European Vacation – August 13

Our last breakfast with Gassime. We packed our bags and left Gassime with a small token of thanks, a bottle of Okanagan fruit syrup and a thank you card. He was touched and thanked us profusely. He showed us a picture of his daughter and said he was going to give it to her. Gassime thoroughly impressed us. We invited him to Canada, but he said he’d probably never have time to take us up on our invitation. Hopefully we’ll be able to visit him again on his home turf soon.

A quick and rather exciting taxi ride to the train station (we decided to forego the walk with memories of the night of our arrival still fresh. I’m not sure the suitcase could take another assault from Jill) and we boarded the train to Naples. The family was split up (again the efficiencies of the Italian train system) but I had the chance to chat for awhile with a couple from Australia. Funny thing about Canadians and Australians..although we’re from opposite sides of the world, we feel we’re kindred spirits. Must be something to do with the British Commonwealth or something. Anyway, it was a pleasant way to pass the 2 hour train ride before we arrived in Naples.

If you’re not familiar with Italy, Naples is the city everyone warns you about. Petty crime apparently runs rampant in the train station. I had received explicit instructions from our family in France about how to successfully navigate through, but they basically recommended an armored personnel carrier, an item we had neglected to pack. As it turned out, the stop was rather anti-climactic. We cautiously rolled our convoy through the station down to the Circumvesuviana station where we caught the local train to Sorrento. Circumvesuviana is basically a commuter train that services Naples, Pompeii and Sorrento, with all points in between. We met a nice couple from New Jersey who were rushing to squeeze in a couple of hours in Pompeii before closing time. They had worked a trip to Rome and various other destinations into a business trip to Poland and the Ukraine (he was a doctor and was giving a lecture) and were definitely doing the whirlwind tour of the continent. Not sure how much of Pompeii they were going to be able to squeeze in, as they only had 90 minutes til closing time. We had to give Pompeii a pass on this trip as it was just too difficult to work in.

We shortly arrrived in Sorrento. Now, I don’t want to belabor this point (although it was a major theme of our stay here) so I’ll just mention this once and let it pass. Italians on vacation, and those serving Italians on vacation, can be some of the rudest people on the face of the planet. Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast were incredibly beautiful, but the majority of people we saw made the stop a lot less enjoyable than I had hoped. Part of it was my fault. Through my ignorance of Italian holidays, I had planned the stop for the two days leading up to Ferragosta, the grand daddy of all Italian holidays. As near as I can figure it out, the purpose of the holiday is for everyone from the cities to cram into any available form of transportation and head to the beach, and there to push and shove, smoke and drive like maniacs. Sorrento, being one of the biggest tourist coastal areas, was a prime destination. That’s the bad part, the good part was that we saw Sorrento in a way we’ll never see again (I hope).

We got off the train and headed right into the thick of it, again dragging our suitcases through Sorrento to try to find the shuttle to the hotel we had reserved. The hotel, the Grand Hotel Nastro Azzuro and Occhia Marina appeared to be a nice oasis from the turmoil below, set high up the mountain above Sorrento with a view of the bay. We finally found the location for the shuttle and waited for the next one, then climbed aboard. We had just started out of town when the drivers cell phone rang, and after a brief conversation he handed the phone to me. Somewhat surprised, I said a tentative hello. The voice on the other end said, “Hello Mr. Hotchkiss? This is Tony from the Nastro Azzuro. I’m afraid there’s been a problem with your reservation.” Now, how did I know that was coming? Apparently, despite the fact that I reserved months ago, nobody at the hotel bothered to look and see it was a room for 4 that was booked. Apparently there were no such rooms available. But they made arrangements to put us up at another hotel, which turned out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise. The shuttle driver drove up the hillside (more about driving in Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast later) and into a small town called Sant Agata.

Let me describe my first impressions. The shuttle was a small bus and barely fit on the narrow and winding roads up to Sant Agata (but as I was about to learn, I hadn’t seen anything yet) but when we got into town, the driver had the added challenge of navigating around several booths that had been set up on the side of the streets for the festival. In front of each booth were dozens of people, who seemed to wander and step into traffic, totally unaware that several tons of metal, fiberglass and hotel guests were bearing down on them. Added to this were several scooters who tried to pass the shuttle at every opportunity, cars pulling out off nowhere and little mini trucks (called Piaggios) that were making deliveries. It was total chaos, but somehow the driver always stopped in time and no one was killed. These were the descendants of the Roman Empire? The cradle of civilization?

We got to the hotel, the Hotel Montana, and checked in with no fuss. Apparently they were waiting for us. I even tried to tip the bellman who helped to carry our bags, but he politely refused to take it. The welcome was gracious and warm. I was feeling a little less apprehensive. As it turned out, Sant Agata and the Hotel Montana were two highlights of our stay. The room for 4 was actually the penthouse of the 5 story hotel, and had a huge terrace that was pretty much just for us, overlooking the town on one side and with a sweeping view of the Bay of Naples on the other. Things were looking up.

After checking in we decided to explore Sant Agata. The town, which was spread over the hillside, had a main street that was fully decked out for Ferragosta, with the afore mentioned booths, lights and the promise of street entertainment in the tiny piazza in front of the church. We were getting hungry, so we looked for a place to grab a bite. We decided on the Café Buenos Aires, which had a tourist special of a pizza, salad and beer for 6 and a half euros. Hard to beat that! I had been told in France that I had to try pizza in Sorrento, so I was keeping my promise. The kids also ordered pizza (without the beer). We were eating early by Italian standards (around 8 pm) so they were just firing up the wood oven where they baked the pizzas. Soon, hot Neapolitan pizzas arrived at the table.

Now I have to share some back story. When I was attending college in Edmonton, I decided that I was going to find the best pizza in the world. For me, pizza is a lifetime love that is probably equaled in longevity only by my love for chocolate (of course, wife and kids come first in terms of ardor, but love for pizza and chocolate predates them). Since them, my tastes in pizza have evolved, from the heavy, meat laden monstrosities that provided sustenance in college, to the more delicate coal fired pies of New York. I’ve tried Chicago deep dish, but prefer crispy and light. The Buenos Aires served a pie that rivaled the best I’ve had in New York, with fresh ingredients and a wood charred crust. Plus, I got to enjoy it under the starlight on a patio with the bells of the church ringing, Dean Martin playing on the speakers and little kids straight out of a Sophia Loren movie playing soccer (calcio) in the street. I think I arrived at pizza Nirvana. And I’m not even sure this was a good pizza by Sorrento standards.

Not only where they good, but they were huge, given the price. Each pizza had to be 12 inches in diameter, and were only 4 euros..an exceptional bargain!

We all polished off the pizzas (and if you know how my daughter’s eat, you’ll know how momentous that is) and wandered back through the streets to the Hotel. We took a trip out to the terrace to soak up a little Sorrento by starlight. The odd frustration, but all it all, a very good day.

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