Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Amalfi Coast Treasure Hunt

            The elderly man walking toward me is holding out his hand. It seems he wants to give me something. 
             We are the only two people on this stretch of beach, and have been quietly lost in our own musings until now.
Clearly his intense scrutiny of the sand has revealed a treasure he would like to share with me. Speaking in Italian, he smiles and drops a tiny shell into my hand. 
I can't understand what he is saying, but I'm charmed he wants to gift me with the snail shell, and I would like to reciprocate.  
              Reaching into my pocket, I pull out a recently found treasure and offer it to him. A piece of green ceramic, it is the only colored chip I have found so far on the beach.
His reaction surprises me. 
He chuckles and shrugs, walking away to continue his search without taking my gift.
 It occurs to me this man has probably lived here in Vietri sul Mare for many years. Strolling the beach, smoking his cigar and quietly scanning the sand is not a new past time for him. 
The busy season of sunshine hasn't arrived yet and it is the perfect time of year for locals to enjoy their quiet waterfront devoid of the crowds who will flock to this beach in June.
I decide rebuffing my gift with a shrug is actually his way of saying that the bits of Italian pottery on the beach are familiar to him. I am just a silly American who may not have realized that.
Continuing my stroll a few feet from the surf, I wrap my scarf around my neck and pull up my collar, shivering in the breeze coming off the Mediterranean.
I am here on the gateway to the Amalfi Coast in March, alone on the beach with one Italian man, peacefully searching the sand. This part of the coast – a lesser traveled one by tourists, is exactly what many people dream of seeing in Italy.  
The colorful character of the people and charming homes with laundry lines almost an art form; the wonderful smells of pizza and Italian coffee – it is abundant here.
              Suddenly I see one.
Grabbing up the bright stone from the beach, I examine the intricate floral design, still bright yellow on the orange pottery worn smooth by the tide. For the Italians who live in Vietri, a visitor's fascination with colorful bits of ceramic washed up by the tide probably seems silly.
To an American coveting most things Italian, the bits of colorful scrap spit out from the majolica factories in Vietri and coughed up by the sea are tiny treasures that represent the artistic magic of a town known for the ceramics produced here.
              At one end of the Amalfi Coast, Vietri is the first small town between Salerno and the official beginning of the iconic Amalfi Coast drive. By-passed by cruise ships and bus tours, it is colorful and claustrophobic, a gem in the shadow of the better known towns of Amalfi and Positano.
              The "Ceramica Artistica Solimene" is a large family-owned factory built in 1951 by Vincenzo Solimene, whose family began producing ceramics here in 1947. The factory has exhibitions and conducts art classes in the traditional method of creating ceramics.
Although the largest factory, it is one of many in this small coastal town that supplies the hotels, shops and restaurants along the Amalfi Coast
with a huge variety of pottery and tile art. Short of a sofa, there isn’t much of anything that Italians won't construct into ceramic.
The Vietri shops are laden with decorative ceiling lights, wine cups and decanters, sink basins and cabinet treatments. Some shops feature traditional Italian colors and designs, while others specialize in modern d├ęcor or fanciful figurines.  
High above the village, St. John's church has a distinctive green and yellow ceramic dome that speaks to the artesian roots of Vietri. Visible from miles away, it marks the tiny spot on the Italian coast where you can find a one-of-a-kind ceramic in an idyllic place tourists often overlook.  Add the adventure of beach combing for colorful scraps of pottery polished by the sea, and you have an authentic Italian treasure hunt.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Italy's Magical Island

A black cat with green eyes, sprawled on a window ledge is watching me. 
Twitching the tip of her tail, she gazes at my frantic scramble to grab my camera and attach a lens. The sun is moving rapidly toward the waterline, and in the small canal next to me, a liquid canvas of brilliant color is coming to life like an exploding rainbow on the water.  
Suddenly, art is emerging all around me, like an animated movie that is a Sunset in Italy. Crayon colored boats are bobbing in the canal water creating ripples that twinkle with crimson, purple, electric blue, pink and yellow.
A small island four miles from the shores of Venice, Burano is a tiny fishing village with a storybook feel. The island’s narrow canals are lined with brightly colored homes painted according to district. For visitors watching the local residents go about their daily routine, hanging laundry, off-loading fish from their boats and cooking meals, it is like watching a living canvas. The artistry of daily life here epitomizes everything romantic about Italy.
The history of Burano is unremarkable compared to the neighboring islands of Murano - where famous glass work is created, and Torcello, one of the first islands populated in Venice.
A fishing settlement with bright homes that legend describes as “vivid enough for the fishermen returning home to see them,” Burano eventually became prosperous for exporting hand-crafted lace starting in the 1600s.
Another legend – and there are many – explains this origin of lacemaking with yet another romantic spin. It is the story of a fisherman who was engaged to be married to a girl on the island, and managed to resist the call of a siren while out bringing in his catch. 
Impressed with his resistance of her and devotion to his betrothed, the siren swatted his boat with her tail creating white foam that became a wedding veil for his soon to be bride. That veil was gifted to his betrothed and replicated with needle and thread by the women of the island who later exported their handicrafts throughout Europe for more than three hundred years. 
A lace making school opened on the island in the 19th century, but today, the time-consuming tradition has given way to modern methods, and anyone seeking an authentic piece of Burano lace will have to pay a substantial amount.
Walking past the bits of lace displayed in shop windows, I stop to photograph the Church of San Martino and its leaning campanile. Aside from setting up an easel to paint the view, or more realistically, visiting the lace museum, the third most compelling reason to visit Burano is to eat. 
There are only ten restaurants – and two pizzerias – on Burano, and I have come to the island to experience one in particular. Strolling along one of four streets that frame the canal as it twists through town; I am looking for Trattoriael Gatto Nero. Translated, it is the “Restaurant of the Black Cat” owned by the same family since 1965 and rumored to be home to some of the finest seafood dishes in the Venice.
It occurs to me the green-eyed cat watching me earlier might have be a clue. Returning to the place of my first photograph on Fondamenta della Guidecca, there is a sign for El Gatto Nero I had overlooked while distracted by the wild rainbow unfolding in the sea.
Stepping inside the trattoria, I see my husband already seated, drinking a glass of wine, grinning from ear to ear. Tonight is the restaurant owner’s anniversary, and Ruggero and Lucia Bovo have shut down early to celebrate with friends and family. But hearing how far we have come to experience their restaurant, we are ushered to a table and are watching the boisterous celebration. 
Pouring wine from a small white jug on the table, we feel privileged to be part of the intimate gaiety of an Italian family celebrating 50 years of marriage. The music and laughter are infectious. It is some of the best wine and most intimate atmosphere we have experienced in all of Italy.
Our appetizer, the “Antipasto Gatto Nero” arrives, and the salient colors of the village were beautifully replicated on the plate. A colorful depiction of Burano and the resident black cat are painted around the edge of the porcelain, the village design circling our meal – a succulent array of scallops and razor clams. This is art on a plate. This is what you hope to experience in Italy.  
Our main course is “Branzino al forno,” a sea bass baked in parchment paper, fileted at the table and served with island grown vegetables. The delicate white meat is the best I have eaten anywhere in the world.
Lingering after dinner to watch the festivities, we offer Ruggero one of the fine cigars my husband carries with him when we travel. Appreciative and surprised, Ruggero graciously reciprocates, placing a tiny black glass cat in my hand.
Stepping into the last ATV boat back to Venice, I am clutching the tiny black cat like a lucky charm. As the lights of Venice approach, I know I have fallen even more in love with Italy - again. 



Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Where Angels Fear to Fly

I know that look. 
It is the grim expression of a woman on a horrible date with her best friend’s brother. It is the resigned expression that means this is a situation with no easy way out. The pinched smile hides an effort to stay cheerful and enthusiastic. 
Nicky is wearing that look.
But Nicky is not on a date. She is strapped vertically, belly down and head first into a canvass harness connected with four metal clips to the highest, and one of the fastest zip lines in the world.  
A three-hour drive from Naples, Italy, in the heart of Basilicata, Volo dell Angelo is an adventure experience called “Flight of the Angels.” 
Nicky was about to fly - zipping from one mountaintop to another on a cable strung between the villages of Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa. Her husband Joe is applauding her courage from the landing pad where eight of us are standing after our own headfirst flight from one mountain to another. Our adrenaline is still pumping. 
Braking wildly above us like a giant sling shot suddenly stopped, her first exclamation echoes my thoughts exactly. “That was terrifying!”
This is so terrifying, that two in our group have declined to fly the zip line after hiking up the steep trail to the first flight station platform.  The fear is easy to understand, which is why I went first. 
The operators said that no journalist has ever done the zip line with a still camera. I felt challenged to photograph firsthand such a thrilling,  albeit intimidating  experience, and I did not want any time to ponder a worst case scenario. 
Cinched into my harness face down, the zip line disappeared ahead into thin air with no end in sight. 
Below me was a rock cliff dropping off to a deep canyon. The push from the ramp came, the ground fell away, and the thrill of “flying” 74 miles per hour at an altitude of 3,200 feet for almost a mile trumped the fear. Fighting to keep my head up against the wind, I had tried to capture the experience through the lens.
Euphoric after our wild ride on the “Peschiera” zip line from the town of Castelmezzano to Pietrapertosa, we are shuttled a short distance into the second village. The return flight on the “San Martino” zip line is going to take us back across the canyon, and it’s a short hike to the flight station. 
Now I am opting to fly last so I can watch the Volo dell Angelo crew prepare each of my companion “angels” for flight. Part of that preparation involves attaching a small parachute to each flyer that enables a stop from high speed at the finish. Accurately relaying our weight in kilos determines the size of our parachute and I am debating overstating mine for the first time.
Everyone has flown, screaming at the top of their lungs, back across the canyon. 
I am the last flyer geared up, standing on the platform overlooking the mighty Dolomites and a deep ravine scattered with colorful villas, winding rural roads and tiny farms. 
I feel myself smile. 
But this time it is not the frozen grin of a terrified American, dreading the launch off a little platform on a mountain in Italy, but the joyful smile of another angel ready to fly. 


Friday, February 27, 2015

Lording Over Naples, Italy

Sitting in the back seat of a Honda Accord that has seen better days, my forehead is pressed  against the glass of the rear passenger window as we whip abruptly left and right through the streets of Naples, Italy. The colorful street life is going by in a blur. Three women clinging to a scooter brush past us and the two passengers grin gleefully at me while the driver, talking on a cell phone, blasts through an intersection barely missing a city bus. An elderly woman walking a tiny dog is scolding a shopkeeper for something related to the fruit and vegetables he has in crates on the sidewalk, and four men are playing cards on a folding table a foot from the busy street.
It’s fascinating chaos that I’m grateful to witness without driving. Five of us are packed into the small sedan, and our driver, Jerry Gathof, a civilian oceanographer for the US Naval Sixth Fleet Command in Naples, is at the wheel. A resident of Campania for the last four years, Gathof has no idea what streets will take us to our destination, but he is confident nonetheless, and we are enjoying the wild ride.
Swinging up a steep boulevard into the toney neighborhood of Vomero – often described as one of the better places to live in Naples, our drive becomes a hill climb as we ascend a residential street. Finally a tiny brown sign indicates we are within walking distance of our destination, and our driver deftly squeezes the Honda between two vehicles parked alongside the street.
Jumping out on the street side, I hurry to shut the door and duck an on-coming car tearing down the hillside. Groans of disgust emanate from the sidewalk and I look over to see my travel companions frantically working to remove doggie deposits from their shoes. The entire sidewalk is littered with animal waste for two blocks as we climb up closer to the top of Vomero. 
This is Naples, not Florence or Rome, and with the character, color and striking personality of a city that has survived despite a lack of favoritism or tourism, Naples comes with grit.  It is a sometimes edgy landscape that you must embrace, or just bypass for more pristine pastures.
Hiking up the hill and around a corner, we arrive at the vast Castel Sant Elmo. A medieval fortress believed to have been built as a palatial private residence sometime in the 12th century, the fortress morphed over the centuries into a military installation. Re-invented as a huge, hexagon shaped castle surrounded by a moat, the castle was constructed for the marines by a controversial architect during the 1530’s, but was later restored several times and continued to serve as a military outpost and prison for centuries. Eventually the property was turned over to the Provence of Campania and underwent a seven-year restoration in the 1970’s that restored the original parapet walkways and internal chambers of the castle.
Now the home of a museum, 700-seat auditorium and art gallery, the most outstanding feature of Castel Sant Elmo is its lofty position lording over Naples. The view is a 360 degree circle that stretches from Sorrento on the coast, to the shores of Gaeta in the northwest. The islands of Capri, Ishia and Procida are framed by an expanse of ocean stretching to infinity. From the southern view over the city, the historic street of Spaccanapoli, derived from the original grid of the Greco-Roman city of Neapolis, is dramatically obvious and it’s easy to see why it is described as the street that “divides” Naples simply because of its conspicuous appearance.
From this vantage point, Mt. Vesuvius is regal as part of the backdrop, and on a clear day the volcano that devastated the area centuries ago is both handsome and forbidding. Watching the cruise ships floating below in the Port of Naples, I wonder how many passengers will ever experience this place. The land excursions of Naples typically include Pompeii and the Island of Capri. Which means many visitors to southern Italy will never get to see the magnificent coast line from the medieval fortress that has lorded over Naples for centuries. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dangerous Curves

The tour bus is coming straight at me. Just inches from the bumper of my tiny car, all I can do is wait and watch. Several cars are snuggled up tight in my rear-view, and a three foot rock wall is almost touching my folded mirror on the right. I am firmly stuck. 

Beyond the old stone wall, a steep cliff drops several hundred feet to the beach below. This is it. This is the drive I’ve coveted for years, and the reason I shipped my Miata to Italy. I wanted this experience firsthand. I am rolling rubber on one of the most coveted driving destinations in Italy and possibly the world; the Amalfi Coast.

But reading about the coastline is very different from actually driving it. It occurs to me many of the people who photograph this road are probably in a helicopter, coming off a cruise ship, or riding in a giant air-conditioned tour bus like the one trying to squeeze past me now.  Without a choice, I’m going to surrender to the experience.

Pulling out my camera, I photograph the bus driver’s skillful attempt to squeeze past me. Around him, passengers are looking down at me, watching the wild maneuver and laughing. Their expressions are incredulous at the seemingly impossible task their driver is working to accomplish. 

Amazingly, the bus inches past me. I can breathe again, and I’m pretty sure the tourists in that bus are having more fun than I am right at this moment.  
             Driving the Amalfi Coast is an adventure best done on or in, something very small. The Italians know this and scurry confidently along the stretch of winding, narrow turns on scooters and in tiny Fiats, never once glancing out at the view, splitting lanes where there are no lanes and passing slow pokes without any regard for safety. 

            For visitors who have traveled to Italy dreaming of seeing the post card pretty towns of Amalfi and Positano, watching the view unfold is the whole point of being here. But this stretch of coast is treacherous for shutterbugs distracted by snapping that once-in-a-lifetime picture. 

            Thousands visit the coast every year, but those industrious enough to drive it are easily identified. The wide-eyed and terrified crawl of newbies in awe along the sometimes path-like drive is a frequent sight during the peak summer months.

            Yet, I keep coming back.

            This isn’t my first cruise of the coast; it’s the third in a month. Why? Because like anyone who loves to drive or ride, who exalts on twisty turns, I’m trying to master it. Like anything challenging, driving this road to achieve pure enjoyment - devoid of freaking out- takes practice. 

            Practice watching the huge mirrors in every blind turn, practice breathing and achieving calm when a head-on collision seems eminent, practice sharing one lane with both on-coming traffic and a scooter riding shot-gun.

            My first practice was on a motorcycle. Not a quiet, maneuverable BMW, but a loud, bigger-than-a-smart-car Harley Davidson Street Glide. It was a first lesson in the disgust scooter riders have for larger, “real” motorcycles. In addition to dodging cars, we were sandwiched on both sides by scooters buzzing around us impatiently. 

            It was easier to share the road on a bike, but a conspicuous way to get the attention of Italians who have little patience with anyone moving under 40 miles-per-hour on this 15-mile-per-hour road. We were shoved onto the shoulder – where there is no shoulder- innumerable times.

          Despite that first heart-stopping ride, I’m back again and again. As a native Seattleite who has enjoyed a San Diego field office for 20 years, I’ve both ridden and driven the entire west coast of Washington, Oregon and California a dozen times. For years I thought nothing compared to Highway 101 along the Pacific Ocean, and it didn’t.

           Then I moved to Italy and the Amalfi Coast drive stopped me like a baby deer on a piece of gravel road stops a sports car. 

            I was blown away by the beauty. Buoyed by the challenge. Ready to master this stretch of Italy and go home to the United States one day knowing I’d driven one of the most incredible stretches of road in Italy, been behind my own wheel doing it, and mastered some of the world’s most dangerous curves.  


Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Thin Line Between Heaven and Hell

The last thing I remember before my helmet hit the pavement was my husband's profile superimposed against a backdrop of black roadway as we fell to the right. The last thing I remember hearing was his voice shouting, "We've hit oil, we're going down!"

My first reaction was disbelief.

We'd ridden our 2011 Harley Davidson CVO Street Glide 20,000 miles safely in the United States - California to both Washington D.C. and Washington State without so much as a close call. We rode 600 miles across Texas in one day enduring 110 degree temperatures with nothing more than a sunburn.

Now we live in Italy. All of our friends envy us. We're supposed to be living the dream. It's supposed to be Heaven here. Dammit.

We're going down.

When the cracking sound of your own head on asphalt is something you actually hear and remember afterward, it's a good thing. As I looked up from my prone position on the A-1 Autostrada, I knew I had survived, and thankfully, had not lost consciousness. I could feel my helmet was intact but blood was dripping down my nose.

I wasn't dead. I could see. But what I saw were the blurred images of cars headed right toward me.

Facing backward, I had slid on my back away from the oily surface where our bike had pitched out from underneath us. Lying on the center line, my mind quickly went to the irony of surviving only to be hit by a traffic.

It was the first time I felt fear.

I heard my husband yell somewhere behind me, asking if I was alright. That meant he was, and I felt relief. We were both alive. I yelled back that I was OK, but honey, get us out of the road. Like Bambi staring at headlights, I couldn't move.

I felt Scott dragging me under the arms across the pavement. He propped me up against a rock wall and begged me to tell him over and over again that I was OK. A combat medic with training to handle injuries on the battlefield. I could tell he was panicked. I wasn't a soldier, I was his wife, and he was desperate.

We were OK. We'd gone down at maybe 65 miles per hour, and we were staring at each other incredulous that one or both of us wasn't dead. Looking around in a daze, I saw the Street Glide on its side far down the Autostrada on the right shoulder. Scott ran for the first aide kit and I yelled after him to retrieve my camera from the tour pack.

We needed pictures.

Pictures of this Hell. The hell where a journalist on assignment for three publishing clients is sitting on the side of the road with blood on her nose and oil on her boots, realizing everything has just changed in a flash of bad luck.

We were the accident causing a traffic jam on two lanes of the A-1 Autostrada northbound at Florence. Our destination had been Brescia, Italy, the starting line for the historic Mille Miglia race. For five days and four nights we were slated to be the first Americans on a Harley Davidson press bike following and photographing the race for American publications.

It had been a dream for years to see the Mille Miglia - covering it for clients was an added bonus and riding it on a Harley was the dream gig. My version of Heaven. Not a bucket list entry for most women - but certainly near the top of mine. So what the hell had just happened?

I would find out.

Setting my camera down next to me, my overwhelmed husband was dabbing at my wounds, eyes wide with fear. An Italian woman in a black Mercedes stopped and was calling the Italian version of 911. Cars were still roaring by us, but the police had also arrived and were keeping traffic away from the shoulder.

It was chaotic.

I asked the Italian woman to photograph me with my camera.

I tried to reassure my husband that I was OK, then asked him to do exactly what I knew he didn't want to do - leave me and go do my job, which was to photograph the scene. Never try to dissuade a reporter when they smell a need for information. Reluctantly he walked back a hundred feet and was shocked to find an entire lane and half of another black with oil.

Like the husband of a photographer, he shot it from every angle, just like he'd watched me do at car shows, races, rallies and events.

Sitting on the shoulder inert, I felt gratitude for the kind woman who had stopped. While she spoke rapidly in Italian on her cell phone, I looked down the road at our bike still lying on its side far down from me on the shoulder, and up the road toward where Scott was shooting.

It was a long distance.

How long? I guessed two football fields. Maybe more. Maybe 300 yards.

The ambulance arrived and four people tried to load me into it and hurry off to an Italian hospital where I knew more hell awaited. I live in Italy, so I know. I knew I'd arrive taped to a backboard only to wait and wait some more. There would be confusion, delays and frustration. I would be in a hospital in a foreign country without a phone, a passport or anyone who speaks English.

I wouldn't go.

They kept insisting that we must leave. I demanded that we wait. I wasn't leaving without my passport, my husband, and dammit, I wanted my iPad. It has a translation app. They were frustrated, but arguing with them took time, which is good. Italians like to argue, and they like to take their time.

I was winning.

During our debate the Polizia had joined Scott in photographing the oil spill. Suddenly a road construction worker in an orange vest appeared and confided to Scott the oil is a product they put down first when resurfacing the road with asphalt. A large truck full of it was bumped and spilled dozens of gallons on the roadway earlier that day.

They left it. No signs, no warning, no cones.

Why? Because it's Italy. Italy where it's "Va Bene" if you sideswipe a car and "Domani" if your basement is flooded and you need a plumber. It is the Italy of my dreams and the Italy of my nightmares. A country where people are passionate beyond reason about minutiae - and don't care at all when they should.

Finally my husband, my equipment and all our belongings were piled into an ambulance that seemed to bounce over cobblestones for an hour after exiting the Autostrada. Inside the hospital, it was everything I anticipated it would be and worse.

It didn't matter at all. We were grateful.

Sitting in our hospital room that night, we thanked God and agreed that there must indeed be a heaven. A heaven where adventurous angels live. Some of them must love to travel, because we are sure two decided to ride shotgun on a motorcycle in Italy just for fun, and we each carried one on a shoulder. Their wings must have been beating pretty hard to keep us safe when we hit the ground.

It's rarely visited, but we've been on that fine line between Heaven and Hell.

#Italy #Harley Davidson #Motorcycle #Autostrada #Tours #Mille Miglia #Motor Valley #Florence