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ANOTHER YEAR OVER – SO, WHAT ELSE HAVE YOU DONE?

Week 2 in our review of 2017.

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Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Pompeii

Summer in Sorrento

Italy is one of my favourite places and especially the gorgeous Bay of Naples. The weather there is fantastic, the scenery breathtaking, sunsets that will stop you in your tracks, food to die for and the locals? Well, they seem to have a certain chic I believe can only be achieved if you are actually born with it.   I do adore the area, but whenever I visit I always feel a sense of something darker, something you can’t quite put your finger on.  It’s almost like everything is fine on the surface, especially for the pleasure of the tourist – and particularly those who give the impression of having cash – but you just scratch at that surface and….

Ah money, money, money… Here you are in Naples, the 3rd largest city in Italy, but also one of the poorest in Europe with a shockingly high unemployment rate.   Gritty is a word often used to describe it and despite the best intentions of the Neopolitans, tourists are still reluctant to go there because of it’s bad reputation, and the crime levels.   In fact, a local guide told us even some residents from the neighbouring town of Sorrento are afraid to go there.

Sorrento street
Sorrento street

Yet, hop on a hydrofoil and 40 minutes will take you away from all that grittiness, over the rainbow to the golden, hedonistic island of Capri.  Back in AD26 the Emperor Tiberius, packed his bags, waved so long suckers to Rome and headed off to Capri. There he stayed for the next 11 years, ruling the Empire and according to Suetonius, giving himself to “all the vices he had struggled so long to conceal”…. in what people charmingly referred to as the “old goat’s den”.  The idea of Capri being a playground in a private paradise stuck. Famous residents and visitors have included the Marchesa Casati, Clark, Rita, Bridget, Audrey, Jackie, Leo, Taylor and Swarovski family…. the list goes on; the blue island still captivates the rich and powerful. “Gritty” can never be used to describe Capri: beautiful people totter beautifully through the most expensive crowded, cobbled streets in the most expensive clothes imaginable.  Gorgeous is the only way of life.

Capri view
Looking out from Capri

Of course, not everyone can live up to Capri standards.  Here’s me: hair scrunched up, complete with tourist rucksack, comfy sandals, even comfier cotton shorts, perspiring and stopping every half hour to sit down and fan myself in the heat.  No competition for the Capri elite: full make-up (including non-smudge, non-melting winged eyeliner),  3” stiletto heels, not even glowing let alone perspiring, complete with at least 4 bulging pieces of designer shopping bags.  This is the place to see and be seen.  In Anacapri, a single night (high season) in Capri Palace Hotel with it’s 2 Michelin star restaurant can set you back almost £2k ($2834).   Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Naples anymore.

vesuvius
Room with a view Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples

The Bay of Naples may be one of the most beautiful places in Europe, but it comes with a price.  Nature will inevitably have the last word – although the weather was awesome (a bit too hot for some, but hey, I like the heat) forest fires burned continually and there was an earthquake on Ischia whilst we were there.   

 

forest fire
Forest fires in the sunset

And then of course there is Vesuvius.   Of the 3m people living in the area around the volcano (which includes Naples), approximately 600,000 reside in what is known as the ‘red zone’.  This area will take the biggest hit should there be a major eruption, so why would anyone even still be there?   Yet there they are; all 600,00 of them, many in illegal housing.  Those living at the very feet of this threat carry on as though that huge, rumbling rock is just a brooding backcloth.  It’s there. What can you do?  It brings in the tourists – we’ll deal with it if, and when, it happens.  The astute observations of human behaviour in the bestselling series of Neopolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, perfectly encapsulates the outlook here.  It’s just the way of things.  

Back on Capri is the Villa San Michele.  The former home of Swedish born physician Axel Munthe (1857-1949) who declared: “my house must be open to the sun, to the wind, and the voice of the sea, … “ has some of the most stunning views and gardens I have ever seen.  However, in the midst of all this heaven on earth, there on the floor by the entrance to the kitchen is a mosaic of a skeleton holding 2 pitchers.  Not quite the interior design most people would choose to welcome friends and family to an idyllic dinner, until you realise many ancient dining areas had a similar image as a reminder to eat, drink and enjoy life, for tomorrow you may die. Sound advice for anyone, but especially for the people of this area.  Cash may be king and Vesuvius may be quiet today, maybe quiet tomorrow – but just over there, the ruins of Erculano and Pompeii are stark reminders that nature holds the trump card.

 

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BACK IN THE SUMMER OF ’17

ButtonChops had a good summer.  Alright, it might have felt like it had been pouring down for the first three quarters of it, but then we dusted the cobwebs off our swimsuits, bought some sunscreen (there were tons left in the shops – it had been raining constantly in Suffolk since the beginning of July) and headed off to Southern Italy and the WARM WEATHER.

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It was dark by the time we first arrived in Sorrento; our taxi had been stuck in a traffic jam in the tunnel for nearly an hour and our first view of the town was hordes of people and Vespas coming at us from every direction (including the pavement).  This wasn’t good I thought, we’ve made a terrible mistake – everyone we had spoken to back home had told us how wonderful this place was – but it just looked like Oxford Street at Christmas during a Scooter convention. Weary travellers, we collapsed in our hotel room, there was nothing for it, we were here now – we’d just make the most of it.  At least it was warmer than Good Old Blighty.  And it wasn’t raining.

So the next morning, we pulled back the curtains of our hotel room, looked out over the balcony and saw this…..

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Vesuvius

And everything was different.

Of course, it isn’t perfect.  This is no Nirvana.  The difference between North and Southern Italy quickly became quite apparent.  For one, the North seemed much more prosperous – the poverty in neighbouring Naples is heartbreaking.  Also, the environment: here Mother Nature is never far away with her pursed lips.   During our short stay, planes and helicopters were constantly dumping water on the hillsides trying to dampen down bush fires (a recent large fire had burned on the side of Vesuvius for 10 days – a large blackened, scorched scar stamped into it’s side).  A guide told us they hadn’t seen rain for so long that the olive industry could be under threat.   On the nearby island of Ischia, one person died during an earthquake and there, dominating the skyline, Vesuvius – sleeping…. only sleeping….

Then there is the social infrastructure: here cash is definitely king, which is a surprise to many tourists who are advised not to carry a lot of money on them.  We visited a museum and restaurant on Capri, only to be told “no cards – cash only” – even our hotel would only accept cash to pay for pre-booked taxis and excursions.  It was also certainly more expensive than our last stay in northern Italy (although that may be more to do with the poor exchange rate – thanks Brexit).  And I came to the conclusion that a lot of locals were definitely looking out for No 1 rather than working together as a whole community – tour guides think nothing of openly criticising restaurants or boat trips in favour of others.  

The crowds were phenomenal (though to be honest, it was the busiest time of the year) and as for the driving, well that can only be described as absolutely nuts.  Stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of a 3km long tunnel? – no sweat, just do a 3-point turn and go back.  Stop signs? – hmm, they’re merely a ‘suggestion’.  Car horns? – an essential form of communication. Every few minutes in fact.   Family of 3 but only one Vespa? No problem, just put the kid in the middle….  

Why would anyone want to go there I hear you ask? Because oh my goodness: the place is like no other.  The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful.  The town is beautiful, the people are beautiful, the food is beautiful, the sea is beautiful, the boats are beautiful, the wine is beautiful, the weather is beautiful, the sunsets are beauti…. well, you get the idea.  

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There are lemons everywhere.  They can, and will stick a lemon on any and everything. And Lemoncello.  And shops. The shops smell of lemons. Or leather, or wood.  All beautiful smells.  And Art.  The artists selling their wares, the churches, the statues.  And restaurants.  The food is like no other.  Italians enjoy their food and it shows.  Even the most basic restaurant showed us a pride and care in describing the ‘special dish of the day’ and were concerned that everything was exactly right with our meal.  And at night, there is music.  Ok, much of it may be catered towards the tourist – Volare and Oh Sole Mio whilst you are eating your arrabiata, but who cares?  It wasn’t screaming at you; no-one was shouting to be heard.   People were enjoying themselves, the food, the atmosphere – just being there.  This was something I felt we had lost back home – sometimes the noise level in UK restaurant are off the scale.  What with piped music and people shouting over one another, nobody takes the time just to “be”.

On the Saturday we saw a local wedding:  the newlywed couple walked along the street with the all the guests dressed up to the nines, following behind, throwing rice.   Absolute strangers from all around the world had stopped to watch, some were even taking photos, although they had no idea who the bride and groom were.  The couple rewarded the crowd with a kiss and the crowd rewarded them with cheers and applause.  People were smiling.  People were happy.   For a moment, I think many of them had forgotten what was going on back home – and maybe that is what a holiday is supposed to do.

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Saluti

 

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