Plan B and the Land of the Sirens

As a solo traveller, antipasto misto is how I hedge my bets on the culinary front That way, if there is one item I don’t like, it’s not a total letdown.  When it comes to hotels, I try to do the same thing.  An unpleasant hotel experience is even more unpleasant when you have nobody to commiserate with.  So when I’m staying in the same general area for a longer period – say 5 or 6 days – I stay in more than one place.  Call it ‘albergo misto’.

While I was in Sorrento, in addition to the B&B by the Marina Grande which turned out to be as good as I’d hoped (since I tend to be overly optimist in such matters, this is not the faint praise it may sound like),  I also booked a couple of nights in a small hotel partway up the mountain overlooking the city.  It was also wonderful, although I had hesitated initially.  Location is key for me and I’ve learned that my ‘close to…’ is not always in sync with others, especially the people promoting the places.  What got me wondering was how it could possibly take half an hour to get to the hotel by bus from Sorrento, but only 20 minutes by foot.

Early morning view from my balcony at Villa Fiorita.

Early morning view from my balcony at Villa Fiorita.

It took me a while, Google maps and all, before I was sure I knew exactly where the hotel was located.   I had been so focused on the directions that I had forgotten about the mountain, which was, of course, the reason for the great views that had attracted me to this hotel in the first place.

The hotel and views were as wonderful as promised, but my plans to have a nice stroll down the path close to the hotel for dinner each night did not pan out.  I hadn’t counted on how early the sun sets in October.  There was no way I was going to walk down that unlit path in the dark.  Let alone walk up it after dinner and vino.

Dusk falls early in Sorrento in the fall, putting the kibosh on my plans to walk down the (unlit) path to the city for dinner.  cancelled when

The views of Sorrento lit up at night were incantevoli.  The only problem was how early that enchantment started – around 7 pm.

Whenever some part or other of my itinerary turns out to be not as great as you would think, given all the time I spent putting it together, after a bit of a stew, I resort to ‘Plan B’ – I ask the locals.  I try to do this with as little complaining and as much grace as I can. This is sometimes more of a challenge than you might think.  Trying to maintain an open mind and cheery demeanour when what you really want to do is have a good vent about the fact that the local bus does not actually go to where it is publicized as going is no ‘dolce vita‘ experience.   Other times it’s much easier.  I could hardly fault the hotel people for how early the sun set.

The signora at the front desk suggested a restaurant in a village further up the mountain. There was a free shuttle service.  Getting chauffeured to a restaurant was also not on the itinerary, but the bus service was sporadic enough during the day.  I arranged to be picked up at 19:30.  Getting driven up that mountain, in the dark, by a local was an unforgettable experience.


The Osterie of Italy 2011 proclaim LO STUZZICHINO an exemplary interpreter of the tradition of eating and drinking and a place of welcome and conviviality.

Stuzzicare (stewz-zee-cah-ray) means ‘to stimulate or arouse’.   ‘Lo Stuzzichino‘ (stews-zees-key-no) has nothing to do with little arousals.  It is the ‘amuse-bouche‘ – the complimentary tidbits offered at some restaurants.  On the wall near my table were several plaques of endorsement by the Slow Food movement.


For the mangiare part of the experience, the waiter recommended gli scialatielli ai frutti di mare and da bere, a Falanghina Feudi San Gregorio. Both deliziosi.

While I was in the Sorrento area, my plan was to go up Mt. Vesuvius.  I had visited Pompeii several times, but each time had been so exhausted after touring the ruins, all I had wanted to do was sit somewhere with a nice view and a glass of a local white.  This time I was going to fill in the missing piece.  But Vesuvius had looked so desolate on the train to Sorrento, and the views along Amalfi Coast were so beautiful, that when one of the locals I was chatting with one day said some surprisingly unflattering things about what it would be like for a signora like me to go alone – Non sono cose belle, ma bisogna dirle. (These things aren’t nice, but they have to be said.) – I ditched that plan.  Now what?  In the hotel brochure there was a listing for a boat ride along the coast with a stop-off in Positano and Amalfi.  A shuttle bus would pick us up from the hotel and take us to the small harbour I’d seen from the path to the Bay of Ieranto.


I rarely do organized tours, so it was strange to suddenly not have to make any decisions. Unless you are the type that gets lulled into a semi-comatose state by this sort of thing – I’ve seen people on tours like that – the lack of any meaningful responsibility can be quite enjoyable.  In limited doses.

Once I got the hang of the social dynamics of the group experience – who knew that once you selected a spot, that was ‘your’ spot for the duration of the trip? – I was able to sit back, enjoy the view and let my thoughts wander.  Before long I started thinking – in a meandering sort of way – about gardens. Notwithstanding the absence of anything even remotely related to gardening lately, gardens really are a sort of home base for me.


Many garden designers urge us to plant in drifts, like the folds of these mountains.

No matter how many times you visit, or how many photos or movies of the ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ genre you’ve seen – remember the part where the heroine follows her Latin lover to his home town, which just happens to be Positano? – you are never quite prepared for the Amalfi Coast.  It is absolutely spettacolare (spectacular).  Mozzafiato (literally “cuts your breath”).  Favoloso (from favola – fairy tale)!   Throw in every word your best thesaurus has to offer.  Don’t worry, this is one place where the real thing really is that good.


This island, like many of our best ideas, comes right out of the blue.

Since Hadrian’s ultimate retreat – a perfect miniature Roman villa on an island surrounded by high walls – was discovered near Tivoli at the beginning of the 15th century, islands have been a standard feature of the best Renaissance gardens.   A foretaste of paradise reserved for a select, discerning few.


The long allées favoured by so many garden designers draw us forward with enticing glimpses of idylls beyond.

The captain had a lot to say about one particular group of islands, although nothing to do with garden design.   They’re called Li Galli (lee gal-lee).  I had seen them before from  the mainland.

View of Li Galli from Villa Rosa, Positano.

View of Li Galli from Villa Rosa, Positano.

The rocky outcrop in the distance is actually a tiny archipelago of three islands.  Like the captain of our boat, the locals usually refer to them as Li Galli in memory of the roosters who, once upon a time, inhabited the little islands.  But their official name is Le Sirenuse (lay see-ray-new-zay).  The residence of the sirens.


Even on a sunny day it’s not hard to imagine the perils the coastline presented to sailors in ancient times.  Sailors who often had little more to guide them than a few rock formations.  And when the familiar landmarks lured them too close to shore, they would get trapped in the strong currents swirling around the craggy outcrops and their boats smashed against the very rocks that had held out the promise of safe passage.

Or maybe they were lured to their death by the sirens.


If you look back to the west, the silhouette of one of the rocky outcrops bears an uncanny resemblance to Garibaldi, the soldier/politician who played a vital role in the unification of Italy.

The sirens who tempted the sea-going travellers in ancient times were nothing like the beautiful mermaids we all learned about from Disney.  Those lovely enchantresses are, as these things go, a fairly recent invention, dating back to the Medieval era. The original – the Greek siren – was an ugly, horrible creature.

The siren in the 16th century garden of Sacro Bosco, Lazio

Like all the statues in the 16th century garden of Sacro Bosco in the Lazio region, this siren was carved out of a hunk of volcanic rock where it lay. It is enormous.

Those sirens  must have been pretty good at sailor-alluring, because even though there is some confusion as to their numbers, it is generally agreed that there weren’t a lot of them.  Maybe only three.  One sang, and the other two played the lyre and the flute.  It was the singing siren who posed the greatest threat to the all-male crews.

The siren in the gardens of Villa Torrigiani, near Lucca (also 16th century) seems somehow more modern.

The siren in the gardens of Villa Torrigiani, near Lucca (also 16th century) seems somehow more modern.

The best-known tale of the sirens is probably the one that features Odysseus.  On the off chance you’re a bit rusty on your Greek myths, here’s a refresher.

In the midst of the journey back to his beloved – a journey which takes a surprisingly long time – ten years – when you consider he was just sailing around the Mediterranean – Odysseus approaches the islands our boat is now circling around.  He has been forewarned that the price of listening to their song is death, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Odysseus does not want to miss.  Never one to shirk danger, of which there has been plenty on this journey, he is not fool-hardy.  He orders his crew to stuff their ears with beeswax and then tie him to the mast and not to release him no matter what.  When he hears the siren’s song he starts thrashing around, yells at his crew to free him, but they just tie him up more tightly and he famously becomes the first man ever to hear the siren’s song and live to tell the tale.

In some later versions of the story, Odysseus’ survival was the end of the sirens.  Some say it was in anguish, others that they were compelled by fate; in any event, like all the sailors they had lured to death, after they failed to seduce Odysseus, they threw themselves into the sea and perished.

Our captain is more interested – probably because he suspects today’s passengers will be – in more recent happenings on the islands, in particular on Gall0 Lungo, the largest of the three islands. This is where Rudolf Nureyev spent the last years of his life.  The island is currently owned by a businessman from Sorrento who occasionally makes the villa and staff of seven available for rent.  If you have to ask, it’s beyond your means.  (For some great shots – aerial and interior – there is a great post by /2011/08/ li-galli-island-rudolph-nureyevs.)


Fans of the single colour scheme will appreciate the subtle play created by the various shades of green.

If you’re not into all that celebrity stuff, the ‘Long Rooster’ has plenty for garden types too.  As all gardeners learn, some of us sooner than others, when it comes to gardens, like real estate, it’s location, location, location.  Plant things where Mother Nature did not intend them to grow and you’ll soon feel as miserable as your plants look. On the other hand, if you can summon up the discipline (not so easy on those heady days in May when the garden centres are brimming with temptations) to only plant for your location and conditions, your plants will thrive and you’ll think you’re a genius.

Just how those Maritime pines manage to not only survive, but obviously thrive in what must be a very shallow layer of very poor soil beats me.

The dark red building to the right of the church is the Sirenuse, Positano's most expensive hotel.

It’s always a thrill to approach Positano from the sea.  And if ever you’re wondering about going vertical in your garden, maybe with a riot of colour, it would be hard to find a more inspiring sight.

Positano's most luxurious is called the Sirenuse.  It's the dark red building to the right of the church dome.

Positano’s most luxurious hotel is called the Sirenuse. It’s the dark red building to the right of the church dome.

It was as if tourists al over the world had changed their plans when they learned of the unseasonably hot weather had attracted a lot more crowded than you'd expect for this time of year.

It was as if tourists from all over the world had changed their plans to take advantage of the unseasonably hot weather.

A huge crowd was waiting to board the public ferries, which, in spite of the hot, sunny weather, were operating on the reduced fall schedules. There was another group waiting nearby.

Nearby was a group of tourists, all of them armed with 'selfie-sticks'.

Every single one of these tourists had what one journalist describes as ‘the most obnoxious tool in the kit of digital narcissism’.

I had first seen what I later learned was called a ‘selfie stick’ in the gardens of Villa Rufolo in Ravello  (Quando, Quando? – Part II, Nov. 2, 2014).  I and a half dozen other tourists waited while a young woman took an extraordinary number of ‘selfies’ in front of the twin domes.  When she leaned down, presumably to put her camera back in her bag, there was a collective sigh of relief.  The relief was short-lived.  I don’t know if I was more dismayed or flabbergasted when, instead of putting her camera away, she pulled out what was not, as I first thought, a tripod, but an extension pole and then proceeded to attach her camera to the end of it.  It took her quite a while to get it attached properly and I am sorry to admit that I was rather hoping it would fall off and end up at the bottom of the cliff.  Once she had it firmly secured, she then started taking another extraordinary number of photos.  I was so annoyed – some of the people waiting to get a shot just gave up and left – but at the same time felt it was unreasonable for me to be annoyed – she had a right to take those photos, didn’t she? – which of course made me even more annoyed, that I missed what I realized later would have been a great shot – her taking the selfie.  I felt somewhat vindicated when I came across a brilliant and hilarious take on this new gizmo by Timothy Egan in an article called ‘Grand Tour of the Self’ (New York Times supplement, Toronto Star, Weekend Dec. 6-7, 2014).


I was clearly not in the mood for any more encounters with groups, so I set off along a path that I had read about.  You can’t see it from Positano, but it leads to a little-known beach to the west of the ferry landing.  Apart from two young men I recognized from the boat, who must also have been interested in fleeing the hordes – only they were sitting in a rather view-less stretch of the path and a familiar skunk-like smell was emanating from the cigarettes they were smoking – I had the path to myself.


There was barely room for a path let alone plants and yet these plants had obviously found everything they needed.


Fornillo Beach.  Far from the Madding Crowd.


The crowds were close, but out of sight – and mind.  The perfect place for a relaxing time-out.


The only people in sight were these four boys, hanging out , Positano-style.


It was only when our boat had left the harbour far behind that Fornillo Beach came into view.

The sirens may have long gone, but the allure of this coast remains irresistible.  Even as you leave, you can’t help hoping you will be back.



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