
The Pantheon is and continues to be one of our favorite places in Rome. Drawn by its ancient allure, we trace our steps that evening to the archaic structure, but it had just closed. No matter; we still manage a glance inside and stand for some time just staring at it.
It’s all you really want to do anyway. Just stop. Close out the modern world in order to let in some unknown, older one.
While reading Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, I came across a section where he describes his experience of seeing the Pantheon for the first time, and I had to stop and read it again — it so perfectly describes my own experience, and (chances are) it may describe yours.
The oldest building in Rome with its original roof still intact is the Pantheon, rebuilt atop an older, fire-damaged temple by the emperor Hadrian around AD 125.
When you see the Pantheon for the first time, your mind caves in.
Its doors are twenty-one feet high and weigh eight tons each. The sixteen columns on its porch are thirty-nine feet high and weigh about sixty tons each, roughly the weight of two fully loaded eighteen-wheelers, crushed and compacted into a cylinder five feet across. The columns were not hauled here from a mile away. They were quarried in eastern Egypt, dragged on sledges to the Nile, rowed across the Mediterranean, barged up the Tiber, and carted through the streets of Rome. They are ocean gray, flecked with mica, glassy and cold; it is impossible to be close to one and not want to touch it.
The vault of the Pantheon is made of concrete and has a diameter of 143 feet. The hole in the top, the oculus, is twenty-seven feet across. For thirteen centuries, it was the largest dome in the world. For nineteen centuries, it has resisted lightning strikes and earthquakes and barbarians. But numbers, dimensions, facts— they come later.
When you first see it, the Pantheon is about wonder. You walk through the gigantic doorway and your attention is sucked upward to a circle of sky. A filtering haze floats inside; a column of light strikes through the oculus and leans against the floor. The space is both intimate and explosive: your humanity is not diminished in the least, and yet simultaneously the Pantheon forces you to pay attention to the fact that the world includes things far greater than yourself.
A short walk from the Pantheon is Piazza Navona with the Fountain of the Four Rivers. A wide open expanse of space with, of course, more street sellers trying to get you to buy their flashing trinkets that they toss in the air or splat on the ground; just tune them out, and they eventually fade away.
Since we have plenty of time before our 9:30 dinner reservation, we decide to walk to the nearby Raphael Hotel for an aperitif on their rooftop bar. While the views from there aren’t exactly awe-inspiring, it was pretty (until it started to rain).
Luckily, the rain was short-lived.
THE SPANISH STEPS
The Spanish Steps are our next destination, a familiar place given our previous hotel was on the street at the top of the steps.
As usual, the steps are littered with people sitting about, just taking in the night view. We sit at the Barcaccia Fountain at the base of the steps which depicts a sinking ship.
“The fountain recalls the historic flood of the River Tiber in 1598 and refers to a folk legend whereby a fishing boat carried away by the flood of the river was found at this exact spot. In reality, the sinking boat was ably invented by Bernini to overcome a technical problem due to low water pressure.” — Italy Guides
Still, what’s life without a little myth and story-telling thrown in?
It is finally 9:30pm, and we are hungry. Our dinner reservation is for the Colline Emiliane, a tiny white building with tables closely fitted together, and thankfully, one ready for us. An absolutely delicious meal from start to finish. Highly recommend and craving a return visit already.
MUSEI DEI CAPITOLINI
What do mornings in Rome sound like? On this one particular morning as I lie in bed listening, Rome sounds like exotic birds calling, the rise and fall of rapid-fire Italian conversations somewhere below, and the seemingly non-stop clankings and scrapings of silverware and china from the pizzeria up the street.
It’s another clear, bright day with just enough coolness to keep us from overheating while we walk the curving, uneven streets to the Capitoline Museums. We had seen the buildings on our last trip and climbed Michelangelo’s wide cascading stairs to the top piazza where some of the best views of the Forum can be had for free at the back of the square.
The last time, we had been caught off guard by the glimpse of a fountain to our left through the columns of the museum where a massive man made of stone reclined around the basin of a fountain.
We were determined to see him up close this time, whoever he was.
At the base of Michelangelo’s sloping stairs, we start up them only to both come to the odd realization that we didn’t remember them being so hard to climb 2 years ago.
Had we just forgotten? Were we really in that worse shape? Whatever the case, we pause to take some pictures of the wisteria and draping flowers adorning the way until we finally put our legs in high gear and force our way to the top.
Welcoming the fragrant breezes of the piazza, we walk to the right and into the tiny ticket office where we proceed to purchase what must have been the “Steve Jobs Special” because 2 iPads and headsets later, we were fumbling around trying to get all of our digital mass through security.
Once our stuff tumbled through the conveyor, we pause for a moment inside the inner courtyard where a massive, disembodied stone head with deep-set eyes stands in a corner along with other random giant-sized body parts.
We had read a review on Trip Advisor that morning highly recommending having an espresso and snack at the museum cafe because of its rooftop views. Knowing we would come back through, we set out to find this Terrace Cafe of Trip Advisor fame. Little did we know how difficult that would prove.
Up some stairs, around a few corners, down the stairs, around a few more corners, signs contradicting the way. It was like following directions from the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Finally, K just asked someone and wordlessly she began walking while wordlessly we followed, and once she had delivered us to the cafe, she wordlessly walked away.
There was already a line to get your food, except, you had to get in a different line to pay for your food first, and then get in the line to actually pick it out. Two Caprese sandwiches and a bottle of water later, we prepare to go out to the terrace but a sign stops us that reads: “No Food Allowed Because of Birds.”
So, we sit inside as close to the outdoor view as possible while a clearly unfazed-by-the-sign pigeon roots around under our feet for sandwich crumbs. The wind grew stronger, blowing our napkins through the cafe like white kites. Finished, we walk outside and make the realization—there is another restaurant outside. With waiters menus, no lines, and no pigeons.
We had stumbled into the cafe and had failed to look beyond for anything else. There’s a moral in there somewhere, but at the time I preferred not to dwell on it. The consolation? We were in Rome, so what did it matter? We had the museum to get through and time was not, at the moment, any more on our side.
Out came the iPads and headphones. Mine rattles out something in Italian about the fresco in front of me. K has been locked out of his completely.
A helpful museum worker fixes the problems, and we try again, only to realize we are going through the museum backwards. But, art and statues each tell their stories, no matter how they’ve been numbered and organized.
We walk through room upon room, each one brimming with colorful frescoes, statues, and tapestries until, finally, we find ourselves back where we started—the courtyard of the severed gigantic body parts.
Thinking that since the other half of the museum was across the piazza the entrance must naturally be located there, we mistakenly set out for it only to be turned away by a guard who tells us there is an underground entrance on the other side.
Back we went, back through the security line, and so began the search for the underground tunnel. Finding it faster than we did the cafe at least, we walk through and, midway, take a right turn up some stairs, ultimately leading us to some spectacular views of the Forum.
We ramble on through the tunnel, and (this time) we finally make it. There was the giant man reclining by his personal fountain with a gaggle of French teenage tourists taking about 20 selfies apiece in front of him.
His name is Marforio, meaning “Forum of Mars” which is where he was thought to originally have been situated.
“For centuries, Marforio was a ‘talking statue’…ancient sculptures on which discontented citizens used to post anonymous complaints or invectives against the authorities.”
I couldn’t help but imagine people creeping around in the night trying to post their messages anonymously….like some ancient precursor to social media or the most elaborate comment box ever.
There were more corridors and rooms to shuffle through in this flank of the museum, but at least there were more benches. The “Hall of Philosophers” was particularly memorable--maybe because I was sitting when I listened to the audio guide discussing it.
But sitting does have its advantages–better angles to see the intricately painted and coffered ceilings with glowing chandeliers floating like gossamer webs above.
Statues and more statues and then there was one I distinctly remembered from my undergraduate art history class: The Dying Gaul.
Still in pain, still dying, even after all these years. To think, one day when I’m dead, he will still be dying.
We had done it. Toured the entire museum. And we were ready for refreshments.
There are a multitude of cafes and restaurants just across the street from the Coliseum, and we were ready to sit at any one of them no matter if there were pictures of pasta on the menu; so many other people, however, had taken those prime tourist seats leaving us to ask one cafe hostess for a recommendation nearby that might not be so crowded.
Her response: “I know just the place. Hold on. I’ll get someone to take you there.” A moment later we were following a man in black with white shirt sleeves, smoothly weaving his way to a side street on the right.
Suddenly, it all came rushing back. There was the extraordinarily below average restaurant we had collapsed at 2 years ago before our Forum / Coliseum tour, and for one tense moment, I thought we were going there again, like some cruel trick; but, we strode on and upward to the corner of the next alleyway where we saw the soft red terra-cotta tint of a picturesque restaurant, La Taverna Dei Fori Imperiali, with sprawling cream umbrellas and swirling flame heaters warding off the chill of the shady street.
Plus, no pictures on the menu.
I can’t believe we didn’t climb to the top of Palatine Hill the last time we were in Rome. All of these massive ruins, each offering its own vast yet fragmented view into the past.
You can’t help but feel the immense enormity of it–Its magnificence still, even in its state of crumbling decay. To tiptoe out to the edges of your mind to try and imagine what it once was is slightly overwhelming.
You can see all of Rome below you, the Baths of Caracalla looming to your left; you could have sat on your terrace and watched the thundering chariot races at the Circus Maximus, a spectator to one of history’s earliest reality shows.
Rome feels so far away and yet so relevant–its desire for grandeur, for place, for respect, for “likes.” Walking down the soft grasses and over the crumbling stones, I’m lost in a world so far and yet oddly close to my own.
I know one thing at least: I would never have wanted to be the ruler of Rome. Too much poison and too little time.
The walk down the hill took us through the archways and ruined columns of The Forum. How much can a city rise by literally building on top of its history so that the streets of yesteryear are now subterranean?
The path took us up to the street once more where the grand white marble of the Vittorio Emmanuelle building glowed like a new era in the sun.
It’s our last night in Rome before we catch the train for the Amalfi Coast, and we have no dinner reservations. We have apparently become more Italian during these past three days because neither of us is too concerned about it as we slowly drink an aperitif complemented with nuts and mini burgers on the terrace of our hotel, listening to music drifting from somewhere….always….in the distance.
Around 8:30pm, we decide to chance it and just walk until we find a place that’s free for dinner. About 15 minutes into our random walk, I glance to my left and see flickering candles, one after another, lighting the way up through an alley to what looks like a cafe straight out of Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night: Piccolo Arancia. As the restaurant name suggests, it is tiny and there are orange-themed entrees, and everything we ordered was decadently delicious…
AMALFI COAST BOUND
In the early morning hours we board the first class train car of the FrecciaRossa and tumble into the large, leather reclining chairs–so quiet. We sip from the glasses of complimentary prosecco while watching the slightly hazy green fields flash past.
I think they purposefully turn off the free wifi on these Italian trains so you don’t even get close to doing any work. I know I didn’t.
Salerno Station is our ultimate stop…..lovely, tranquil, beachside Salerno. We ride the elevator up from the train platform and roll our luggage across the street towards the glowing yellow and black Hertz car rental sign.
It’s windy here and slightly chilly, but the sky grew clearer, the air a little warmer, and the streets a bit narrower as we set out towards the Amalfi Coast and the Hotel Santa Caterina.
Soon we were seeing the sheer rock cliffs rising to our right with the rippling blue-green Tyrrhenian sea to our left. We even remembered to fold in the side view mirrors to avoid having them smashed or bashed off by oncoming cars and buses.
Then came the towns, their names growing more familiar with every mile—Vietri Sul Mare…Cetara…Maiori…Minori…Atrani…Amalfi…
We both feel it at the same time—the familiarity—the feeling that we had only been away from this place maybe a month instead of two years.
The Hotel Santa Caterina had not changed either. Its cool white exterior was pristine, the smiling valets were still dressed in their crisp grey suits trimmed in red, and entering the cool fragrant lobby was like stepping back into a cross between a dream and a memory..
To top it all off, they had even upgraded our room. Our suite was located one floor higher than the one we had previously enjoyed, and it was decorated in a pink mahogany motif accentuated by a rose and ivory tile with deep cranberry curtains blowing in the sea breeze from the balcony.
We stood on the balcony and wordlessly drank in the moment, breathing in the fragrant purple wisteria in full bloom that draped itself over every balcony and terrace.
Anxious to re-acquaint ourselves with the hotel, we walk back through the lobby and down to the cliffside, glass-front elevator. Closing the tiny doors behind us, we begin the descent, watching the salt water pool and undulating sea get closer and closer. Concrete steps lead you down into the Tyrrhenian if you’re brave enough to swim its chilly waters.
We had wanted to have dinner at Taverna degli Apostoli (the favorite from 2 years ago), but they wouldn’t be opening until April due to renovations, so we called the concierge and got a recommendation and a 9:00 reservation for another restaurant: Taverna Buonvicino.
As we dress for dinner, we quiz each other on Italian menu items, particularly the ones we would prefer not to accidentally order. No coniglio, fegato, or polpo per mia, per favore.
That evening we made the (sometimes) treacherous descent to the town of Amalfi on foot, keeping as close to the low railing of the road as we could, thankful for the sporadic patches of sidewalk.
Once through the second tunnel, it wasn’t long before we cut to the left into the first available street that leads to the piazza and the Duomo di Amalfi, its golden mosaics alight in the glow of the low lights of evening.
We walk up the street to the left of the Cathedral, through the curving cobblestone pathway of the Via dei Prefetturi until we see the welcoming lights of the the Tavern. It was quiet inside with only one other couple in the cozy white dining room with vaulted ceilings and dark brown beams.
They were expecting us, and we were swiftly seated near a window by a friendly waiter who spoke much better English than we spoke Italian.
Although we were on the lookout for “polpo,” we needn’t have worried. They had provided a menu with the English translations below each item. Translations can be ridiculously funny, though.
We both looked at each other when we came to one item in particular:
“What the heck is a ‘Flying Squid'”?
How quickly imaginations can run away with you.
Maybe it was a certain kind of squid? The kind that jumps into your boat when you least expect it. A.K.A. the famed “Flying Squid” of the Amalfi Coast. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a…..flying squid??
“Maybe it’s a reference to the cooking technique. Maybe the cook flings the squid from the kitchen while you try to catch it on your plate rather than your face…?”
The “flying squid” continues to remain a mystery since we didn’t order it to find out.
The pasta dishes we did order were quite good as was the local wine recommended by the waiter. Then came the desserts, one tiramisu and a Torta di Amalfi (Amalfi lemon cake), followed by espresso and limoncello.
Amalfi is known for its enormous lemons and all of the delicious ways the Italians use the tart fruit in their cooking. The first time we had driven to Amalfi, we had seen the massive yellow globes terraced throughout the cliffs, but we had assumed they were melons of some kind.
Jaw-dropping to find out they’re just gigantic lemons.
We were full and it was nearing midnight as we began the trek back up the mountainside to the hotel. A cold wind off the sea refreshed us as we climbed higher and higher in the darkness until we saw the white lights of the Santa Caterina blazing against the ink-black sky.
A DAY IN THE AMALFI SUN
The sun rose and burned away every cloud from the sky leaving nothing but a picture-perfect day. After a light breakfast on the terrace, we rode the elevator down to the pool deck and then back up for a walk through the citrus groves and gardens.
We had chosen to rediscover the town of Amalfi on our first full day, and we walked to the edges of the piers to see the fisherman and tourists piling into the boats most likely bound for other towns along the coast or the islands of Capri or Ischia.
We crossed over into the town square where more visitors were climbing the wide steps up to the Cathedral while some chose to skip the exercise and sit and savor heaping scoops of gelato under the spreading umbrellas.
Wanting to escape the main thoroughfares, we took the first left up a side street and continued winding further and further back until we came to a much smaller but quieter square where a couple of cafes were serving lunch.
This is when we quite accidentally discovered our new favorite restaurant — L’Abside. We sat outside at a small table shaded by a canopy, next to a larger table with 3 women and 1 man seamlessly having a conversation that weaved back and forth between Italian and English. It sounded so effortless, and here I was stumbling over the words to order a bottle of still water.
Maybe one day.
SAILING TO POSITANO
The next morning also dawned bright as the sun shone its spotlight directly on our balcony while we got ready for our day of sailing on the Tyrhennian Sea. Our boat was small, but perfect for just us and our sun-tanned sailor from Ravello.
There was Amalfi, made the more beautiful from this watery distance, its terraced green hillsides decorated with great yellow lemons and medieval tower outcroppings.
Before we knew it, we had drifted inside the cool, dark blue oasis of a cave —the water turning turquoise in our wake with vivid glimpses of coral just beneath each rise and fall of the waves.
The water is the color that makes me want to jump in — for no particular reason whatsoever — its siren call is just so alluring.
The wind grew stronger as we floated towards Positano, past the Shark’s Mouth, the white cliff house of Sophia Loren, and an arching bridge where people with some urge for a thrill stronger than my own dive off the brink into the rippling blue water below.
We float on, into the wind and the blue, until there was Positano around the rocky bends, like a colorful pile of Lego blocks, stacking their way up the mountainside.
We step off our boat, bid adieu to our helpful captain, and walk past the lounging men and cats of the dock and into the town.
Our lunch reservation is for Chez Black, a beachside establishment that is most definitely a tourist spot but not without some good flavor and a great view. Post-lunch, we stroll our way up the escalating streets towards the various shops, flower arboretums, and the smell of lemons.
I think that whichever town you first call home on this mystical coastline is probably the place you fall in love with and want to return. Ours had been Amalfi and the Hotel Santa Caterina.
Given another time, another moment, another decision made at some point on the couch trip-planning, we might have fallen in love with Positano, Ravello, Sorrento, or any other tiny town along this ancient coast.
We walk the narrow streets quickly up and onward then down and back where we caught our slow-going boat back to the Amalfi harbor and the waiting hotel cab.
Go to Ravello….you must go to Ravello….
All week long we had heard from our drivers, our waiters, our random conversations, …. go to Ravello. You won’t regret it. Beautiful ….. They certainly weren’t wrong.
We wind our way up hills and more hills to the cliffhanging town. I distract myself with the map while K focuses on the distracting hairpin turns. Once there, officially, we stroll through the piazza with its porcelain merchants, ultimately finding ourselves at the beautiful Villa Rufolo.
The views speak more volumes than I ever could.
When lunchtime rolled around, we discover that we had apparently made reservations at a place that wasn’t currently taking reservations because it was completely closed.
Not to be defeated because there is always good food to be found in Italy if you’re willing to look for it, we found lunch at Palazzo Della Marra — the building is over 1000 years old and was the medieval residence of the Della Marra family. We immediately are in love: such friendly people and such delicious food…lemon ravioli, eggplant parmigiana, and local red wine…delicious.
We slowly wind our way back down to Amalfi and back up to the Santa Caterina where they happened to be filming a movie in the lobby. Our favorite waiter beckoned us towards the terrace, away from the extension cords and mayhem, where he brought us complimentary pistachios and prosecco.
I fall into a deep sleep on our terrace that afternoon. I’m normally the queen of insomniacs, but something about Italy eases my mind, and I don’t feel guilty about sleeping while there because the rest just enhances the whole experience.
Late in the evening, we walk back to town where we eat pizza under a ceiling of lemon trees at Donna Stella.
THE HOTEL SANTA CATERINA
It’s our last full day at the Hotel Santa Caterina, and we decided it was high time for a day spent completely poolside. Around 11:00, we sauntered through the hotel to the elevator and down to the pool deck.
There are comfy lounges everywhere with unbarred views of the sea basically at our toe tips. It’s slightly cloudy which adds a refreshing coolness in between the burning sun–a sun that wouldn’t hesitate to give you a strange tan line depending on where the white umbrella covered your skin.
We scorn lunch for snacks brought to our lounge table – massive, salty, green olives in a glass dish with crisp homemade chips and buttery pistachios. In between olives and pistachios I read lines and lines of poetry, pausing for random talks then naps, soaking up the sun and salt of the day.
Boats came, boats went, but we remained, and the only action of the afternoon was K’s purchase of espresso cups and glazed coffee mugs from the sometimes open gift shop. upstairs.
After a final dinner that evening at L’Abside, we found our same friendly late-night cab driver waiting in the harbor square to drive us up the dark, winding cliffside. He was smiling, we were smiling, and we continued to smile as we sank into the soft white furniture of the lobby lounge for our final evening cocktail at the Hotel Santa Caterina.
The rich-voiced waiter who waited for us every evening was there, waiting for us yet again. I’d like to think he still looks for us to stroll in around 11:00pm, but, I’m sure some other couple have taken our place by now.
The night ended as all our others, maybe a little more wistful. It was our final night in that magical place, and, not wanting to go back to the real world, sometimes the less said the better.
It’s our last morning in Amalfi….I’m sitting on our fragrant balcony staring into an immensity of blue. The town of Amalfi rises to my left, an outcropping of humanity with cream and ivory buildings, sun-baked red roofs and the terraced green of covered lemon trees waiting for their moment, already large and heavy with their yellow fruit.
It’s so peaceful in this place….this medieval village where sprawling villas hang from every crag. The Santa Caterina….our home away from home. So familiar, in its painted tile floors and encasing vines. Music is never far–as if it wafts to you from the hanging purple wisteria.
Someone below us clearly likes Italian opera. We have decided that we don’t mind. This place is all prosecco, pistachios, and olives as big as plums.
Boats criss then cross, leaving rippling turquoise paths, with someone on board each one pointing out the sites….pointing out me.
It sometimes seems so difficult to get here yet so easy when you think about it in retrospect. According to the Italians, just have a glass of prosecco and you’ll do just fine….you’ll start to drive like the Italians, relax like the Italians, and even the language will come naturally just as the lady in Ravello said.
So much for thoughts of serenity. We paid the final astronomical bill as reality came rushing back at us like a running bull. Still, in the grand scheme, the experience was worth more than any price charged. We waved goodbye and off we drove back through the coastal towns, silently bidding a farewell to any signpost worthy of memory.
Getting back to the train station wasn’t exactly smooth sailing given that the Hertz car rental agency was closed. *Note to self: always find out where you go to return the key and park the car if the agency is closed. We asked, and asked, and asked…..and then we called and asked, and even they weren’t all that sure. Time was running out as K finally located some form of a dropbox / just-slide-it-under-the-door scenario. Where was Marforio when you needed him?
Leaving the car parked out front, we balanced the fear of a massive parking ticket with the massive fear of missing our train. Safely on the train, we chose to enjoy the moment and pay for the reality of it later.
First, there was Naples, and then there were hills of green and cliffs of cream, broken up by the sound being sucked from your ears as you flew through Italy’s countryside tunnels.
How were we already leaving Amalfi? Weren’t we just on this train? I’m pretty sure I sat in that seat across the aisle from the one I’m in now.
I try to grade some student essays, but how can I? For one, the wifi is basically nonexistent, but that’s my public excuse. The real excuse is: I don’t want to. I’m in Italy. And even the worst of this country is something that I want to remember and take with me, graffiti and all.
The train speeds on, and faster than we can even quite grasp, we’re back in Rome. We’re in the station, we’re unloading the luggage, we’re standing in a taxi line behind some nuns, we’re piling into the taxi, only to realize our newest hotel is literally just around the corner — the Boscolo Excedra Roma.
Three minutes later, we were unloading the suitcases at the beautiful hotel. I’m fairly certain the check-in process took longer than our cab ride.
Our room is on a higher floor, and about a mile from the elevator—all of that for no view except the orange construction trappings below. The room itself is nice, but we prefer the Hotel Majestic Roma.
It was our last night in Italy, and after dinner, we didn’t want to just go back up to the room. Since we hadn’t ordered dessert at dinner, we decided to have one final bit of dolce on the covered portico of the hotel.
We people-watched, took photos, talked about “polpo” and “flying squid,” and laughed until at last we agreed it was time to go upstairs and get some sleep.
The next morning, finally loaded onto the plane, I begin to realize how tired I am as we fly over the white ridges of the Swiss Alps. So exhausted now, so ready to be back home, yet all so worth it.
As I drift into a dozing sleep, I start to think about how I wish I spoke better Italian, how I wish I could live at The Santa Caterina, and how I wish we always knew where to go and never made wrong turns, but where is the adventure in that.