Italy is a place defined by its aromas – freshly-brewed coffee, freshly-cut fragrant basil, freshly-squeezed citrus fruits, freshly-baked pastries… resisting the almost-constant temptation to convert scent to taste is a challenge! The first half of our Italian road trip was spent on the Amalfi coast: UNESCO World Heritage site; home of limoncello and colourful handmade ceramics; and holiday destination of the rich, famous and more or less everyone I know it turns out! Hoping for some springtime sunshine, on the whole we could have done with the Easter holidays falling a couple of weeks later but at least the majority of the trip was warmer than home… and that’s what counts, right?!
Sorrento, with its streets lined with orange trees, was our base and we enjoyed five days of the epitome of generous Italian hospitality at a lovely B&B run by Antoninio. It was a great location for experiencing Holy Week celebrations too.
We strolled Sorrento, taking in the hidden courtyards and gardens and admiring views of the Tyrrhenian Sea (our first of three seas on this trip!).
Winding our way down to the picturesque fishing port of Marina Grande, we found ourselves among fishermen convening to chat and mend their nets whilst the waterfront restaurants all promised the freshest catches of the day.
While Dean devoured no less than six animals for his dinner (with a squeeze of lemon), we began to notice musicians passing our table, their instruments slung over their backs in cases or carried uncased by their sides. Sounds of clarinets, saxophones and trombones warming up drifted back to us on the gentle breeze as dusk fell.
At about 8:30, a choir began to sing and the marching band began to play. Keen to see what was going on, we promised our trusting waiter we’d return to pay the bill and darted off to join the growing crowds as a procession poured out of a nearby church and, accompanied by the musicians, embarked upon their journey through the streets and up the hillside.
After nipping back to settle our debts, we joined a handful of locals and followed the procession which had now become silent. A rotation of nine men wearing navy roll-neck jumpers and dazzlingly white trousers took turns to shoulder an enormous, and clearly heavy, statue of Mary. Bystanders, who lined sections of the streets, stepping out of their houses or business to do so, bowed low and crossed themselves as she passed.
Eventually the procession reached another church and a gathered crowd followed it inside. Here we left them but I think they did the rounds of several churches before heading back to their starting point by the Marina.
Today we decided to get the bus along the Amalfi coast. When planning our trip, we’d toyed with the idea of driving ourselves but were glad we decided to stick to public transport due to the combination of narrow, winding coastal roads and other vehicles, many of which were erratically driven or very large! This was aside from the 50% price increase compared to our brand new guide book and insufficient capacity for the buses resulting in queues and long journeys spent standing up.
Positano was our first stop. We opted to disembark a stop before the main town and spent time walking back up the road, admiring the views of the colourful houses stacked up the hillside, leading down to the bay, even as the rain clouds threatened.
A jelly-leg-inducing walk down countless steep steps – passing donkeys transporting building materials in the opposite direction – led us down to a pebble beach before we crossed the lush green valley and headed up into the town. Not yet fully open for summer, Dean nevertheless sampled his first gelato and we explored the scenic warren of streets. Boutique shops and little cafes lined the streets and the glorious green dome of the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption presided over the bay.
Back on the bus, we motored on to Amalfi, a town which lost most of its history to the sea in 1343. One impressive exception is its cathedral which just sort of appears suddenly at the top of 62 steps, nestled between its far more ordinary neighbouring buildings.
Believe it or not, a tour of the Amalfi paper museum was an interesting escape from a rainy spell. I kindly volunteered Dean to help demonstrate the process which was invented using the fibrous by-product of the cotton industry and was powered by water that gushed down from the nearby hills.
As with much of Italy, there were water fountains everywhere, but this was by far my favourite. Originally also a trough for horses to refresh themselves and now home to several fish, a few decades ago someone decorated it with hundreds of little figurines. You could stare at it for hours and still see new details – some a little more unsavoury than others!
There were a couple of other stops on our coastal itinerary but, alas, heavy rain stopped play so we headed back to Sorrento to dry off.
A short train ride away from Sorrento, back towards Naples, is the ancient Roman town of Pompeii. As you’ll no doubt know, it was buried in volcanic matter from Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Established in the 6thcentury BC, at the time of the eruption its inhabitants numbered 20,000. It was partially unearthed in 1599 but not fully rediscovered until 1748 on the orders of the King of Naples, Charles III of Bourbon. Excavation work is still taking place now.
To facilitate your visit, the town is split into nine regions and you can hire an audioguide, a real human guide or simply stick with the excellent and fairly hefty guide booklet included in your entry fee. The latter says, ‘Vesuvius exploded, and a pillar of smoke and ash rose into the sky and obscured it for three days. Ash and pumice rained incessantly on Pompeii causing the roofs of houses to collapse, and finally pyroclastic surges that reached temperatures of 400°C wiped out every trace of life… In the houses, bread remained in the ovens, pots on stoves, money in coffers.’
We planned our tour before we arrived and focused on highlights of regions I, II, VI, VII, VIII, IX. I hired an audioguide and Dean downloaded a free (and arguably slightly better if your phone battery will last) app on his phone. So frozen in time is it, that if it weren’t for the vast crowds of tourists, it could feel quite eerie. Streets, houses, shops, gardens and water fountains are all where they should be, albeit empty. There’s evidence that the society had everything it needed, from amphitheatres and government buildings to laundries and temples to baths, bakeries and brothels.
It would take forever to recount everything we learnt that day so I’ll just show my photographic highlights below. Naturally, externally it’s quite a grey place so I made it my mission to search out the colour wherever I could… with the exception of this first, more macabre aspect.
During the 19thcentury, the explorer Guiseppe Fiorelli came up with the idea to inject liquid plaster into the void left in the ash by bodies. Once excavated, these then produced harrowing exact replicas of the final moments of the people of Pompeii.
Mosaics were one of my favourite aspects. Many were in the houses of the rich and there were some beautiful surviving examples. I especially like the first one – a Roman ‘beware of the dog’ sign!
Various styles of mural have been identified and uncovered. It’s amazing to imagine how sumptuous the surroundings of the houses of the rich and some of the public locations must have been.
Many of these houses would also lead out to well-kept gardens, often with spectacular views.
Here, Dean is exploring a bakery with its domed oven and the giant lava mill stones which would have been rotated by slaves or animals.
Baths were a social place which men and women visited separately. They were decorated such that they would have been a pleasure to visit although the men’s was the more ornate of the two. The complexes consisted of dressing rooms, with niches to store clothes, and hot, medium and cold pools.
Though most of the decent artefacts have been moved to a museum in Naples, replicas have been erected in some places.
The pavements were high which, I think, was because the sewerage ran along the road. Large slabs set at intervals provided stepping stones to enable people to cross the street. I overheard a guide saying that the holes bored into the kerbs were outside shops where people would have tied up their slaves or animals.
Politics played a big part in early Roman society and so campaign signs would have been painted on the walls. I’m not sure if these are exact examples of them – I know there were some somewhere – but, if not, I suppose they’d be advertising of some sort.
I liked this sign too. A man, who had been a slave, had bought his freedom and become rich. He donated money to rebuild this temple to the goddess Isis after the AD 62 earthquake in the name of his six-year-old son – Celsinus – whose name is above the doorway. This was so that the boy would be offered a place on the city council, thus elevating the child to a position his father was ineligible to attain having not been born a ‘freedman’.
Various premises featured these colourfully-decorated countertops, inlaid with large clay pots. They were essentially Roman pubs! Drinks and hot food were served to hungry merchants and craftsmen from the pots and the tavern’s takings were kept in another. Some had seating areas or even banqueting rooms out back.
As always, I loved wandering the streets and gazing out at views of Vesuvius and the surrounding countryside, learning so much about the feet that had walked the same streets before me.
Braving the busy buses again, we made our way along the coast to Priano in order to attempt the Sentiero degli Dei – the Path of the Gods.
It was billed as 1000 steps up followed by a 3 hour walk to Positano with astounding views of the coast. There were, however, a few issues with this. Firstly, there were a good 500 steep steps up through Priano to get to the start of the 1000 steps up! Secondly, the weather was cloudy (although mainly dry) and thus the views were non-existent until towards the end of our descent into Positano! Thirdly, as I may have already mentioned, the bus situation is less than satisfactory and due to their times and busyness, we ended up walking round Positano and then all the way back through it to ensure we didn’t have to spend the night there!
25,000 steps and 17km in total!
That said, I did actually enjoy it – with the help of jelly babies and obsessively counting off each 100 upward steps – and I can see how it would be a stunning walk if the skies were clear!
Back in Sorrento, we acquired pizza and wandered in and out of a few churches to view the sepulchre displays for Holy Week.
Since we had a 6:30am train to Lecce for part two of the trip, getting up at 4:30am to see the Good Friday procession didn’t seem too much of a stretch. It was one of the most unique things I’ve ever seen. Men dressed all in white pointed-hooded robes with eyeholes walk the streets for hours as an anonymous and lengthy act of penance for the year’s sins.
A small group of yawning little boys traipse round carrying baskets of flowers.
Various symbols relating to the Easter story are carried round too – like a cockerel, a crown of thorns, a whip – and another very large statue of Mary finishes the procession.
The white symbolises Mary searching for Jesus and her statue is taken into each church so she can look for her Son. A similar black procession takes place in the evening when she realises He’s gone. The headdress is called a capirote and evolved during the 16thcentury, at the time of the Spanish inquisition and a lot of enforced piety.
The most extraordinary aspect of the proceedings was the reverent silence. There were large crowds and a lengthy procession but not a sound which certainly added to the eerie atmosphere created by the masked figures. The only exception – and my favourite part – was when an all-male choir walked past singing haunting harmonies, unhindered by full hoods.
As soon as the tail end of the procession passed the onlookers, a murmur of voices rose and people continued about their day.
For our part, this meant heading to the train station for our journey down to the ‘heel’ of Italy’s ‘boot’ – Puglia – for the second half of our trip.