The last two weeks have been nothing short of magical. In no particular order: we climbed an active volcano, strolled through 2000 year old city frozen (or buried) in time, looked down onto thousands of fireworks, shared meals with Italian families, been visited and gifted by a witch, met an artistic hermit who has spent 40 years living in a canyon, slept in the same canyon, seen lemons the size of a football, listened to a bell choir orchestrated by cows, dragged our bikes up mountains, spent New Years Day on a beach, cycled through clouds, visited a village of 400 no larger than a kitchen, explored caves, photographed the best photographer in the world, herded goats from our bicycles, endured two broken chains three flats and a troublesome derailleur, drank four euro cappuccinos, had fireworks thrown at our tent, and slept by the sea.
Before we continue we should wish you all a happy 2011. Hopefully the first week of the year has been a good one. We had quite the exciting entry into the new year from a mountain slope park overlooking the coastal town of Sorrento. From our higher elevation we were able to enjoy one of the things Italians do best: making a lot of noise. The firework show was spectacular; it was not an organized affair but rather hundreds of displays from private residences which exploded all evening and were especially bombastic at midnight. It was quite the experience! As we saw later on the news, however, such experiences have costs, such as visits to the hospitals, property damage and house fires. From our hilltop perspective… totally worth it! 🙂
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Since our last update, we enjoyed a wonderful, albeit different, Christmas holiday in Naples. We spent it in an awesome independent hostel, a Christmas present from back home, and enjoyed resting our bodies and connecting with family and friends. Although we missed home it was very nice to spend the special time together. We were happily able to enjoy a holiday feast (another gift) at a small restaurant… from the multicourse Italian meal we felt as stuffed as if we had just finished the whole Christmas turkey! We also went on some walks through Naples and it had a very authentic Italian feel. We were a bit surprised we liked it since we have received countless warnings about the pick pocketing and general riffraff in the city! Alec was also glad to be here under more positive circumstances than when his grandfather “visited” in 1944, with Vesuvius erupting, ships sunk in the harbour and the city in rubble.
One thing that stuck out with modern Naples was the roads! Complete chaos, and not with the same organized feel as Bari: every type of vehicle going in every direction, with the driver laying on the horn while dodging pedestrians and potholes. Cars all have bruises from run ins with other cars… for example, we saw a public bus crunch a parked car! The scooter drivers weave through traffic without any care for rules, and they pack their bikes as if they were minivans (toting bags of groceries, children and pet dogs all at once). The road conditions in Naples and its surrounding area were rather horrendous but we managed the bump along a bit further south… and was it ever worth it!
Pompeii greatly exceeded already high expectations. The cultural and historical education the archaeological site grants is surely unrivalled. We spent a full day exploring the 45 hectares of excavations. The volcanic ash from the 79 AD eruption of Mt Vesuvius preserved so much of this typical Roman city: the forum, the administration buildings, the bakery, the public baths, the private residences, the temples, the restaurants, the theatres, and the brothel. It was so fascinating looking through this window into Roman life and we realized how similar it is to our own, and thus also realized how much we can continue to learn from the successes and failures of this civilization. We would eagerly revisit Pompeii.
To help put Pompeii in perspective, we visited Mt Vesuvius. We took a bus up a very windy and steep path which ran through the volcano’s ancient crater. The bus dropped us off at the base of the modern (active) crater and we hiked around its rim, witnessing the steam emerging from many places. Vesuvius is expected to erupt again… 2044 to be exact! We found their confidence in this date quite amusing. Also amusing is that there is an evacuation plan for the communities at the base of the volcano, but not for the city with one million inhabitants only 20 kilometres away (Naples).
We descended Vesuvius and prepared to continue biking. We had spent two nights at a campground directly beside the Pompeii ruins (pretty cool!) and on our way out we ran into a group of Italians enjoying lunch outside their campervan. They invited us to join them and we drank wine, ate mozzarella balls, traditional Naples cake and coffee. They all spoke French so we were able to communicate with them, which was nice. The one couple lives in southern Italy and has offered us their home when we pass by. Hooray!
Heading south from Pompeii we arrived at the Amalfi Coast, another major Italian tourist destination. This 50 kilometre section had breathtaking scenery with colourful villages tucked amongst rugged cliffs and sandy coastlines. The area had many terraced lemon groves and colourful ceramics. One of Caitlin’s Amalfi highlight was an incredibly detailed and charming nativity scene that sat within a small cave on the side of the road; public artwork at its finest. In general, the Amalfi Coast was beautiful, and this beauty was augmented by the quiet roads and peaceful atmosphere which differed from the noisy and crowded scene from Rome to Naples. One of our most peaceful experiences was in a side canyon off the main road where we camped beside a river. In the morning, we decided to explore the canyon and met a self-proclaimed hermit who has lived in the canyon for forty years (without electricity, but with many dogs). He at first startled us, but later we had a nice conversation and he told us (in impeccable English) of his passion for protecting wild areas in this incredible part of the world. You can learn more about this artist, poet and environmental activist by visiting his website: http://www.giannimenichetti.com
For the past few days, we have been cycling through Cilento National Park and loving it. It is much less touristy than the Amalfi and arguably more beautiful. The towns are fairly isolated and feel quite traditional. The terrain has been quite mountainous but the leg burn grants incredible views of valleys, empty roads, and strolls through remote villages. We even got to bike with a pack of goats! We are so happy to be so immersed in such beautiful nature.
Before we go, we should wish everyone a happy Epiphany. In Italy, January 6th is a holiday as they celebrate when the wise men arrived in Bethlehem. To celebrate this event, a kind witch (La Belfana) delivers stockings filled with goodies to the good boys and girls of Italy… a friend of Santa Claus (Baba Natale in Italy). We can happily proclaim that Belfana came to us and we thus enjoyed morning
Lots of love,
Alec and Caitlin