Italy Day 4: The Amalfi Coast
The fourth day started out quite wonderfully. Why? Well, for the first time the whole trip, we slept in. Ahhh, sleep. We were up and out the door by around 10:00 though, so that we could catch a bus to Positano and then to Amalfi, to see what neat things there were to see. As it turns out, it wasn’t so much there were neat things (as in, somehow historically interesting) but there were sure a heck of a lot of beautiful things.
Oh, have I mentioned the weather? So much for what I kept reading about how people don’t travel to Rome (well, or Italy in general) in November because it’s cold and rainy. Almost the entire time we were there, it was around 70 and mostly sunny, with rain finally showing itself our second to last night there. I was soooo not complaining… except that I packed mostly long-sleeved shirts (and stopped to grab three short-sleeved shirts as an afterthought on my way out the door to the airport!) and pants, and so I was kind of unprepared for warmer weather. Oh well.
The bus to Positano wound its way along the rugged coastline, staying in the center of the road unless there was oncoming traffic, and honking around every turn. You tune that part out after a while.
I don’t normally get carsick, but man was I green when I got off of that bus… Ick. It might have something to do with roads so windy and narrow that they put up mirrors to help drivers see around curves. Nice.
The one nice thing about being carsick? It gave us a chance to sit for a few minutes and enjoy the view. And what a view it was…
Random fact that was interesting to former-English-major-me: Positano had been a fishing village, but had fallen on hard times when, in the early 1950s, John Steinbeck visited, and then wrote an article for Harper’s Bazaar simply titled “Positano”. A flood of tourists followed, and to commemorate this, the city put a plaque on a wall with a quote (translated into Italian) from his article. I actually like the part from right before the quote on the plaque much better:
“Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone. Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. I believe that whereas most house foundations are vertical, in Positano they are horizontal. The small curving bay of unbelievably blue and green water lips gently on a beach of small pebbles…”
Ok, I just finished reading that Steinbeck article, and the incident at the end of the article was too hilarious to not share here. For some reason, when I read this, I heard Garrison Keillor’s voice in my head as I read, and it seemed to work quite nicely. Just a suggestion for you that you may want to try as you read. :-D
A number of writers have gone to Positano to do their work. Some of these are Americans and some are British. Nothing in the little town is designed to disturb your thoughts provided you have a thought. Such a recluse was John McKnight, now of the United States Foreign Service, but then in process of writing the Papacy, a long and careful study of the history of the Vatican and its position in the present-day world. He and his wife lived for a year in a little house with a garden right over the water in the southern part of the town. The McKnights came from North Carolina and they settled into the life of Positano as naturally as they had settled into Chapel Hill. Then the year turned and Thanksgiving began looming.
Now an American living long abroad may become completely expatriate. He may speak foreign, think foreign, eat foreign, but let Christmas or Fourth of July or Thanksgiving come around and something begins to squirm inside him and he finds he has to do something about it. Johnny and Liz McKnight speak Italian fluently, read, eat and live Italian. But when Thanksgiving came near in Positano, the McKnights found themselves dreaming of roast turkey and dressing of cranberry sauce and plum pudding, of mint juleps. They got to waking up in the night and thinking about it.
The turkey arrived in a crate tied to the top of a bus. It was a fine, vigorous but slightly hysterical bird and for a week it gobbled and strutted in the one bird turkey yard built for it in the garden until gradually its nerves got back to normal. It didn’t know that the looks of its new friends were not friendly.
Johnny remembered a bit of wisdom imparted to him by his grandfather in North Carolina. Violent death, his grandfather said, be it to man or to turkey, is a nervous and discouraging experience. The muscles are likely to go hard and certain unhappy juices are released into the system. His grandfather did not know how that affected the flavor of man, but in a turkey it had a tendency to make the meat tough and a little bitter. But there was a way to avoid that. If about two hours before the execution, the turkey is given a couple of slugs of good brandy, the nervous tension relaxes, the turkey’s state of mind is clear and healthy and he goes to the block happy and even grateful. Then when he is served, instead of bitter juices of fear and shock, there is likely to be a delicious hint of cognac in the meat.
Johnny decided to follow the custom of North Carolina. Then he found that he did not have brandy. The bourbon he had provided for juleps did not seem right and the only other thing he had was a bottle of Grand Marnier. It was better than brandy. It would give not only solace to the turkey, but also an orangey flavor to the meat.
The turkey fought the idea at first. But finally Johnny got him held firmly under his arm and held the beak open while Liz put four or five eyedroppers of Grand Marnier down the bird’s throat. At first the turkey gagged a little, but in a moment or two its head dropped, a sweet but wild look came in its eyes, and it waved its head in rhythm with some gentle but not quite sober thought that went through its head, Johnny carried it gently to the pen. It wobbled a bit and then settled down comfortably and went to sleep.
“I’ll do for it in its sleep,” Johnny thought. “That turkey will never know what happened”. And he went to the refrigerator to see how the mint juleps were doing.
They were doing fine. He brought two of them back to the garden, and he and Liz sat down to begin the Thanksgiving.
The McKnights do not know what happened. Johnny thinks the turkey may have had a bad dream. They heard a hiccuping gobble. The turkey rose straight up in the air, and screaming triumphantly, flew out to sea.
Now we must go back to the sea laws of the Amalfi Coast. In the hills above the towns of Positano and its rival Praiano, watchers are usually posted. They not only keep watch for schools of fish but for anything which may be considered flotsam, jetsam or salvage. These watchers saw the McKnights’ seagoing turkey fly to sea, and they also saw it crash into the water a couple of miles off shore.
Immediately boats put off from both Positano and Praiano. The race was on, and they arrived at about the same time. But the turkey, alas, had drowned. The fishermen brought it tenderly back, arguing softly about whether it was a matter for salvage court. The turkey was obviously out of command. Johnny McKnight easily settled the problem with the rest of the bottle of Grand Marnier.
They cooked the turkey that afternoon and sat down to dinner about eight in the evening. And they say that not even an extra dose of sage in the dressing completely removed the taste of sea water from the white meat.
Please tell me you at least smiled after reading that. I was howling with laughter the first time, and the second time (as I read it aloud to John) I was in tears, I was laughing so hard. I think I need to read this every year before Thanksgiving dinner. And, incidentally, this was the day before Thanksgiving that I was in Positano…
Anyway, back to my Positano story, which is fairly less amusing than Steinbeck’s. After my stomach had returned to its proper residence, we decided to hike… well, it wasn’t supposed to be down to the beach originally, it was supposed to be down to a tourist office. Positano, being built on a mountainside as it is, has (as Steinbeck noted) only one street, and many winding staircases. So the worst part of going down was knowing that we’d eventually have to climb back up. At least they were really pretty old staircases.
When we got most of the way down to where the tourist office should have been, lo and behold there was no tourist office. Lame! So we decided to continue on to the beach. I can now say I’ve touched the Mediterranean, and so has John, and so has… oh that’s right, Joel! stayed and sat on the bench and read a magazine. Geez. :-) (Ok, he’s also got me beat by a bazillion miles in the “cool travel destinations” department… but I still had to laugh that he didn’t at least dip a toe in.) :-)
Despite the fact that it was a lovely day in the low-to-mid 70s, there was hardly anyone on the beach–I couldn’t believe it! If I’d had a towel and a swimsuit (well, and a spare afternoon), I totally would have been lying out there. Alas, I had no towel or suit, and we’d planned to spend the rest of the morning hiking before hopping a bus to Amalfi, so we didn’t have the time. But we did hang out for about 20 minutes and enjoy ourselves.
After that, we began the long hike back up the mountain. We never did find the actual hiking trail we were looking for, so when we got above the town, we found a spot that looked good and stopped off the staircase to have a nice bread and cheese travelers’ lunch. Can’t beat the view!! (OK, this was actually a couple hundred feet lower than where we ate–from where we ate, you couldn’t directly see the beach. The view was still lovely, though!!)
After lunch, it was back down the hill to find a bus stop and head to Amalfi. Remember how I made the comment about the bus drivers honking the horn around every corner? Apparently the residents don’t find that quite as amusing…
The bus ride to Amalfi took another… 30 or 40 minutes? I can’t quite remember. I was focused on not getting quite so bus-sick this time around.
By the time we finally got to Amalfi, it was getting late in the day, and a lot of stuff was already closing. We stopped to get some massively overpriced and horribly overrated gelato (I’m still bitter about how much I paid for that) and then decided to go check out the old church in town, but we’d just missed it being open, so we had to content ourselves with climbing the front steps instead and looking around outside.
We wandered around the town a bit more, then headed for the wharf to wait for the next bus out. By this time the sun was setting and it was getting chilly, so we were glad to be heading back. And thus ended day 4. :-)