Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri
18.05.1999 - 20.05.1999
DAY 8 TUE Our alarm clock woke us at 6am so that we could make last minute preparations for our trip to Sorrento. The desk clerk told us that it was too early for coffee and that we should wait until 6.45 (the bus was due at 7am). At 6.45 we seated ourselves in the little breakfast room expecting a simple cup of espresso. The clerk told us that the bus was on its way and the waiter, to our dismay, brought over our usual breakfast of funny bread and croissants (not the sort of stuff you want to eat before a long bus ride). We had just started our coffee when the clerk strolled over and told us that we had better get a move on or the bus would leave without us. Apparently it had been waiting for us downstairs before we had even started!
Our coach was not one of those road liners, which we had been expecting and the comfort level was inferior to that of a 767. We (and by “we” I mean Margaret) quickly made friends with the American couple in front of us. Pat was the dominant partner who talked at length about anything while her husband Bill, a taciturn man if there ever was one, remained silent and expressionless for most of the trip. Margaret is really lucky to have such an outgoing, social person such as myself for a husband!
The first leg of our trip took us past Monte Cassino, seen for thirty seconds in the distance, and into the city of Naples where we picked up a local guide named Giovanni. Margaret and I agreed that Naples was very similar to Bangkok or possibly Hong Kong; lots of tall, drab apartment blocks festooned with washing. Giovanni informed us that the Mediterranean Sea on our right had only two openings, one at the top (the Suez Canal) and one at the bottom which meant, for some obscure scientific reason, that it was always clean.
As I write: Margaret has just interrupted me yet again with a very interesting observation about the church bells of Sorrento. Yes, I can hear them dear. I am expecting another interruption at any moment. Here it comes....should we buy a bottle of wine in Tuscany or wait till we reach Bordeaux?
Shortly before we reached Pompeii we stopped at a cameo factory to watch grizzled artisans at work. For the first time we became part of a tour group , just the sort of people we had eyed with contempt in Rome. We bought nothing.
Pompeii, though a famous tourist attraction, was largely unspoiled and with a little imagination one could almost see the bustling town before the ashes fell. My own imagination was sparked when Giovanni told us that we could identify ruins which had once been shops by the grooves cut into the ground in front of what had once been walls. These grooves allowed shutters to be drawn across the shopfront at the end of the day. Most of the town had been almost levelled, though a couple of houses were still standing and had been restored to show how the unfortunate citizens had lived before being turned into plaster casts.
We were particularly impressed with the surviving frescoes, though the best preserved of these were on the walls of a small room in front of which a long queue had formed. The pictures which attracted so much attention were extremely explicit depictions of girls and boys playing doctors and I was in and out of that room within sixty seconds so that people wouldn’t think I was a pervert. If only those little old American ladies from Ohio knew what was in store for them at the front of the queue!
Speaking of old American ladies, we found ourselves mingling with a group of Americans on another tour, all of whom where rather elderly. One particularly objectionable old dame kept abusing her husband, a quietly suffering fellow who was obviously under her thumb and resigned to the fact. “Come here, Jerry!” “Keep up, Jerry!” “What are you doing, Jerry!” I decided that in future when Margaret adopted a peremptory tone with me I would mutter (under my breath, of course) “Just call me Jerry”. It hasn’t really caught on, though Tim kept it going for a while.
As I write: Margaret is just about to have a bath, which will spare me her incessant interruptions. Should we ring the kids? Should we have bought a ceramic plate? As we sit on the balcony overlooking beautiful Sorrento her little face is pinched in deep thought as she prepares her next interruption. Doesn’t she realise what a chore diary writing is?
After Pompeii we drove to Sorrento, stopping on the outskirts for a compulsory visit to a wood-inlaying factory. Very expensive and very uninteresting. Giovanni announced that he was leaving us at this point so we quickly concealed ourselves behind a bus so that we could avoid tipping him.
Our hotel, the Bristol, was fairly up-market and our room boasted a narrow balcony overlooking the beautiful but smoggy town of Sorrento. Across the bay we could just make out Vesuvius through the haze. We had a very nice dinner before ascending to the bar on the seventh floor where we sat on the terrace and gazed over the Sorrento nightscape while sipping a cup of cappuccino. Before retiring for the night I took a shower. A cord hung from the ceiling which I assumed one pulled to start the fan. I gave it several pulls but nothing happened and when I read the card attached to it I learned that it was the emergency cord for use when having a heart attack in the shower or when one’s toe was stuck in the drain hole. I leapt out of the cubicle with extreme haste and dressed at lightning speed, but the paramedics never arrived.
DAY 9 WED Sorrento at leisure! So said the tour brochure, though “leisurely” was not how I would describe our day. After breakfast we walked down the hill and into town with the intention of catching a bus to Amalfi. By the time we reached the bus stop I found that I needed to find a WC. Leaving Margaret at the head of the queue I set off in search of a convenience. I walked what seemed like several kilometres before returning to the bus stop and finding one in the nearby railway station. Unfortunately the bus had come and gone in my absence and we were forced to wait another hour for the next one. Margaret was amazingly restrained, considering that she had to stand around in the sweltering heat through no fault of her own.
Somebody had suggested that we find seats on opposite side of the bus to the driver which ensured that we had a perfect view of the ocean as we drove down the Amalfi Coast. This was a mixed blessing however, as the driver drove at great speed down the sharply winding road with its sheer precipices and blind corners. Only my fear of attracting ridicule prevented me from screaming in terror as the bus hurtled around the bends and, on the few occasions when it slowed down, seemed to hang over thousand foot drops.
Amalfi was a picturesque town built on the side of a cliff. As with Sorrento, it was prettier viewed from the distance than up close. We walked its narrow streets and visited a nice old church before buying food and a hand painted bottle of lemon liqueur at a small shop. We decided that Positano would be more of the same and decided to retourno a Sorrento without getting off along the way. This time we sat on the driver’s side of the bus, which didn’t face the sea and were spared the ninety minutes of fear we had suffered on the forward journey.
While we had a truly spectacular view from our hotel balcony, the noise from the street below continued late into the night. The bells from the little church carved into the cliff way below sounded every thirty minutes, calling us to pay a visit, which we planned to do later in the evening.
DAY 10 THU We didn’t walk down to the little church last night because we were both too tired. It was probably a good thing, too, because we could hear gipsies carousing drunkenly in the darkened streets.
The boat trip to Capri took only twenty minutes. Other travellers had warned us that Capri had degenerated into a tourist trap, though it looked pretty good to us. Raffaello, our swarthy guide, led us straight to a small boat, which chugged slowly around the side of the island towards the much-vaunted Blue Grotto. I pointed to a small cave in the side of the cliff which I assumed to be our destination and the whole group began taking photos. I was not quite correct as the real cave was around one more bend.
When we finally arrived at the real grotto we found ourselves encircled by a dozen opera-singing boatmen in small rowing boats, each of which could hold four passengers. With eyes tightly closed we leapt from our small boat to the even smaller row boat and lay flat so that Placido could steer us through the tiny hole in the wall. The grotto was dark and the water a fluorescent blue, but the atmosphere was spoiled a little by the cacophony of Neapolitan arias issuing from the wine-roughened throats of a dozen would-be Pavarottis. Once we were back in the open sea our boatman suggested “good song, good tip, good bottle of wine”. Rather naively I asked him what constituted a good tip. According to him the going rate was 10,000 lire, which I, gullible as always believed. I drew 11,000 lire from my pocket and he made to snatch it, though not quickly enough as I managed to hang onto a thousand lire note. A fellow tourist later expressed amazement at my generosity as the going rate was really a thousand lire.
Back on land Raffaello led us up the hill to look at the sights of Capri and Anacapri. We lunched at a fancy hotel where we were seated with an Argentinian couple who, inexplicably, spoke not a word of English. Margaret was not at all dismayed and invoked her gift of tongues to engage in a lively conversation, which continued without pause throughout the meal. After lunch we were left to our own devices. Margaret and I parted company so that she could examine the clothes and bag shops without me hovering in the background tutt- tutting and shaking my head. As in Rome and Sorrento, the only shops existing on Capri were those which sold souvenirs, clothes or shoes. There were no vendors of music of the sixties to be found and I spent my free time looking for a toilet, getting lost in side streets and looking for a toilet again. It was quite fun getting lost in streets, which were really no more than narrow walkways running between tall brick walls.
Back in Sorrento we had to wait for the bus to Rome which arrived an hour late. Two and a half hours later, around about 10pm, we were dropped off not far from our hotel. We almost missed our stop as we didn’t realise that the guide had called out “La Giarda”, it sounded more like “Lava” and we disembarked so hastily that we left our unfinished books on board. Margaret was upset because she was really enjoying her novel and I was even more upset because I was just about to learn the identity of the killer. Not only that, I had also lost my treasured bookmark made of departure tickets from our last trip!