Friday, July 18, 2014

Week @ Amalfi Coast

I went to Italy. It was fun. The espresso was good.

After connecting through Zurich airport, then over-nighting in Rome, we took the Trena Italia "Frescia Rossa", which stopped only at Naples en route to Salerno. From there we waited an hour for a close-to-one-hour bus to Amalfi, and from there waited another 20 minutes or so for a bus to Praiano, our destination. The more typically recommended route would have probably been faster: the Frescia Rossa to Naples, then transfer to a local train to Sorrento, then a one-hour bus to Praiano. But better still would have been a ferry from Naples to Positano, and a much shorter bus segment from there to Praiano, although this may have involved more hauling of bike boxes.

I had my Ritchey Breakaway and Cara my old Bike Friday Pocket Rocket, which I stopped using much in 2008 when I got the Ritchey. The Pocket Rocket is still a better choice on really short trips where the longer assembly-disassembly time of the Ritchey, along with the increased bulk of its case, is harder to justify. But in 2008 I took up running, so on shorter trips, I have the option of running for my exercise instead of cycling. So the Pocket Rocket has been neglected.

Praiano is one of the quieter towns on the Amalfi Coast, mid-way between Positano and the town of Amalfi. It really was a wonderful time staying there, although the hiking is better than the riding. The coastal road, while attracting plenty of riders, is too busy for its two narrow lanes, not so bad if it only served local car traffic, but the full-size tour buses are too common, making the many blind corners on the roadway a stressful experience.

Better are the steep roads which extend up the mountain side. I rode local Praiano Roads, some roads above Positano to Nocelle, and the climb to Ravello. Each of these offered spectacular views and were remarkably free of the tourists who seem to restrict their flocking to the direct coast. And there was nothing subtle about these roads: 15% grades were commin, although the 20-30% grades which are often found in San Francisco weren't observed. So these roads had a lot of attraction. But still, car traffic was heavier than I would have liked.

One positive was the drivers there are much more willing to accomodate cyclists than U.S. drivers, even those of San Francisco where cyclists are so ubiquitous. It's a fundamental cultural issue. That said, passing distances were typically less: there simply wasn't room for the more than one meter buffer which is typically recommended and often mandated. But speed kills, and drivers passing which such small margins were typically going relatively slowly. Still, constant alertness was mandatory. I tend to assume if I'm on the right side of my lane I don't need to worry about what's ahead of me. There it was common for oncoming passing vehicles to be on a head-on-collision for anything short of riding in the right-hand-gutter. In one case, I had to slow to allow an oncoming sports car, speeding past a line of vehicular traffic, room to get back into its lane ahead of the leading car. In another case, I went around a blind corner with a brief "honk" my only warning of an oncoming tour bus taking the entire road, including my lane. But unfamiliarity breeds an overestimation of risk, and with no shortage of local riders, I saw no evidence of carnage.

Better than the riding was the hiking. The towns have an incredible network of paved walking lanes. Beyond the town boundaries, paved lanes give way to trails in various states of repair, from paved (the trail from Praiano to Convento San Domingo) to overgrown and rugged (the path from Praiano to Santa Elia). I was amazed at the evidently light use some of these trails experienced: given the enormous tourist traffic as well as the availability of bus service between towns, I'd have expected them to be crowded, and never over-grown.

We spent two days elsewhere. One was on Capris, an island perhaps better known for its super-expensive shopping options than anything else. For me this was an opportunity for more hiking, starting (with Cara) up the Phoenecian Steps, at one time the primary route from Capris (the lower city) to Anacapris (the upper city). From here, Cara took the ski lift to the summit of Monte Solaro, while I ran/walked the trail, mostly walking upward due to the steepness and the roughness of the trail, but then running most of the way down. Another day was spent at Pompeii. That was a tiring day due to the heat and the lack of shade, Given the conditions one unfortunate day in August 79 AD, however, I wasn't complaining. Pompeii simply amazed me: the sense of history there is overwhelming.

Just when I was fully adapted to Central European Time, though, it was time to fly back home to San Francisco. At Cara's preference we took a car over the hill directly to Pompeii, then after around 4 hours there, a remarkably seemless series of connections via the local train to Naples and from there the Frescia Rossa to Rome.

The train was a remarkable experience. The local train was on narrow-gauge tracks. The Pompeii platform was exceptionally short, with the eastbound and westbound sides offset. I expected a short consist, but it was full-length, and thus only two cars opened at the stop. There were full-local trains, "direct" trains with limited stops, and "directissimo", with even fewer stops. We lucked out and arrived within 10 minutes of the next scheduled directissimo. It made excellent time to Naples. There we walked maybe 500 meters from the Girabaldi station to the Centrale, where we bought our tickets 7 minutes before the departure of our Frescia Rossa to Rome. That train is truly impressive, with video displays, when they're not showing ads (most of the time), would occasionally display the speed and position of the train. I saw 300 kph peak, but more often it was in the 260 kph train. The ride was super-smooth. Unfortunately, some of the considerable time gained by the high peak speed was lost when the train would slow to a crawl for no obvious reason. Those with expectations honed by the trains of Japan, Switzerland, or Germany might have found this frustrating, but my expectations are established by Caltrain, where slow-downs and schedule delays are common. In any case, the train was such a pleasure that I was disappointed to finally arrive in Rome, the area near the station rather unsavory, even predatory: I managed to deter one apparent pick-pocket attempt, for example.

It was way too soon, although the 8 days we spent there were very worthwhile. I love Italy.

Postscript: after arriving home, inspired by having adapted as a staple of my diet there, fresh mozzerella (in particular "mozzeralla buffala") soaking in brine, I purchased a nominal similar thing at the local market. It was, in comparison, a tasteless prop, something to be consumed mindlessly and typically in excess. The Italian version, in striking contrast, is an explosion of fresh flavor with each bite. People tend to think of travel food as eating in excellent restaurants, but to me there's nothing better than eating truly fresh, local food.

Some random photos:





And a selection of prominent Strava activities:

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