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Trip Report Dusseldorf, Amalfi Coast, Pompeii & Rome:The Good, the Bad & the Beautiful

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Have you ever had this sensation: you're on the plane bound for your trip, anticipating what's in store; next thing you're there, still shaking you're head that you're really in Paris or Rome or wherever, but you've got exciting days ahead; suddenly you're on the flight back home; now you're home. Did time really pass that fast? Was the trip just a quick dream? That's the sensation I'm feeling now, still jet lagged after returning from our twelve day trip to Dusseldorf, Germany and the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii (actually a last minute change of plans to the Villa Poppaea ruins at the Pompeiian suburb of Oplontis), and Rome.

This odd hybrid of locations is the result of some last second planning and our desire to visit some close German friends in their hometown, then travel with them and their teenage sons to Italy for their fall school break. I'm usually obsessed with planning the minute details of our itineraries before we leave. This trip is different. Never have I departed for such a significant vacation with only a sketchy outline of what we intend to do in mind. But this unique opportunity to travel in Europe with Europeans on their schedule seems too good to pass up. As time permits, I'll review the results of this travel "experiment" here.

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    I thought the same thing when I read your TR title - an "odd hybrid of locations". I too tend to plan minute details so I will be most interested to read about your trip at the mercy of others planning. Sounds like an interesting "experiment" and I look forward to hearing it all.

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    The genesis of our trip is this: twenty or twenty-five years ago we got to know a bright young German couple, a few years younger than we are, who were doing graduate studies at the university in our hometown. They had just started dating at the time, but we watched their romance progress over the year they were here and then kept in touch when they returned to Germany. To our delight, they got engaged, then married, decided to move to Dusseldorf, and during the intervening years launched parallel careers in which they’ve done very well.

    Their success has allowed them to travel frequently with their two sons, including multiple trips to the U.S. On several of these, they’ve been able to stay with us for a few days. Recently, two of our college-age children have been able to visit them in Dusseldorf on summer studies abroad and raved about their time there.

    My wife and I decided late this summer it was past time for us to go. We’d traveled in Germany before, but the thought of spending a longer period in a single city – especially in one as appealing as Dusseldorf -- and with knowledgeable locals (not to mention good friends) was just too good to pass up.

    When we contacted our friends and disclosed our intentions, we learned that the early October time we had chosen to travel to Germany coincided with their two boys' fall school break. They were contemplating a trip to the Trentino-Alto Aldige/South Tyrol region of Italy, and wanted us to come along. That sounded good to me, as we’d only passed through that area on a couple of previous trips.

    Checking our last-minute frequent flyer options, I thought flying to and from Italy without going to Germany would work best for us. Our friends would have none of it, insisting we had to visit them in Dusseldorf, THEN go with them to Italy. In the meantime, their plans had changed and they decided they would rather visit the Amalfi Coast for the first time and spend a few additional days in Rome where their sons had never been.

    We’d never been to Amalfi either and can’t get enough of Rome, so that revision suited us just fine. Moreover, on our last trip to Italy, my wife was disappointed we couldn’t make time to visit Pompeii, so this would give us that opportunity too.

    I was happy to just sit back and let our Dusseldorf friends guide us to their favorite spots in their hometown, because obviously they know it best and our time there would be as close as we could come to living like locals. But my work was keeping me too busy to brush up on the details of the Italian portion of the trip. I resisted a strong temptation to just post here on Fodors “Help, I’m going to Amalfi, now tell me what to do.” I instead uneasily resolved to myself that this trip mostly wasn’t about seeing new places, but was really about experiencing Europe from someone else’s perspective and let the trip unfold for us in real time, so here goes.

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    Okay, a small correction -- I did do some ahead-of-time research, right here on Fodors.com. I learned two things:

    (1) Many Fodors.com posts on Dusseldorf are from travelers anticipating an extended layover at the airport there and asking what to do. Hopefully I can help provide a few answers.

    (2) I was having trouble quickly assimilating the abundant information on the Amalfi Coast, including where to stay and what to do there for four days other than enjoying the unfailingly delicious Italian food and wine. One thing I want to do for sure is to swim in the Tyrrhenian Sea, unless it's unbearably cold.

    After reading a few reports, I default to always reliable Dayle's choice of Praiano, figuring if she'd chosen to stay there twice, it's good enough for us. It is a pleasant surprise that our German friends come to the same conclusion, choosing a hotel in Praiano that is a little pricier than we have in mind. They graciously defer to our choice of the Hotel Tramonto D'Oro there, while we agree to their choice of Hotel Ripa in Trastevere in Rome.

    With our lodging set, but our daily itinerary totally up in the air, we pack up and fly to Dusseldorf.

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    A word about the title I selected for this report — the good and the beautiful certainly outweigh any bad on this trip. However, one “bad” was the surprise I received when I finalized our flight reservations and see the $396.80 in “Taxes and Carrier-Imposed Fees” ($198.20 apiece for my wife and me). I’m used some sort of fee imposed on frequent flyer mile tickets, but this seems way out of line. Maybe it’s just because it’s been a while since we've traveled to Europe on “free” tickets.

    After some discussion with the American Aadvantage reps, they explain the high fee is due to the routing of our flights through the UK, and this is a tax imposed by the authorities there. Because we were booking late and have this unusual itinerary of flying in to Dusseldorf and out of Rome, we essentially have no choice. If Fodorites here know a better strategy next time I do this, I’d appreciate any suggestions.

    One other difficulty was deciding what to pack for the trip, since we faced the possibility of cold, wet weather in Germany but hot, dry days in Italy. I pack a medium-weight water proof jacket that can keep me warm and dry in all but the coldest fall weather, three long-sleeve shirts, three short-sleeve shirts, two pair of slacks and a pair of jeans, and then wear some lighter weight Columbia khaki pants (convertible to shorts if needed) on the plane.

    Okay — so before departure my daughter doesn’t approve of my style choices. I tell her this is a privilege of being over 50. Those Columbia pants are, by far, what I end up wearing the most.

    On to Dusseldorf.

    Mon. Oct. 8 - Dusseldorf

    The flight over the water is uneventful and, as usual, Ireland and England are cloaked in a blanket of clouds as we descend to Heathrow. Changing from Terminal 3 to 5 for our flight to Dusseldorf is more of a hassle than we expect from previous trips. Maybe we're just tired after the cramped all-night transcontinental flight on American, but waiting for the bus between terminals seems to take forever, then we have to stand again in a dozens-deep security line only to find that the bags we carried on with ease on the American flight won’t fit in the British Airways luggage measurement contraption, so we have to check them.

    The BA flight to Dusseldorf, however, is very comfortable and the late afternoon cloud cover breaks as we approach Dusseldorf, revealing deep green German countryside. Soon the modern Dusseldorf skyline — highlighted by the 800-foot Rhine Tower — appears on the horizon. We arrive on time and the weather is pleasantly cool, in the mid-50s with clearing skies.

    Our friends have fixed a fantastic welcome dinner for us at their beautiful home. None too soon, we are reminiscing with them and their teenage sons — all of whom speak fluent English — over drinks and appetizers.

    The next day, it takes me about a hour and a half to destroy the carbohydrate-free progress I’ve made in my diet over the summer months. But we’re in Germany for crying out loud, home of some of the best bread and beer on the planet. Next stop Italy, pasta, and wine. No way I’m letting some measly diet interfere with the really good things in life . . .

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    After some discussion with the American Aadvantage reps, they explain the high fee is due to the routing of our flights through the UK, and this is a tax imposed by the authorities there. Because we were booking late and have this unusual itinerary of flying in to Dusseldorf and out of Rome, we essentially have no choice. If Fodorites here know a better strategy next time I do this, I’d appreciate any suggestions.>>

    only the obvious - avoid LHR!

    seriously both Schipol and Frankfurt would make equally good hubs, so long as the destinations you want are available of course. But, had you flown to Frankfurt, you could easily have got a train to Dusseldorf.

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    Tues. Oct. 9 to Thurs. Oct. 11 – MRand’s Subjective Guide to Düsseldorf

    Since most inquiries about Düsseldorf in this forum are asking what to do here while on layover at its great new(er) airport, here’s a quick, totally subjective guide of what we enjoy in the city with the help of our local friends over the next four days. The literal German translation of “Düsseldorf” means “village on the Düssel” river. Düsseldorf, with the umlauted “u,” is the correct German spelling. Our friends tell us that Dusseldorf’s big sports and cultural rival is nearby Cologne, about 30 miles south “up” the Rhine. Cologne soccer fans, as a taunt, apparently spell the city “Dusseldorf” without the umlaut, which in German means something like “village of fools.” Oh, those European soccer fans.

    To the contrary, Düsseldorf is an active, modern city that is a leading commercial and cultural center in Germany. When he moved here in the mid-1850s, composer Robert Schumann wrote his greatest work — his Third Symphony — whose first movement was intended to evokesthe rapidly-flowing Rhine River that dominates the city. German poet Heinrich Heine was born and raised in Düsseldorf, and the major university in the city is named after him. The city center is relatively compact but bustling, and the major sites it has to offer for visitors are easily walkable or accessible with public transportation.

    The city has four contiguous “districts” of interest. Three of them are on the east side of the Rhine:

    (1) The Altstadt (Old City) with its great promenade along the Rhine. This is area of old-style German buildings housing shops, bars, and restaurants. It was completely restored after the devastating bombing of the city during World War II. One interesting thing you often see in the area is the statues or images of the “Radschläger” — the cartwheeling kids that our friends tell us has been a symbol of Dusseldorf since the Middle Ages, when town children allegedly celebrated a victory between locally-warring principalities.

    (2) Parallel to the Alstadt is the modern downtown/shopping area that centers on the appealing half-mile long Königsallee (nicknamed the “Kö”) boulevard. This broad avenue, with a tree-lined canal running down the middle, is framed on the outside by high-end stores. Our friends call it the “Champs Elysee of Germany.”

    (3) South of both the Altstadt and the Königsallee districts is the stunningly modern Mediahafen (“Media Harbor”) on the Rhine with all sorts of futuristic buildings occupied by media offices, bars, and restaurants. They line an old harbor on the Rhine that has been dramatically renovated over the last 15- 20 years, now looking like a movie set for something like Blade Runner or Minority Report. The most interesting structures (among many) include Frank Gehry’s fantastic white, gleaming silver, and red-rust trio of misshapen buildings “Der Neue Zollhof” (circa 1998) and the brand-new Hyatt Regency Dusseldorf with its own Chicago “Bean”-like structure that doubles as a bar. (See pictures at www.fotoausflug.de/en-germany-duesseldorf-media-harbor-gehry-buildings.html .)

    (4) The fourth area of interest — on the west side of the Rhine just across from the Altstadt and Mediahafen — is the old but upscale neighborhood of Oberkassel. It’s accessible by two Rhine river bridges and largely escaped the destruction wrought on central Dusseldorf by WWII, although embedded bomb shrapnel can still be seen in some of the townhomes. Today Oberkassel is full of young professionals and families and quiet streets full of interesting architecture and neighborhood cafes.

    Based on our friend’s recommendations and our personal sampling over three solid days exploring the city and its environs, these are our highlights of the city:

    Best pizza: Al Colosseo - Nosthoffenstrasse 32 in the Altstadt. The favorite of our friends’ teenage sons, who in my mind are the ultimate pizza critics. And inexpensive at that.

    Best beer: Uerige – Berger Strasse 1 in the Altstadt. Great old German beer hall. Well, not really a hall, but a great old German beer room serving the best of Dusseldorf’s trademark Altbier. Altbier is a dark but not too heavy contrast with the blonde Kolsch lager that is the signature beer of Cologne — Dusseldorf’s rival city just a few miles south along the Rhine.

    Best bakery: Tie between Pure Freude — Hohe Strasse 19 and Bäckerei Hinkel — Mittelstrasse 25. “Pure Freude” translates as “Pure Joy” and it’s easy to see why. This shop has amazing small pastries, including delicious homemade marshmallows among many other things. This is a favorite stop of our friends, and I notice all nine Yelp reviews as of Oct. 2012 are in German and give the place 5 stars, so the locals must know something. Bäckerei Hinkel at Mittelstrasse 25 is a bread-lovers’ heaven, packed with locals buying every imaginable version of bread such as football-sized Oberländer, Mürbchen sweet bread rolls, and Kümmelstange loafs, and discus-shapen Innsbrucker Roggenloab. I’d pretty much cut bread out of my diet before the trip. I give myself permission to suspend that for 12 days.

    Best gummi bears: Bärenland – Berger Strasse 25 in the Altstadt. I’ve never been a huge fan of gummi bears, but this store pretty much changes my mind. Every flavor of gummi under the sun, and their peach-flavored gummis (is that a liquid center I’m tasting?) — absolutely nail it.

    Best breakfast: Muggel — Dominikanerstrasse 4, in Oberkassel. Get yer eggs any way you want them, and the toast with butter and homemade strawberry jam is killer.

    Best lunch: Nagaya — Klosterstrasse 42, downtown. Expensive but delicious sushi (a good dietary change of pace for us) at Michelin-award winning chef Yoshizumi Nagaya’s downtown restaurant: www.nagaya.de

    Best dinner: Brasserie Hülsmann — Belsenstrasse 1 in Oberkassel. A neighborhood bistro jammed with locals at dinner, with a friendly family atmosphere. The best sausages I’ve ever had, but they’ve got everything under the sun on the menu. Reasonable prices for the six of us. The also have a creative web site: www.brasseriehuelsmann.de

    Best art museums: Modern art exhibits at the K20 and K21 museums – both part of the North Rhine-Westphalia state museum of art. K20 is just north of the Alstadt and Kö areas and (in my mind) has a somewhat more interesting collection. Yet K21, just south of the Altstadt and Kö, is the more interesting building. Both worth checking out: www.kunstsammlung.de/en/home.htm

    Best view: Rhein Tower (Rhein Turm) – the pinnacled 800 foot observation tower with incredible 360º view of the central Rhine region. We go up on a clear day and can see south all the way to Cologne, barely making out the spires of the famous cathedral on the horizon.

    Best walk: Start at K20 art museum when it opens. Then walk along the Rhine and through the Alstadt, stopping for a beer and slice of pizza for lunch. Grab a gummi snack at Bärenland. Walk over to and down the Kö boulevard, window shopping at the fancy shops if you like, to K21, which is located in the old . Even if you don’t see the collection, just walking in the modern white atrium, set in the old parliament building, is worthwhile. Over to the Rhine Tower for the sweeping views and then check out the Mediahafen. Stroll across the Rhine and end up in Oberkassel for dinner at Brasserie Hülsmann. (Or any part of the above.)

    Best park: The beautiful grounds of Schlöss Benrath (Benrath Castle) on the southern side of the city. The “castle” was actually an opulent hunting lodge built in the 1700s by the local prince of the region.

    Best evening road trip: Stappen — Steinhausen 39 Korschenbroich, Mönchengladbach, Germany. Incredible food in very nice atmosphere with surrounded by locals with no tourists (other than us). There’s a nice beer garden out back too. It’s about a 15 mile drive west of Dusseldorf, so this would be a fantastic place for those travelers with a rental car, but maybe a little difficult to reach by public transportation: www.gasthaus-stappen.de

    Best half day road trip: Feste Zons – a few miles south of Dusseldorf along the west bank of the Rhine is the small walled medieval town of Zons, within the larger modern community of Dormagen. Locals call Zons the “Rothenburg of the Rhine” after its more famous and much larger walled counterpart in southeastern Germany. In the Middle Ages, the Rhine flowed right along Zons’s eastern wall, thus allowing the town to be a key point for collecting tolls from ship traffic on the river. A “pig war” — a local dispute in the 1500s with the archbishop of nearby Cologne in which a Zons local recovered pigs the archbishop’s troops had claimed for his domain, is commemorated with an amusing sculpture and fountain at the walled entrance to the town. The fortress was later occupied by Napolean’s troops. (After we visit, we take a small ferry boat at Zons back to the east bank of the Rhine. It’s amazing, despite the locally flat terrain, how fast the Rhine current flows here and in Dusseldorf.)

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    MRand,

    Where are you? I don't remember if you live on the East Coast. I hope you are not in trouble as a result of Sandy.

    Looking forward to the rest of your report! Check in!

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    Dayle:

    Thanks for your concern. We were not affected by Sandy (but do have friends who were). My excuse fortunately is much more mundane - just the demands of being back at work taking time and energy away from finishing trip reports. Since it's the end of the season at Amalfi, I also felt less urgency to share our experiences with potential visitors. I'll try to be more brief and pick up the pace as work permits. Our thoughts and prayers do go out to all who are still suffering or facing difficulties post-Sandy.

    To other readers in this forum, although I've never met Dayle, I've found her reporting to be very accurate. Her previous trip reports about her stays in Praiano heavily influenced my decision to choose this town for our "base of operations" in Amalfi. An example of the value of the Fodors forum at its best.

    Luckily, our German friends independently picked Praiano as where they wanted to stay as well. Their initial choice for a hotel was a little more expensive than we had in mind, so we compromised and chose the Tramonto D'Oro, heavily influenced not only by what seemed to be its reasonable price, but also its great views, its good reviews on Trip Advisor, and its accessibility to the beach. We love to swim on vacations and we are determined to swim in the ocean there if the water temperature permits. The fact that Tramonto also apparently has a nice swimming pool makes it attractive to us as well as the German teenage boys we have in tow.

    Fri. Oct. 12 - Dusseldorf to the Amalfi Coast

    We are lucky that we've had great weather for the 3+ days we've been in Dusseldorf (clear to partly cloudy with high temperatures in the 60s and 70s F), as they had a number of days of heavy rain shortly before we arrived. But we may have used up our good weather luck where we need it the most - the Amalfi Coast. The weather forecast is for rain on Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday -- three of the four days we will spend there. Moreover, the heavy rain has returned to Dusseldorf on the morning we depart.

    We've gotten a great one way fare on a two-and-a-half hour non-stop easyJet flight from Dusseldorf to Rome Fiumicino ($148 apiece, including checked bag and early boarding fees). Our German friends, however, are apprehensive because they've had a previous bad experience with easyJet canceling a flight from Switzerland back to Germany and leaving them to fend for themselves in making return arrangements. This flight, however, goes off without a hitch and we arrive in Rome on time at 3:10 p.m. The sunshine on the Italian countryside breaking through the clouds portends, we hope, better weather than that forecast for the next few days.

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    We wait about 45 minutes for our bags after arriving in Rome then walk through the terminal to pick up our on-site rental car, a Fiat Scudo that our German friends have reserved from Europcar. I'm not sure what possesses us to turn down the GPS. I've depended on it heavily in previous trips in Italy and Costa Rica and we will regret not having it when attempting to navigate the small roads in the Amalfi region.

    The drive from Rome's airport to Praiano is much more scenic than I anticipate, even on the A1 "superhighway" between Rome and Naples. The green mountains, vineyards, and hill towns and clouds are spectacular in the late afternoon sun and then twilight. We pass surprisingly close to Cassino with its monastery high on a hill to the east, site of the bloody months-long battle in World War II which delayed the American army's advance up the west side of the Italian peninsula. A little while later the dark shape of Vesuvius looms in the distance as darkness falls. The surrounding mountains are illuminated from lightning from a distant thunderstorm.

    When we reach the outskirts of Naples after dark, however, we realize we need better directions. We can't keep up with the constant change in directions that my phone's GPS is giving, so we decide to rely on local road signs. Probably a big mistake, as they take us over, rather than around the Lattari Mountains that line the Amalfi Coast.

    As we climb upwards, the lights of the whole Naples region are spread out below us, but the many hairpin turns as we drive up and over the mountain range slow us down considerably. The boys in the back of the van are getting a little car sick. The only saving grace is the occasional lightning flashes that reveal the high rocky cliffs and deep valleys of the mountainsides.

    After what seems an interminable ride, we descend through another long set of mountain switchbacks through quiet Ravello, then finally join the coast highway at Amalfi town. The sparkling lights of the Amalfi coastline stretch both far to the east and west of us. I really don't have a good feel for what to expect here on the Amalfi coast. While the pictures I've seen of the coastal scenery look spectacular, I have a sneaking suspicion that any bit of Italian authenticity has long since been wrung out of the area by overdevelopment and jet-setting tourists.

    After another long drive westward along the coast, we finally arrive at our hotel Tramonto D'Oro in Praiano. What should have been a 3 hour trip has turned into a 4 and 1/2 hour slog. The town looks all but closed up, but fortunately we catch the hotel's restaurant right before closing and the pasta and wine on the open air terrace partially restore us after our tiring journey. We're staring into the dark at what we think may be the lights in Positano in the distance. It starts to thunder and sprinkle, leading us to believe the bad weather forecast for the next few days is going to be right on.

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    MRand - that sounds like the sort of journey that it takes a while to recover from!

    My one-time italian teacher [from the north] told us a funny story about being lost in Naples. he and a friend were completely lost and consulting a map at a junction, when the driver of another car attracted their attention and came over to them. Fearing that he was a thief or worse, they locked their doors and windows, but after a lot of hand gestures and shouting, they understood that the other driver was simply asking them if they needed any help. Eventually and full of trepidation they agreed to follow him and he took them all the way to their destination.

    shame you didn't have a neapolitan guardian angel!

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    Sat. Oct. 13 - Praiano

    The forecast for the next three days is rain. I'm holding out hope that the weather prognosticators are wrong. Because my internal clock is still off, I wake up at 5 a.m. and briefly step out onto our terrace facing the black ocean. Not only are the lights of Positano twinkling in the distance, but the clear night sky is ablaze with stars!

    When we awaken at 7 a.m., though, an ominous gray overcast has moved in off the ocean from the southwest. On to breakfast. The Tramonto D'Oro has a traditional continental breakfast layout, but with an above average buffet selection. In fact, our German friends say it's one of the best they've ever seen in Italy. I like the varieties of bread and they even have scrambled eggs. We sit on the terrace, admiring the fantastic view, but it's muted because the water, mountains, and sky all seem to be varying shades of gray (no pun intended). Fortified by our breakfast and hearty espresso, we decide to climb down the 400 steps to La Gavitella beach directly below the hotel. A few dark clouds aren't going to stop these hearty travelers.

    I think someone miscounted the number of steps; it seems far fewer than 400, but as we near the bottom a torrential rain begins. We retreat, soaked, to the hotel. The rain doesn't let up. The hotel is setting up for a wedding of a local couple. We shake out heads for their bad luck in having a wedding in such a beautiful place on such a dreary day. We wile away the rest of the morning reading and hoping against hope for a little blue sky, or at least a break in the deluge.

    Finally when the rain slows for a few minutes, we dash next door to Trattoria San Gennaro on the church square in "central" Praiano for a late lunch. Despite the weather, we ask to sit on the covered terrace. The trattoria is a friendly, family-run operation with delicious bruschetta, foccacia, and pizza. The rain picks up again, so we decide we're in no hurry to do anything except eat a leisurely and enjoy the tasty house red wine. I begin to fumble with my iPhone, Googling for suggestions for "rain / suggestions / Amalfi Coast." After our meal, our friendly young waitress, obviously a daughter of the owner, brings us a fabulous assortment of liqueurs in small glasses, including limoncello, lemon cream, various mellone flavors (the canteloupe one was beyond delicious), anise, and more.

    We finish lunch mid-afternoon and back at the hotel the wedding celebration is now in full swing with music and dancing. These guys spirits don't seem too dampened. With the rain changing to a steady drizzle, we decide to not let the it deter us either. On to Positano. As a precaution, I grab a couple of the umbrellas the hotel has helpfully supplied in a large iron pot at the entrance. We jump on the "Orange" bus, which stops right in front of our hotel, for the eight mile ride along the winding coast highway to Positano. (About 1.5 Euros per ticket.) By the time we get there, we have a break in the precipitation. As we begin to walk from the bus stop down the hill on via Cristoforo Colombo into the center of the town, our German friends spot a restaurant -- Bruno -- that is apparently a favorite of their former chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The place looks inviting, so we plan to return for dinner.

    We window shop as we slowly make our way to the Positano waterfront. We peak into the church, where a troupe of local teenage girls are dress rehearsing a ballet routine. Some of the observers tell us the full performance will be later in the evening, so maybe we'll come back after dinner. After getting our fill of the interesting but really expensive stores for which Positano is so infamous, we're looking for a nice bar on the waterfront to have a drink before we head back to Bruno for dinner. Unfortunately, we can't seem to find any place with a view where we can just have a drink -- all the prime places on the harbor are restaurants where we'll need to order dinner to sit and enjoy the view, such as it is.

    As we start to make our way back up the hill to Bruno, the rain returns with a vengeance. I give one of the German boys an umbrella I've taken from the Tramonto D'Oro. His dad has the other one. We look forward to drying out with some good Italian food and wine at Bruno. We slosh back up the hill to find that Bruno is full with over an hour wait for a table. We look for something else nearby, but the rain is driving even harder. Defeated, we see the Orange bus coming back up the hill. We decide on the spot to return to Praiano to dry out. Fortunately, even though we're not at a bus stop, our wives waylay the bus and charm the driver into letting us board. It's standing room only, so our German friends move to the back of the bus. My wife and I stand in the only remaing room up front by the driver.

    When we return to the Tramonto D'Oro, my wife and I jump off first and rush into the bar area to dry out and have a drink. The wedding party is dispersing. Our German friends do not follow immediately. Apparently, I've caused an international incident between the Italians and the Germans. The umbrellas I'd taken earlier from the black pot in front of the hotel and given to our German friends were NOT a complimentary amenity provided by our hosts -- they were the umbrellas of the wedding guests! YIKES. A brief row has ensued, but when my explanation is finally translated through three languages, everyone's good natures prevail and international relations are at least partially restored. However, our German friends are convinced that some of the hotel employees view them with a semi-suspicious eye for the rest of our stay.

    A tentative armistice having taken hold, we walk across the street for a dinner upstairs at La Brace (the grill) for fish, pasta, and (of course) pizza. We all have a good laugh at the diplomatic catastrophe I've almost created.

    After dinner though, the skies open up again. We knew the weather here could be iffy in October, but we've taken our chances to come this far to the Amalfi Coast, where the primary attractions depend on sun, and the forecast for the next few days is for more rain.

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    MRand,

    I'm so sorry you hit bad weather. It's definitely a place for sunny day activities. How did you like La Brace?

    The umbrella story is very funny. An easy mistake to make! I see "complimentary" umbrellas in many places. Now I'm going to wonder if they are inteded for my use or NOT!

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    Enjoyed your story MRand.

    Usually, at least in my case so far, a hotel's loaner umbrella has the hotel's name splash on the canopy that it cannot be mistaken for a personal umbrella.

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    Dayle - frankly, based on the Trip Advisor reviews, we were expecting a little more from La Brace. Maybe it was because we went on the later side -- it wasn't bad, but it wasn't one of our best meals of the trip either. We like Trattoria San Gennaro down the street better, and it is less expensive too.

    Reading54 - I certainly should have put 2 + 2 together and realized the umbrellas were those of the wedding guests. While the Tramonto D'Oro is a nice hotel, it seems to be a family-run operation that wasn't so upscale that I expected it to have its own "monogrammed" umbrellas.

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    Sat. Oct. 13 – Praiano – Nocelle (Il Sentiero degli Dei – the “Path of the Gods”)

    In the middle of the night, the sound of driving rain – harder than anything we’ve had so far - wakes me up. I roll over and go back to sleep. When I awaken again about 7 a.m., I’m surprised by the amount of light coming through the door slats. I leap out of bed, throw the doors open, and walk out on the terrace. To my amazement, the skies to the west are clearing and the dark clouds are scudding off to the east. A sweeping view of the entire west Amalfi coast is unfolding in the morning light. I wake my wife up and we hurry to an early breakfast on the Tramonto D'Oro's open air terrace.

    The sun's rays peak occasionally between huge white and gray thunderheads to the east. When the sunlight falls on it, Positano seems to glow a soft white color in the distance. All along the coast, the mountainsides dropping into the deep blue ocean are a dark green, punctuated in places by the white and gray limestone of the Lattari range. Now at the far western end, we can finally make out Capri. The island is easily recognizable from its famous Faraglioni Rocks – three giant sea stacks on the southern side of the island that are easily visible from the hotel's terrace. Since we weren’t planning to go to Capri on this trip, I hadn’t read too much about it. I’d always assumed it was a relatively low island, when in truth it is a huge mountain peak rising straight up out of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

    For a moment, I wonder whether we should change our plans and go to Capri today. But my wife and I are dying to swim. We decide to hike down the “400” steps to Gavitella Beach for a dip in the ocean if it’s not too cold. Alas, when we get there, the water is warm but the beach is roped off and way too rough for swimming. From far above the ocean on the Tramonto terrace, we couldn’t judge the size of the waves. The prevailing wind out of the southwest for the last few days has generated huge swells that are crashing on the rocks and even threatening to wash away some of the boats that are tied up on the shore. Time for Plan B.

    Back at the hotel, the tall clouds have completely cleared away to the east. We now realize that contrary to the forecast, we are going to have crystal clear weather. After conferring with our German friends, we agree that outdoor physical activity is the only appropriate way to enjoy the day. The famous Sentiero degli Dei (“Path of the Gods”) on the mountain high above us in Praiano gives us a perfect opportunity.

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    One of the helpful women at the front desk of the Tramonto D’Oro gives us a map and printed directions on how to access the Sentiero hiking trail from Praiano. Basically, go a block west along the coast highway, up the staircase and follow the red arrows. The directions say to take 400 steps up to reach the trail. As our group begins the hike, another helpful local woman gives us the simple version – “at any fork, stay to the left.” This time, unlike the steps down to Gavitella Beach, the 400 steps up to the Sentiero degli Dei seems like a serious underestimate. Our teenage compatriots have been good sports so far, but after about 25 minutes of one stone stairway after another, they decide they’d rather spend their day knocking around Praiano, so we part ways with them and the adults continue climb upward and onward.

    After perhaps 30 or 45 minutes more of mostly vertical ascent, high on the mountain we reach the small shaded courtyard of Convento San Domenico and its ancient church that is being restored. A young caretaker here who barely speaks English offers us seats to rest and cold water or coffee. We take him up on the cold water. We make out that he has a cousin who works at the front desk at the Tramonto and that the convent and church are really, really old.

    After a brief rest and exploration of the church, we continue ever upwards. We finally reach the path itself, which levels off at what seems an impossibly high altitude, probably 1500 to 2000 feet above the cobalt blue ocean. The coastal highway now is just a small rope far below us. We’ve been fortunate to hike in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches and Canyonlands, on the Na Pali coast in Hawaii, and the Cinque Terre. I’d stack up the views and exhilaration we feel here on the Sentiero degli Dei against any of them. Even if this is our only day of good weather, it is absolutely worth it to come so far for this.

    We hike along the trail, with some occasionally precipitous exposure below us, at other times towering limestone cliffs capping off the mountains above us. We continue to revel in this incredible scenery for an hour or so until we come to the small mountainside village of Nocelle, above and much closer to Positano than to Praiano. We’ve been told we can catch the Orange bus from the square at Nocelle down into Positano, where we can connect with another one back to Praiano. The day has turned warm so we’re pretty sweat-soaked as we walk into the town.

    We are starved and so make our way along the narrow stairways and walkways in Nocelle to Ristorante “Bar” Santa Croce, a small but bustling eatery full of locals and a few other hikers. They’ve thrown Santa Croce’s picture windows open for the wonderful views down below to the white buildings and houses of Positano and out southwestward to the little archipelago of Li Galli with its private castle/villa where Rudolf Nureyev supposedly spent his final years. A cool breeze wafts up from below and actually chills us as we dry out from the hike with an overlong lunch. Ah, Italy. Ah, Amalfi. Pure contentment.

    “Reverie: rev-er-ie noun Def 1. A state of being pleasantly lost in one's thoughts; as in a daydream: ‘I slipped into reverie’.” Def 2. Sitting at the Santa Croce with wife and friends, looking out the windows after hiking, wine, and pasta on a day like this. Finally, it's time to get going again.

    Against my better judgment, my wife and our German friends decide we should take the 1,200 stairs straight down to the coast highway rather than the Positano Orange bus. My aging knees rebel against putting on the breaks so often, so I lag a little behind. An hour later, however, we’re standing as the bus stop on the highway just east of Positano.

    Parked cars line the narrow road as far as we can see down to Positano. While we wait for the bus, a group of probably 30 or 40 Italian boy and girl hikers and their two escorts walk up to us. Fortunately, they want to go west to Sorrento and we’re heading east to Praiano. Sadly, they unsuccessfully try to board two westbound SITA buses that are already completely full. We have no idea how so large a group is going to get to Sorrento on already overloaded public transportation. We board the Orange bus to Praiano and are back at our home base at the Tramonto D’Oro after a swaying fifteen or twenty minute ride.

    We put on our swimsuits and head for the nice L-shaped rooftop pool at the Tramonto to cool off a little more. We haven’t seen anyone else swimming in the pool while we’re there, but the hotel proprietors assure us the pool is indeed open. The water is chilly but bracingly refreshing on our tired hikers’ bodies. At last, we’ve gotten our swim in. It isn’t quite the Mediterranean, but it’s close, in more ways than one.

    The sun is now dropping low in the western sky. The 180 degree view from the pool terrace is every bit a stunning as dozens of others on this day of jaw-dropping panoramas. (I think this must be the setting for the final scene in the HBO series Entourage, when the agent Ari thinks he’s finally escaped the LA rat race. Checking it with my son on our return, I realize that scene was filmed from a terrace in Positano, looking back towards where we’re standing in Praiano.) From here, we once again can make out the Faraglioni rocks off Capri. Those rocks are just mesmerizing. They beckon probably fifteen or twenty miles in the distance. In fact, now it looks like the sunlight is reflecting through a small pinhole piercing one of the rocks. Later when I look pictures of these sea stacks on the Internet, I realize that there is in fact a small natural tunnel I’m seeing through the middle rock. An amazing site to conclude an amazing day. So this day is, for us, what the Amalfi Coast hype is all about.

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    TDudette - thanks for your comments! We think the Cinque Terre is great too. Hopefully if I have more time over the holidays I'd like to add some thoughts comparing/contrasting the two.

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    I realize I'm a day off on the trip reporting. The heading above should have read:

    Sun. Oct. 14 – Praiano – Nocelle (Il Sentiero degli Dei – the “Path of the Gods”)

    In any event, as described this was a glorious day on the Amalfi coast, topped off by returning for dinner to Trattoria San Gennaro -- just down the street a block or two from our hotel Tramonto D'Oro. The decor is kitschy, including a large porcelain hand making, for want of a better description, a "Hook 'Em Horns" sign like fans of the University of Texas make with the little and index fingers extended and the middle and ring fingers folded downwards to the palm. (We have the feeling it may be conveying a less positive message in Italy.) Nevertheless, the restaurant is run by a family and has a cheery cozy feeling that many Italian restaurants have but is so hard to describe. The menu is simple and a good value and we think the food is very good, if not great. The service is attentive without being hovering. It's why we've return several times.

    A word too about traveling with our German friends. Probably partly because we only see them every few years and partly out of the cultural curiosity we each have for one another, our conversations at each meal tend to gravitate to the "big" topics -- raising children; comparisons of German, Italian, and American attitudes and customs; World War II and the Holocaust; and friendly debates about politics, culture, and religion. In many ways these exchanges are a throwback to those late night philosophical discussions I seem to remember having all the time in college, before more practical considerations took over our daily lives and the interactions we tend to have with our friends back home. The young German teenagers -- who speak excellent English -- often pitch right in with their thoughts too. We look forward to these daily conversations every bit as much as the fabulous food and wine.

    Tomorrow our plan is to venture out on the coast highway in our rental van and explore Ravello and Amalfi town. As narrow as the coast highway is and as crowded as it seems now -- even here at the end of the season -- it's hard to imagine driving a car around the Amalfi Coast during the high season. But we're up for giving it a try.

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