I’ve been planning this trip for a while. 4 years in fact since I wrote my happiness list about driving an Alfa Romeo Spider, wind blowing through my hair, meandering down the Amalfi coast with the stereo loudly playing ‘On days like this’ by Matt Monroe.
So with teenagers in tow, I convinced John to leave his favoured orderly Netherlands for the wonderously chaotic southern Italy. On a promise of relaxation and discovery. What could possibly go wrong?
It wasn’t long before we realised that we were going to spend our entire holiday getting hopelessly lost.
We hired a car and bought along our own sat nav already programmed with our location in Italy. But the first signs of the sat nav not playing by the rules we had become accustomed to, was it introducing us to the concept of quantum mechanics by telling us our hotel on the Sorrento Peninsula, which we were in fact residing in at that very minute, was instead 1.6 miles away.
When we failed to appreciate its immense intellectual dexterity, things took a more sinister turn. It wasn’t long before it plotted its first attempt to do away with us by trying to convince us to drive straight into a bricked up tunnel.
Disgruntled and mistrustful of its motives, we left it behind for our next trip. Not yet accustomed to the baffling lack of any rules of any description, we decided to play it safe and drive to Sorrento, a 20 minute amble away. We could see it high up on the cliffs around the corner and figured it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch on our first proper day.
It was 2 hours later when we were high up in the most remote of mountains that we realised the sign posts were insignificant at best, devious at worse. It was as if the mayor of Naples had personally instructed everyone to remove all signs or helpful navigational tips and requested instead for a blizzard of signs on every road side directing the unsuspecting tourists to hotel rooms one might pay by the hour for, dead end roads less than the width of your car where you may lose your possessions along with the side of your car, and pizza restaurants where you will sit rocking back and forth until you have the courage to bribe someone to lead you out of the village.
It was to be another 90 minutes before we shuddered to a grateful halt, not in Sorrento as we had innocently planned, but in Amalfi, some 40 km up the coast. It was such a beautiful and rewarding sight and so thankful were we to be alive that we immediately paid enormous sums of money for a local to look after our car, squeezed into a space so tight, I would have thought twice about laying a skateboard down to rest. And so, unprepared for our unexpected excursion, we wandered the beautiful streets in search of a wet shave for John, Italian hair gel for Joe and a t-shirt with alien writing for Lois.
Calculating it would take 90 minutes to drive back along the famous and spectacular Amalfi coast, we liberated our car with Joseph asking to handle the transaction, folding the notes in his hand and passing them to the ‘local’ by means of a firm handshake. All without a word passing between them.
On leaving the town, we concluded that surely the drivers were just trying to frighten us of the road and had no intention of actually hitting us. But this myth was quickly dispelled after we received our first black stain down the side of our white Alfa Romeo hire car. People are so used to being hit at speed by passing motorists that they hardly notice it anymore. And besides there was never any intention of anyone stopping to exchange details. Not one car has a wheel arch, bumper or side panel unaltered.
Visibly shaken, John stopped to try and let an old lady with a stick cross the main road on what passed for a zebra crossing. So shocked was she that someone had slowed to a halt, that she remained routed to the ground eyeing us suspiciously and refusing to move. Her suspicions were rewarded when what now appeared to be a riot broke out behind us with every conceivable expletive and hand gesture set to a chorus of horns.
Southern Italy must be the worst place in the world to be a highway road marker. It must feature in the top 10 of dangerous occupations.
No sooner had we moved into second gear 5 miles out of the village when a falling tree on a blind bend, with a sheer drop to the rocks below caused new levels of chaos. This involved another long stop whilst the fire brigade accompanied by most of the locals who considered it high drama to watch a stationary row of cars full of canoodling Italians making use of their idle hands for a while, tried to move it. It didn’t stop over a dozen cars trying to overtake the now 2 mile traffic jam, on the wrong side, of course, and a cigarette paper away from the edge of the cliff.
Imagine for a moment, our panic when driving along with every sense on high alert, it suddenly dawns on you that at least 4 rows of cars and scooters with legs a swinging, on a very slinky 2 way road are bearing down on you around a blind bend on a mountain top at a speed they have no intention of adjusting.
8 hours later, and not the 20 minutes we had planned, we finally arrived in Sorrento. There appeared to be no way out without breaking at least 10 international highway rules. Now all that stood between us and a stiff drink was a 1 mile tunnel that we were advised NOT to enter. Needless to say we didn’t locate the turnoff before and entered the smog of the tunnel before being spat out on the brow of a hill, the wrong side of our hotel. The only solution, unthinkable some 12 hours before in good old Blighty, was to do a 3 point turn on this main road to avoid further danger of us ending up on the road to Milan!
Surely Pompeii would be an improvement for our next excursion. The ruins were spectacularly impressive. Less impressive however was the lack of any signs to help you find the ruins and streets that looked like they had been patrolled by a dumper truck driven by someone with attention deficit disorder on a revenge mission. There was devastation on every corner including the run down hotels, shops, garages and houses. Most of them built within an emergency stopping (Italian of course) distance from the heritage site.
Looking after their heritage is also not Italy’s strong suit. So if you were to glance fleetingly to your left to check the road signs for pizza delivery options, you would miss Pompeii completely. And don’t every hope to find it again.
Onwards to Capri. Very beautiful but don’t expect to arrive before the time you were hoping to leave. And expect to witness the locals involved in a full blown riot again. Whether this was some sort of protest or merely part of the daily routine of buying a ticket, I couldn’t tell. It seems even the simplest act of buying a cup of coffee results in a complicated protracted transaction in Italy. Entire days are lost just waiting for your drink to arrive. And whilst queuing can hardly be classed as a national pastime, every simple transaction resulted in having to wait in what we assumed was a queue but made by Italy so requiring at the very least a pickaxe to hold your place.
If you are ever tempted to visit the blue grotto in Capri, you will find you need to repeat the boat buying transaction many times involving multiple boats and excuses to part with more money, time and handfuls of hair. When you are finally transported the 10 minutes down the coast you will be expected to wait an hour with no communication whilst witnessing the ensuing scenes of chaos around you as boats arrive and barge in from all directions. At some stage driven by goodness knows what system, a rowing boat will arrive to row 4 people at a time 20 strokes into the blue grotto and relieve you of another 48 Euros for the pleasure. We were also told we would need to hand over bribes to let us swim in the blue grotto. 10 Euros should do it. This was agreed but on return to our boat 2 minutes later, we were told we needed to pay an additional 40 Euros as we had ‘an extra long swim’. I have had sneezes that last longer.
Still, you have to admire our pluck or groan at our stupidity, when on the final day we took our sat nav for another trip out to try and climb Vesuvius. Our hotel was bang opposite it across the bay of Naples and it does rather stand out so we were quietly confident.
A warning sign should have been the sat nav refusing to recognise Vesuvius. We tried various options; finally settling for Somma Vesuvius which we were told is the same thing. Well the same thing if you were expecting Vesuvius to be a forsaken patch of gravel down a dirty back street nestling between 2 dead ends.
John by now had given up on the sat nav and the lack of any signs for Vesuvius despite us circling it from every conceivable direction. My requests to help ask locals to direct us, inexplicably in French rather than Italian, didn’t improve the situation. So there was nothing left but to follow a car he liked the look of carrying a roof box. The disappointment was palpable when the driver unaware we had pinned our hopes on him taking us up Vesuvius, pulled up outside a Mexican restaurant.
The owner looked shocked when we got out of our car. All eyes on the lonely side street were on us. ‘At least let’s use the loo’ said John hopefully. This necessitated the Mexican owner turning on the electrics and after much international hand signalling and a free expresso, we had our sat nav reprogrammed by the owner, thrilled that someone had found him, presumably from advertising on a signpost, and stuffed our hands full of business cards. Apparently Ecolano was what was required.
By the time we eventually found the road up Vesuvius some 3 hours after our departure (and not the 40 minutes promised by the sat nav), AND after being overtaken up the mountain by a 5 year driving perched on his father’s knee, it was closed. It had flirted with us all week, at one point appearing to have been taken away during the night, and seemed shocked that we had bothered to turn up at all. As it promptly pulled the cloud down over its eyes, it pointed us in the direction of some of its vomit which it charged us handsomely for. The lady in the shop saying “yes 40 Euros for this piece of rock , eez very special you see. It can stand up this way. And if you like, you can also lay it down this way”. Amazingly compliant with the laws of gravity. Astonishing stuff.
The rain by now was scuppering our plans to swim in the sea so we tried the hotel’s health club instead. The receptionist eyed us suspiciously and tapped to a sign behind his head saying ‘no minors’ and pointed accusingly at my 15 and 17 year old children. ‘But they are hardly minors. And there is no one else in here, so you can’t claim we are disturbing anyone’ I pleaded. He shook his head again slowly and said ‘ah, but what can I do, it’s the law you see’. And pointed again to the sign. ‘The same law that… ‘ I started but was unable to finish as my son dragged me out before concrete shoes were ordered for me.
Leaving for the Airport the next day, we decided we would leave nothing to chance. So we left armed with printed maps, instructions, our programmed sat nav and bribery money. And a good half a day to spare.
It was surprisingly easy, despite the only sign for Naples airport first materialising on the exit road for the airport. But it was a sign nonetheless.
The return of the car hire was less smooth. Instructed to bring her back full, we filled up at the petrol station on the same road and returned relieved with a full tank and the car still looking car shaped. This was met with further head shaking and a ‘no sorry, your tank is only 7/8ths full. We will have to charge you 40 Euros to service it and whatever else it costs us on top to fill it up’. Beg pardon? ‘Or if you prefer, you could take it out again and fill it up’. So, 3 Euros later with the petrol now dripping out the tank, it is again returned to be met triumphantly with a ‘see I told you it wasn’t full!’
I am a sucker for all sorts of pandemonium. So part of me, the part that was on holiday, finds this way of life oddly attractive. But I must be getting old because even I was often open mouthed with the lack of any normal rules or conventions which I now realise keep our little island of calm running smoothly. Such as queuing, paying any sort of taxes, using computers rather than endless piles of paper, any form of signage, schedules which stick to some sort of published time, working in any capacity without the need for some sort of bribe etc.etc.
So scusa if I take a little time to re-adjust. And engage in passionate arguments about trivialities. Or drive through the village with absolutely no regard for what is in front of me, gesticulating widely whilst on the phone and looking in the opposite direction. Or keep your change without registering the slightest guilt. Or turn up for appointments a day late, if at all, displaying nothing more than a bejewelled gown, 10 inch heels and an insolent shrug.
La prego di accettare le mie scuse.