Monday, December 3, 2012: Naples, Italy
After an easy train trip to the embarkation port of Civitavecchia (less than 60 minutes and less than 8 Euros each), a quick check-in for the ship, and an on-time sail away, we enjoyed our first dinner, meeting our fantastic tablemates for the trip and then heading to bed to continue to catch up on some much needed sleep.
The next morning, we were confirmed on an independent tour that we had arranged with a Cruise Critic contact for the Amalfi Coast and Herculaneum with a tour guide that they had previously taken. Marcello Maresca was a friendly gentleman who met us right on time at the entrance to the port. Promptly at 7:30am, we were moving south on the express toll-way towards the Amalfi Coast and the cliff-side villages that make this location a sought after destination for so many travelers.
Our tour group numbered 5 and it made the Mercedes Benz mini-van we were using a very comfortable and spacious ride. Our tour-mates were very friendly and laid back folks from Kentucky and very quickly we knew that we would all enjoy a great day together. As we began the drive south, Marcello shared history and a lot of Italian tradition and culture with us and answered any and all questions that we had. Before long, the multi-lane motorway gave way to a narrow two-lane road as we round our way around the peninsula from Naples and started south towards the villages and communes of the Amalfi Coast.
Before long, the coastline began to look much like Big Sur in California, but with more dramatic cliff faces, and entire towns seemingly dangling off of them, nearly vertical between the water below and the jagged peaks just above. Marcello explained that most of the towns and communes in the Amalfi Coast area were formed as the results of fjords that allowed water to flow from the mountains to the sea, carving away wide channels and valleys that formed the basis for the seaside villages.
Our first view of the coast was as we were coming into the city of Sorrento, widely considered a gateway to the region. Beautiful villas and buildings were perched on the cliffs forming a dramatic seascape as we all enjoyed our rest stops to view and take photographs. The weather was quite dramatic as well, offering us a little rain, 40-50 mile per hour winds, and very cold conditions bringing the temperature to below 5 degrees C (40 Degrees Fahrenheit). Marcello made small adjustments that allowed us to appreciate all that the coast had to offer with minimal interruption or impact from the weather and it was hugely appreciated.
As we continued south, we were fortunate to have minimal traffic and we were able to make good progress, visiting small villages and towns along the way, with stops at a local fruit market, a ceramics shop, viewing of a local nativity scene, the sights that writers worked from that made the region so famous, and of course the dramatic view points of the crystal blue water rolling up to the shores of picturesque seaside towns that make the Amalfi Coast what it is.
Because we were in a small mini-van, instead of a large bus/coach, we were able to turn off into several of the towns and wind our way down the even smaller, mostly one-way streets to see how the local people live and thrive in these areas with minimal parking, steep staircases for sidewalks, and elaborate cable pulley systems to hoist and lower groceries and other supplies up to or down to homes and villas in these communities.
With stops in towns and communes like Positano, Praiano, Furore, Meta, Conca Dei Marini, we arrived to the village of Amalfi, the namesake for the coastal area, and it certainly lived up to the expectations. White-washed buildings and homes sat stacked against the raising cliff faces as you moved inland from the beach and the turquoise water.
From here, we began to drive inland and up the valley to mountain communes set higher in elevation, bringing us to our lunch stop in the tiny hamlet of Pontone. Here the town has just one parking lot for the cars (and it couldn’t have held more than 20) and the rest of the transport is on foot (or with the help of a mule for heavy loads). We worked our way past a tiny church and homes and small storefronts tucked into exceptionally small pedestrian alleys that ironically have “street names” so you can provide directions to a visitor, not that I could imagine how anyone could ever just stumble upon this incredibly beautiful, yet isolated place.
As we reached the doorway of our lunch stop, Trattoria l’Antico Borgo. We walked up a small set of stairs and into an immaculate restaurant filled with natural light from its dining area with windows on three sides and amazing smells emanating from the kitchen and the ceramic pizza oven in the transition area to the dining room. Here, we were greeted by our server and host, an older Italian woman who Darin personally believes had the sole responsibility to encourage us to eat as much as humanly possible. Though she spoke no English, we clearly understood the word “Mangia!” and it seemed to be said many times during the meal…
We were seated at a rectangular table where we could all enjoy the marvelous view out of those waist-to-ceiling windows in the dining room. After the wide variety of wind, rain, and frigid temperatures, here in the valley the sun had finally arrived, streaming nearly blinding warm sunlight into the eating area. We all began to warm up, relax, and enjoy this peaceful place (we were the only ones in the Trattoria at the time) as Marcello and our host brought two ceramic jugs of wine (one red, one white) and bottles of natural spring water. Moments later, the Antipasto platters (and I use this word conservatively) seemingly appeared before our eyes and presented selection after selection of amazing choices from which to begin our meal.
Grilled red bell peppers (quite honestly the best I have ever eaten), grilled eggplant, freshly harvested tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, salami, olives, artichoke hearts, zucchini, fried cauliflower, potato croquettes, and a variety of local cheeses arrived at the table along with crusty, hot out of the oven baked bread. This all covered nearly every square inch of available space as we all enjoyed the feast, the view, the wine, and the company of our tour-mates and new friends.
Our server and host returned from time to time, just to top everyone off with their drinks and occasionally attempted to replenish the food on the serving platters that we had already eaten, to exasperated looks of shock from each of us. As soon as we would fill our individual plates to overflowing, the platters seemed to look as if we had just arrived. Everything was fantastic, fresh, and full of flavor. Darin created a bruschetta mix of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, red peppers, and balsamic to top the hot and crusty bread and Natalie had a seemingly endless of gluten-free options that the chef and host were incredibly considerate and supportive of her dietary considerations, constantly asking questions to Marcello and making on-the-fly adjustments.
As we were all loosening the notches on our belts, taking huge deep breaths, and ready to enter a food coma from the tasty and massive culinary attack we had just faced, we were dumbstruck when a 16 inch Margarhita pizza arrived to the table steaming on a wooden board (just to remind you — there were only 5 of us!) and our host, just shrugged with a small smile gesturing to the pizza for us to continue the feast. Gooey mozzarella, fresh tomato, basil, and freshly pressed olive oil were the simple ingredients on a chewy, perfect wheat crust that was made from the same base as the bread we had just completed. The 4 of us each attempted to work through a large slice or two to attempt to make a dent in the massive pie. (Natalie was exempt from this course, but was rewarded with a large serving of eggplant parmesan to enjoy as a gluten-free substitute, that she loved and shared!)
Bordering on the edge of insanity now, Marcello came into the room, as we all sat in a food-induced stupor, and announced (surprisingly casual, I might add) that the pasta course was on its way. Thankfully, the chef and our host didn’t provide us with the opportunity to protest as within seconds of the announcement two even larger platters of pasta arrived to the table. One contained 8 saucer sized raviolis (two for each of us) filled with ricotta cheese covered in a tasty sauce and the other was a mound of freshly made thin ribbons of pasta with a light sauce of olive oil, olives, garlic, peppers, and parmesan cheese. We stared in disbelief, but learned quickly from Marcello that the greatest possible insult to an Italian is to leave food or waste, so we all dug deep and piled the food onto our plates. Natalie quickly learned that she was not exempt from this gluttony as her own mound of freshly prepared gluten-free pasta, made with rice flour, arrived serving her the best pasta she has ever eaten.
The meal was an event, a masterpiece of perfection that challenged even the most seasoned of eaters. As the pasta, pizza, and endless antipasto courses finally began to be completed or removed (some simply had to be taken away from us for the sake of our now swollen, but terribly happy tummies), we were in a state of total relaxation and enjoyment in the sun-drenched dining room as we were provided with an introduction to “Ciellos” — Limonciello, Melonciello, Coffeciello, and Fennelciello — how they are made, and a sampling of any and all of them. The fennelciello was really different, and the potent licorice flavor made it go down quite smooth.
At this point, I can only imagine the goal was to get us half-bombed because I can’t imagine a sober person willingly accepting the dessert course that was approaching. As each plate was put in front of us, it was a sampler platter of four different local desserts (though the “samples” were more like regular-sized portions) including a moist and tart lemon cake, and sweet and cinnamon glazed apple cake, a custard with blackberries, and a deconstructed lemon cream puff. Natalie received a massive plate of freshly picked fruit and we once again plowed into our respective meals, with the only motivating hope being that dessert is the culinary equivalent of a light at the end of the tunnel signifying the end of this epic “lunch”.
We quietly put down our forks and spoons, placed our napkins on the table, and remained almost silent after the dessert. There was simply nothing more to say. Every possible synonym of “wow, amazing, fantastic, wonderful, excellent, etc.” to describe the meal had been exhausted early on and amongst the 5 of us, we had been reduced to a non-stop chain of happy eating noises — “mmms, uh-huhs, whoas, etc.” Marcello finally came into the room and announced that although the chef and our host were pushing for another course that “our tour had to continue” and that it was time for us to leave. The flood of gratitude and mutual understanding that was reflected in each of our faces needed no explanation. We gathered our jackets and with smiles and appreciation for all of the time and attention provided just to us, we offered our sincere compliments to the chef and staff and made our way to the front entrance and back into the walkways of Pontone.
As we made our way back to the van, we passed a set of mules helping to carry debris and supplies from a construction project at a nearby home and Marcello explained how they handle the heavy tasks when Bobcats and small bulldozers cannot reach the steep and tight spaces where some of the work takes place in these towns and communities. Gastronomically exhausted, but immensely happy, we drove away from the tiny town of Pontone with an experience of Italian generosity, culture, and food that would never be forgotten.
We used a different path inland to reach the Autostrade (highway) and made our way back to the Naples area to make our final stop of the day at Herculaneum or the “Ercolano”. This site was buried by lava and ash from Mt. Vesuvius thousands of years ago. Only recently the ruins were unearthed under the contemporary city of Naples to expose the amazing culture and abilities of the early peoples that inhabited these areas. We were able to spend about an hour and a half seeing mosaic tile floors, roman columns, food storage, homes, art work, and more. As we finished up here, the sun was starting to set and this ultimately meant that the temperature was about to drop as well. We made our way back out to the entrance and met up with Marcello one last time to complete our drive back to the port to reboard our ship.
Working our way through the crowded and somewhat organized chaos of Naples traffic, we arrived at our ship approximately 30 minutes later. We said our goodbyes and thanked Marcello for an amazing day; one that wouldn’t be soon forgotten. Couldn’t recommend this tour enough and would welcome the chance to return to the Amalfi Coast and a meal at the l’Antico Borgo… We’ll just ensure that we hadn’t eaten the previous 3 days prior…