Friday was our day to complete our jobs as tour sponsors and travel southward to see our friends in Agropoli. Considering all the glitches we might have encountered, it was about as pleasant as it could be. And the end result was everything we had hoped and more.
The day started early. Very early. The flight back to Munich and then to the states for the group left at 7am, so we were up and out of the hotel in Florence by 4:30. We said some sad goodbyes to our wonderful guide Oshri and boarded a local commercial bus to take us to Vespucci, Florence’s airport, located surprisingly close to the city. No sooner had we entered the terminal to check in than a fire alarm sounded and we were all herded into the lot in front. I don’t mind saying, my mind was racing with all the possibilities for delay, missed flights, etc., but it was a false alarm, quickly resolved, and we re-entered and were helped by a friendly young lady to check in and receive boarding passes. Sandra and David Abashian had generously offered to shepherd our group through the Munich and Charlotte airports, so we said our farewells to our friends before they headed to security and boarding. Sandy and I grabbed a quick caffe and capucino at the airport Autogrill and found seats in the terminal to endure a long wait.
A very long wait, as it happens. We had reserved a car through AAA with Hertz Italia, whose Florence office did not open until 9:30 am. Every other agency, even some no-name from Sicily, of all places, was open by 8:30 at the latest, but dear old Hertz stayed defiantly shuttered. It seems it was a holiday, the Feast of St. John, in Florence, and Hertz was keeping holiday hours. This was a religious holiday, mind you, not a state holiday, but apparently the good people at Hertz are all devoted Catholics.
Finally the office opened, and since I was third in line, I anticipated a quick release from purgatory. Nope, more penance to be done. The two Hertz reps managed to serve one customer every (drum roll, please) 25 minutes. So after almost an hour I made my way to the window. But, give the devil his due, since we had a confirmation number the paper work was all done and the young lady had me finished in less than 10 minutes.
Sandy had given me her smartphone which had the confirmation number and other documentation and had left our luggage briefly to ask if she should begin rolling it out. But since the cars were in a lot some distance away, I told her to stay put and I’d drive up to the terminal. Big mistake. Vespucci is under extensive renovation and enlargement and accessing the right lanes is a nightmare, so, predictably, knucklehead took the wrong turn, wound up on the access road to the A-3 autostrada, limited access you understand, and was halfway to Sesto Fiorentina before I could turn around. No problem, let’s try again. But if you’ve never experienced Italian signage, you have no idea what total confusion is. I missed my turn twice, wound up on yet another interstate, going, you guessed it, the wrong way, asked directions three times, and was finally so confused I was contemplating life as an illegal immigrant.
My primary worry was that Sandy would wonder what in the world had happened to me and be frantic. No problem, just call, right? Oy, I had her cell phone. Since she had the computer, I finally called two friends back in the states and asked them to message her on FB. One slight problem. In my addled state I had managed to convince myself that the States were six hours ahead of Italy, not the other way around. Barb and Audrey, if you happen to read this, mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa! A phone call at 4:50 am from an idiot in Italy is no way to start your day.
And as it happened, Sandy is now so used to Italian, shall we say, ‘efficiency’, that she was only now beginning to become concerned and was leaving the terminal to look for me at the very moment I pulled the car into a no parking zone, as close to the terminal as I could get without searching for that darned access lane again. We loaded the car, a cute little silver Lancia Upsilon whom we haved named Rocco, and we were off.
Driving in Italy. I don’t necessarily recommend it if your nerves are shot. But it’s not that much worse than driving I-40 in the Triangle during rush hour. Only rush hour lasts pretty much all day. And extends from one end of Italy to the other. At least the part that we drove, which was Florence to Agropoli, from the thigh of the boot to a hickey on the lower shin. I just try to sit in the right lane, middle lane if there are three, find the speed most of the maniacs seem to be driving, and pray to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. But what about the speed limit? Basically, there is none on the autostradas, except in construction zones or on mountain passes. Cars drive up on you doing 90, 100, 110 mph, macho males dart from one lane to another with reckless abandon—it’s a circus.
But you can’t beat the scenery...if you dare take your eyes off the road. Italy is a gorgeous country from one end to the other, and we traversed some of the most beautiful areas of all: Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Campagna. Mountains to left and right, another picturesque hilltown every ten miles or so, the green Tiber meandering back and forth below. It really is a treat just to ogle the scenery. And despite the frolics of all the drivers, we made excellent time. Understand, we had gotten about two hours of sleep and Dave was gased up on high-octane Italian espresso. One hit in Florence. One outside Rome. Another 20 miles or so before Napoli. Sandy worried that I would nod off. Not a chance.
Fortunately, the last leg of the trip was far easier than I had anticipated. I dreaded driving through Napoli traffic late on a Friday afternoon. But, whereas before we had always taken the coastal route, this time the interstate took us around the eastern side of towering Vesuvius, through a series of tunnels at the tail end of the Monti Lattari, the mountains that define the Sorrentine peninsula, and suddenly, there we were on the Bay of Salerno! No real traffic at all! Not home free yet. Salerno is plastered up against the side of a mountain, the port far below, and the coast road undulates around one mountain buttress after another. Two hundred feet straight down, you see the Bay, if you dare look. I’m telling you, guys, there are several miles where the cliffs are so steep that the southbound lane has to be built a good 40 feet above the northbound in order to eke out the 18 feet of width required to build two narrow lanes. But, again, I was delighted that the A-3 now takes you an inland route, away from traffic and those vertiginous curves, and we were past Salerno so quickly that we worried we had merged wrong. But there were the exits for San Mango, who, I must suppose, is the patron saint of tropical fruit, so we knew we were on the right road. And zipping along!
More good news: At Battipaglia, one takes the exit to state highway 18, but the junction has been under construction for years, and the temporary access is a nightmare. Coming from the south, for example, you must merge to the right across two lanes one-quarter way around a roundabout, then merge to the left across two lanes on the access ramp. And I had no expectation that the new ramps would be completed, considering that They-who-must-not-be-named have been siphoning off money from the project for years and allowing only minimal progress. But, mirabile dictu! the ramp was completed, it was actually quite stylish, and it worked like a charm.
We had the usual hair-raising frivolity on the two-lane highway south of Battipaglia, but by now we were seeing places we have come to know and love, and nothing could quell our growing excitement. There the Greek ruins of Paestum, drowsing in the distance, there the beautiful towns of Capaccio and Trentinara, clinging to the western slopes of austere Monte Soprano. And , look! There the colossal statue of St. Francis, blessing us from the ridge above the villa! And soon, oh so soon, there it is! The Bay of Agropoli, its cerulean waters smiling under the sinking sun in the west. And there, Bell’Agropoli, its lower reaches embracing the sinuous curve of the Bay, the upper city, dominated by Il Castello, perched like a gem on the Rocca which gives the little town its name, “High City”.
A fortuitous call from Fernando. “Where are you?” We are on the access road to Santa Maria del’ Carmine, the frazione where Fernando lives. “Do you need directions?” Surely Fernando is joking; every minute detail of this beautiful place is etched on my memory forever. Now we’re taking the diversorio under the train tracks and around the rump of a hill and we’re on the Via Fuonti, the county road which the villa overlooks. We turn the little Lancia up the Via Ludovico Ariosto, put it in second gear, and climb up, up, up the ridge, around a curve and up, up, even more, almost to the crest, where the road is so steep I must shift to first gear and gun the little motor just to keep it from stalling. And there, just as we left it, the Villa Astone.
We drive the little Lancia up the steep driveway, slam it in park, jump out...and there are all our dear friends gathered to greet us with handshakes, the wonderful Italian kiss-kiss, right cheek-left cheek, and more hugs, accompanied by excited shouts of “How are you?” “Come stai?” "It’s so good to see you!” “Uguale! (Just the same!)” We make the rounds, greeting in turn Fabio, his wonderful parents Filomena and Rolando, gentle Fernando, and Katiuscia, impossibly, more beautiful than ever and just as excited to hug Sandy. Fabio and Katia are in the uniforms of the local police, having taken off from work briefly just to be there to greet us. More excited shouts and conversation, only a fraction of which is understood consciously, but it doesn’t make the slightest difference because it’s the love expressed that’s important. Exchange of gifts and oohs and ahs. And Sandy and I look at each other and know that we are truly back in our second home.
A brief riposo and a scrub, a change of clothes, and Fernando is back to pick us and Fabio up to take us and Katiuscia to Barbanera for the world’s best pizza and more excited conversation. We park in the lot of Il Castello and wind through the narrow streets by now so familiar, stop briefly in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul to pay our respects to the patron saints of the town and allow Fabio and Fernando to examine two Roman artefacts in the rubble of a renovation, which doubtless they are the only two in the town to notice. Up past the medieval portal on the corso and we stop in the little piazza to gaze below at the twinkling lights of the harbor and its boats, just as pretty as we remember. And before we go for dinner, I duck into the beautiful little church of Maria Stella Maris, Mary Star of the Sea. I am not a conventionally pious man, although I still haven’t given up on solidifying my fragile faith. But I have to kneel for a moment and say a silent prayer to Maria and everything else divine in the universe for keeping us safe and leading us back, beyond all expectation, to this magical place.