Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Amalfi blues

The Amalfi coast is a frustratingly mixed-bag experience: both dreamy coastline and commercialised, tourist-riddled nightmare. I have the same response to it as to (for example) Venice and Cinque Terre: if only one could magically vacuum-suck out the massed crowds (along with the tacky industries that support them) and make them vanish, leaving the unadulterated experience (in my head at least) of 1960s dolce vita glamour and drop-dead views.  
But that would include me!

Nonetheless, I discovered some perfectly lovely, less frequented places on my last trip there.

After a short walk around the Pompeii ruins in the rain (the site underwhelming even if it was the worst weather in which to see it: not well maintained, its historic educational potential sadly underused) ...

 Pompeii city walls

This specialist guide was patiently explaining some historical facts to a lucky private group
Hazy view of mount Vesuvius from the Pompeii ruins

... and having braved some hectic traffic around Naples, we crossed from Sorrento to the other side of the peninsula, the Amalfi coastline, along a winding cliff-top road with fantastic views, and dipped down into Nerano, where the sun was shining in this little sea-side village on the tip of the peninsula nearest Capri.

View from Taverna del Capitano, Nerano

The destination was the Taverna del Capitano in the middle of the village on the sea-front. The taverna is basically a handful of rooms attached to a restaurant of the same name with a great local reputation.

The rooms are very small and basic, but totally comfortable and clean, and best of all, have windows and doors opening directly onto the sea, with these views ...

... and a night-long sea breeze and gentle lapping of waves - after discovering that the restaurant's reputation is fully deserved - the work of chef Alfonso Caputo, who owns and runs the tavern with his wife, mother and a handful of staff who give attentive and genuinely warm personal service.

Early next morning - before coffee on the little balcony terrace of the friendly Capitano - I watched the beach being prepared for the day 

and boatmen getting ready for the day-trippers who would soon be flocking down the path for boat rides to Capri, Positano, Amalfi and Li Galli

Capri had been a tempting, possible plan for the morning, but quickly lost its attraction after seeing the coach-loads being disgorged to queue in massively long lines for the boats.

We decided to drive on instead along the scenic corniche towards Positano and Amalfi ... 

... only to encounter wall-to-wall (or cliffside to mountainside) traffic: a painfully slow congestion along the narrow roads (constructed in a time when these were fishing villages with no tourism!), which were also lined with parked cars wedged up (illegally) against the sides as people parked and walked many many kilometres into these popular towns.

Added to the melée were oversized tour buses, suicidal Vespas, pedestrians braving their lives, plenty of tempers fraying, and much pointless, frustrated hooting

Even out of season, parking in or anywhere near either Positano or Amalfi was impossible, and - considering the crowds and tatty souvenir shops - not even desirable.

(no wonder the Italians invented the Vespa and tiny (stylish of course, that comes with the territory) cars!) ...

On the other hand, past Ravello, the little seaside towns of Minori and Maiori, lacking the celebrity status of Positano and Amalfi, were amazingly crowd-free - just locals enjoying their beaches (of which there are many more, and larger).

I loved watching families enjoying the beach - here a grandfather with grown children and grand-children 

here two stylishly dressed women chatting barefoot in the sea

and here an elderly man who'd parked his chair in the lapping waves!

Maiori harbour

The same is true of Praiano, less congested, and perhaps less picturesque but more authentic in my view, than its better known neighbours

Tucked away in the cliff face below Praiano is the entrance to Casa Angelina. Its access is via an alarming series of unimaginably narrow hairpin bends, at the end of which you're rewarded with a fantastic modern design. The all-white interior is a deliberate neutral backdrop to a collection of artwork, sculptures and Murano glass creations ...

... and to the main event - huge picture windows with views to die for of the Amalfi coast, all the way from Capri in one direction to the toe of Italy in the other.

Casa Angelina is a little gem of understated luxury, whether to stay or just drop by for a drink or lunch on the terrace.
I took the opportunity to work off lunch by walking down a very very long cliff-face path to the sea below

Boy, did I regret it walking back up ...

But regret seeing this part of the world? Not a bit.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Off the beaten track in Abruzzo, Italy

South of Tuscany and Umbria, and along the spine of the Appenines in the east, you wind upwards into the mountains of Abruzzo. 

Abruzzo region of Italy, from the heart of the Appenines to the Adriatic sea

I fell in love with one part of this region two years ago when I visited Norcia (link here) and it's heartbreaking to know that this beautiful town has now been all but destroyed in the latest of the series of earthquakes to have hit Italy. 

The open spaces, distinctive yellows and greens of rolling hills where bears and wolves roam, the edge of natural, wild beauty make this in my opinion one of the most underrated and worthwhile destinations in Italy. 

Steering clear of the Amatrice area that had been the epicentre of the last-but-one earthquake only a few weeks before, we headed instead to the province of L'Aquila, the region of the 2009 earthquake, figuring it was likely to be relatively safe.

  This area gets covered in deep snow in the winter. Even in early September having left a still-hot Tuscany and Umbria behind, climbing higher into these rugged mountains, the temperature began dropping noticeably.

In the perched village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a fortified medieval village in the Gran Sasso national park, we wandered along steep, narrow cobbled streets in search of the unmarked Albergo Diffuso Sextantio. 

Like the capital city of L'Aquila, this little medieval town was also damaged in the 2009 terramoto, and government-led building restoration has been painfully slow. The church atop the little town is still sadly completely destroyed.

Many buildings are secured with temporary scaffolding and wooden supports. It's not clear if some of them are inhabited. I'd be somewhat nervous myself.

San Stefano is an ongoing project in preserving a traditional way of life: local people are supported in producing regional food and traditional arts and crafts; the centuries-old Albergo Sextantio is kept with all its original rustic features intact (though thankfully with modern heating!). Click here for a visual glimpse into the restoration of the town and the unusual Sextantio Albergo.

The place is a rare and authentic experience. Which is why the series of earthquakes is so sad, both for what has been destroyed and the impact on visitors to the region.

Even with on-off rain and the slight sense of unease that comes with hoping the earth will not decide to move at this particular time, this place made a huge impression on me.

 And oh the food: we had an absurdly reasonable and delicious dinner in this tiny family-run restaurant, Gepetto's (below), where an energetic local chef and his elderly parents produced a succession of antipasti of local salumi and cheeses, ravioli filled with ricotta and zafferano (another regional speciality), perfect lamb, potatoes and salad. Feeling like stuffed pythons with no room for dessert, kind Papa brought local liqueur as a digestif.

The next day we left early and decided to take a longer, scenic route instead of the fast Rome-bound motorway, through the Abruzzo national park - beautiful even under cloud cover and in light rain ...

keeping a watchful eye out for any bears who might think of crossing the road 

The Abruzzo national park and protected nature reserve ensure the survival of an impressive 75% of Europe's living wildlife species, including bears, wolves, chamois and eagles. 

Surrounded by the Majella mountains are the lake towns of Scanno, below, which Henri Cartier-Bresson fell in love with and photographed extensively (see here)

and Barrea, 'pearl of the Abruzzo', above and below.

This part of Abruzzo has a very different landscape from the rolling hills and plains of San Stefano and the capital L'Aquila: the mountains are rocky and much higher, and there are natural lakes (amazing to see at well over 1000m above sea level) with the most fabulously deep blue turquoise water, clean and rich in fish and bird life.

If you're put off by the tourist hordes and commercialisation of so many of Italy's better-known destinations and want an authentic Italian experience in a place of natural beauty, Abruzzo has so much to offer. 'Forte e gentile' is how Primo Levi summed up the character of the landscape and its inhabitants, and I can't think of a better description.

Abruzzo, Italy, September 2016

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