In military strategy, there is an old truism that "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy." There are always sources of "friction", differences between the plan in theory and the reality encountered: roads might impassible, bridges are out, maps are wrong, enemy resistance is stronger than expected, the object that appeared to be a bunker in aerial recon was actually a barn, etc.
A vacation trip is much the same - no travel plan survives first contact with the destination.
The sources of friction are many. There is jet-lag friction, weather friction, language friction, closed-for-renovation friction, no-signs or directions friction, etc. In addition, technology has given us some new sources, including the the-advertised-wifi-doesn't-work friction, the wildly-overrated-by-tripadvisor friction and the google-maps-don't-have-a-clue friction. We expected to have friction under control since we had previous been to Italy ten years and already had some familiarity with the country. We were wrong. On a recent trip to Italy, I experienced most of these and also added a few more, including the blowing-chunks-along-the-Amalfi-Coast friction.
We landed at FCO eary afternoon. Our first destination was the Amalfi Coast. Most people arriving in Rome go through Naples (1 hour) to Sorrento (1:15 plus) and then to the Amalfi Coast (1:40 by bus). This seemed too much to do in a jet-lagged state after a red-eye flight. We decided to train to Salerno (2 hours) for the night and then take the short ferry (25 min) ride to Amalfi town the next morning. We booked online with Italotreno, the new private company that competes with Trenitalia.
From FCO, we took the FR1 train to Tiburtina Station in order to catch an Italotreno train to Salerno. I had allowed 3 hours in case of friction, but everything went as smooth as silk. Passport control was cursory, as always in Italy, and there was no customs check. The path from the gate to the train station was well marked by the distinct yellow train symbol. We bought a ticket from the easy-to-use ticket machine and were on the FR1 within 20 minutes of stepping off the plane. After another 45 minutes, we arrived at Tiburtina which is a much smaller and sedate place than Termini, so we had no trouble finding the track. We had so much time that we had over an hour to sit in a cafe have our first espresso of the trip. The trip south was nice in the brand new, sleek and very comfortable car that included barely passable free wifi. The route to Salerno is also more scenic than the route to Naples. Thumbs up for Italotreno. So far, so good.
Salerno isn't a tourist town so the hotel options are very limited. Since I figured that we would be tired and jet-lagged, I booked the Hotel Plaza in Salerno because it is directly across from the train station, where it would be easy to find. It isn't ideal for a real stay, since it is a 15 minute+ walk to the old town, but the proximity to the train station and ferry dock made it good for our purposes. It was cheap and convenient, so I didn't expect too much, which was good since the place was a bit of a dump. The room was small and the furniture was antiquated IKEA rejects. However, the breakfast turned out to be quite nice.
But then so is Salerno in general. A dump I mean. Guide books often describe Salerno as a "gritty industrial city" which is dead on. As I said, Salerno is not a tourist town. It's real Italy. You walk down the street and hear only Italian - no English. If we had stopped there later in the trip, we probably wouldn't have liked it. But as a first stop, it was perfect because it made us feel that we were really in Italy. But I would never consider using it as a base to explore the area, as some guidebooks suggest.
Despite the lack of sleep on the red-eye, we arrived in Salerno with a burst of energy. We dropped our bags and hurried off to the duomo before it closed. (Every time I say the word "duomo", I feel like Elmer Fudd. "The wascally wabbit wan awound the duomo!") It was minor league compared to the places we saw on the trip, but being the first we were somewhat impressed. It is certainly worth a stop if you are in Salerno. We strolled around. The waterfront promenade that gets such high praise in many guidebooks was rather meh. The Old Town, which is ok, identical to every other Old Town in any moderate size European city. Again, as our first stop, we enjoyed it as our first taste of the Old World.
I had a few dinner alternatives in mind, but they proved to be farther away and uphill from the hotel. Afraid that we would collapse any moment, we ended up as Osteria Duomo. The place was empty and uninviting, but we were very hungry by then. My wife had clams and pasta and I had octopus, and fish. I'm still waiting for the fish. The food was decent, but more importantly, our glasses of wine were mammoth. We also discovered an important Italian restaurant principle - the further north you go, the smaller the glasses of wine become. In Salerno, we got these mammoth glasses with our meal. On the Amalfi coast, the glasses were slightly smaller, but still large. By Sorrento, the size had decreased further, but still better at home. In Rome, the glasses shrunk again and by Verona and Venice, they were about the same as at home - glasses of wine for mice. As it turned out, we drank mostly beer for reasons that I shall explain later. After dinner, we also stopped for gelato, but was some of the worst I've ever had. Then I remembered -only get gelato at places that say " artigianale." in order to avoid the "gelato helper" stuff
We debated saying at Amalfi or Positano for the Amalfi Coast portion of our trip. We chose Amalfi, and ended up very glad we did as I shall explain.
After a nice breakfast, we took the 8 minute walk down to the dock for the ferry to Amalfi. After a short wait and 25 minute ride past the picturesque high hills, we arrived in Amalfi town. It was all so easy so far. Were all those many hours of research and planning really going to pay off? Were we really going to have a frictionless trip?
To be continued
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