Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Avoiding Limoncello, an Amalfi weekend

Mrs Stuffy (a woman for whom the phrase 'impulse shopping' implies way too much planning) was tempted by an offer from trip-advisor.com to buy us a long weekend on the Amalfi coast.
It's the start of the season, she got accommodation, flights and car hire for a very silly price and cunningly avoided any potential criticism by giving the trip to me last Yuletide as a Christmas present, she wasn't aware that I'd been there before in a past life but no worries, it is a very pretty part of the world and we both needed to relax for a few days.

The only concern we had was that so soon after her Marathon effort she might find hobbling up and down the picturesque but near vertical streets of cliffside villages a little demanding but the trip was booked and we needed a break.
Inevitably there are always a few tiny niggles that surface around any trip that Her ladyship and I take, on this occasion an email advising us of a change of transfer airport was the first intimation of "not having read the small print" syndrome, transfer airport? On a weekend trip, to Italy? (It appears that this is quite common practice for the splendid folk at Alitalia according to my amico Marco, who has a lovely, rentable trulli in Puglia and consequently spends much of his life in transit lounges throughout Il Bella Italia.)

So, we were no longer to change planes In Milan but in Rome, which delivered an interesting journey profile best summed up as:

  1. Get up at 4 am, chuckle at Sophie driving us to Heathrow in pyjamas, robe and slippers,
  2. Join the biggest queue in the world as Alitalia's IT chaps were three days into a " no I don't know why the online check-in system doesn't do anything" state of play,
  3. Fly to Rome 70 minutes, sit around in Rome airport for two and a half hours,
  4. Belatedly discover that the gate is 30 minutes panicky hobbling away (some 20 minutes before the flight is due to leave)
  5. Hobble and panic (respectively) for 30 minutes, then wait on a bus for an unexplained 30 minutes,
  6. Get on the plane, take off, attain cruising height in 10 minutes, start to descend.
  7. Find the rental car
  8. Realise that it's thirty years since I drove in Italy and that the Italian motorist's killer instinct and total lack of regard for life, limb or property is a something that atrophies without daily use.

We escaped from Napoli with our lives and headed into the hills, the drive was long, the views spectacular, the enemy (everyone else) relentless and despite our Amalfi hotel not being in Amalfi, or even very near Amalfi some 2 hours after touching down I was wrapped around a bottle of vino and had pretty much stopped shaking.

We dined in the hotel, la Conca Azzura which is a very pleasant building invisible from the serpentine road, situated about halfway twixt Positano and Amalfi beneath a ceramic showroom and gelato shop which (we discovered next morning, after a delightful sun-kissed terrazzo breakfast) was a regular stop for busloads of elderly Germans and English on tour buses, offering free toilet facilities in return for 30 minutes browsing the knick-knacks and Limoncello. There's a lot of fun to be gleaned from watching two waiters trying to marshal 6 huge buses into parking spaces suitable for about 5 fiat 500s on the edge of a cliffside road where every other driver believes himself to be Fangio reincarnate. Still traumatised by spending day-one of our break effectively in transit, I opted not to spend the whole day trying to park the hire car and we hopped on a bus and clung to it, white-knuckled all the way to Sorrento.

Mostly when she and I do touristing we're much happier just ambling around with a very vague sense of objective, enjoying the sights, scoffing at all the other tourists doing exactly the same thing and generating endless riffs on the "that looks nice" - "no it isn't, don't buy it!" scenario. We had a kind of plan that involved avoiding the Limoncello stores and taking the ferry to Capri but through some masterful backstreet navigation ended up in the wrong port so, bowing to serendipity, we settled down for an enjoyable lunch and a glass or two before heading back up the cobbled lanes and onto the bus for Positano. Yet another picturesque town, apparently just flung onto the cliffs, I'd love to sit in on a town planning meeting where every decision must consider all three dimensions and the fact that pretty much everyone has a sea view.

A lazy afternoon of browsing Limoncello, clothes and shoe shops, a glass of beer or several, some stunning ice cream, a glass of wine, some coffee, and a lot of very fine art galleries with some lovely, and v.expensive, paintings and some really arresting sculpture, it's rare for me to wish I was very rich but a good gallery does sometimes bring on the "ooh, I wish I could just buy that" moment. So, enough art-driven frustration and back to the beachfront restaurants, just great for people watching and with each glass I could gradually feel the stress levels of the preceding months subsiding just a little.
We caught the last bus back to the hotel and, there's something very restful about sleeping by the sea, off to a dreamworld of bikinis, bold brush strokes, bronzes and wild strawberry ice cream.

Sunday was more of the same but this time in Amalfi, heaving with reverential residents and irreverent visitors, an imposing cathedral and a enormous choice of places to buy Limoncello. The bustling square, a series of espressos, yet another terrific pizza and a delightful day of avoiding any sense of urgency and enjoying the chilling and each other.

Those of you who've (unlike us), made it to Capri may have enjoyed the tours of the blue cave, imagine our delight on discovering, not 20 yards from our hotel entrance a lift, dropping 50 metres to sea level and the world famous "Grotta Di Smerelda" (emerald grotto).

Here's how it works, there's a sea cave, discovered by a fisherman many years ago and the light coming into the cave from outside, through the water, makes the water a very pretty shade of green, and you pay 5 euros and get into a small boat, which takes you on a tour of the cave, an area nearly the size of a tennis court, while the grizzled Charon in the stern points out various bits of rock that look nothing like anything, until you're happy to tip him another 5 euros just to get away.

So that was nice...

Our last evening we decided to eat in the hotel and I ordered my dinner in keeping with my ongoing campaign to keep trying things I think I don't like in the hope that my taste buds may have matured (or degraded) to the point where I can enjoy them.

So, the chef's fish special, I was a little discomfited to find four lumps of piscine produce, a slab of swordfish, edible but bland, pretty much an entire squid, too intimidating and too much like trying to ingest a malevolent shoe, a thing made entirely of fishbones and a sea bream that had seen better days. I've had more delightful meals, but it was nice to watch Mrs Stuffy enjoying my discomfiture.

Returning to the UK on the Monday was less painful than our journey out, I'd got my head around the Italian approach to driving and managed to overtake many vehicles on the route to Naples, one or two I could actually see that it was safe to do so.

Our flight was timely and our transfer (at Milan this time) made at a run. Back to Heathrow and to business as usual, but a pleasant break, a bit of winding down, and some nice memories of a beautiful place, spoiled, inevitably, as always, by people like us, tourists.



At 3:21 am, Anonymous Jo said...

Dear Stuffy,
You have a quality blog. Thank you for being you.

Jo (across the pond)

At 9:36 am, Blogger MarkMcL said...


Thanks for the link :-) What was up with on-line check-in? Worked for us last week. Got confused by pdf with eight boarding cards until I realised it was one to hand in, one to retain (* 2 legs, * 2 pax).

I applaud your pushing of the gustatory envelope. I stuggle with things with tentacles and suckers. Maybe you should have taken a shot of limoncello first.


At 1:09 pm, Blogger Scintilla said...

Lol an amusing account voicing everything we all think but don't dare mention. I enjoyed it!

At 1:48 pm, Blogger Stuffy said...

Thanks for the feedback folks, Mark, you should know by now, there is no question to which the answer is "ooh a shot of Limoncello please"

but it does give a kick to a sorbet...

At 3:40 pm, Blogger Chef Chuck said...

Beautiful!! A land in my "Heart" Lot's of family history...
Thank you for sharing.

At 4:36 am, Blogger IzinSing said...

I like Limoncello! OK, normally I only ever have it after a meal in an Italian restaurant featuring several glasses of wine when the waiter brings the bottle round for a complimentary glug, but even so......

Loved the post. It's like being there with you both.

At 7:48 am, Anonymous buy rift account said...

WoW! that was absolutely beautiful. . great place to relax. . great post ..


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