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April 12 – 16, 2008: Admiring the Amalfi Coast, that is, I wasn’t so taken by the town itself. The coast easily made my revisit list, despite an inauspicious introduction. I left Capri, with a cold, in a rainstorm, and as soon as I got off the ferry at Sorrento I fell on the slippery metal quayside. After that, instead of pursuing a search for an elusive bus stop, I treated myself to a taxi for the ride to my out-of-town hotel, only to be cheated by the driver.

Things looked up from there. It’s true that my hotel, Il Nido, was somewhat inconvenient, as its shuttle never seemed to mesh with the train and bus schedules, but I had a great view from a comfortable room at a reasonable rate, and enjoyed the food at breakfast and dinner. Perhaps staying five kilometers outside is why I never warmed to Sorrento, which I found to be a typical seaside town, although one built well above the water. Perhaps finding few restaurants I would be willing to revisit had something to do with it too. It didn’t matter much, as I was just using Sorrento as a base for visiting a lot of other places.

View from Ravello

View from Ravello

I had planned to spend my first day at Pompeii. I even had reservations for the villas that required them. But I just didn’t feel up to it. A nice sit-down bus ride to Amalfi seemed more my speed, and I was able to catch the bus right outside my hotel. I did get to sit down both ways, although not everyone was so lucky coming back.

That ride along the Amalfi Coast? The one the guide books rave about? It’s everything they say. Everything you expect from the pictures. Just stunning. Go see it! (But for heaven’s sake, go early or late in the season, it was already getting crowded, with standing room only on some buses, in early April.)  After all the beauty of the ride along the coast – rugged cliffs and deep blue sea – Amalfi Town came as a bit of a shock. I had expected small and sleepy. I got small and crowded and touristy. I checked the time for the next bus up to Ravello, and had a quick cappuccino right in front of the photogenic Duomo.

Amalfi's duomo

Amalfi’s duomo

And Ravello matched the bus ride. Not that it didn’t have tourist shops (think ceramics), but they weren’t wall-to-wall. I did the walk out to the Villa Cimbrone and just loved the grounds and the views. I could almost (almost!) imagine coming up with the money to spend a night there, although it’s more of a place for honeymooners (first, second, third…)

Grounds at the Villa Cimbrone

Grounds at the Villa Cimbrone

After spending a morning at the Sorrento hospital getting prescriptions for my cold and accompanying cough (25 euro for the doctor, 11 euro to fill three prescriptions), followed by an admirable lunch at the laid-back “Mozzarella Bar” Bufalito, I took the bus over to Positano. Again, I was captivated by the coastline, but also, somewhat to my surprise, by the town.  I had thought it would just be Sorrento with stairs, but I found it charming. True, the hillside on which it is built is steep – but there are little buses to take you to the top. True, there are lots of tourist shops – but they seem more spread out, with actual houses in between, at least in the upper reaches. True, the beach is small, and made of grey sand and pebbles, but there are waterfront cafes, and I hadn’t come to swim. I hadn’t brought my camera either. I just wandered around, admiring the Duomo, watching the crowd disembarking from a ferry, window shopping but not buying, enjoying the views.

That was the day I had intended to visit the Greek temples at Paestum but hadn’t felt well enough. I did, however, make it to Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Archaeological Museum at Naples, they’ll be the next post.

The view from my hotel room

The view from my hotel room

April 9 – 12, 2008: I spent three nights on Capri because I thought Naples would be awash in garbage, but I didn’t expect to like it much. Turned out, I was quite wrong on both counts. Certainly, Naples had a garbage problem – the press reports were so far right – but it would not have interfered with a visit, and indeed, when I returned to Naples a month later, I didn’t find it particularly obnoxious. Capri was a bigger surprise. As long as I avoided the tourist crowds, mostly obtrusive in the middle of the day, I found the island well worth the time. Even the cold that attacked me my second day didn’t spoil my visit.

I had arrived in Italy from the US via the UK, landing at Heathrow, taking the National Express coach to Gatwick, and spending a night in a convenient and comfortable B&B. I used my spare afternoon to pay a first visit to Arundel castle, and blame my cold on a windy wait on an exposed railway platform.

Arundel castle

Arundel castle

Of course, there is more than one Capri. The one I had read most about was the multi-hundred-dollar a night hotel and wall-to-wall expensive shops version of Capri. I had also heard about the package tourist/cruise ship version of Capri – lines of sticky-label-wearing tourists following the umbrella of their tour guide. I found both of those, but my Capri was a quiet place with green and granite cliffs towering over clear blue seas. No doubt it helped that I was there in early April.

The rocky island of Capri

The rocky island of Capri

It is true that avoiding the crowds, and properly appreciating the island’s beauty, involved some exercise. My first full day I trekked up to the Villa Jovis, one of twelve built on the island by the reclusive Emperor Tiberius (uncle of the Claudius of “I, Claudius” fame). Rumor has it that the emperor would have disobedient servants and unwelcome visitors dropped over the cliff edge, and the villa is certainly perched high above the water. I thought the walk, with its alternating views of cliffs and sea to one side, and modern villas to the other, more interesting than the Roman remains. For those thinking of following in my footsteps, I should mention that someone I met on the way said, “you know you are on the right path when your quads burn”.

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The next afternoon I started on a more level path. In deference to my cold I had thought to walk only as far as the Faraglione islets, but eventually climbed 355 steps for a view of the Natural Arch. The arch was perhaps not worth the exercise but I appreciated the islets.

Faraglione islets

Faraglione islets

Sleeping on the island allowed me to beat the crowds to two indoor attractions in Anacapri: the Villa San Michele (great views) and the Chiesa San Michele (fabulous – all senses of the word – floor). I also found that taking a bus to Marina Piccolo, Capri’s second, and much smaller, harbor, got me away from the crowds. I ate a peaceful if priceylunch there, with my feet almost in the water.

Detail of the floor at the Chiesa San Michele

Detail of the floor at the Chiesa San Michele

So, I mostly avoided the tourist crowds – not even thinking of visiting the Blue Grotto no doubt helped – and I totally avoided the high-priced high life. Not being a shopper at the best of time, I wasn’t tempted by the expensive shops, buying only useful things: a SIM card for my new phone and a train ticket for Naples to Siracusa. I did eat well, but not expensively (ravioli in lemon cream and mussels in white wine and garlic at La Pergola being particularly memorable). And I slept in a no-view room at the one star La Tosca which actually cost five euros a night less than the place I had reserved in Naples. Certainly a one star is not luxury, but the plain white walls, tiled floor, and most basic of breakfasts were balanced by comfortable beds, ample hot water, a great view from the terrace and a very helpful owner who made a mean cappucino.

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Looking Forward

My next trip? Gros Morne NP, Newfoundland, photo by By Jcmurphy at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

My next trip? Gros Morne NP, Newfoundland, photo by By Jcmurphy at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

In December I tackled my hearing problem, and while I’m not fond of wearing hearing aids, they unquestionably work. Whisper at me in the coffee shop, and I can hear you. Talk to me across the table in a crowded restaurant, and I can hear you. But hearing was actually a secondary concern: my real worry has been my vision.

Two years ago, when I first started thinking I shouldn’t drive at night and psyched myself up for cataract surgery, I picked a new ophthalmologist, at the Duke Eye Clinic – I wanted someone who did a LOT of operations. I collected my records from my old doctor, and discovered (of course I read them!) that the cornea problem he had mentioned years previously was called Fuch’s Dystrophy, and it turned out to be something I could no longer ignore.

In fact, since cataract surgery sometimes worsens Fuch’s symptoms, I went on living with the cataracts. And I pretty much stopped driving at night. But this year the cataract in my right eye had worsened to the point that my ophthalmologist advised going ahead with surgery for that eye. That was when I learned that I had to choose between near distance vision or far distance vision. I agonized over the choice, since when I’m not traveling I’m most likely reading, but eventually opted for long distance, and he operated on me March 25th.

Wow! The change in my vision is amazing! The good news: my photos look great and my wine glasses sparkle. The bad news: I look older (to myself) and my windows look dirtier. The really bad news: I’m still having problems with glare and haloes, so my night driving problem is due to my compromised corneas, not my cataracts.

I put any travel plans on hold while this was going on, but I just saw my surgeon for my two week follow up and everything looks good. The only cure for the Fuch’s is a cornea transplant, and I have been holding off on that while I wait for techniques to improve. It looks like the latest version, DMEK, may be as good as it’s going to get, at least until they can grow the cells artificially, and my surgeon hopes to start doing the procedure this summer. I figure he needs at least a year’s practice before he gets to work on me… Otherwise I’d have to travel to Portland, Indianapolis or Baltimore and spend a couple of weeks in a hotel, and things aren’t bad enough for that. Right now, anyway. Unfortunately, the progress of Fuch’s is completely unpredictable – it may get worse next week, next year, or next decade.

Edison's studio at the Henry Ford Museum which I'll visit if I'm in Detroit. By Swampyank (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons]

Edison’s studio at the Henry Ford Museum which I’ll visit if I’m in Detroit. By Swampyank (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons]

Back to travel. I need to be in Detroit for a wedding at the beginning of August, which is why I haven’t put my newly renovated house on the market this spring. I’m thinking about a trip to Atlantic Canada for June: Newfoundland sounds like a great destination for dramatic scenery plus whales and icebergs, and as an “Anne of Green Gables” fan I can’t pass up Prince Edward Island.

After that? I had been thinking of South America – the Northwest quadrant – and then selling my house in the spring and going the long way round to England. But if I decide I want to be here for surgery next year, I may just do a full RTW. Meanwhile, I’ll be starting another Looking Back Series here, with Southern Italy and Sicily.

Capri - next in the Looking back Series

Capri – next in the Looking Back Series

Nov 11, 2007: Of course, all of Venice is an island, multiple islands. Most remarkably, man-made islands. I imagine those terrified farmers, fleeing the fall of the Roman Empire, driving piles into a muddy lagoon to create a refuge, and I am in awe. In awe of their resourcefulness, in awe of their tenacity, and in awe of what they built. The refuge was a brilliant idea – life under the Romans may not have been all hot baths and good roads, but it was a whole lot better than what followed. The historians don’t call it the Dark Ages for nothing. Meanwhile, the farmers settled in on their laboriously constructed islands and became craftsmen and traders. And developed an empire, a sea-based empire, of their own.

Venice's cemetery island

Venice’s cemetery island

I could have spent my entire (too short) five days on the main islands, but instead I devoted one day to the outer islands of Murano and Burano. Since I was staying on the south side of Dorsoduro, and I had no intention of limping all the way north to the Fondamente Nuove stop to pick up the boat, it took me a long time to get there from the Zattere dock. I timed the trip back at two hours.

A quiet street on Murano

A quiet street on Murano

Venice is renowned for its glass, and the glass blowers were sent to work on Murano in case their furnaces got out of control. I love glass – cut glass, art glass, stained glass – but not, alas, most Venetian glass. I find it over decorated, too “precious”. Maybe too Victorian. I did appreciate the Glass Museum on Murano, and I did buy one small coiled glass snake, easily packed, as a present for reptile-loving friends, but I mostly ignored the glass shops and left quite quickly for Burano.

Some glass I liked

Some glass I liked

If I hadn’t already been in love with Venice I would have fallen in love on Burano. Not so much for the lace, which is Burano’s claim to fame, but for the brilliantly colored buildings. I ate well – an excellent beef carpaccio with rocket followed by an OK angler fish with equally praise-worthy French fries at the the Ristorante al Vecio Pipa. I looked for lace for my younger sister (I would meet up with her in London in a couple of days) – but I didn’t see anything that looked better than the lace she made herself. And I took lots of photos of the houses.

I didn’t make it to Torcello, the next most-visited outer island, as I had been invited to a slowtrav get-to-gether and needed to get back to Dorsoduro, but it’s on the list for next time. I hope there will be a next time, but just realized that it has been seven years already. Some of the people I met that afternoon were staying in Venice for weeks, even months…

Burano

Burano

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Nov 7-13, 2007: I had my doubts about Venice. Hadn’t it become impossibly crowded? Hopelessly touristy? Even smelly? And in any case, at the end of June it would almost certainly be too hot. So on my first trip to Italy, in 2004, I decided against staying in Venice.

I took the night train from Barcelona to Milan, and spent two nights in Stresa (loved Lake Maggiore!). Next came a rather steamy Rome (was reminded I always preferred the Ancient Greeks to the Romans), and then a neat B&B in Ferrara and a day trip to Ravenna (fell for Ferrara and was totally blown away by the mosaics in Ravenna). But Venice was just a lunchtime look on the way to Ljubljana – just enough time to decide whether to go back.

Lake Maggiore, 2004

Lake Maggiore, 2004

So, I got off the train in Venezia Santa Lucia, I checked my big bag, I walked down the steps to the Grand Canal and I took a vaporetto to St Marks. And that was all it took to fall in love. Yes, it was hot, yes, it was crowded (but no, it wasn’t smelly). I loved it anyway, and I found that it just took a couple of turns off the main drag to find a quiet piazza.

I wanted more, but I wanted it with less heat and fewer crowds and lower prices. So November it was, right after the hotel rates came down for the winter. I didn’t get the sunshine that would have made for the best pictures, and there were still crowds on the route from St. Marks to the Rialto, but Dorsoduro at night was so quiet it was almost eerie.

Venice's front door

Venice’s front door

My feet weren’t as miserable as they had been in Vienna, but I still climbed up and down the bridges at a snail’s pace. Since I had bought a pass that covered my transport plus churches and museums, I rode vaporettos when I might otherwise have walked, and I regretted staying on the south side of Dorsoduro, but I still saw pretty much everything I wanted to – nearly all the top sights.

THAT bridge

THAT bridge

I decided my feet weren’t up to visiting the dungeons in the Doge’s Palace, but after the palace itself and the fabulous St. Mark’s Basilica next door, I didn’t miss them. I saw enough  Tintorettos in the Accademia to decide to skip “Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel”, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, but I had a lovely time in the Frari. Equally, I didn’t visit the modern art in the Guggenheim, but enjoyed Oriental art at the Ca’ Pesaro and domestic interiors at the Ca’ Rezzonica. But the best part of Venice was just wandering around and seeing beauty – sometimes quirky beauty – everywhere.

Classic Venice

Classic Venice

Nov 2-7, 2007: Nestled in the Austrian Alps and host of the 1976 Winter Olympics, Innsbruck is a prime winter-time destination for skiers. In the summer the skiing infrastructiure is re-purposed for hikers. But November, I discovered, is neither skiing season nor hiking season. Instead, it’s the time when everything shuts down and any repairs are made ahead of the snow.

From my hotel room window I watched the Christmas tree going up

From my hotel room window I watched the Christmas tree going up

Since my feet were still not in good enough shape for me to hike this wasn’t as disappointing as it might have been, and with everything shutting down after a couple of days I was able to move from my rather gloomy single-shower-down-the-hall to one of the best-located en-suite rooms in the central Weisses Kreuz hotel.  A bay window overlooking a pedestrian street came with two window seats, both long enough for me to prop my feet up. From one I looked directly at Innsbruck’s signature Golden Roof, from the other I looked straight down Maria Theresien Strasse, the main shopping street. And looking downwards, I could watch townsfolk and tourists, hurrying about their business or standing and staring, cameras at the ready, oddly foreshortened by the distance. It felt like I had strayed into a painting. And when the clouds weren’t down I could gaze at magnificent mountains in both directions. Between the views, my novel, and English-language TV, I had every reason to rest.

Innsbruck, and cow, 2004

Innsbruck, and cow, 2004

I had already spent a week in Innsbruck, sharing a hostel dorm room with family, in 2004. We had taken the narrow gauge railway up the Ziller valley, hiked among cows while admiring stunning mountain views, and even watched skiers – in July – on the Stubai glacier. This time I checked out the zoo and revisited the Folk Museum, and rode the bus up to the village of Igls, which was definitely shut down, but mostly I stayed in town.

Besides admiring plenty of beautiful buildings, I took in the view of the surrounding mountains from the 360 Cafe on top of the Rathausgalerie mall. I ate lunch several times in the cosy Munding cafe, I ate one very disappointing Thai meal (no, fodors, it was NOT authentic!) at Thai Li, and one very good splurge meal at the Goldener Adler. And I rested my feet ready for Venice.

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At the zoo

At the zoo

OK, time to get back to travel. Not present day travel as yet (I’ve abandoned thoughts of visiting Alaska, and am thinking of heading back to South America), but carrying on the Look Back Series I started before the renovations got under way last year.

After limping around Budapest, hobbling around Vienna, and resting up some in Graz I headed west to the Austrian Alps. I was aiming for Innsbruck, but the train trip from Graz was long enough and slow enough I decided to stop off for a couple of nights on the way. I chose Kufstein because I was thinking of hiking, but luckily it turned out to be a good rest stop.

Kustein castle

Kustein castle

I shared my compartment on the train with two young women, one traveling all the way to the Swiss border to visit her boyfriend in Bregenz, the other, a piano student, going home to North Italy (Sud-Tirol) to spend the upcoming All Saints’ Day holiday with her family. The piano student planned to stay on in Graz after graduation, and I remembered that the woman on the train from Vienna had mentioned that a lot of Germans were doing the same thing.

The journey was enlivened by conversation with the women, and with the elderly Austrian man who shared my table in the restaurant car, and by the scenery, which got progressively more mountainous the further west we traveled. And the further west we went the further behind schedule we were, finally reaching Wörgl 30 minutes late, and after my connecting train had left. However, I knew that the Wörgl-Kufstein leg was on the main line to Germany, and didn’t stress out. I spent the twenty minute wait talking with a woman from the Kitzbühel tourist office, who was upset to learn that I hadn’t even considered staying there because I thought it too expensive.

The Auracher Loechl

The Auracher Loechl

My river-side hotel, the Auracher Löchl, was tucked beneath a steep hill crowned by a well-preserved castle, and just a short limp across a bridge from the train station. My very comfortable single faced the river, and I ate breakfast (killer buffet with squeeze-your-own orange juice and boil-your-own eggs) and two delicious dinners (at half-board rates) in the hotel restaurant just across a pedestrian passageway.

I made it up to the castle courtesy of a little funicular railway, finding the view more interesting than the castle. Aside from wandering around town and admiring several decorated buildings, my only other sightseeing was a visit (by bus) to the Riedel factory on the outskirts of town. I drink a fair amount of wine, and had been highly skeptical when I first heard the theory that the taste of wine could be affected by the shape of the glass. Sounded like a great sales technique, but could it really be true? Well, yes. A few taste tests were all it took to convince me, and I now own two sets of Riedel glasses.

Building in central Kufstein

Building in central Kufstein

I have to say, once you’ve seen one glass factory, no need to visit another. I had taken the VIP tour of the Edinburgh Crystal factory back in 2004, during which I actually got to briefly blow and cut glass, and just watching from the balcony at Riedel didn’t measure up. Nor was their Sinnfonie “experience” particularly interesting for someone already a convert. Of course, there was always the shop, with deals like eight glasses for the price of six.… (But I figured the savings would be eaten up by the shipping charges. And did I really need eight more glasses?)

Birth of a glass

Birth of a glass

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