Thursday, June 17, 2010


It’s the morning after an incredibly long day with an incredibly nice ending. I’ll try to keep it short and restrain myself from gushing.

We left RDU on schedule, flew to Philadelphia and made our connection with little time to spare. We boarded, pulled away from the gate...and sat. You know that sinking feeling when all is silence from the cockpit but you know that something is afoot. Finally the captain came on the intercom and announced that a navigational implement had malfunctioned during the flight check, but that it had been replaced and now they had to get a technician to do a ‘bite’ test (that’s what I heard, anyway), since this one was essential for navigation across the Atlantic. We heard afterwards that the southerly route we were forced to take (yeah, because of that darned volcano; it’s settled down quite a bit but is still going strong) leaves planes in the mid-Atlantic for over two hours with no communication with anyone else except other planes. Needless to say it was hard to argue with the delay. And the flight itself was probably the smoothest we’ve ever had, with only a few minor bumps in the road, nothing even to raise an eyebrow.

We arrived at Fiumicino only an hour late, but our scheduled transfer time was an hour, so we'd missed our connector. Unlike Air France however, Alitalia already had us booked onto the next flight to Naples, had rerouted our baggage, and had an agent literally at the foot of the stairs from the plane (Fiumicino and some other Italian airports still use the roll-out stairways) waiting to reassure us. We left Fiumicino about 1:40 Italy time, 7:40 am EDT, and a skip and a hop later were in Naples. The baggage was not only there, it appeared on the carousel in timely fashion and was intact (what a strange concept!), so we were out the door in good time. I should mention that Fabio had read us the riot act about how to act in Naples, and especially in the airport and train station. Lots of scam artists seem to use poor old long-suffering Naples as their stomping grounds. But our driver was not only friendly but honest and efficient and had us at the railway station in less than 20 minutes. Couple of small glitches. During the peak commute times, trains run south from Naples about every hour, but we were looking for something during the lull, and that meant a wait of almost two hours. But forget what you’ve heard about Italians and efficiency; the Italian train system puts our public transport system to shame (but then, which system in the industrialized world doesn’t?) You buy your tickets at a little kiosk which takes either cash or credit. Trains run all day long and much of the night and Italians make the most of that. All trains run on clean, efficient electricity and the tracks are designed for the bullet trains. An Italian espresso can easily do 160 mph (hence the name of the coffee) and the ride is smooth, relatively quiet, and dirt cheap. A ticket from Rome to Florence, for example, will cost you about 20 bucks. You can’t buy gas for that amount, particularly here where the price at the pump reflects the true cost of our oil addiction. Once you’ve bought your ticket (one ticket can be issued for as many persons as you care to pay for), you validate it at a little yellow stamp machine out by the tracks. Thus, no ticket taker and no lines. Jump on and off you go. But if you don’t have a ticket or if it isn’t properly validated, you’ll face a hefty fine. Thus it seems that most Italians work well on the honor system.

The problem today was that the track number kept failing to appear on the ledger board. Sweet Sandy checked with the information booth repeatedly, only to be told to come back closer to departure. Long after I thought she was making a nuisance of herself, she came scurrying up to announce that the train was on track 15 and departing in minutes! Never the first sign of a track number on the ledger. Thank goodness for her persistence. Off we went to Agropoli. The ride itself was pleasant if hot when the train slowed down, but our excess luggage was a pain; European trains are just not designed to accommodate fashionistas. No names mentioned.

Another thing I love about Italian trains is that they go through mountains instead of over them. Italians know that preserving the natural beauty of their spectacular land is not only responsible, it’s also good economics. Tourism is Italy's second largest industry. And their tunneling techniques are state of the art. Nothing like zipping through five tunnels in rapid succession at 160 mph, as we have done before, to clean out the old sinuses!

By the time we pulled into the Agropoli stazione, we were well on our way to falling in love. Agropoli has all the spectacular terrain of the Amalfi Coast, but is the country cousin of Positano and Amalfi. Don’t get me wrong, the Amalfi is one of the most scenic areas I’ve ever seen, but it’s all high fashion and attitude. What’s the word, chi-chi? Agropoli, on the other hand, is a beautiful country girl with a bit of a frayed dress and maybe a bit of tomato stain on her bosom, but she has such an unaffected natural charm and beauty that the deshabille just makes her more approachable.

Fernando and Fabio picked us up and took us to the Astone’s home on the outskirts of the city. Guys, old Dave has fallen off a haywagon and into the lap of the gods. When the possibility of this excursion first came up, Fabio had said that the apartment was very basic, and that’s all that we expected and would have been eternally grateful for that. What he didn’t mention was that the apartment is in the basement of his parents’ villa. About a mile from the center of the town, the villa perches on a ridge, one over from the sea, overlooking a stunning semi-rustic valley to the west. In the distance are the imposing mountains of the Cilento. And all around are the fruits of the Astones’ labors, and I mean that literally. To the north, cascading down the ridge, lie an olive orchard and vineyard from which the Astones make their own olive oil, wine and vinegar, a sample of each of which was waiting for us in the cucina. To the west and south are the orchards and garden. Fabio proudly showed us lemons, citrons, oranges, black and white mulberries, cherries, pomegranates, peaches, plums, as well as pistachio trees and almonds. The garden is a bit bare at the moment; Campania is so temperate and fertile that it has been famous since antiquity for its ability to yield four crops a year, and, with the exception of some beautiful eggplant, the garden is between plantings.

The apartment is entered from a shady terrazza which overlooks that westward vista I mentioned. Obviously the Astones prefer the shade and privacy to a spectacular view, so it is screened by mulberries, palmettos, huge yuccas, and olive trees. The apartment itself is stunning, simply and tastefully decorated, with the cool, clean tile floors, those soothing Mediterranean colors on walls and drapery, a gorgeous, well appointed kitchen-dining area-den, a bedroom/study, the master bedroom, and a stylish bath. No roughing it here!

I promised not to gush and I guess I blew that promise, so I’ll just say that I sit at this moment on the terrazza at the table typing on the laptop, glancing up periodically to catch glimpses of the valley, listening to the cooing of doves, the clacking of a magpie, and the twittering of countless other birds (in Tuscany I once asked why there were no birds and was told, with tongue in cheek, I think, that they were there but didn’t dare make a sound or some Tuscan would shoot them and eat them), and smelling jasmine and the roses for which the area has been famous since Roman times, the scents brought to me courtesy of a ravishing Mediterranean sea breeze. If I can find work as a dishwasher in this town, I may never go home.

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