Gaeta to Salerno: a study in contrasts

Gaeta

Gaeta

The first full day in Gaeta, Cheryl hiked through the historic center and up to the top of the Monte Orlando with her camera. There is a large park there, with the tomb of Lucius Mugnacius Planco (22 BCE) and Bourbon fortifications. The Montagna Spaccata, where St. Benedict was a hermit for three years, is reputed to have split when Christ died on the cross. I wasn’t there when it happened, but it is an impressive crack in the rock. IMG_20150625-FENDITURA00001Meanwhile, I rode to my old neighborhood to see how it had changed. The only novelty was a gas line running up the side of the apartment building. I remembered hauling up the compressed gas bottles every week, and connecting them to the gas main on the balcony outside the kitchen.

Ron and Maria took us down to the gate of the Navy fuel pier, which now also hosts the US Navy Exchange, the laundromat and other support facilities for the crew and dependents of the US Sixth Fleet Flagship. IMG_20150625_161855It turned out that Cheryl (Canadian citizen) needed advance written permission from a distant commanding officer. That chilled my enthusiasm for going in, so we planned on doing the laundry in the hotel bidet again, and went walking. In addition to a historic center around the castle on top of the hill, Gaeta has a medieval lower town that parallels the coast. It resembles a neighborhood in downtown Naples, with its shaded cobblestone streets and laundry hanging between the buildings.

SS. Annuziata

SS. Annuziata

Maria grew up in Gaeta, and was baptized in the Church of Santa Annunziata, home to the famous Chapel of Gold. The Cappella d’Oro was closed, but at a word from Maria, the sacristan let us in. Named for its extensive gold-leaf decoration, the 14th-Century chapel features paintings by Giovanni Filipppo Criscuolo.

cappelladoroOn Saturday morning (27 June), we packed out and headed South. Next to the Commonwealth War Cemetery on the Garigliano river, was the ancient Greek city of Minturno. The site had been well developed since I lived there before, and we were able to visit the ancient amphitheater as well as the Roman town that was built on top of the Greek city.

Minturno

Minturno

After we crossed the Garigliano River, we rolled through what was arguably the least interesting and least scenic ride of our entire tour. The Via Domiziana through Castel Volturno, Pinetamare, and Lago Patria was a string of hastily erected apartment buildings, tire shops and untended cane breaks. The sea was usually not visible, but the street walkers on the side of the road day and night certainly were.

By the time we reached Pozzuoli, our patience with the broken roads and the traffic had worn thin. We had not planned to stay in Naples, because we were both very familiar with it. We took the Metro to the central train station, and switched to the Circumvesuviana Railway to Sorrento. There was a moment of near-disaster when a poorly informed ticket agent tried to bar our entry to the train. We knew the rules, but it still took some finesse on my part to negotiate our entry by having a supervisor confirm that bicycles could accede to the station; my going to the supervisor allowed the now-informed ticket agent to discreetly disappear and save face. One of his colleagues let us enter the handicapped gate, and soon, we were safely on our way to Sorrento. One does not take train personnel in Italy head-on. Tim Parks describes the culture with insight and humor in his book, Italian Ways, if you want a pleasant read on the subject.

IMG_20150627_113832Sorrento has much to recommend it. Between the British expatriates who live there, the tourists at high season and the weekend visitors from nearby, the hotels and restaurants were packed to capacity. We had to move each night: a four-star hotel the first night, and a hostel with bedbugs the second night. For the record, I found the hostel; it was the last time I tried to make reservations anywhere!

IMG_20150628_164428

the hill

IMG_20150628_114955

the view

The next day, we rode to the top of the hill to admire the wonderful view. Walking around town, we discovered a park with a lemon grove and a tasting station operated by a local limoncello factory. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that limoncello is not artificially colored, if it comes from Italy. Limoncello manufactured outside the EU often has artificial colors in it.

On Monday, we treated ourselves to the tour that is on almost everyone’s bucket list: the Amalfi Drive. You can read about the towns of Positano, Ravello, and Amalfi in any guidebook or online (Michelin and Lonely Planet: http://www.viamichelin.com/ and http://www.lonelyplanet.com/, to name just two). The postcards and the photos in Google images are far better than my sorry shots. IMG_20150629_164328None of them comes close to capturing the incredible beauty of riding down that coast. And yet, one cannot help stopping to take a snap – for the memories if nothing else.

Riding the Amalfi Drive on heavily loaded bicycles during high tourist season adds to the adventure. IMG_20150629_111801The tour buses can barely negotiate the sharp curves, and many motorcycle and car drivers take those curves as a personal challenge. Indeed, at one point we rode past a very long line of stopped traffic to find a tour bus blocking the road crosswise, with a motorcycle deep under its front bumper. It was clear from the position of the two vehicles that there was nothing the bus driver could have done. The EMT’s were loading the dead motorcyclist into the ambulance as the Carabinieri waved Cheryl and me through. No one else could pass. The line was just as long on the other side. Thinking of the scene, it was small consolation that we would have the lane to ourselves all the way to the next town.

IMG_20150629_130750Ravello was a special treat. We locked our bicycles to the fence at Piazza Flavio Gioia in Amalfi and took the bus up to this Michelin three-star attraction. IMG_20150629_131026It completely deserves the enthusiastic write-ups in the guidebooks. The bus was almost empty going up in the middle of the day, but the tourist crush hour coming back redefined the meaning of “standing room only.” We were only 32 km from Salerno, so we located the HI hostel in the old city well before dark.

IMG_20150629_135421Cheryl’s skill at finding great places amazed me. I had thought that Salerno was an ugly town, best by-passed on the autostrada. The HI hostel was in what used to be the Conservatory of Salerno. The medieval center was pedestrian-only, and filled with interesting shops and eateries. We dined well, and promenaded on the waterfront. I noticed a farmacia around the corner from the hostel. I had developed a systemic allergic reaction to the bedbug bites from Sorrento. The next morning, we returned to the pharmacy, IMG_20150629_134614and I started a prednisone regimen (Pharmacists in Italy are doctors of pharmacy; they can prescribe for many simple situations that would require two stops in North America).

The main drag through old Salerno also led us easily to the bike path to the train station, hence south to our adventure in Ancient Greece…

Until next week

Smooth roads & tailwinds,

Jonathan.

2 thoughts on “Gaeta to Salerno: a study in contrasts

  1. I have been told that being map- and reservation-challenged is a genetic predisposition for good-looking males of superior wit. At least, that’s what I tell Sharon.

    Like

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