Heading South

This post was supposed to start off our exploration of the Chianti, an endlessly fascinating and beautiful region, packed with vineyards, castles and gardens.  Just a short drive south of Florence, it’s the logical next step.

Villa Vignamaggio, Gaiole-in-Chianti

Villa Vignamaggio, Gaiole-in-Chianti

But when all the December festivities were over and I put up my new calendar and turned it to January, the sight of all those days – days that promised ice and snow and blistering winds and the flu and cracked skin and slush and a few other things, my heart sank.  The ads which had already started flooding our newspapers and TV channels didn’t help.   You know, the ones with the clear blue skies, sun-drenched walks along beaches, the swish of palm fronds, and the warm tropical breezes of places far to the south.   Sometimes I wonder if they don’t just pull them out of storage each year to torture us.

But after a bit – OK, a lot – of this non-productive ruminating, it hit me.  Oscar Wilde’s infamous words of advice:  “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it and your soul grows sick with longing…”  Even if I am part of the ‘staycationing’ herd (who thinks up these things anyway?), this is a blog.  There is no reason to let oneself be hampered by the mundane constraints of geography.

So that is why for the next little while – how long will depend on how bad this winter turns out to be – if the recent ice storm that left over 300,00 people in the Toronto area without power for days is any indication, it might be quite a while – this blog is now heading south.  To the blue skies and long, sun-drenched days and warm sea breezes of southern Italy in May.

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Sorrento’s Marina Grande with Mt. Vesuvius looming in the background.

Even on a virtual tour Sorrento would be the obvious place to start, but I’ve got island tunes in my head so I’m going straight to Ischia Island.

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The mainland is clearly visible from Ischia. How hard can it be to get to the island?

After three nights on Ischia – plenty of time to explore the island – I’ll head for Capri for a couple of nights.  Perfectly idyllic!  And then back to the mainland – although mainland seems a rather paltry word when we’re talking about places like Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.

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A ferry approaches Molo Beverello in Sorrento.

The first hint that this itinerary might not be as idyllic as it looked on paper occurred at the ferry landing in Sorrento.  Ischia is a lot bigger than Capri.  I had never been there before.  I only knew that the gardens I wanted to visit were on the west side of the island,  which is why I had booked a room in a hotel near the town of Forio instead of in Ischia.    Did you notice “in” Ischia?  It took me a while to figure out what was going on.  It turns out that the main town on the island of Ischia is called … Ischia.  I already knew the main town on the island of Capri was called Capri, but two islands, with naming issues?!

View of Sorrento from the ferry landing.

View of Sorrento from the ferry landing.

I think it’s fair to say that I’m pretty diligent about checking out all the details when I travel.  Travelling alone, if you make a mistake, there’s only “you know who” to blame.   Before I booked the hotel, which, according to their website, was only a few hundred meters from the harbour, I checked to make sure the ferry from Sorrento went to Forio.  I also asked at the Biglietteria (ticket office) in Sorrento and while there was some initial uncertainty, I was told that yes, the ferry docked in Forio.

Ischia Porto viewed from Castello Aragonese.

Ischia Porto.

So when the cab driver at the landing on Ischia told me it would be about 35 euros to go to my hotel,  I told him, fairly nicely, what I thought of that quote.  He insisted it was a long way.   I objected.  After a bit more of this back and forthing, he brought out a map and showed me.  “Forio è dall’altra parte dell’isola, Signora.  Lei si trova ad Ischia Porto.”  (Forio is on the other side of the island, signora.  You are in Ischia Porto.)  I protested that we could not possibly be in Ischia Porto, or Town, or whatever he wanted to call it.  The ticket agent in Sorrento had told me….

The town of Forio on the west coast of Ischia Island as viewed from La Mortella Gardens.

In the distance, the town of Forio mid-way down the west coast of Ischia Island.

I know that Canadians are often described as “nice”and that it’s not necessarily a compliment, but in this case, for once, I was glad of my share of this national character trait.  Even after I told the tassista I was going to take the bus (1.5 euros), he let me keep the map.

By the time I got to the hotel in Forio – lugging my suitcase on and off the crowded bus and then hauling it to the hotel was an experience best left undescribed – the cab ride at 35 euros seemed entirely reasonable and I was beginning to wonder how I could have ever thought this island-hopping was a good idea.

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Stepping out onto the balcony of my room lifted my spirits a bit.  Checking out the hotel grounds restored inner harmony.

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The water may look clear as it flows out of that hunk of magma, but the greenish-brown colour in the pool is proof that it comes directly from one of thousands of hot springs scattered around the island – leftovers from Ischia’s days as an active volcano.  It’s not as hot as the water at the big thermal baths, but it was pretty relaxing when I tried it out one evening after traipsing around the island all day.

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My guess was that most visitors come to Ischia for the spa thing.  Get rejuvenated.  Clean out their livers.  Have a bit of face work done.   I arrived at this view after a highly unscientific study, for the most part based on conversations I overheard at the reception desk while waiting to speak with the manager.

I hope you don’t mind a small digression here, but this business of overhearing conversations is something that happens quite regularly as I travel around Italy.  And whenever it happens, it makes me feel uncomfortable, really uncomfortable.  It comes from being a straniera (foreigner), which of course is not the problem.  The ‘problem’ comes from being a straniera who is fluent in Italian.

If I happen to overhear a conversation while waiting to check into a hotel, or sitting next to a couple at a restaurant in Canada, I don’t feel like some creepy eavesdropper.  But in Italy I do.  I know it’s crazy, but there it is.   Is it because in Canada we generally take it for granted that in a public place the people around us understand what we’re saying? Because we’re, more or less, all on the same footing language-wise?  Whereas in all the time I have spent in Italy, only on a very few occasions has an Italian mistaken me for a compatriot.  And they are always surprised when I start talking.

Trying to get to the bottom of this, I looked up “to eavesdrop”.  That made things worse.  Various, highly reputable sources defined it as “to listen to someone’s private conversation without them knowing”  or “to listen secretly to a private conversation”.  That the conversation had to be private was somewhat reassuring.  “Without them knowing” and “secretly” was not.  I know, on an intellectual level, that it’s not my fault I don’t look like someone who speaks Italian.  It still makes me uncomfortable.  It makes me want to lean over and say,  “Scusi, ma volevo solo farLe sapere che l’italiano, lo capisco.” (Excuse me, but I just wanted to let you know that I understand Italian.).  Which of course would really be crazy.  I actually did something pretty close to that once.  In a restaurant in Siena.  It was quite an evening.

This combo alone made the visit to the hotel's little botanical garden worthwhile.

This combo alone made the visit to the hotel’s little botanical garden worthwhile.

In any event, after I’d overheard/eavesdropped on the conversations of several hotel guests, it was my turn.  When I told the hotel manager I was interested in Ischia’s gardens he got very excited.  There was a giardino botanico at the back of the hotel.  “Si tratta di una cosa piccola, si capisce (It’s a little thing of course) compared to the two gardens I’d come to visit, but still might be of some interest to me.”  He was so friendly and his pride in the garden so apparent – it was a family-run hotel – I felt I had to go have a look.

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The garden was, as he had said, very small, but it was very nicely done. The history and medicinal and culinary uses of all the plants had been hand-painted on a plaque made out of ceramic tiles.

And then, since the days are long in May, I set out for Sant’Angelo at the southernmost tip of the island.  It took me almost as long to figure out how the bus system works, as it did to get there.  Ischia may be an island, but it’s a volcanic island.  The high points aren’t just tidily all in the middle.

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At some point the locals must have decided against spending millions blasting roads through the inconvenient bits.  Instead, in order to get people around the island, they came up with a one-of-a-kind bus system.  At least I’d never seen anything like it before.

Ombrelli e sedili (umbrellas and lounge chairs) all set up, but no takers yet.  La stagione (the season) doesn’t start until mid-June.  How do the locals make a go of it?

Ombrelli e sedili (umbrellas and lounge chairs) all set up, but no takers yet.
La stagione (the season) doesn’t start until mid-June. How do the locals make a go of it?

Returning from Sant’Angelo to Ischia Porto is easy. The bus to Sant’Angelo goes as far as it can – which is about a kilometer from the village and then it turns around.  So when you want to leave, you just go to the turn-around and take the first bus that comes.  Apart from the occasional glitch – I’m sure it was because May is still considered fuori stagione (off season) – it doesn’t matter which bus you take.  There is only one road.  Eventually it will take you to wherever it is you want to go.

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The challenge comes at the outset – when you’re at the tiny and very crowded bus terminal in Ischia Porto trying to figure out which bus to take to get to Sant’Angelo.  There is a surprisingly large number of options: Linea #1, 2, 3, 4, 5…all the way up to #22, with the exception of a few, seemingly random numbers missing.  But the number of routes isn’t the biggest challenge.  It’s figuring out what’s with the two letters – CD and CS – in front of some of the route numbers.

For the first two days, whenever I wanted to go anywhere, I just asked a local which bus to take.  They were always glad to help and always steered me in the right direction, but it was starting to get on my nerves.  We’re talking about figuring out how to get around a piece of land that is only 46 square kilometres.  That’s not even 18 square miles.  What did those letters stand for?  The best I managed to come up with was Contro senso (against the sense) and contro direzione (against the direction).  Ridiculous!  What sense? What direction?

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Another winning combo – yellow and pink mesembryanthemum – with hotels painted to match.

Finally, while waiting for the bus back to Forio one evening, having already asked her which bus to take, I asked the woman standing next to me what the letters stood for.  She smiled.  “Circuito Destra e Circuito Sinistra.”  Right circuit and left circuit.  Of course.

But which direction were the locals facing when they came up with this bright idea? The island or the sea?   I was getting agitated and we all know an agitated mind takes on a life of its own.  I started thinking about those two words – destra and sinistra.  Like most Italian words, they are derived from Latin.  Destra comes from dextro, meaning skilfull or correct.  In English we have “dextrous”.  A good thing.

On the other hand (sorry), “sinister” comes from the Latin sinistro meaning “left”.  In those pre-politically correct days sinistro also meant “unlucky” or “evil”, a reflection of the Romans’ view of left-handedness.  There wasn’t a lot of tolerance for anything that deviated from the norm in those days and lefties, a small minority, were definitely outside that norm.  In defence of the Ancient Romans, lots of cultures throughout the ages have viewed lefties with suspicion.  Even today, who in their right mind doesn’t want to keep on the right side of people.  Who likes being around someone who obviously didn’t get up on the right side of bed?   And who really likes eating left-overs?  Or being told they have two left feet?  Or being left out?  Or left behind?

I could go on, but the important thing, while you’re standing at the bus terminal in Ischia Ponte, is to know whether you need to take the right bus or the sinister bus.  I think CD (the Right Circuit) was the route that went along the west side of the island, but don’t quote me on that.

In any event, by the time I got back to Forio that first day, happily it was once again l’ora di mangiare.

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Gamberi alla griglia. Nothing sinister going on here.

The day had started off rather rockily – which after a glass of the local white seemed totally in keeping with the rocky island – but in the end it was the bellissima giornata (bell-lees-see-muh jor-nah-tuh) my soul had been longing for.

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