June 19, 2003:
We were greeted by a bright, clear, sun-dappled morning as we awoke at La Badia. The air smelled of pine and flowers and it seemed that you could see for miles. Birds were chirping and swooping around the ruins of the monastery’s old bell tower.
We had a good breakfast at La Badia’s complimentary breakfast spread. European breakfasts always seem to be heavy on baked goods — pastries, rolls, packaged toast, croissants — and the Italian spreads always feature ham and cheese as well. Add in yogurt containers, Nutella spread, one kind of cereal, some juice, and some kind of fruit and voila! — you have the standard complimentary breakfast. La Badia’s set up was better than most, by reason of the quality and quantity of fruit and cereal — although the hotels over here never seem to get the milk properly chilled.
After breakfast and a final tour of the very cool La Badia grounds, we climbed into the Opel Vectra and headed toward Sorrento. The Vectra has been a very good, practical vehicle. If I were to come to Europe to drive again, I would request it. The dashboard is well-designed, the signals and switches are easy to figure out (with the only exception being a bell-like dinging that occurred right after we got the car, which I eventually realized, to my embarrassment, was the indicator that the emergency brake was on), and the car has good power and acceleration. The skies were clear and the conditions were good on the drive, and we made good time. At one point, I got the car up to 170 kmh, to Kish’s consternation.
Unfortunately, we missed one of our connections, and as a result we headed to Salerno, which is south of Sorrento. We decided to hold off on visiting the Pompeii ruins, and instead to drive up the Amalfi coast line highway, from Salerno to Sorrento. This is a drive that had been recommended as beautiful and exciting.
The scenery is beautiful on the drive, but I couldn’t recommend it to anyone in good conscience. The road is so narrow, the turns are so frequent and sharp, and the dropoffs are so steep that it is impossible to enjoy the scenery, which is marked by deep blue ocean far below, cliffs and flowers and lots of greenery, and little towns and villages literally carved into the rock. Fortunately, we were driving north on the road, which meant we got to hug the rock face as we navigated the hairpin turns. Even so, the driving quickly became a painful exercise. The standard tailgating occurred, and amazingly they allow enormous tour buses to drive the highway. At one point, I had to back up to let one of the tour bus behemoths squeeze by. Add to that a kind of motion sickness from the constant turns and the fact that the drive seems to take forever because you cannot go quickly, and you end up with a pretty unpleasant experience. My guess is that most people who start out to drive the Amalfi coast highway quickly come to regret it, but once you are on the road there does not seem to be any turning back.
After an apparent eternity, we reached Sorrento, where we faced a new challenge — finding our hotel. We drove around streets that apparently have no street signs or traffic markings (including at one point turning the wrong way down a one-way street and backing up), all the time being tailgated and baffled by the maze of narrow streets. Finally, Richard spotted the hotel, or we might still be driving. When we parked our car and unloaded for the night, it felt good to have our feet on the ground.
Sorrento is right on the coast, so the boys and I decided to go swimming. To get to the water, you have to go down about 500 feet, or maybe more, on a long set of staircases that run alongside some roadway switchbacks. When you reach the coast, it is impressivle to look up the cliff at the town. Unfortunately, Sorrento really has no beach to speak of. There is a very small private beach (6 Euros per person entrance fee), which we decided not to use. We walked a bit farther and found an even smaller public beach, with no sand, squeezed between two piers. The beach was totally overrun with people, and we gave up. Instead, we walked along the piers, looking out over the bay at some of the other seaside towns and checking out some of the pleasure craft docked there. It was hot, and it felt good to be out in the sun in a bathing suit.
We have noticed some interesting things about Europeans. They appear to smoke more than Americans. In fact, I would say there are three to four times as many smokers per capita in Italy as in the USA, and there isn’t the kind of oppobrium placed on smokers here that you find in America. Europeans also seem to eat less and drink less, so you don’t see as many obese people (although we did see some chunky German women at the beach). Whether this makes Europeans healthier than Americans is anyone’s guess.
We ended our day with a good dinner at a nearby trattoria, followed by a walk along streets crowded with shops and vendors in the older part of town. Most of the stuff being sold seemed like cheap trinkets, so we weren’t buying. Tomorrow, it’s on to Pompeii, then back to Rome to get ready for our trip home.