Friday, March 04, 2016


One last walk to the bar for a quick caffè and to pick up some cornettos and other treats from the local pasticceria. I love watching the deliveries happening in the morning, but in Italy it isn’t the paper being delivered, it’s caffè. There is an army of baristas, dressed in little vests and an apron around the waist wandering around the streets of Napoli. They’re all carrying colourful plastic trays with a clear dome on top and on the tray one, two, or more tiny little cups of espresso. I love imagining the people receiving these deliveries. Do they get them every day? Is it always the same clientèle? I’m going to have to ask when we get back to Napoli.

We head back to the apartment for our 9 o’clock taxi to Minori. We lock up the apartment and go down to the street to find Nicola waiting. Nicola isn’t the driver we hired. It turns out he is his brother-in-law and it becomes apparent very quickly that not only is he not our driver but that he is not A driver. Two seconds up our road and he is asking for directions on how to get to the highway from the Centro. On his second corner he clips the front bumper of a car. Unfortunately for Nicola, the car was occupied and the driver of the car opens his door looking very put out and stands up, craning his neck to assess the damage. There is a lot of gesticulating but apparently the damage is minimal so we were allowed to proceed. I can’t even imagine what happens here when there is an accident worth reporting. My guess is that it is dealt with as quickly as possible without getting the police or carabinieri involved.

Nicola tells me, by way of explanation, that his car is much smaller than this car. No!! Nicola had spent a good five minutes punching the details of our destination into his tablet before we left but seems to pay no attention to it once the machine started speaking to him. At first I thought it was because he knew some shortcut to avoid traffic (which was chockablock) but I soon realized he was doing the exact opposite of what the computer was telling him. A sinistra, the computer would say and he would turn a destra. A destra, the computer would say and he would turn a sinistra. Oh boy. A taxi driver who is not a taxi driver who can’t tell left from right. I start chatting to him and he was not the easiest to understand. I realize that most Napoletanos are probably making an effort to be understood by speaking their school Italian to foreigners like me. Nicola didn’t appear to have much Italian per se and napoletano is not a lot like Italian. To my ears, it sounds like a cross between Catalan and Portuguese. When Nicola isn’t driving his brother-in-law’s cab he is a supermarket fish man, I find out, and has been for twenty years. I ask him questions about some of the things we’re seeing as we finally clear the city. What is that island? Ischia? He doesn’t know. I’m not talking about a little dot on the horizon here. It is a big island and it is very close and he is a born and bred napoletano and he has no idea. This could be a long ride.

He tells me about his girlfriend of ten years who just left him. People get married and then divorced right away nowadays, he laments. He tells me about his salsa classes and, with a smile, about how outnumbered he is by the women in the class.

Soon enough, we’re weaving through the mountains. Every inch appears to be segmented into terraces — scaffolds of sun-bleached wood sectioning off lemon groves and grape vines and orange trees. Men in coveralls dot the hillside, pruning and tying down the lemon branches to help bear the weight of the fruit. The Amalfi lemons are famous, for their sweetness but also for their size. They make grapefruit look like sissies. There is black or green netting on everything to protect from frost and the high winds that come over the ridges. All the netting will come off in April when the weather is more reliable. We finally crest and start moving down the hills toward the coast, coming into Minori soon after. We drive along the piazza which separates the road from the beach and turn up into the hills. Switchback. Nicola has finally accepted me pointing him around corners because we’ve backtracked so many times.

He leaves us at the entrance. I have no faith that he’s going to make it back alone in time for his four o’clock shift. We walk up a steep broken road and then some very taxing stairs up through a lemon grove and along a wall green with moss to the terrace of Agriturismo Villa Maria. We’re very early but are welcomed very warmly by quiet Maria and then her husband, gregarious, adorable Vincenzo. In two seconds flat there is a pitcher of fresh-squeezed lemonade with five glasses and we’re shown to our rooms which are side by side along the terrace, glass doors looking out over Minori and the sea.

Vincenzo gives us the lowdown. He is lovely and chatty. Telling us about ehvareetink and how, in the old days, you had to carriage ehvareetink upa da mountain. He tells us about the history of the place. It was Maria’s family farm and when they decided to turn it into an agriturismo the horror stories of regular caribinieri and police visits trying to throw sticks in his wheels. He talked about the bureaucracy and the challenges of building before the road came up the hill ten years ago. He told us about old folks who walked down the thousand steps every day to town to buy their supplies and then headed back. No one was fat in those days he says, holding up his pinkie.

We thought we’d take a quick walk to Ravello, another hillside town a few kilometres west of here as the crow flies and asked Vincenzo for directions. Walk up the stairs and go left and then you’ll come to the Convento, then keep going into Ravello. Great. Off we go, up the stairs. And up some more stairs and then some more stairs. Huff and puff. The stairs end and we’re not quite sure where to go as there are goat tracks going off in a dozen directions. We pick a track that seems likely and off we go. About ten minutes later the track ends and we don’t know where to go. We start bushwhacking — some of us scrabble up and others scrabble down. The bush is not very friendly. The hillside is covered in vines – very, very prickly vines. The kind of vines that stab you through your jeans and hang on for dear life as another grabs you round the ankle trying to bring you down. The sun was warm so Henri had changed into shorts and Wil was in a t-shirt. It wasn’t long before they both look like they’d both been flayed and were dripping with blood. Oh, are the Ravello natives going to laugh at us when we emerge from the brush, we thought. Frances finally finds a track that looks promising and we head along it ‘til it starts climbing up into a ravine. There is a fat cable leading down into the valley on the left and up, up, up on the right. We follow it up ‘til we find the end bored & knotted into a big tree stump. There are piles of wood, probably last year’s harvest, seasoning on the hillside. Maybe the cable is the wood delivery system into town. We have no luck finding a continuation of the track. The kids head up over the crest of the mountain as Wil and I stand and wait in the ravine. They’re soon back with no luck. Back down the way we came and further still. Not ten feet beyond the spot where we first emerged from the bush onto the track is a fork in the trail with another track, THE track! Oh, how they’re going to laugh, those Ravello-ans. Along the hillside for forty minutes, through a beautiful olive grove, along a little monorail that runs up the side of the hill. Finally some signs of life and then stairs down. More stairs and more stairs. Then narrow, paved walkways and staircases between white-washed buildings, with flashes beyond of sea and sky. Colourful doors, every inch of outdoor space trellissed, pocket gardens full of cabbage and flowering rapini. Madly barking dogs and little lizards flitting out of the way. All the way down into the piazza. The piazza of Minori.

We asked around for bus tickets. Trying to figure out the system and the schedule. We were told to go to the tabacchi so we went and asked. No, I don’t sell tickets, the crabby shopkeeper told us, obviously not feeling the urge to help. Can you tell us where? We ask. At the giornalieri, he responds patently exasperated and not feeling the need to indicate where the giornalieri might be. Lucky for us not ten feet away is the giornalieri who definitely has tickets for us. Where does the bus stop? We ask. Right here, he answers. Right here like, right here in front of the store? Or right here in Minori? These are the kinds of questions one asks oneself a lot in Italy. It becomes very clear that the shopkeepers are willing to answer questions but just one. Then it just gets to be a bit much. We wander back toward the piazza and ask around. The fermata (bus stop) is right here so we wait. Soon enough we’re on the bus to Amalfi with a huge group of high school students coming back from Sorrento. The drive is mind-blowing. The scenery is insanely beautiful. The bus swings around corners revealing tiny hamlets hanging on the cliffside. We’re in Amalfi in no time and walk along the shore and onto the jetty, the end of which is surrounded by cement breakwaters that look like someone was playing a gigantic game of jacks and left them lying around. The next jetty down the coast is surrounded by breakwaters shaped like rounded dice. I wonder whether they do different things to the crashing waves or whether the cement contractor was just a fan of games. Into the town through archways to the fountain and the hulking staircase of the cathedral. The bell tower is all colourful ceramic, the face of the cathedral beautiful (I can’t resist stripes). The tour of the church is well designed, taking you through the cloisters and the chapels and church treasures before you’re allowed the spectacle of the main cathedral.

We soon head back to our little piece of heaven, taking the Minori comune — the local bus which leaves the piazza every hour or so ferrying the locals up the mountainside. Vincenzo comes and chats to us some more. About Italy’s role in the war, about the difficulty of getting anything done in Italy, about the crappy Spanish lemons, about how no one wants to pay the real cost of things anymore and how much pigs should weigh when they’re slaughtered.

Maria makes us a feast. Antipasti di casa — prosciutto, speck, ricotta, sheep’s milk cheese, pitted olives, picked zucca, all amazing, all homemade. A primi of fusilli with tomato sauce with a hearty slice of homemade sausage, followed by a secondi of pork chop with lemon. The kids are in heaven. We’re drinking Vincenzo’s Vino San Vincienz. Dessert is tiramisu in a sundae cup with a little glass of green limoncello. When Vincenzo isn’t bringing us food from the kitchen he sits with his little chihuahua, Honey, in front of a little heater watching a tv mounted high on the wall. He’s enjoying an Italian version of trivial pursuit with a twist. Each contestant stands in a large circle and when they get the answer wrong the floor beneath them drops and they disappear into thin air.

The sheets are crisp linen. The shower is scalding. Sleep comes very fast.

1 comment:

Larry in Bangkok said...

I remember those stairs and Ravello. Our trip was a series of stairs up and stairs down, punctuated by a lot of delicious food. Have fun and enjoy the views.