Thursday, January 28, 2010

Italy Day 8: Positano and Capri

This is a repost of my 2007 trip to Italy with my mom, brother, sister and Aunt.

This was when I was starting to realize that the trip was almost over, that in two days, I'd be on a plane back home. We got up not too early, enjoyed another hotel buffet breakfast (really great pastries at this hotel, if I remember correctly. Terrible eggs, per usual, but great pastry!) and loaded up in minibus that would take us along the Almalfi Coast to Positano.

If the name of the town sounds vaguely familiar to you, you'd know it (as I did) as the town where Diane Lane found her first Italian boyfriend in "Under the Tuscan Sun." Remember? She had dinner with his family on the beach, drank limoncello and -- some months later, professed her love to him under his balcony while he was with another lady. I swear we saw that balcony!

Anyway, the Almalfi Coast drive was beautiful. It reminded me of home, which is one reason I particularly liked it. Another reason was the startlingly clear blue water. The seafloor at that point is made of limestone, which reflects the sun, turning the water these brilliant sapphire blue, emerald green and turquoise color. I swear to God, I took more pictures of the water than of my family on that drive!

But, a coastal drive is a coastal drive wherever you are, and the only other thing that really stood out to me were the roads. They were built by the ancient Romans, and only very recently have guardrails been added to the sheer cliff drops. A little scary when you're hurtling through space in a minibus. But even more frightening were the drivers. It was a very narrow, two-lane road with a cliff on one side and a drop on the other. Regardless, there was illegal passing, driving three or four abreast and even some fools parking on the razor edge! I was secure in the fact that since I'd made it through the streets of Rome, I was probably entrusted to some above-average drivers, but still!

Before we went to Positano proper, we stopped for a photo at a tourist viewpoint (I can still hear a vendor shouting "Postcard! All these, 3 euro!") for a look at the ever-present statue of Mary, a fruit stand with the biggest lemons I've ever seen (Sorrento lemons can have a rind that's INCHES thick, and they're good for nothing but marmaldae) and that eye-popping view of Positano.

Then Vincenzo told us a little something about the city. It seems there is only one road for cars. If you live along it, great. But if not, it's a major hike for you, buddy! Houses are piled up the mountainside like Legos, and I wonder what happens when the people at the top decide they want to stroll down to the beach for an afternoon swim. No stairmasters required there, I guess! Take a look at the pictures and you'll see what i mean. We then proceeded to drive along that one road (as best we could, with the one-road traffic) and stop halfway down.

Frankly, our walking tour that morning (from the middle of town to the beach below) is a blur because right after Vincenzo said that Positano was known for handmade leather sandals and very unique peasant clothing, all I wanted to do was shop. And give me some credit: I had just spent 7 days taking in history, culture and relgion. I was spent, and deserved some good old fashioned capitalism!

Actually, what was funny was that the Positano peasant clothing are the flowy cotton skirts and tank-tops made from linen that you see all over now. I had a few a couple summers ago. It seems that the fishing town was "discovered" by some rich Italians looking to get away from the spotlight. To blend in, these folks decided to dress like the natives ... and loved it! So they invited their friends, who invited their friends, and eventually the town was taken over and made into a fancy vacation spot. Now, Vincenzo said, the natives wear Armani while the rich visitors wear peasant clothes!

So, we walked to the beach, which was made of black volcanic sand and these black, really light and smooth pebbles. The water was so clear, and so blue that Katherine and I thought about buying the first bathing suits we saw and spending the morning at the beach. When Vincenzo mentioned a mutiny and spending the rest of the trip there, I said I was in! No question, it was one of my favorite spots of the whole trip.

Really, the town was a fantastic combination of beachtown, boutique mecca, foodie heaven and historic site. The guy that invented the compass was from there, and to keep safe from invaders, the townspeople built a "hidden" Positano ... small streets that ran behind facades. When "pirates" came, they found the real streets deserted and couldn't find the Positanos, who were safely tucked away in streets just narrow enough for one or two to slip through.

Now that "hidden" area is full of stores, and it's frankly where my favorite souviners were from. Katherine and I went a little crazy with leather sandals. At 45 to 50 Euro a pop, and on our last real shopping day, we each bought three pair. I bought a pair that reminded me of Rome (leather t-strap with a brass ring), of Positano (strappy leather like a pair of sandals that Ally stole from me in college, even after dubbing them the "Jesus" sandals); and a pair with leather laces that just wrap around my foot because they were cute and the man who was selling them was on a Travel Channel special. He's made shoes there for years, for all kinds of celebrites. He made a pair for Katherine, but for me, he just adjusted the laces and made fun of how white my skin is. In turn and in good spirits, I compared his tan to the leather of the sandals he worked with. He laughed, but said some things I didn't understand. But I'd already gotten my shoes, so who cared?

And the beautiful, breezy Positano wear? None of it was really "me," so I decided to be happy with my sandals and not spend too much time wishing wistfully that I were a petite blonde who could get away with breezy island wear. And my sandals are really that cute. So it's OK!

On the way back to the bus, we picked up some ENORMOUS Vincenzo-recommended bag lunches (mine was a tomato and mozzarela sandwich, with a fresh peach, a bag of crouton-like garlic chips, and a water) and stopped into a bakery to try my first cannoli. I do not think that is an appropriate name. I don't know what it means, but only something like "a dessert so good it could very well kill you" would fit the bill. I bought two: one to eat then, and one to eat at lunch. If I had access to them regularly, I would not care at all about my figure, only about eating them constantly. I'm not joking.

Then, it was back on the bus and back to the hotel, where we grabbed all the people who didn't want to go to Postiano (puzzles me to this day) and went to hop on a ferry to take us to the Isle of Capri.

Incidentally, here's a guide to pronunciation so that when you hear me talk about it, you won't think I've adopted a snooty Madonna-like accent. It's Pause-e-TAH-no and CAP-ree. In Italy, the accent is generally on the second-to-last syllable.

On the ferry, we ate lunch. That simple meal just cemented the fact that Positano is one of my favorite places in Italy ... in the WORLD! The sandwich was as big as my head, and stuffed with fresh buffalo's milk mozzarela, fresh huge tomatoes and basil. That's it! I wish I were still eating it. I saved the chips for Matt, just took a couple bites of my peach, and savored my last cannoli. This gives me an idea: If I'm ever on death row, that is my last meal. A sandwich and cannolli from Positano. I would die happy if those were the last things I ever ate. Seriously. Even the perfect summer peach paled in comparison. Maybe I should have gotten the grapes.

OK, so we're on the ferry, we get off the ferry, and about half of the group has paid to go to the Blue Grotto. So we meet our Capri guide, a new Vincenzo (Enzo) and climb into a wooden motorboat and head out for a tour of the island. Which I didn't hear much of, it just felt too good to be skimming the open water on a warm day while on vacation in Italy in a beautiful boat. I'm sure he said something interesting about the Island, but I just took pictures and reveled in the perfect moment of life i was in right then.

We had about a 20 minute wait at the Grotto itself. Here's the deal: The Blue Grotto is a cave in the side of a limestone cliff. To get in, you climb out of your transport boat into a small wooden rowboat, helmed by the swarthiest Italian seamen alive. Think as stereotypical as you can possibly get of Italian sailors, and you'll have it about right. They'll row up to the side of your boat and grunt and motion for you to get in. You don't try to talk or negotiate with them. As soon as you're in, they scream at you to LAY DOWN, FOR GOD'S SAKE LAY DOWN! and you do. Then they row you over to the entrance to the cave, probably three feet above the water, which has waves, as the ocean does. When the moment is right, he yanks you inside using a chain bolted to the cliff, and at the last possible moment he flings himself down on top of you, and welcomes you to the Blue Grotto.

In the time of the Romans, this was used by the Emperors for orgies. They'd bring their hoochie mamas and their buddies, and blindfold some musicians on a little perch inside the cave, and go at it to classical music. The reason they picked there is because the floor of the cave is also made of limestone (duh) which reflects the light of the sun coming through the small mouth of the cave quite uniquely: It glows neon blue.

Anyway, so there we are, waiting for our swarthy Italian row boat guy to scream at us. In the meantime, we puttered around the little inlet, watched the other boats crammed with tourists, and watched the rowers get into shouting matches. I amused myself a little bit by seeing exactly how terrified my mom and my sister were. My mom is scared to death of small boats: She nearly had a heart attack on our gondola ride in Venice. And Katherine is scared of the ocean, small boats, big boats, enclosed spaces, caves, bats and just about everything else. Really, I do not know why the agreed to the adventure, but I applaud them for doing so.

Eventually, our burly sailor came and grunted at us, and we obligingly got into his boat. He rowed us right over to the grotto and we waited. And waited. And I watched the boat trying to come out (the same way they get in) get attacked by the waves. The poor guy in the front of the boat (like I was) was soaked by the time they got out of there. And before I knew it, we were scrunching down as far as possible, our rower was yanking his chain (ha!) and we were in. I videotaped this whole thing, and was very disappointed that the water wasn't iridescent that day ... until the rower gently told me I was looking in the wrong direction.

There it was: The rest of the grotto was complete blackness, but for about 20 feet around the mouth, this incredible neon blue water. We couldn't see anything else, just hear the other boats and our rower quietly told us what we already knew about the grotto. Then, he started to sing. "Santa Lucia." It was beautiful, even though he wasn't a great singer. And then, just as fast as we'd come in, we were out again. He kindly told us that if we liked what we did, we could tip him and we did, since he was the one going to help us back into our big boat.

So back into the boat, where there were two new people: Asian tourists who got seasick. We transported them to shore, and then dashed for the Funicula, a sort of train that takes you from the harbor to the top of the Island, to Capri Town. Which is just a lot of shopping. We took a little tour to a scenic vantage point, admired the colors of the water yet again, and about ran for the stores once Enzo dismissed us. Mom and I wanted to check out a perfume store, as Capri is known for it's perfume. The monks used to make it. Since the perfume was too expensive, Matt doesn't like potpourri and I don't use scented soaps, I didn't get anything there. But it smelled very, very good. Anthony managed to break Mom's vice-like grip on us and went to shop on his own, returning with some Dior shoes. There rest of us looked around, tried granitas (whew, sour!) and exhausted ourselves until it was time to climb back on the Funicula and go home.

In line for the train, I was jostled and bumped by the hundreds of people also hoping to get on the train. A little old Italian woman smiled very kindly at me and said something in Italian that I didn't understand. This was my chance to interact with a local!

"I'm sorry," I told her in my limited Italian. "I'm American. I speak very little Italian."

And just like my lessons on CD said, she smiled and, in Italian, said "No, you speak Italian very well!"

Her friend ask me, in Italian, "Where in America are you from?"

"California," I answered. "San Francsico?"

"Oh, I know San Francisco!" the friend said in Italian, showing me how well. She took her hands and mimed going up and down very high hills. It cracked me up and I showed her that I agreed. Then I took a deep breath and tried:

"I live in Santa Cruz, do you know it? It's like Capri, on the ocean." In Italian. Thank you very much. They told me they didn't know it, but asked how I liked Capri Town. I told them it was beautiful and i liked it very much (It's really amazing how far a 20-word vocabulary will get you). Then, as my mom was trying to talk to me, I introduced them to my mother, my brother and sister, and aunt.

"Oh, the whole family!" they said, smiling. They thought we were the cutest things.

And that was how I spread goodwill from America to Italy, defeating the stereotype of the Ugly American, at least for those two. I am remarkably proud. :)

We took the train down, and scampered through the harbors gift shops to find a sweatshirt that Katherine wanted. We took the ferry back and collapsed until it was time for dinner. Really, being on the ocean is very tiring!

Dinner was, ironically, at the hotel we'd eaten at the night before. We'd sampled most of the menu, and decided the dinner from the previous night was better. We went right to bed after eating, despite the fact that we were sad that the next day would be our last in Italy.

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