Thursday, November 11, 2004

Sorrento, Pompeii, Amalfi

The trip to Rome to Naples was fast and comfortable on a Eurostar train. We left one of our big bags at the Rome airport and we were glad of it. We had one big bag and one small backpack and that was enough to be lugging through the train stations. At the train station in Naples we were greeted by lots of people offering to take us to Sorrento or Pompeii or to carry our luggage. We were Savvy enough to wave them off knowing it would end up costing a lot more than the train and it would be hard to get our bags back without surrendering money. We found the Circumvesuviana train and bought our tickets to Sorrento. This is a local transit style train that goes around Vesuvius to Sorrento. Because the train has a lot of stops it took about 90 minutes to get to Sorrento.

While the train itself is rundown and not very attractive, the scenery is quite spectactular for some parts of the trip. You have Mount Vesuvius on one side and the Bay of Naples on the other side. On other parts of the trip you mainly see rundown suburbs of Naples. We noted the stops for Pompeii and Herculaneum because those were on our plan for our stay in Sorrento.

At Sorrento we needed to get tickets for the bus to our hotel, Hotel Desiree. The ticket sellers were claiming to be out of bus tickets (I think the cab drivers might have been outbidding the bus company). I managed to persuade one of the Tobacco shops to sell us bus tickets. We had a long wait for the bus, but it finally left and dropped us off close to Hotel Desiree.

The Hotel was in a beautiful location above the city and above the bay of naples. The view around the hotel was spectacular either at night with the lights from the cities or by day with the sparkling blue water. The room was comfortable and the hotel staff was very helpful. Like all our hotels this was much more "Budget Travel" than "Conde Nast" but this was our favorite hotel of the trip. We walked down to town for dinner and back to the hotel that evening. It was a fairly long but reasonable walk.

We decided to do Herculaneum and Pompeii the next morning. We started to walk out of the hotel and the clerk literally ran after us to make sure we got some advice on our travels. He gave us maps of Pompeii and strongly recommended we only plan on seeing either Herculaneum or Pompeii in one day because Pompeii alone we should allow 5 hours. Probably good advice, but we wanted see both, so we went ahead with our plan armed with his maps and advice about Pompeii.

Both sites are spectactular. Herculaneum is wonderfully compact and has smaller crowds and some amazingly well preserved buildings. Mosaics on the floor of the baths and some houses, even original woodwork on some of the shops. Herculaneum really gives you a compact and digestable Roman city without a lot of crowds and hassles.

Pompeii is huge! Much bigger than I expected. It was clearly a pretty big Roman town and you really get the feeling of walking through a city because you are walking on Roman roads through blocks and blocks of ruined buildings. A lot of interesting buildings, too many to see in the time we allotted but the guidebook they gave us at the ruins helped pick out the high points. Actually, they didn't give us the guidebook, it was sitting out and I found it after poking around the ticket office area in both Herculaneum and Pompeii. Less enterprising tourists were wandering around without guidebook or map. The guidebook suggests two different two hour tours depdening on which entrance you come in. I misread the guidebook and thought this was one two hour tour. By the time I was halfway to the Amphitheatre, I realized this could not be a two hour tour because it took me 30 minutes just to walk to the amphitheater from another site. Michele wisely decided to rest while I ran off to see Roman amphitheatre number 4 or 5 for this trip (there would be one more in Sicily, but it was a greek amphitheatre).
We returned to our Sorrento to have dinner, so it wasn't quite archeological site 1 for lunch, archeological site 2 for dinner).

We had a good Italian meal at the adjoining restaurant to the hotel, but the service was horribly slow. I often would order an antipasto to share, a primi plata to share, and two plata secondi's. This seemed to either annoy waiters who would serve us slowly or signaled to waiters we wanted very leisurly service. In this case, the service was beyond slow to really being offensive. Even after asking for the check, he took a very long time to bring it. Michele actually made a paramid out of the glasswear we were so annoyed waiting. Another American couple who was enjoying very slow service across the room enjoyed our antics. We got our check before they did, perhaps because we were more obnoxious.

The next day we were off to Amalfi. The bus ride to Amalfi was spectacular but a bit nerve racking. The highway is about 1.5 lanes, so passing cars going the opposite direction is an exercise in patience and driving skill. Especially for a bus driver. I was glad we weren't driving even our little Smart car, let alone a full sized vehicle. We drove through Positano, but we had to choose between going to Amalfi and Ravello or staying and walking around Positano (we got a late start that day). We chose to see Ravello which had spectactular views. We could get a little sense of Positano on our drive through, but that is a go back to really get much feel for it.

Amalfi coast and Sorrento are high on our go back list and the area that we wished we could have stayed longer. This is a spectacularly beautiful area and we didn't even scratch the surface. We didn't go to Capri, or any of the islands, we only drove through Positano, we spent no time in Naples. So, that is all left for another trip. Maybe the one where we go to Pisa and the Cinque Terra or the one where we go to Venice.

We had planned to go to Salerno to catch a ferry for Sicily. But in talking with the hotel desk clerk he pointed out that a bus to Salerno would take three hours. We would have to leave early to catch a ferry that wouldn't get us to Sicily until late. He suggested taking the Circumvesuviano back to Naples and getting the train to Sicily (via a short ferry ride from Reggio di Calabria. He thought this would be faster than going to Salerno and catching the same train later in the journey. He had all the schedules there which made a huge difference in figuring out what to do. We went back to Naples. We passed through Salerno about three hours after we left Sorrento, so the apparent back tracking didn't cost us anything.

Next installment will be on our stay in Sicily.

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