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Acrophobia in Amalfi

The Amalfi Coast had long been on my “must see” list, with its cliffside towns and crystalline blue Mediterranean seas, but eleven days there was just too much.  I know I don’t love the place.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s gorgeous.  Colorful villages are improbably propped up on the literal edge of cliffs, hundreds of feet above the sea (see “Problem list below”).   Stone staircases weave up across the lemon-tree filled hillsides, as many of the villages have extremely limited car access.  Numerous beaches dot the coastline (although we didn’t spot any sand ones).  The sea really does sparkle and luxury yachts cruise the coastline.  The sun shines brightly and strongly (although we did have same rain–in July!).

So what is there not to like?

Problem #1: We drove.  Driving the Amalfi Coast is not for the faint-hearted (or, arguably, the sane).   Especially at the height of the tourist season where you compete with massive tour buses, local buses driving at breakneck speed, hordes of Mercedes minivans (also loaded with tourists), other hapless tourist drivers and pedestrians, and local  drivers (many on mopeds) who seem to have a tenuous regard for their own longevity, all on narrow (and I mean one car width narrow), windy roads that hug the cliff. Suffice to say, the first few days my nerves were shot from the drive there and a subsequent day outing drive to Sorrento.   My hands sprouted callouses from my tight grip on the steering wheel.  After a couple of days, we realized that this was a coastline best explored by boat.

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An inch to spare

An inch to spare

Problem #2:  As I mentioned, houses are improbably propped up on the literal edges of cliffs.  The cliffs are limestone and the building sites seem to have stood the test of time, but my incipient Acrophobia was in overdrive. Even copious amounts of Chianti couldn’t relax me. Thus, I had to resort to the local treat, Limoncello (the liquor, not the gelato).

Limoncello

Limoncello

Problem #3:  We like to walk.  On the plus side, we could walk to town within 20 minutes.  The big minus was that half of that walk involved braving the main road as a pedestrian.  The only other place we could walk was up, which we did a couple of times, but it proved to be primarily an aerobic workout rather than a relaxing stroll.

Walk to Amalfi - one of the few sections with a sidewalk

Walk to Amalfi – one of the few sections with a sidewalk

Problem #4: We love Italian food.  However, we don’t love ONLY Italian food, and we’ve learned that we can reach our Italian food limit  rather quickly.  There just aren’t ANY other options in this area.

But enough of the complaining.  There was a lot we thoroughly enjoyed.

We stayed in a unique 1-bedroom “villa” on the famed 163 road connecting all of the towns on the Amalfi Coast. The owners were a truly generous couple who went above and beyond in making us feel at home, showering Zara with gifts, us with food and wine and not allowing their limited English to get in the way of sharing their enthusiasm for Amalfi with us.

Every morning we breakfasted out on the patio which offered a picture perfect view of Amalfi town.

View from our patio

View from our patio

We took a wonderful walk up the hillside to the town of Pogerola, where we had drinks and dinner at the delightful Gerry’s Pub.  We sat outside on a patio with beautiful views of La Scala and Ravello and Gerry was so friendly he let me wear his cozy motorcycle jacket when the weather cooled.

Walk to Gerry's Pub

Walk to Gerry’s Pub

Gerry's Pub

Gerry’s Pub

Walk "home" from Gerry's Pub

Walk “home” from Gerry’s Pub

We swam in the Mediterranean several times.  We took a ferry to the picturesque Portofino.

View down towards Amalfi town

View down towards Amalfi town

Relaxing on our patio

Relaxing on our patio

Walk down to Duoglio Beach - 400 steps

Walk down to Duoglio Beach – 400 steps

Lido on Sorrento

Lido on Sorrento

Cliff architecture

Cliff architecture

Swimming - Zara's favorite activity

Swimming – Zara’s favorite activity

View from ferry

View from ferry

We also did a day trip to Capri (unfortunately, on a day that rained during the first half), took a boat to the Emerald Grotto and had an interesting day trip to Pompeii (separate post pending on that).  Five or six days here would have been perfect.

Lake Como – That’s amore!

Prepping for a swim in the lake

Prepping for a swim in the lake

View from balcony

View from balcony

Invigorating swim in Lake Como

Invigorating swim in Lake Como

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Casino Royale crew

Casino Royale crew

Walk back in time

Corniga – A walk back in time

2013-06-24 09.10.16It was love at first sight for me with Lake Como.  And no, we didn’t see George Clooney (although we spotted his villa across the lake).   We’d rented a 2-bedroom home in Nesso, from a US-based college professor whose grandfather built the house in his retirement.  Nesso is a quiet hamlet about halfway between Como and Bellagio, its apartments and modest villas are built into the hillside and cascade down to the lake.  The majority of these dwellings are inaccessible by car, their access limited to steep and narrow cobblestone stairways.  No need for gyms here.  You have to be fit to leave your home.  In retrospect, we didn’t see many folks out and about.  One thing was immediately clear–the Italians do charming amazingly well.  The difference between Switzerland and Italy was immediately clear as we crossed the border.  Italians aren’t tidy and methodical.  They are more liberal with their splash of colors.  And they are even louder than us Americans.  I immediately felt at home.

Our rental was just off the main road circling Como, a 1 minute walk to the only hotel in town (Tre Rosa) which became our almost nightly dining venue.  It was here we discovered the local fizzy red wine.  Sounds strange but it really hits the spot in the heat.

The local ferry stop could be reached in seven minutes via cobblestone paths and the bus stopped right outside of our rental.  If you’re familiar with Italian roads, you know that public transport is the way to go and Como is no exception.  This point was “driven” home when Jonathan took the car down a narrow road that kept narrowing until we couldn’t move forward anymore and the only option was to reverse 200 yards with only an inch on each side at the narrowest points.  Zara and I directed while Jonathan had the hot seat.  That was fun.  We were especially grateful that we’d abstained from any wine at lunch–unusual in our resolve in that we were the only dry table in the restaurant!

Our week in Nesso flew by–so much so that for the first time in awhile I found myself wishing we’d booked our rental for longer.  Highlights from the week:

  • Our friends from Maine, the Loders, stayed in Nesso for two nights with their three beautiful children and the kids enjoyed pillow fights and kung fu routines while their parents talked late into the night.
  • Ferry to the Villa del Balbianello, a setting in Casino Royale
  • Swimming in Lake Como
  • Late afternoon drinks in Bellagio
  • Ferry rides
  • Countless hours soaking in the view from our balcony
  • A walk to a medieval village.  Jonathan is always on the hunt for spectacular views, so when he spotted a gondola cable going up a mountainside across the lake, we decided it would be a good outing for our last day at Como.  We took the ferry across the lake to Argegno and grabbed the gondola up the hill to Pigra.  A short walk around Pigra proved that there wasn’t much on offer (although the views were spectacular), so we ambled along to the start of a forested trail and then had to crazy idea to see if we could  walk to another town on the lake.  Wow–what a discovery.  The path took us through a postage stamp-sized village called Corniga, which looked like it hadn’t changed in centuries and appeared to only reachable on foot.  By the end of the nearly six-mile walk, however, we were cursing the steep cobblestone path, so much so that Zara got down on her knees and  kissed the ground when we finally reached flat pavement.
  • Hot chocolate to die for in Bellagio
  • Discovering a scorpion in Zara’s room while packing our last day!

Bavarian Alps: Munich to Lake Como

It’s been a busy week, during which we’ve added four new countries to Zara’s roster.  We bid “sayonara” to Kyoto, flying Emirates via Dubai to Munich (highly recommended–the contrast between this experience and the one to Japan via United Airlines deserves its own blog post as UAL is its own version of hell on long-haul flights.  Seriously, no seat-back screens?  Are we back in 1999?).

The heavy rains that had pelted southern Germany in the weeks prior to our arrival fortunately had abated and given way to warm weather, so Zara and Jonathan explored Munich via bike and on foot for a couple of days while I attended my conference.  Munich is another city made for cycling.  Our hotel was adjacent to the Englischer Garten, which is a lovely park even larger than Central Park and with the added surprise of its own surf break–seriously!   And after the culinary exoticism of Japan, we all happily dug into our hearty German meals of Spätzle and wienerschnitzel and joined the crowds of Germans drinking from large steins in the outdoor beer gardens.

After my conference ended, we picked up the Renault Scenic we’ve rented for the next three months through Renault’s Eurodrive program outside Munich.  Definitely worth checking out for long stays in Europe–hassle free experience so far and the price is reasonable (especially compared to camper van rentals in New Zealand)!

Neuschwanstein Castle:  How could we miss checking out Baron Bomburst’s castle home in Vulgaria?!  Okay–so we may be biased as we are slightly obsessed with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but this was a must-see.  We actually skipped the castle tour because a late afternoon arrival meant the earliest tour of the castle’s interior was at 6:40pm (warning: this place gets crowded in high season), but we’re not huge fans of guided tours anyway and we were still able to tour the outside of the castle and take in the amazing views.

Oberammergau:  We drove into this charming town filled with religious iconography and decided it was a good stopping place for the night.  Oberammergau is famous for its Passion Play, which is produced once a decade.  As the story goes, in 1633, hoping to save their town from the ravages of the black plague, the inhabitants of the town gathered and prayed, and promised to re-enact the life and suffering of Jesus every 10 years if they were spared further deaths.  Apparently, it worked! We stayed in a fourth-generation family-run hotel with a friendly proprietress, watched a fierce lightening storm after dinner from our balcony and took a stroll along the river the next morning.

Zugspitze: This was another unplanned stop, but when we saw the sign advertising a railtrip to the top of Germany on my birthday/Father’s Day, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  Unfortunately, our sandals weren’t the best footwear for exploring the peak at an altitude of close to 3,000 meters, but the views were stunning.  The ride up on the Bavarian Zugspitze Railway from Eibsee was also seriously impressive, as we quickly and smoothly gained altitude and tunneled through the mountain for over 15 minutes. Not for the claustrophobic!

St. Moritz:  We picked St. Moritz as our 2nd overnight stop on our way to Lake Como and stayed at another fourth-generation family run hotel.  The town was less ritzy and crowded than I’d expected (I suspect high season is in winter) and we had a tasty dinner in our hotel’s restaurant where an American Jazz pianist entertained us with popular jazz pieces while Zara danced away (until she realized everybody was watching her).  Before taking off the next morning, we took a stroll around the lake where we discovered that Switzerland does have black flies, although they fortunately appeared to be the non-biting variety.

The Drive:  This is probably the most stunning  drive I’ve ever taken, through Bavaria, into Austria over the Fern Pass and then dropping down into Italy.  It just kept getting better and better.  I would have been happy to stay longer at any of the places we passed along the way.  Of course, I did always dream of being Heidi when I was younger!  Warning that claustrophobes may not enjoy the number of miles spent driving under mountains.

Now we are happily ensconced in our house rental perched on hill overlooking Lake Como in the charming village of Nesso.  More to come!

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Beer and pretzels in Englischer Garten, Munich

Beer and pretzels in Englischer Garten, Munich

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We still need to christen her!

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The Bavarian countryside

Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle

Bavaria with post-storm skies

Bavaria with post-storm skies

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Fourth generation hotel in Oberammergau

Fourth generation hotel in Oberammergau

Cross on hilltop above Oberammergau

Cross on hilltop above Oberammergau

Walk along the river in Oberammergau

Walk along the river in Oberammergau

Atop Germany at Zugspitze

Atop Germany at Zugspitze

Austrian Alps

Austrian Alps

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More Austrian Alps

Italian Alps

Italian Alps

Near the Italian border

Near the Italian border

St. Moritz lakeside walk

St. Moritz lakeside walk

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