Friday, July 3, 2015


Well, against all odds, Dave and Sandy have found themselves in their little corner of paradise for another summer.  We owe that in large part to some wonderful friends who have facilitated our stay here. And even a public ‘thank you’ of this sort is totally inadequate, but here it is anyway.

As we are accustomed to do every two years, we led a tour of Italy at the beginning of the summer.  Despite a rough start (our departure was delayed for almost a whole day) we led a wonderful, congenial group of students and adults to many of the major tourist destinations in Italy for some 9 days.  We flew into Rome and toured the ancient part of the city, settled into a seventeenth-century convent partially converted into a hotel in the heart of the city, then enjoyed dinner and a beautiful tour of parts of the city by night, when Rome seems to be a its most inviting.  The next day we were off to the Vatican early, and in the afternoon hopped a bus to beautiful Sorrento on the Bay of Naples.  Two days there included a tour of Pompeii, time in charming little Sorrento itself, and most of a day on Incredible Capri, where our wonderful tour guide Giulia gave us the option of taking a first-time bus ride and chair lift to the western edge for spectacular views of the whole island.  The chair lift alone was a highlight. And, with the exception of one barely adequate meal, the food was spectacular as well.

One of the things which attracted us to this tour was the fact that, unlike past tours, it included a high-speed train ride from Naples to Florence instead of riding a bus for 6 to 9 hours.  Don’t get me wrong, I love riding the bus, Italy is gorgeous almost from one end to the other, and the hick from West Tennessee never grows tired of gawking out the window.  But, sadly, after four days of hard-core touring, tired bodies rebel, and most of our tour group nods off for most of that long trip.  Plus, you could spend months in Florence and still never exhaust the possibilities, so more time in Florence is a premium.

Italy’s train system is designed to move people, not freight, as is ours, and, to my mind, it does so incredibly well.  Most Italians would never dream of driving the 400 miles from Naples to Florence.  Making train travel even more attractive is Italy’s system of bullet trains traveling on dedicated rails.  These trains are called Freccie, ‘Arrows’, and it’s a name well chosen.  There are three tiers.  Freccia Bianca, “White Arrow’ trains travel on both high speed and regular rail lines and service many cities across Italy.  They can travel up to 160 mph, pretty darned respectable by American standards.  But the Freccia Argento ‘Silver Arrow’ trains service only major cities, travel exclusively on high-speed rail, and can zip along at close to 200 mph.  We took a Freccia Rossa, “Red Arrow’ train, which basically runs between Naples in the south and Milano in the north, stops only in Rome, Florence and Bologna, and speeds along in places at a mind-boggling 230 mph.  And the ride is so smooth you really have no sensation of going so fast unless another train passes in the opposite direction and all you see is a flash of color.  Amazing.

Two days in Florence, our sentimental favorite city, since it’s where we spent our first Italian summer back in ‘95 when Amy was 5, was frustrating as usual, trying to prioritize all the things we wanted to see. The highlight for most of our group was a trip to a local cooking school where we prepared handmade pasta fresca, then cooked and ate it.  But the Duomo, Santa Croce, where the Calcio was in progress, the Academia to admire Michelangelo’s genius, the many other spectacular sights of Florence—not too shabby either.  Then we were off to Venice for two days in that charming, odd little city.

On Wednesday, June 24, we were taken by water taxi to the Venice airport where Sandy and Dave bade a fond goodbye to our traveling buddies.  Two wonderful friends, our M&M team, Marguerite and Margil, had volunteered to shepherd the group back through Frankfort, Washington Dulles and to RDU.  After we had seen the group off as far as security allowed, we were helped by the tour company’s representative to find a shuttle bus from the airport to the train station in Mestre, the large, industrial mainland city across the lagoon from Venice.  I had dreaded trying to make this connection, envisioning a slow slog by vaporetto back to Venice, another up the Grand Canal to to the Venice train station, a madhouse, no doubt  But this wonderful service runs about every 20 minutes and costs all of 6 euro!  Plus, the train station in Mestre is much better equipped to handle large numbers of travelers.

All seats on the bullet trains are reserved. We had not reserved seats on the Freccia Rossa at 10:30 because we were afraid the flight might be delayed and we had made a solemn vow to the kids’ parents (not to speak of our adult travelers who were new to Italy) that we would not leave them till we saw them walking through security, so we were disappointed to learn there were no more seats available except in first class, a cool 90 euros more, but that we could take the bullet to Bologna, change to the Freccia Rossa to Rome and Naples, for basically the same price as the one we anticipated.  Cheap-O opted for the latter, and almost immediately regretted it; how many more opportunities will we have to travel in a first class coach on a bullet train?  Do you suppose they serve  free Prosecco and croccanti?

The trip to Bologna was uncomfortably crowded, but an easy jaunt, and the transfer was painless as well, except that Dave misread the departure time on the ledger and strolled off to pee and had to gallop back to Coach 11 (at the far end of the train, of course) as passengers were scrambling aboard and poor Sandy was looking frantic.  But, gee, what a wonderful way to travel!  Freccia Rossa trains have wi-fi, somewhat dependable by Italian standards, outlets for each seat, a clean, modern toilet on each car and two on one of the coaches, and a bar/restaurant car at the rear.  Attendants come around and sell snacks or meals and drinks at a very reasonable price. The train is air-conditioned, the seats comfortable—I can’t think of a better way to travel overland.  Three hours later we were off the train in Naples, just in time to use one of the electronic kiosks to buy tickets on a local train to Agropoli and head for the platform.  The local train was nothing to brag about—crowded, hot (the air-conditioning was malfunctioning and dumped a load of condensation on guess who— but the people were friendly and helpful, and we enjoyed seeing sights which are becoming so familiar to us:  Mount Vesuvius looming over the Bay, the Monte Lattari, that gorgeous range which creates the Sorrentine Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast, the tunnels through them and into the beautiful Bay of Salerno, and then the little towns we have come to love, Battipaglia, Capaccio Scalo, Paestum, and our beloved Agropoli.  Off the train, and there was Fernando to meet us and take us to the Astone’s house where our little apartment awaited.

It’s a wonderful feeling, that sense of extreme anticipation for something you’ve looked forward to, practically for a whole year, combined with the sense of warmth and security knowing that you are coming back to familiar territory and the warmth of people you love.  Agropoli is now home, in a very real sense.  But there are changes!  As we drove up the Via Ludovico Ariosto and up the steep driveway to the villa, a new paint job!  Beautiful burnt Sienna, one of those striking colors which screams Italy.  And in this case, impossibly, makes this gorgeous home nestled into a hillside even more striking.

Other changes:  our favorite couple, Fabio Astone and Katiuscea, are now officially married and have moved to a new home about 2 kilometers away, down in the valley.  Far enough away to have their own space, but close enough to stay in touch with Fabio’s parents, Rolando and Filomena Astone, and, we hope, with Dave and Sandy as well.

New auto arrangements:  after an inquiry from me asking about the feasibility of buying a used car to leave here—over the course of several years, we have spent the equivalent of some $5000 on rental cars—Fernando has found us a cute little Mercedes hatchback from a local agency at a very attractive price.  Goodbye Hertz!  And good riddance!  And hello Hans, in honor of my grad school buddy Hans Meuller, another sporty model of German extraction who was right at home in Italy.

Off to Pizzeria Il Galeone for dinner with Fernando and, while much about Agropoli is reassuringly familiar, not least the taste of Il Galeone’s pizza and the gorgeous view as the sun sets upon the marina over the distant Sorrentine Peninsula, there are obvious changes as well: new stores open, new homes going up, old homes receiving badly needed repairs and new paint.  In short, signs that this region is finally climbing out of a deep economic recession after 7 long years.  Poor Italy still has one of the worst unemployment rates in Europe at 12%, and I suspect here in the South it is at least double that, but nothing like the desperate situation of Spain and Greece, and everywhere there are signs of hope.

Changes and signs of hope.  That’s about the best we can ask for in life, isn’t it?  As Sandy and I reach a certain age, we find ourselves more and more resistant to change, more and more comfortable with the status quo, but at the same time we know in our hearts that change is what keeps us going, change that forces us to entertain new ideas, get up off our chubby little fannies and explore new worlds, walk off those pounds, eat the new food, even the challenging one, drink the new wine, and savor the new experience.  And at the same time there is something about this blessed place that reenergizes us, makes us dream of a future, even at our age, filled with new adventures together.

Back home in our little snuggery, we fell into bed with the window open and the cool night breeze blowing through, pulled the blanket up tight (don’t mean to rub it in, NC friends, but it’s still sweater weather at night here) and fell into deep sleep filled with wonderful visions of the time we will share here.