Quando, quando?

If you were around in the 1950’s – or if you’re a fan of Michael Bublé – you’ve probably heard the song, Dimmi quando, quando, quando.’  (Tell me when… ) Of course what the singer wants to know is when the target of his affections will be his.

Whenever I’m asked Quando, it’s not about unrequited love, but about the best time to visit the gardens of Italy.  I always say ‘Late spring.  Mid-May to mid-June when the gardens are in full bloom.’  My thinking is that if you go any earlier, you risk cold, rainy days, trudging through monochrome gardens full of plants covered with buds that, like you, are longing for warmth and sunshine.  Especially these last few years.  Many Italians I’ve spoken to describe the recent pattern of late springs and unusually summer-like conditions lingering well into October – as spostate  (spoh-stah-tay).   ‘Posto‘ means place.  Putting ‘s’ in front turns it into ‘without place’.  As if the seasons have lost their normal place.


The gardens of Villa Cimbrone are spread out over the cliff overlooking Minori.

Sometimes I’m asked about the other ‘shoulder season’ – September, October – when the crowds are (mostly) gone and it’s not as hot.  So on this trip, in addition to getting my Italian ‘fix’, I also wanted to see how much it really mattered.  What would the most spectacular gardens of the Amalfi Coast, Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo, look like in October?  (In my March 9, 2014 post, ‘In the Garden of Amateurs’, I described my spring visit to Villa Cimbrone.  The following week, March 16, in ‘Ignore the Experts’, I wrote abut my experience in the gardens of Villa Rufolo.)

To find out, I booked a room in an agriturismo not far from Ravello, where both these gardens are located.

Villa Maria

Villa Maria is nestled in the hills overlooking the village of Minori.


View from the terrace of Villa Maria with Minori below.

I stayed here four nights and loved it.  The views from the lemon-covered terrace were spectacular.  But I did have some doubts on the ride up the first time.

I did have some doubts as we clattered over this ponte in Vincent's battered up little jeep the first day.

I began to wonder as we clattered over this ponte in Vincenzo’s battered little jeep the first day.

doubts that were hardly alleviated when I had a good look when I walked down the following morning.

The only thought that brought any comfort was that Vincenzo did not strike me as having a death-wish.


I want my house open to the wind, the sun and the voice of the sea, and light, light, light everywhere.

The other garden I wanted to revisit was Villa San Michele on Capri (‘Yearning for Light’, Feb. 23, 2014).  My concerns about Villa Maria were somewhat alleviated when I saw the words of Axel Munthe, the creator of San Michele, at the entrance.  And when lunch arrived, any lingering doubts vanished.

First lunch at Villa Maria.  All of it, including Vincenzo’s white wine, from the family farm.

After he had proudly told me, as I would hear him tell all new arrivals over the next few days, that I had arrived in paradiso, Vincenzo also informed me that 90% of the food I would be served at Villa Maria came from his land.


Like Villa San Michele, the layout reflected a desire for light and views.

One thing to keep in mind when you’re trying to decide whether to travel in the spring or fall is the much shorter period of daylight in the fall – a significant issue if you’re going to be walking along unlit paths or driving along narrow, country roads.

That evening, while I sat on the terrace in front of my room waiting for the single church bell that would mark the half hour – supper was served at 19:30 – I read, had more of the Don Vincient Bianco as aperitivo, but mostly watched the shadows from the mountain Villa Cimbrone was perched on as they gradually lengthened over Minori below.

The sun is still strong in October but darkness falls quickly and surprisingly early - around 7:00 pm in Minori.

During the day the sun is still strong in October, but darkness falls quickly and surprisingly early.

The next morning over breakfast, which, like lunch and supper the day before, was served outside on the terrace, I mentioned to Vincenzo that I planned to visit the two gardens in Ravello.  I was wondering what time the pullmancino, the little white bus that took people up and down the mountain, came by.  I planned on taking it down to Minori.  From there I would take the coastal bus to Amalfi and then transfer to the smaller bus that goes up to Ravello.

Another thing to keep in mind if you’ve got your heart set on visiting this part of Italy, no matter what time of year, is that you have to reset your thoughts about distances.  It is 17 kilometres from Positano to Sorrento, but it takes almost an hour.  It’s not that the bus drivers drive slowly.  Actually at the smallest straightaways – and even around some of the wider curves – they go like crazy.  But 2,500 curves will slow down even the most aggressive driver.  I learned this little nugget during a conversation with one of the drivers one day – in spite of the notice posted prominently at the front of the bus – NON PARLARE AL CONDUCENTE – (DO NOT TALK TO THE DRIVER) – which nobody ever pays any attention to.  It was a little unnerving every time he glanced my way, so I stopped asking questions whenever I saw a curve coming up. It didn’t help that the signora sitting next to me, a local, crossed herself every time we approached one of those curves.

However, it’s not just the curves and the backing up and shuffling that happens when the buses meet at one of those curves.  At the bus stop in Positano one day a young German couple was about to get on when the driver stood up, held up his hand and very loudly and very firmly shouted, ‘Wait!’  (the default language is English) They looked at him, startled, upset.  What was the problem?  ‘Put something on the baby!’, he ordered, ‘the bus is air-conditioned.’  It was probably about 80 degrees and the baby actually looked very happy, but the driver stood blocking the door, as the young mother rummaged around in a backpack for something suitable – while everyone on the bus watched.  Only when she had put a little shirt on the baby did he let them on the bus and we continued on our way.

The first rays of sun light up the gardens of Villa Cimbrone, perched on the cliff to the far right.

The gardens of Villa Cimbrone catch the first rays of sunlight.

The schedule for the pullmancino sounded pretty loosey-goosey.  According to Vincenzo, from my breakfast table I would be able to see the bus coming up along a bend in the road below.  Since the end of the route was not far beyond Villa Maria, if I left as the bus passed by below I could easily make it to the stop in time for the return trip to Minori.  But, added Vincenzo, why not just walk?


Amalfi is 3.9 km west of Minori.  The bus ride from Amalfi to Ravello is 6.8 km, most of which involves heading back east towards Minori.  There was the matter of the incline, but from Villa Maria I was already partway up the mountain.  Besides, Vincenzo was standing there telling me how he had done it lots of times.  I decided to walk to Ravello.

As I made my way down to the main road from Villa Maria I heard a clattering, but had no idea what it could be.

It wasn't until I got to Vincenzo's ponte that I discovered what it was.

The source of all the clattering was standing just under  Vincenzo’s ponte.


Even in this day and age how else could heavy loads be carried up and down the steep terracing?

At dinner the night before, one of the men at the table next to me – a foursome from Denmark – had asked Vincenzo about something on the hillside across from Villa Maria. He struggled to explain.  Usually I let people work things out on their own.  I figure it’s part of their adventure.  Vincenzo’s English was very good, but after a bit of mutual incomprehension, he turned to me for help.   They were both speaking a second language, maybe a native speaker would have more luck.  It turned out that the Dane was an engineer and was wondering if the rocky bits between Villa Maria and Ravello – something I had spent quite a bit of time looking at and had assumed was yet more terracing – were the foundation for a cable car.  Yes, they were, but la funivia non è mai partita.  Like many projects in southern Italy, it never got off the ground.  This one literally.

It's not what you look at but what you see.

It’s not what you look at but what you see.  Where I saw terraces, the engineer saw the foundations for a cable car.

Until just over a hundred years ago paths like this  were the only way up to Ravello.  Today I was the only one.  Now and then I heard a faint rustling.  If I stood still immediately sometimes I got lucky and caught a glimpse of the  and the lucertole.

Until just over a hundred years ago paths like this were the only way up to Ravello. Today I was the only one. Now and then I heard a faint rustling. If I stood still immediately, sometimes I got lucky and caught a glimpse of a lucertola.


Before the cable car…

They also asked him about a new building they’d seen – and obviously not liked – in Ravello that day.  How did it ever get approved?  Where did the money come from?  Did people like it?  Vincenzo was equally scathing.  As I continued climbing, I kept an eye out for something that might be the cause of so much controversy.

Then I saw it.

Then I saw it.


The Oscar Niemeyer Auditorium

According to the plaque it was co-financed by the European Union.  The words in the bottom right corner are presumably the slogan – ‘Your Campania (the name of this region) grows in Europe’.


I never know what to make of modern structures like this.  I know what my immediate gut feeling is, but that always seems so unenlightened.  I have a nagging feeling that if only I tried a little harder I would come to a higher level of understanding.  Something slightly more refined than a knee-jerk dislike.


In his recently published book, ‘Art is Therapy’, Alain de Boton writes about our tendency to ‘dismiss as ugly (a work) that forces on us moods or motifs that we feel either threatened or already overwhelmed by.’  Maybe life in the heart of a big, modern city full of skyscrapers and cranes building even more skyscrapers, had something to do with my dislike for the sleek, modern style of Niemeyer’s auditorium.


I looked at the sculptures from all angles, trying to reach a deeper level of understanding. Looking at them up close did not help.


The only part that I could get any feel for was the view from the back, where the sea so far below was reflected off the huge window.

What I did appreciate, without reservation, was the location – just on the outskirts of Ravello.  Almost there.


On the left the misleadingly austere façade of Ravello’s Duomo and on the right, the entrance to Villa Rufolo.

By the time I arrived at Piazza Duomo I was out of breath and sweating – it was hard to believe we were well into October.  Time for a cappuccino and a look at what was going on in the piazza.  It occurred to me as I sat there, that in all my trips to Ravello I had never gone inside the Duomo.  I could also see the entrance to Villa Rufolo, but first I wanted to check out the gardens of Villa Cimbrone.

At the entrance was a plaque I hadn’t noticed on previous visits.


Day of Remembrance. In memory of the English nobleman E.W.B. (Lord Grimthorpe), refined and illustrious traveller, who chose this dwelling place as a symbol of peace and serenity. With the worthy and irreplaceable collaboration of the Ravellese master craftsmen N. M. and F.A, he realized his dreams, creating a cenacolo of art and culture.

I wondered if the obviously proud citizens of Ravello were aware that Grimthorpe had squandered his inheritance and that his brothers had taken the extreme step of firing him from the family bank because of his debts and extravagant tastes?  Which included commissioning a bust by none other than Rodin, in spite of knowing he had no way of paying for it.  Or that he had been forced to sell various family properties to repay his debts?  I doubt they had any knowledge of a recent biography in which Michael Holroy describes Grimthorpe as ‘a dilettante, philanderer, gambler and opportunist (who) changed his name, his career, his interests and his mistresses quite regularly’.

I left cenacolo in my translation simply because I don’t know what to make of it in this context.  I’ve only ever seen it in reference to ‘The Last Supper’.


It was such a hot day – almost summer-like – the ivy with its fall colours looked out of place.

The views from the terrace to the east were as beautiful as they had been in spring.



But the perennial border had long finished blooming.  Perhaps that is why I noticed an enormous tree covered with pink, lily-like blooms.


It was a Floss Silk Tree.  They can grow up to 50 feet high and this one had obviously been around for a while (how had I missed it before?).  I took a few photos of the flowers, all of which were inconveniently at the top of the tree.  The light was all off and I couldn’t get anything decent.  But I came across another Silk Floss Tree a few days later in Positano – perhaps the most vertical village in the world – where I managed to get almost at eye level to a few flowers.


The views from the Terrazza dell’Infinito were as stunning as ever.  The one-armed Hermes was still resting in the shade.  The satyr was still cavorting with Bacchus under the little temple and along the boxwood hedge David was still standing triumphantly over Goliath’s head.  I had been hoping the Hydrangeas planted under the Roman columns would be in bloom, but there were just a few, rather straggly ones left.

The views from the Terrazzo dell'Infinito were as stunning as ever.

View from the western edge of the Terrazza dell’Infinito.

Apart from a few plants still in bloom behind Grimthorpe's Tea House, it was clear that the hydrangea's blooming period was long over.

Apart from a few flowers behind Grimthorpe’s Tea House, it was clear that the hydrangea’s blooming period was long over.

And the tea roses in the parterre in front of the Tea House were a sad shadow of what I had seen in the spring.



The shrub roses on the other hand were still putting on a pretty good show.



So when do I think is the best time to visit Villa Cimbrone?  It was still beautiful and fascinating this fall day, and I was very happy to see the Floss Silk Tree in bloom, but to see at its very best, I am sticking to my original preference for late spring.

By now I was starving.  It was a little early – just past twelve – but I had decided to treat myself – after all, I’d saved at least 4 euros in bus fare by walking up the mountain.  I was going to have lunch on the most beautiful terrace in Ravello and I wanted a front row table.

Bougainvillea at the entrance to ...sets the tone.

Bougainvillea at the entrance to Villa Maria (another one!) sets the tone.

The early bird gets the front row table - even if you're 'una persona soltanto'.

The early bird gets the front row table – even if you’re ‘una persona soltanto‘.

The only problem is you have to drag your eyes away from the view to look at the menu.

Insalata caprese.  Deliziosa!


Lunch with food for the body and soul.



Buon Giorno! First day back in Italy.

Early morning, Marina Grande, Sorrento.

Early morning, Sorrento.

Italians describe a person who loves mornings as mattiniera (ma-teen-yer-uh), from mattino (morning).   Dawn comes later in the fall, so even in that vaguely disoriented, jet-lagged state I always feel at the beginning of a trip to Italy – some people say they never get jet-lagged – I don’t know what kind of circadian rhythm their bodies work on, but it’s a lot different from mine – in ogni caso – in spite of all that disruption, on the first morning I woke up in time to watch the sun come over the mountains behind Sorrento.


Casa a Mare is the narrow, unpainted building in the middle right by the Antiche Mura (Old Walls) of the ancient city.

For the first three days of this trip I had booked a room in a small B&B close to Marina Grande.  Staying in simple B&B’s and Agriturismi (see ‘Towers and Tourists’ for a description of this innovative concept) instead of hotels was part of my plan to keep costs as low as possible – a feeble attempt to rationalize this second indulgence of the year.   What had drawn me to Casa a Mare – in addition to the positive effect it would have on my budget – was the location – 30 metres from the little fishing harbour.  The thought of hearing the gentle waves of the Mediterranean from my room was irresistible.

In just a few hours the tiny harbour would be full of activity, but when I walked down to the quay that first morning there were just a few fishermen repairing their nets.  It was a scene I would see repeated over and over in the coming days.  Fishermen patiently rewinding and repairing seemingly endless lengths of netting. And discussing.  Always discussing.



The piles of netting just looked like hopeless messes to me.

The piles of netting just looked like hopeless messes to me.


Beyond the fishing boats, on the north shore of the Bay of Naples, Mt. Vesuvius.

I got lucky that first morning.  While I was wandering around the harbour, the last fishing boat came in with its haul.


Even for someone who knows nothing about fishing, the seagulls screeching and flapping around the boat were a clear sign it was not coming back empty.


A group quickly gathered on the narrow quay as the fishermen prepared to unload their catch.

First off was the tuna.  They were carefully arranged, two to each styrofoam container. They must have been a good weight, because these burly fellows grunted as they lifted the containers up to a buyer who, just a few minutes earlier, had backed up his truck to within inches of the edges of the quay.

Who knew there was still any tuna left in the Mediterranean?

After the tuna, the fishermen started sorting and cleaning the smaller fish.

After the tuna, the smaller fish got sorted.

Not sure where the cigarette ashes end up.

They patiently cleaned out all the reeds.  Not sure where the cigarette ashes ended up.

Marina Grande at noon.

The ‘big’ harbour had its own constantly changing rhythm that, to my outsider’s city eye, seemed quaint, and in a way, untimely.  After the fishing boats and fishermen left, tables were set up and quickly occupied by tourists, most of whom by noon were already indulging in one kind of aperitivo or the other, presumably while they pondered which of the restaurants lining the harbour they should go to for lunch that day.  Later in the afternoon new groups of visitors filled the tables and the pattern was repeated.

Down here at sea level it was hard to believe Sorrento, with all its 21st century hustle and bustle and shops and crowds was only steps – albeit all uphill – away.

It is a long, steep climb up to the level of the city...

It is a long, steep climb up to the Sorrento’s street level…

...but the views are amazing.  Especially at sunset.  Few can resist taking 'selfies' with Vesuvius in the background.

…but the views are amazing. Especially at sunset. Few can resist taking photos with Vesuvius in the background.


One night I had dinner at Trattoria Emilia at one of the ‘outside’ tables to the right of the covered deck.

After dinner, locals watch la partita di calcio  (soccer game) at an outdoor TV.

On the way back to my room I passed by a few locals watching la partita di calcio (soccer game) at their favourite bar.

What puzzled me was its name.  Why was the small harbour called Marina Grande? And why was Sorrento’s other harbour, the much larger, commercial one at the eastern edge of the city, where the gigantic ferry boats and hydrofoils that carried passengers and vehicles back and forth between Naples, Capri and Sorrento docked, called Marina Piccola?

From up in the hills it's easy to see where the 'Little Harbour' is located.

From up in the hills it’s easy to figure out the location of the ‘Little Harbour’.

I asked Sergio, the owner of Casa a Mare.   As in most otherwise inexplicable things in Italy, it was a question of storia.   Storia is another of those chameleon words.   It can mean ‘story’, but it can also, as it did in this case, mean ‘history’ which, when you think about how much history can vary depending on who is doing the writing and when and why, is perhaps not so strange after all.

In the case of the oddly named harbours, the explanation was pretty straightforward.  Marina Grande is a natural harbour, Sorrento’s first, and for centuries, only harbour.  Until a massive construction project in recent times, Marina Piccola had been nothing more than a small, unimportant inlet.


Marina Piccola – Sorrento’s ‘Little’ Harbour.

After only three days it was hard to leave.  The weather had been even more beautiful than I had hoped for.  And the forecasts for the rest of October were almost comical.  You could just imagine the meteorologists straining to find new and intriguing ways to describe the, perhaps for them, boringly stable conditions – ‘Beautiful with sunshine – A full day of sunshine – Plenty of sunshine – Brilliant sunshine….’  I had no idea what the various degrees of sunshine meant.  I just knew it was all bellissimo!  Perfect for exploring the gardens, ancient pathways and villages of the Amalfi Coast.

Next stop – Villa Maria, an agriturismo high in the hills along the Amalfi Coast.