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.