I spoke Italian

Family time.
Family time.

One day while we were walking I tried to buy some local sweets. A shop employee asked me what I was looking for and I asked for the local specialty. I used Spanish without thought. The next thing I knew I was chatting with an Italian. I was thrilled and told her I had no idea Italian would be easy to understand. Then she told me were speaking Spanish. Uh. Duh.

We left Amalfi via the scenic shore side road. This two lane highway snaked around the cliffs of Amalfi and was packed with drivers. My bother did a great job of staying calm and being assertive enough to get the job done. The scenery is fun but I passed the time watching the faces of the oncoming drivers. A lot is revealed behind the wheel in a high stress situation. I wondered about the professional drivers here. They would need a rare combination of bravado and calm to do the job every day, all day. This LINK shows a spectacular but not common event. One guide book said the road is super safe because every one is so scared they pay better attention. I couldn’t find data on the actual number of crashes. In general Italy is known for its horrible drivers and dangerous roads so maybe Amalfi doesn’t stand out.

So now we are back in Rome. It wasn’t planned but that’s where we wound up. There’s lots more to see so let’s go.

Grilled shrimp ala Sra. Pina
Grilled shrimp in lemon leaves ala Sra. Pina
Kid in grotto
Kid in grotto


The way through Atrani.Don’t make a wrong turn when the creek is rising.

Two garden tours and I still had a mission. We had missed the actual Ziro Tower the day before and I had an idea that we could walk to it from Ravello and then back down to Amalfi for another bus back home to Scala. Burt humored me. Our only obligation was to get home for a group dinner at 6:00.

We plunged down the stairs off into the abyss towards the tower. Guides on the internet said the Torre dello Ziro was easily reached from Ravello. I had my eyes peeled for a route that contoured around and wouldn’t require a steep descent to the sea and another 1,200′ climb up. There was no such route. After 40 minutes of stairs and switchbacks Burt and I reached Atrani, the smallest land mass of any town in Italy and home to less than 900 people. On our way we passed a tire repair shop wedged into a cliff and were nearly run over by a bus. The tower was at least seven stories, maybe twelve, above our heads. I was done going up. I’d finally had some heart palpitations after averaging more than 8 miles a day for 10 days. It was time to stop.

Happily, Atrani was worth the visit. Coming into town from the uphill side feels like sneaking in the backdoor. We passed gardens and the walls of secluded homes grew up around us. There were no people. Soon we were following small arrows that pointed down. I noticed green arrows pointing up. Those were showing the escape route in case of flood. Atrani is wedged so deeply in a narrow slot canyon you have to know how to reach high ground. Water can some in from above and below. There have been recent rain fueled floods and a tsunami.

The town plaza is a story above sea level. Burt and I found our way to the bus stop at the seaside road and were told we had to go back up to the plaza to buy tickets. I sent Burt. He came back to tell me we had to walk to Amalfi because it was a holiday and the bus wouldn’t stop in Atrani. Amalfi is 3 km away by road or up and over a cliff that would nearly require walking to our villa. People must have gotten tired of this a long time ago because there is a tunnel of only 1 km that pedestrian and emergency vehicles can follow. The tunnel cuts right through the cliff the Torre dello Ziro sits upon. Somebody should put in an elevator.

It was another 10 mile day. The only joints that didn’t hurt from the waist down were my ankles. Knees, hips, toes: ow. If I had an opportunity to return here I would stay in Atrani. Nestled between the two famous towns of Amalfi and Ravello it remains hidden and Italian. All the sights are easily accessible in Atrani and, unlike our bird’s eye perch, it has stores and restaurants and the ocean. Instead of busing back home every afternoon a traveler could bus up in the morning and walk home.

Street art in Atrani
Street shrine in Atrani
Atrani kids with ice cream sandwiches.
Street Art in Atrani
Street Art in Atrani
Atrani from the sea. Ravello is up on that cliff.
Atrani from the sea. Ravello is up on that cliff.

Ravello Gardens: Villa Cimbrone

Cimbrone Gardens

Our last day in the Amalfi area was spent touring the gardens of Ravello. Burt and I walked over again via the Mugger’s Way path through shrubs and litter from Scala to Ravello. The looks on the local’s faces when we would pop out of the underbrush was worth the anxiety of being rolled.

First up was the garden we would see from Villa Minuta. Towards the sea from Ravello is a shockingly large expanse of flat land that is uninhabited. From our vantage we could discern that it was not wild land but somewhat manicured. The large trees appeared too symmetric to be nature grown. It turned out we were looking at the Gardens of Villa Cimbrone. The villa was built in the 12th Century. A cimbronium in Roman times was land where timber for ships was produced. This pieces of real estate was so valuable for timber, grazing, and farming that it was never built upon. The Amalfi nobles knew it was more valuable in production than as a residence. Besides, it was safer living inside walled towns. This spot was very desirable for much of the areas history but by the end of the 19th century Italy had been replaced as a manufacturing giant (See history of the U.S.) and the land was neglected.

This land was abandoned until it was noticed by Ernest William Beckett, Lord Grimthorpe, a grieving widower following the way of the Grand Tour. Naples, with Pompeii and Vesuvius was frequently the final stop in the Grand Tour. Here is how the New York Times in 2008 described the Grand Tour:

Three hundred years ago, wealthy young Englishmen began taking a post-Oxbridge trek through France and Italy in search of art, culture and the roots of  Western Civilization. With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent.

— Gross, Matt., “Lessons From the Frugal Grand Tour.” New York Times 5 September 2008.
Friends had encouraged the Lord Grimthorpe to visit Ravello and he fell in love with the place. In 1904 the Lord bought the Villa Cimbrone with the intention of bringing the land back to life and making it the most beautiful place in the world. Nicola Mansi, native of Ravello, helped make the dream come true. What remains today is a jumbled mix of architectural styles from different eras and regions of the world. Greek and Roman gods and goddesses reign side by side in English rose gardens and Persian tea houses. Eve is relegated to a bare cliff side cave. As the official brochure describes it is a ‘reinterpretation of a “roman villa”.’ The place is lovely and fun. I can almost here then restoration team saying, “And over here we’ll put David, no not that David, the other David.” The brochure and map is the best piece of tourism literature we found in all of Italy, and Spain for that matter. Each sculpture and garden is well marked and had a blurb.
Just below the Terrace of Infinity is a coffee shop. Burt and I sat in the shade at a wrought iron table. He had a coffee and I had a thick Italian-style hot chocolate. We enjoyed the view and the quiet. I imagined a noble woman living here in times gone by. Women of high birth were essentially prisoners of their status. They couldn’t go anywhere alone. See previous post. They would spend days wandering their gardens. It was a very pretty prison but I would still want to escape.
Presently the land and villa are privately held. The villa is used as a hotel. The expansive gardens are open to the public for a reasonable fee.
Statue of Ceres
Statue of Ceres with the Terrace of Infinity.
Mercury. The sandal looks decorative at best. I’m leaning towards S&M.
Bacchus and a satyr. Bacchus is the kid.
Eve’s Grotto. The glass is to protect her. We can’t get any closer than this due to a fence. You can see the bars in the reflection.
David and Goliath. Imitation of Verrocchio.
Detail of Goliath.
I was peeking.
Rose garden
Not in the guide. Or maybe, Flora, goddess of flowers and spring.
David, again, copy of Donatello.
The crypt view towards the Mediterranean.
The crypt makes a good scene for a duel or wedding. Both? For a period of time the villa was a monastery.
View from the Terrace of Infinity. This spot is considered by some to be the best place in all the world.

Torre dello Ziro

View of Amalfi from Torre dello Ziro.
View of Amalfi from Torre dello Ziro. Look at all those boats racing around.

Time is running out in Amalfi. Team Zazzali on;y had two more days to explore the area. I think the pool side was starting to bore some people. Dad and Matt decided to join us for a hike to the Ziro Tower and down to Amalfi. Originally everyone but Parker was going to hike with us but people woke up uninterested and so, after some miscommunications, we headed out at 11:00 AM to see the haunted Torre dello Ziro.

I have not been able to find a reference to where the tower came by its name. Also lost in the haze of the past is when the tower was built. It is thought to have been built sometime around the 15th century. From our lodgings at Villa Minuta you can follow the red-dotted stairs down to Pontone, another fraction of Scala. In Pontone there are signs and arrow leading to the Torre dello Ziro. My brother Christian had visited a few days earlier during a solo evening ramble. He suggested it was a do not miss site. Dad is not a fan of walking. After the 20 minute descent to Pontone he decided to rest at the bottom of the hill to the tower saving his energy for the remainder of the walk to Amalfi. Matt and Burt and I continued onward. Matt proved himself to be stoic on this trip. My brother Matt is a tech in a hospital. All his exercise is done running from wing to wing and floor to floor repairing and resetting machines that keep us alive. Matt, you can see in the photo, has not been outside in years. Despite his grievous sun burn and blistered feet Matt walked on uncomplaining. He even seemed to be enjoying himself but it was hard to tell.

The park surrounding the tower was similar to the path Burt and I took to Ravello the day before. There were signs of civic improvements from the late 20th century but there were also signs that the improvements were never used. Our path crossed by a large concrete structure of no discernible use. I though it might have been a cistern. Now it looked like a place to shoot heroin. It vaguely felt like some Soviet inspired public works I had seen in Cuba.  An industrial form of poured concrete juxtaposed against the windy, rocky point with a stone watch tower from the 1400s. Thanks for nothing municipal committee of 1967. We continued on through the tall pines.

The merry threesome popped out of the woods and onto a viewing platform above the tower. From here we could see Atrani to our left, Amalfi to our right, and the Torre dello Ziro right below. Now normally Burt and I would have headed straight to the tower for a closer look but Dad was sitting on a park bench. Bored Dad is not a good thing. We’d already been gone twenty minutes and we told him we’d only be gone twenty minutes. Having sympathy for the old man we took in the tower from above and headed back to find him before he wandered off.

This scrap of wild land on the Amalfi Coast is very close to Pontone, Amalfi, and Atrani. Guidebooks and the internet say locals shun the area because of its very dark past. The abandoned modern infrastructure and scattered visitors, all foreign, seem to verify this.  Even the skeleton of a church up the hill in Pontona had a snack stand and a guide waiting for a passerby. Here, on a prominent hill with a great ruin there was nobody looking to make a buck. Here’s the story as we know it today:

In 1490 twelve year old, Giovanna D’Aragona, was married to the Duke of Amalfi, Alfonso Piccolomini. Well, he wasn’t duke yet, but he would be in three years. He was ten years her senior. Picolomini was awarded the dukedom in services to the King of Naples when he was seven. He assumed control at 25. It begs the question of what services a seven year old could provide. I’m going to assume it was the service of an older relative. Giovanna was the niece of the King of Naples. I’m guessing this was not a marriage for love but politics and consolidation of power. In 1498 the duchess became pregnant and her husband was killed while trying to assert control over lands in Abruzzi.  The Count and the Duke got into a heated argument. The Duke struck the Count. The Count of Celano stabbed the Duke. He wasn’t dead so the Count ordered his guard to finish the Duke. I thought Game of Thrones was fiction. It turns out it’s Italy.

So at 20 the Duchess of Amalfi has a son and finds herself acting as his regent and controlling Amalfi. Her husband was just killed doing this job.  Like all good bosses, the Duchess hired someone to help her. Giovanna employed Antonio Beccadelli as her household steward. The steward was a very powerful person. He wasn’t merely a butler. He managed all their holdings. Here the story takes an even more dramatic turn. We do not know if these two were in love before her husbands death but we do now they were in love after the son was born. Giovanna and Antonio became intimately involved and married in secret. Even though Antonio was from a distinguished family he was not high enough status to marry Giovanna. You know this is not going to end well. Imagine the stress of the next twelve years. The pair successfully hid two pregnancies and farmed the kids out to somebody else to raise. The children, Frederick and Giovanna, were brought up separated from their mother.

Meanwhile the Duchess had a very powerful brother who was a Cardinal in Rome. I have to presume the Duchess and her husband were doing an adequate job managing Amalfi. There is no mention of political motivations for what happens next. Her son by the Duke is eleven or twelve years old. The Duchess is thirty-one or thirty-two and pregnant for the third time by her secret husband. I’d say this was a happy marriage. This time the pair believes they can’t keep the pregnancy secret.  This story raises so many questions for me. How did she hide the first two? A change is clothing styles perhaps? Is it because the oldest son is now old enough to put the pieces together? Is the Cardinal visiting?

Fearing discovery the family hatched a plan to escape. The Duchess headed one way towards safety and the husband headed another. They are supposedly just out and about doing what people do. They are not obviously fleeing.  The duchess left Amalfi with a large retinue in November 1510, claiming to be going on a pilgrimage to Loreto. She had all of her children with her. Loreto was on the road to Ancona, where her husband was waiting for her. After stopping at the shrine in Loreto Giovanna headed to Acona which was beyond the authority of the King of Naples. Once safe in Acona she she explained the situation to her retinue. Most of her staff decided to return to Amalfi. I wonder what happened to them. In Ancona Giovanna gave birth to the couple’s third child.

Back in Rome her brother Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona used his influence to force the family to be expelled from Ancona. The couple then went to Sienna planning to go to Venice. En route the group was intercepted by agents sent by Giovanna’s brother.  Antonio managed to escape to Milan but our post-partum mother and her children were returned to Amalfi. As legend has it the Duchess, her maid, and her children were never seen again. It is said they were taken to the Torre dello Ziro and either starved to death or strangled. The husband was finally found and assassinated three years later. I like to think he was still trying to find his wife and children.

Five hundred years later people are still avoiding the Tower and Giovanna and Antonio have been memorialized in many literary works.

Torre dello Ziro
Torre dello Ziro. Atrani, the smallest town in area in Italy to the left. Less than 900 residents, too.
Intrepid walkers.
Intrepid walkers. The tower is below and to the right.
Father and son. Resting for the big descent.
Father and son. Resting for the big descent. Matt doesn’t get outside much.
The view from Villa Minuta at night.
The view from Villa Minuta at night.



Birthday Hike to the Valle delle Ferierre.

Ruins of Sant Eustachio near Scala.
Ruins of Sant Eustachio near Scala. Our villa is the highest box on the skyline just below the palm trees. It looks tiny because it is the furthest away.

Flag day dawned and we leapt out of bed with a fire in our bellies to get into nature. Burt and I had decided to try for the Valle delle Ferierre and a steep descent into Amalfi for a dip in the Mediterranean and a bus back home. With twenty minutes warning I invited my brother to join us. This was an unplanned but brilliant move. It left no time for debate or discussion on who might come or where we might go. It was an “are you in or out?” offer. Chris got spousal permission and came on the walk.

The hike started in town and dropped down to the church of Sant Eustachio in Pontone. The town of Scala is made of six ‘fractions’ or hamlets connected by winding stone stairs and a serpentine road. Pontone and Minuta were the two fracciones nearest our villa. We were quite stunned to discover people living far from the roads in a manner similar to the middle ages. They still had to walk a kilometer up or down to reach a car. Horses and mules delivered building supplies and carried out debris. Their houses were hardly changed in several hundred years.

The Church of Saint Eustace is a fine example of Middle Ages building and reminds a person of how populace and rich this area was a millennium ago.  The church’s namesake, Saint Eustace, was a second century martyr frequently compared to Job. He is the patron saint against fire and for firefighters. You can call on Eustace in difficult situations (vague) and when hunting. He protects Madrid. And here’s some irony: Eustace is there for torture victims and trappers. The church dedicated to him in Scala is worth a visit. There are some remnants of paintings from the 12th Century and the rock work intriguing. As is true everywhere in the vicinity, the views are remarkable.

My brother can still run marathons. I cannot. He did well walking ahead and waiting for my slow butt to catch up. There was no complaining. Burt and I are also naturally slower because we goggle every bird and bug we see. So Burt and I goggled and yammered and Chris walked and waited. It was an enjoyable time. After the drop to Pontone the hike mostly contoured around some deep valleys. We did not lose or gain much in elevation for a long stretch. We passed or were passed by only a few persons. People out in nature in a toursity area are my kind of people. We met a group of women headed on foot from village to village for a week of walking. A van brought their luggage to them every night. Burt and I hoped to do something similar but from a single basecamp.

At first we were walking out in the arid exposed area of the coast on rocky paths but we soon entered the wet and shady valleys. Our research into the Valle delle Ferierre said the ferns in the Valle were some of the oldest species on earth. We kept our eyes peeled but there were ferns everywhere. I somehow got in my mind that the ferns were gigantic and, possibly, tree sized. This was delusional. I asked other walkers if they had seen the ferns. Nobody knew what I was talking about. Where were Howard and Carol when I needed them? The ferns turned out to be a plant common to North America and of routine fern size. We were a little underwhelmed. But the views were unfailingly eye popping, the walking easy, and the pace enjoyable. I liked walking on paths that have been used for thousands of years. They are generally well engineered and of a moderate grade.

The three of us lunched on salami, cheese, crackers, and chocolate in the deep shade above the town of Amalfi. Soon afterwards more people dotted the trail and creek side. Ruins of old buildings and bridges grew up between the trees. We wondered what the buildings had been. Signs pointed the way to Amalfi. I found one that told of the paper making empire. The ruins were the remains of papermills and power plants from the manufacturing heyday of Amalfi. The downhill trail turned into a path and then a lane and finally a series of steep stairways for the descent to the sea. Lemon and fig trees peeked over tall stone walls. The lemons were as big as mangoes. Soon we were in the blazing sun and wall to wall stone of Amalfi. Hordes of shopping and dining tourists were everywhere. Burt and I went for the ocean and took a dip. We caught our first 1.30 Euro bus back up the hill and arrived at home in time to nap before dinner. But first we had to walk a kilometer from the bus stop to Villa Minuta.

I couldn’t have had a better birthday hike. The non-hikers of the family were all safe at the pool when we arrived home. We took a dip and hit the hay to rest up for the walk to dinner.

Ruins of Sant Eustachio near Scala. 12th Century construction.
Ceiling vault in the church. Pretty nice mortar for somethings that’s nearly 1000 years old. Imagine it covered in paintings.
Endangered in Europe and common in North America. A prehistoric fern.
My brother is on the bridge. Can you imagine this place when thieves, kidnappers, and pirates were the norm?
Dung beetle
Aqueduct to the papermills.
0.35 hours to Amalfi. That’s 21 minutes.
These miniature towns are an Amalfi coast thing.

It Was My Birthday

These are metal mule paniers for carrying building supplies and debris into the off road community.
These are metal mule panniers for carrying building supplies and debris into the off road community.

That first full day in Minuta was a learning experience. As I described we had no food. We had no parking. We had no accessible restaurants. The next morning we got food and I decided I would make this a walking vacation. In Spain we had averaged over six miles a day. Maybe we could do the same here. I was a bit concerned with the severity of the landscape but I figured we had no where else to go we might as well walk slowly all day and see where we went.

After getting groceries and cooking a huge meal Burt and I considered the next day’s agenda. It was my birthday. Number 52 if you’re keeping track. Kind of a bland number if you as me. I decided I wanted to spend the day with my husband walking in the woods and end it with a nice meal for two in town. I announced to the 6 remaining members of Team Zazzali to not expect our participation in any group events the following day. They could not care less. With dinner and my announcement out of the way Burt and I took an evening walk to see what was going on in town and possible find a restaurant for the birthday dinner.

It was a twenty minute walk to town with up and down sections. There is nothing flat in Amalfi. The area became populated as people sought refuge from pirates on the sea and raiders from the northlands. Mild mannered seafaring folk with stout legs nestled in the steep cliffs and stayed out of harm’s way. The lazy did not last. It reminded me of the Anasazi but with better architecture and cuisine. And of course Amalfians survived. Eventually Amalfi became one of the most successful cities on the Mediterranean. It was loaded. They made paper and grew lemons. They still grow lemons. Now they sell pretty paper from elsewhere and fleece tourists.

By the middle ages the Amalfi coast was full of rich churches, protected castles, and lots of wealthy people. The history of the small speck of land we covered is long and full of political intrigue. Kidnappings, murder, adultery, bastards…all within a rock’s throw of our villa. The night before my birthday we were still ignorant of most of this. Burt and I in our get along and just float mode had not researched the area. With the wonders of wifi we researched as we went.

We exited the Villa Minuta and climbed the several hundred stairs up to the road to Scala. On our way we passed the Minuta plaza with its required church and fountain. If the Roman’s deserve to be remembered for one thing I tell you it is clean water distribution everywhere. Every town has a fountain and the water is free and potable. There are fountains all over Italy and you can drink from every one of them. Rome had fountains every few blocks. I used the same 1/2 liter Topo Chico water bottle for the entire trip. Carrying a small bottle cuts down on weight and waste.

The other thing every town has is a gelateria. Gelato is silky smooth ice cream in rich luscious flavors. I found the best chocolate ice cream styled substance I have ever had in Rome but it was immediately deposed as my favorite that night in Scala. Pistachio was my favorite flavor as a child and the pistachio gelato in Scala was everything and more than I remembered. So Burt and I sat in the tiny square outside its church and savored our ice cream. The restaurant looked like it would be okay for the next night’s romantic dinner. Across the way I spotted a machine in the wall. It kind of looked like an ATM but something wasn’t right. It more closely resembled the soap dispenser at a laundromat. We ambled over to see if we could get Euros on the wall.

Right there in downtown Scala, literally in front of God and everyone, you could buy a condom or a phone controlled vibrator from a machine in the wall. If this blog made me money I would have purchased the vibrator so I could report on its durability and efficacy and write it off on my taxes. As I sit here in Seattle I lament my failure to purchase the device. I have no excuse. Well I do but you don’t pay me enough to tell you what it is.

So things were looking up. We’d found the free water. We’d learned where to buy great gelato. We’d learned sex toys were available 24/7 and for a modest price. The next morning’s hike was planned. Time for bed.

The evening glow above Ravello.
The evening glow above Ravello.
I'm so jaded that when I see a pretty roadside flower I think it must be an invasive weed. I have no idea what this might be.
I’m so jaded that when I see a pretty roadside flower I think it must be an invasive weed. I have no idea what this might be.
Minuta water fountain.
Minuta water fountain. Thank the Romans you don’t have to buy bottled water everywhere you go.
Burt and I were enjoying our gelato when we spied this.
Burt and I were enjoying our gelato when we spied this. Wireless con telecomando. Let’s go!