European Vacation – August 14

First, let me explain what my plan for today was. We were to catch the bus into town, where we’d transfer to another bus that would take us down the Amalfi Coast to the town of Amalfi. We’d browse there, then catch a bus back to Positano, which is closer to Sorrento up the coast. We’d do some exploring there as well, and then find transportation up the mountain to a tiny, picturesque village that overlooked Positano, where there was a restaurant called Donna Rosa that I had read exceptional things about. We had reservations for dinner at 7 pm, so we’d precede that with a bit of a walk around the village of Monteperuso, have a wonderful dinner, catch a bus back into Sorrento and make our way back to the hotel. Sounds like a pretty good plan, right? It was completely trashed in the first 15 minutes.

First, Italians are a pretty aggressive group as a rule. Women are pushy, men are pushy with a chauvinistic attitude. On National Holidays, these national tendencies seemed to be multiplied by a factor of ten. To top it off, every Italian over the age of 6 months seems to smoke..a lot!

I am quintessentially British/Canadian, which means I stand in queues meekly, never question rules, need order in my life, despise “budging” (forcing your way to the front of the line), embrace politeness and hate turmoil and confusion. I also hate cigarette smoke. Today, I have glimpsed hell, and its name is Sorrento.

After breakfast at the Montana, we caught the bus into Sorrento where we were going to catch the SITA bus to Amalfi. We got away a little late, but no worries, it was a long day. This was my second trip on the road between Sorrento and Sant Agata, this time in a much bigger bus. If I was impressed by the shuttle driver yesterday, I had to hail the bus driver as a god. I couldn’t get a scooter down this road in one piece, and here he was navigating impossible hairpins, steering around cars and delivery vans parked haphazardly everywhere, keeping an eye open for the scooters that kept zipping past him and not showing any signs of being perturbed. Amazing! (And I still had not seen anything!)

We got into Sorrento and bought our bus tickets from a woman at the station who seemed to speak in monosyllabic grunts. Jill bought the tickets because, well, because I was scared. I would have rather had a tickle fight with a grizzly bear.

The bus was not for an hour yet, so we fought the crowds in Sorrento, then headed back in plenty of time (we thought) to catch the next bus. By this time, there was quite the crowd waiting. I have to give Jill credit. She tried to warn me.

“Watch what happens when the bus comes.” She whispered to me.

The bus pulled up and there was a surge of hot, sweaty Italian flesh towards the small opening. And the people on the bus hadn’t even got off yet! The bus driver muscled his way down the steps and told everyone to step back. Correction, not told..screamed! The people on the bus managed to squeeze out, and the surge started again. Every man, woman and child in the crowd had one goal, and one goal only, get on the bus before everyone else. I sat and watched dumfounded. This was simply not the way it was done! Needless to say, our rugby scrum skills being somewhat below par, we didn’t make the bus. We and a few other non-Italian tourists watched in bemused amazement. As the crammed bus pulled out, we steeled ourselves for the next assault, with the next scheduled departure in about 40 minutes.

This time, we didn’t go anywhere. We felt we stood a better chance if we stayed at the head of the line. I kept a wary eye on those who tried to stake claim to the head of the line, especially one group of bronzed Italian studs who were secreting copious amounts of testosterone, assuming their Lycra shorts would guarantee them privileged passage. Jill kept saying “Let it go..let it go”. I tried.

The next bus arrived, and the scene repeated itself. All Italians pressed towards the door, squeezing all Mangecacas (non Italians) in the process. I saw one particularly aggressive small, bald Italian man bearing down on my daughters, determined to push them out of the way and managed to reach ahead and grab the handle on the bus, my arm effectively baring his way. Finally an Italian woman took pity on us and ran interference with the crowd, blocking them with her body while we all climbed on board. We thanked her and found seats. We sat from our vantage point and watched as more continued to climb on board. Eventually, every square inch of available space was consumed by sweaty tourists and the bus pulled out. As we climbed the mountain out of Sorrento, I watched the driver negotiate the hairpin turns and I continued to marvel at his unflappable prowess behind the wheel. Each turn, I had to duck as a elbow or backpack threated to decapitate me. In this fashion, we began our bus trip down the Amalfi Coast, a trip that every guide book assured us would be a highpoint of our vacation.

We climbed towards our hotel, and Jill and I looked at each other as we passed by within a 5 minute walk of the hotel. We could have just climbed on board there. But then what would I have to blog about? It’s all part of the experience.

Soon, we crested the top of the Sorrento peninsula, with wonderful views of the Bay of Napoli and Vesuvius all the way up, and then started down the Amalfi side. Sorrento was beautiful, but the Amalfi Coast was amazing. More rugged, less cultivated, with sheer drops from the mountains to the blue Mediterranean. As we dropped towards Positano, each corner provided another breathtaking view. I soon forgot about the precarious road we were driving on and enjoyed each subsequent vantage point. Lauren and I were on the sea-side of the bus, with Jill and Alanna on the mountain side. I was amazed not just by the natural beauty, but also the evidence of centuries of building ingenuity, with buildings that merged into the rugged rockscapes, making it difficult to see where nature ended and the handiwork of men began. They clung to the mountainside, painted in bright pastels, adding colorful cascades down to the ocean. It was beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever witnessed. And still the road carved through, around, over and under the massive mountains, threading its way along the coast.

I’ve traveled a lot of roads. This included gravel forestry roads in BC, the coastal highways of California, including undulating stretches north of San Francisco and by San Simeon, and the back breaking stretch of highway out to Tofino, but they all pale in comparison to this route. At times, the bus could barely get around the curves, an inch was all to spare between the front corner of the bus and the rock wall. In the towns, the bus had to squeeze through narrow passages where the clearance on each side was fractions of an inch. Add to this the traffic crowding the road, Italians parking with no regard for rules and scooters trying to squeeze through the jam without hitting the brakes, and my respect for the driver continued to climb. At times, I looked down and saw nothing but sheer drops down to the ocean, hundreds of feet below. Every tourist guide had said DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS DRIVE YOURSELF. Thank God I listened.

Eventually we pulled into Positano. I looked at the time and realized there was no way we could make it back to the Donna Rosa Ristorante in time for our reservations. Oh well, next trip. It was something we were saying with increasing frequency.

The cliffside town of Positano is probably the best known of the Amalfi stops, and the one that is often shown in movies. If you’ve seen Under a Tuscan Sun, this is the town Diane Lane went to to visit her boyfriend, only to find he’d moved on with his life and found someone else. It is a small beach surrounded on both sides by town climbing the mountain side. Romantic? Yes. Beautiful. Absolutely! But today, it was crammed with tourists. We stayed on the bus and headed for Amalfi, the next stop.

The drive continued in the same fashion, but the bus was much less crowded, thanks to the Positano stop where most people got out. At this point, Lauren started mentioned an increasingly urgent need for a pee stop. Her bladder has the worst timing. We knew Amalfi wasn’t far, but we had no idea how long it was going to take to get there. We kept telling her it couldn’t be far, as she crossed and recrossed her legs. We got closer and closer, only to find a huge traffic jam as we started pulling into Amalfi. There was a small tunnel, barely large enough to accommodate one bus at a time. Today, a motorhome and a truck both tried to pass at the same time, and neither appeared ready to admit defeat and back up. Of course, traffic piled up behind them in both directions, and in this was our bus, with my daughter’s bladder now giving off a stage 4 alarm. Several Italian men climbed out of the vehicles to lend their assistance, which in this case seemed to consist of arguing loudly, gesturing wildly and shrugging often. No concrete plans to resolve the situation seemed to emerge. Finally a policeman arrived and came to the startling conclusion that someone had to back up. Brilliant! After several more minutes of this, we finally pulled forward and got out in Amalfi.

Our mission now was to find Lauren a bathroom. We took a quick look at a map by the bus stop, and there seemed to be an indication of public washrooms somewhere off the central piazza. We started in the general direction. I’ve learned however that said washrooms (indicated by a WC) can be notoriously difficult to find, as you find one sign and head off in the direction indicated, assuming you’ll actually find more signs that will continue to take you closer. This is almost never the case, and if you do find more than one sign, they almost always contradict each other. We rushed through the piazza, and no where could find any indications of washrooms. Jill tried to ask a few shopkeepers and was greeted by rude gestures and grunts. We finally found a restaurant owner who let us use his, and in gratitude, we decided to stay for lunch. We ordered a rather non-memorable meal, paid more than we had for any meal up to this point, had entire courses forgotten, but on the plus side, by the end of the meal, we all left with empty bladders. We figured it was worth it.

We wandered through Amalfi for a bit, and decided to try to get on the bus back to Sorrento and our hotel. As we went to buy tickets, an Australian who was working for a local hotel handing out flyers suggested catching the boat back to Sorrento instead. My wife is not a big fan of boats and asked him if it was safe. He gestured at the jam packed busses across the road and said, “You think that’s safe?” He had a point. We picked up tickets for the ferry to Sorrento for a few euros more than what the bus ride would be and took the ferry back. It was the right decision. Much less crowded than the bus, the ability to stand outside and watch the scenery from a different vantage point, and the boat took a relatively straight path, not doubling back on itself every 15 seconds. The one disadvantage was that we had to climb back up the cliffs to the town from the pier. I think the kids counted about 200 or so steps.

Almost home. Now, we thought, a quick bus ride back to the hotel, and we’d head for another pizza at Buenos Aires. There was some question about which bus we should board. Our hotel was in Sant Agata, but many of the signs said Massa Lubrense. We weren’t sure of the distinction between the two (we found out later that Massa Lubrense was the region, and Sant Agata was the town). We saw a bus pull up with Sant Agata on the front, and Jill asked if it stopped in Massa Lubrense and was told yes. We figured we had both bases covered. We got on the bus, and were soon joined by 12 million Italians, all trying to get back to their hotels. I thought it impossible, but this bus was even more jammed than the one to Amalfi. Even more people climbed on at each stop, each screaming Italian at each other at the top of their lungs. As Jill said, all we were missing was an old lady carrying chickens. As the bus climbed out of town, it took a route I didn’t recognize. It’s impossible to maintain any sense of direction here, as you get completely lost after the first few 180 degree turns. All I knew was that I was tired, hungry and the bus was heading in a direction I didn’t remember. I had visions of being abandoned in a small Italian village, miles from our hotel with no way to get back. The stress level continued to climb. Jill kept saying she could see the church up the mountain, and we appeared to be getting closer. I remained unconvinced. It turns out that she was right. As we turned a corner, I suddenly recognized the main street of Sant Agata and climbed thankfully from the bus. We ran up to the room, headed back to the Buenos Aires and grabbed some pizza and a much needed beer. Then, we started laughing and couldn’t stop. I’m not sure if it was that humorous, or if we had all had complete mental breakdowns, but this will definitely be a day we remember.

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