Rome to Sorrento

Trip Start Nov 16, 1995
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Trip End Nov 25, 1995


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Flag of Italy  , Campania,
Sunday, November 19, 1995

Breakfast, then off to pick up the car. Still sunny and cold today. We take a rather  expensive taxi ride to the rental  car office just off Via Veneto. This is quite a different part of Rome that we hadn't seen up to now. It looks more like Paris , with tree-lined boulevards and tall buildings. We see the famed Excelsior  Hotel, one of the only  other hotels seen during our whole  stay in Rome .  We have arranged rental from Europcar through Auto Europe, and have been promised an upgrade. We are handed the keys to an Alfa Romeo. Great wheels, but heavy on the $ 4.00 a gallon gasoline!
 
Now, how to exit Rome .  Will the  Italian drivers intimidate us? No way. If you can  drive in Miami , you can drive anywhere! In contrast to Miami , where the greatest danger is from slow drivers in the fast lane, Italy 's dangers are from fast drivers in every lane! We are given directions, and within  two minutes are lost. A kind pedestrian points us in the right direction, and we are soon on the Corso d'Italia in the direction of the motorway south. We are stocked with maps and are confident that we make Miami proud of us on the highways and byways of La Bella Italia. We  enter the motorway, accelerate to  the speed limit of 120 kph (about 80 mph), and are obviously the slowest vehicle on  the road.  Even a farm  tractor passes us! I constantly hear a strange "whoosh" in my right ear. I soon realize this sound is caused by Mercedes, BMWs and Jaguars passing me at least 150 mph. What's with the speed limit?   We see heaps of patrol cars during  our trip, but none seem to be doing anything. Anyway, we are soon  keeping  up with the slower drivers at around 100 mph. Before we know it, we have almost  passed the turn-off for Cassino , our first planned stop. We exit the motorway, paying a hefty toll, and take to the back roads. Italian back roads are awfully narrow compared to American roads. There is no shoulder, and you literally scrape past trucks. Pedestrians and cyclists don't stand a chance, and have to travel the dusty verge. Fortunately drivers lower their speed to reasonable  levels off  the motorway and once you perceive the width of your car, driving is quite rational.       
 
We find the winding road up to the Abbey of Montecassino. This is a beautiful Benedictine  abbey perched on the edge of a mountain overlooking the town of Cassino . This is where the Benedictine Order was established, and the crypt contains the remains of St. Benedict himself.  During  WWII, Cassino   formed  part of  a major defence line for the Nazi forces attempting to stop the Allied advance on Rome . In the fighting, the Abbey and city  were almost totally destroyed. Everything has now been faithfully reconstructed in the  original  style, though it still looks a bit new. Who should we pass on the way down but a smart looking Trafalgar Tours coach!
 
Back in the  city, we  find a supermarket where we can buy  our picnic lunch. It is well stocked with most of the  products you can find in America , and with many that you can't. There is a  whole section for panetone, as well as an immense choice of salamis, mortadellas and  cheeses, and there's a staggering selection of local wines. There are very few people in the store, and  soon we realize that we are being asked to leave!  Is it a bomb threat? A fire? No, it's just  going to close for lunch!!! After getting used to supermarkets in the U.S.A. opening for 24 hours, 365 days of the year, it seems really strange to see one closing for a siesta!
 
We get back to the motorway and continue south towards Naples . We have been told to miss Naples, as although the city and bay are  incomparably scenic, the city is dirty, dangerous and hopelessly mired in traffic jams. We take the by-pass, pitying those that keep going into the city. Perhaps they will never be seen or heard of again! We soon arrive at the  Pompeii exit (total toll from Rome $ 15.50), and almost immediately encounter the problem of where to park the car. It's almost like a circus, with touts all over inviting you to park in their lot. There is no official parking, so we drove around a bit and selected a camp site with shaded parking at $ 7.50. We walked up the road past the station (a suburban railway line from  Naples to Sorrento passes the ruins)  and into the ruins ($ 7.50 each, Bryan free). Here I first encounter the "slow change routine". It works like this: I pay the admission for two persons, total Lit.24,000 with a Lit. 100,000 note. The clerk starts giving back the change, but stops before I get it all. He then looks at me, and if you are a dumb tourist, you think you have got all your change back, you say "thank you" and walk away none the wiser. When you are dealing with thousands of lire, this is very easy, as some tourists never really master the enormous amounts involved. The worldly wise, none the less, know exactly how much they should get back, and stare out the clerk, who will put his hand back in the till and keep counting out the lire.
 
We are accompanied into the ruins by a couple of Japanese  groups, and a Globus tour. We tag along with the Globus group, but feel the guide is feeding the tourists pure drivel. We branch out on our own, past the Forum, visit the Forum Baths, and continue on down remarkably preserved streets to the House of the Vetti Brothers (lewd wall paintings), the House of the Faun (lovely patios) and the House of the Labyrinth  (the largest of the mansions). There is much left to excavate, and there are many houses still buried under the ash, which has by now become a rich, black soil. We wander the Via dell'Abondanza, lined by all types of shops,  to the vast Amphitheater and Palestra. As  we return towards the theatre and Stabian Baths, we notice we are alone, except for the horde of friendly dogs that trail along beside us ( Bryan suggests we take a tribe of these amiable muts with us back to the Colosseum, where they would find paradise chasing the thousands of wild  cats there!). Indeed, we are the last people here, the  groups having long gone after their lightning 1-hour tour. Finally we are spotted by a guard and are hustled quickly off to the exit, which has already been locked (Imagine spending the night in Pompeii , together with the thousands of lost souls that were immolated during the eruption).
 
Afterwards, we think back on our visit. Though  there  were no roofs left (except some reconstructions  for protection), the whole effect was of remarkable preservation. This is without doubt the oldest and best preserved ancient city anywhere, and  you can easily imagine what life  was  like in those days. Amazingly it did not seem so far removed from present day life in its basics, even to a mosaic sign warning "beware of the dog" and  political graffiti  still visible on the walls. There are still a lot of unexcavated areas, and the general maintenance leaves something to be desired. One wonders what the situation would be of a similar ruin in the United States . By now it would probably be totally excavated, extremely well labeled, spotlessly clean, (certainly no dogs), longer opening hours, and probably a higher entrance fee. There would surely be people dressed  up as  Romans doing things  one imagines Romans did in those days (though they would probably not be staffing the whorehouse!). Many of the shops would be reconstructed, selling souvenirs, arts, crafts and food. Would that be better, or worse than the present situation? I guess it's merely a matter of taste. I think that the monument can certainly be improved, but I shudder to think of it in the hands of Walt Disney.
 
We depart Pompeii and  enter the modern world at rush-hour. The route is not entirely clear, and  we  wander through miserable looking suburbs until we find a sign directing us to Sorrento . We soon rise on an elevated two-way highway which looks down on more miserable domiciles. Finally we enter a tunnel, then another, then another, etc., until we loose count. We are now stuck behind a slow moving truck. Some daring drivers manage to pass, but the majority  of us just conga through one tunnel after another. By now its dark, so we don't even get the views. Eventually we roll out of the last tunnel and there, spread in front of us like a jewelled cloak, is the beautifully illuminated Sorrento coastline.
 
We were quite surprised at the size of Sorrento and environs. We seem to drive for ever to get to what we think is the city centre. Each turn convinces us that we are there, and each turn offers us a further panorama of city streets. At least it looks a thousand times better than Naples ' suburbs. The street numbers keep going down, then going up, even though we are always on the same street. Eventually we just give up and continue  motoring along. We know that our hotel is on the other side of Sorrento on the way to Punta del Cabo at the end of the peninsula. We eventually pass out of Sorrento and almost immediately see the sign for La Tonarella to the right by the cliffside. There is a tiny parking lot, and  I grab the last space. Everything is dark, and as we disembark, we realize how cold it is outside, with a very strong wind   blowing  over the Bay of Naples . Miryam, who is in charge  of accommodations, ventures inside to see if she can
find any trace of humanity. It is dark and  the  place seems empty. Eventually she rustles someone up, who has to consult our confirmation fax to verify if we really have a reservation. We don't see  the point, as  the place seems quite empty. The price, US$ 90.00 a night. We are allowed to check in, and are shown to a large nondescript room with a huge outside balcony commanding a stunning view over Sorrento an the Bay of Naples . The wind almost blows our
socks off while we stand shivering at the brink of a cliff looking down at the waves pounding on the tiny beach far  below. We rush inside, but the room is cold too, in spite of a radiator. The fluorescent light doesn't help.
 
As this is off-season here and the famous hotel restaurant is closed, so we decide to brave the cold, and return to the town centre in order to find sustenance. We are given directions for a couple of restaurants, and sally forth. Parking in Italian towns is very dicey. Cars are stolen or towed, and signs are not  clear. We see any number of cars parked illegally, but decide to be cautious, and eventually find a city parking lot which isn't too expensive (US$ 6.00). We walk into the town, but cannot find any of the recommended restaurants. We wander up and down the narrow, quaint streets, looking at the innumerable shops stocked with tacky seaside souvenirs.

Finally we come across a nice looking ristorante called La Linterna, and enter. It is elegant and cozy with all the waiters dressed to the nines. Fortunately, because of the cold, we are quite well dressed ourselves. I even have a tie, so I don't feel out of place. We have a  great meal, the minestrone was outstanding, and the house wine was, well, interesting. Price tag US$ 39.00 for the  three of us. Before we go back to the hotel I want to see the Marina where the ferries to Capri depart. We plan to visit this island tomorrow morning, weather permitting. The road winds down a deep ravine to the little harbour, which  seems to  offer scant protection from the wind and the waves. Doesn't  look good at all! Miryam and Bryan refuse to get out of the car
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