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What's it all about, Amalfi? ... and Paris, too

What's it all about, Amalfi? ... and Paris, too

Jun 16th, 2011, 04:45 AM
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What's it all about, Amalfi? ... and Paris, too

This trip report is dedicated to the memory of Andy Levine, gpanda, whose wit, wisdom, and sparkle are sorely missed.

June 11
It’s good to be home, and Lola is pleased that I’m back. The trip from Sorrento was long but not difficult: left the hotel at 8.15 to allow plenty of time for wrong turns, twisty roads, and anything else unexpected. Turned out that the route from Sorrento to Naples was incredibly simple, with only a few miles of slow road, and I was in the Hertz lot by 9.30. No wait for the shuttle to the terminal. Lufthansa makes the best of the 3rd-World Naples airport, wasting no time in checking people in and departing on time. The Munich to Boston flight is excellent, departing on time and arriving 30 mins early. The Munich flight is my favorite international flight to BOS, coz no other flights are scheduled to arrive around that time, so Immigration and Customs are usually a breeze. As was the case this time -- I was outside the terminal 10 minutes after the plane door was opened.

The day before
Last day in Sorrento. Walked up, down around, everywhere. Lots and lots of narrow, pedestrian-only alleys that are great to explore, and always easy to find a sidewalk cafe to sit, relax, and people-watch.

There seems to be an epidemic of weddings here. I saw 2 in the main square in Ravello, and 2 more at the church near the hotel here in Sorrento. Odd thing (to me, at least) is that 3 or the 4 weddings were non-Italian couples. Long live destination weddings, I guess. Though I can't imagine the aggravation of packing all the clothes you'd need.

Sorrento is not exactly the place you'd want to head if you're looking for a typical, classic, Italian town. In the downtown/marina area, you hear as much English as you do Italian, and 2/3 of the shops on those picturesque little alleys sell stuff that is destined to quickly become Garage Sale fodder. And yet, the views are gorgeous, the food is delicious, and it's a delightful place to be. Two days here and two days in Ravello were perfect.

The day before that, June 9 – Ravello to Sorrento
The drive from Ravello to Sorrento was stupendous. Narrow little roads along the edges of mountains, with breathtaking views of the sea and hill towns at every turn. Of course, taking even a slight glance at the spectacular view would mean that you'd surely crash into a jutting rock, a bus on the other side of the road, or an oncoming motorcyclist who was in your lane while passing a few cars. The real fun was when you get to a point int the road where there wasn't enough room for a car going in one direction and a bus going in the other to pass. The easy solutionwould be that one would wait for the other, and all was well. But sometimes that just wouldn't work, and then would begin a pas-de-deux where each vehicle would adjust its positions, like gears in a bizarre mesh, until eventually it all worked out. For exactly this situation, my fine rental car has a button to retract the side view mirrors, giving the car a welcome additional 2- or 3-inch clearance on each side. The road is that tight.

Once in Sorrento, the fun part of driving ended, as this is not an easy city to navigate. Traffic is nasty, and street signs are few. Found my way to the hotel with the help of a local cop.

I'm in the hotel Bellevue Syrene, which is a big, rambling hotel in a perfect location on the bay. They upgraded me to an enormous room with an enormous terrace -- the terrace is as big as my room at the Graal. Unfortunately, my terrace is next to someone else's terrace, and there not a whole lot of privacy. The best part of the room is the exquisite tile floor ... absolutely gorgeous, and so much nicer than wood or carpet. Can't say much about the rest of the design, though -- not much thought given to furnishings, etc. They could take some lessons from the Graal. Still, it's no hardship to sit out and look over the bay, with Vesuvio straight in front of me (and always wearing a cloud for a hat).

Sorrento is not a small town. The very large enclave where most of the hotels live is not exactly typically Italian -- English is very much the lingua franca. Still, I've had some wonderful meals. Had a baked eggplant-mozzarella for lunch thyat was simple and beautiful -- the flavor of the eggplant was gorgeous. I did a little research on Chowhound to look for a dinner place, and wound up at Il Buco, four or five blocks from my hotel. As might be expected for a decent restaurant, I passed by 8 or 10 more obvious places before finding the small sign for Il Buco. Without a reservation, they had no place on the terrace overlooking the bay, but did have a table inside. And the inside room was a major treat -- a long room with a curved, stone ceiling. A deep-fried eggplant with tomato and a glass of sparkling wine were offered as an amuse-gueule, and seven different small rolls, each with a different flavoring (fennel, tomato, lemon, etc.) were given. My appetizer was a potato and mozzarella tortino, flavored with caramelized onion, bacon, and something or else other. Way lighter than I could have imagined, and the flavors were terrific. Main course was a steamed sea bass sitting atop mixed vegetables, all cooked perfectly. So much for yesterday's theory that Italians insist on overcooking fish.

Il Buco may well be one of the better restaurants in town, but it's not exactly a neighborhood restaurant. By default, customers are addressed in English and given English menus. But the staff are extremely welcoming, and they're more than happy to put with one's efforts at speaking Italian. And the prices are half or less than what you'd pay in most other places on this earth -- my meal, including a half-bottle of decent wine, came to 60 euros.

To be continued
DonTopaz is offline  
Jun 16th, 2011, 05:10 AM
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Loved the play on words title! How smart to have retractable side mirrors! Hub and I took bus from Sorrento to Amalfi and it took 2 hours to go, what, 20 miles???

Keep it coming!
TDudette is online now  
Jun 16th, 2011, 05:53 AM
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Why do you call the Naples' airport third world? Seemed to me to be as good, if not better, than many airports in Europe.
Marija is online now  
Jun 16th, 2011, 05:54 AM
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Great start. The food in Sorrento sounds wonderful. Good tip about the Lufthansa flight to Boston. When we left Naples we flew Alitalia to Milan--it was a nightmare flight--never again.
cw is offline  
Jun 16th, 2011, 06:33 AM
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DonTopaz is offline  
Jun 16th, 2011, 06:40 AM
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Two days before that -- June 7/8
The flight from Paris to Naples was easy. I'd scored a business class ticket by signing up for some AmEx card and getting 25,000 points, which I instantly converted into this ticket. The empty seat next to me was of course a plus (though it would have been more so if the arm rest could have been raised), but the big wins of business class were: (1)super-fast check-in, (2)super-fast security line, (3)ability to take 2 carry-ons on-board, and (4)[overcrowded] lounge available for a quick bite and clean toilet before the flight.

The Naples airport is a shambles, which is to say the norm for too many Italian airports (Milan/Linate, Rome, Bologna). Bus instead of a jetway, and horrendous system for getting a rental car. The intermediate-sized manual car I'd reserved from Hertz became a Mercedes wagon w/auto transmission; smaller would have been better, but I knew that it would be a losing battle to try to change.

The drive from Naples to Ravello!! Oy! First off, I'd managed to lose the directions that I'd printed out, and that turned out to be fortuitous. I'd never have found the place. I got on the highway and bought a map at the first gas station/rest area, and worked out the route to Ravello through the town of Angri and over the mountains. Oh lordy, lordy, what fun. The highway between Naples and Angri is ridiculous, with no one paying the slightest attention to lane markings, speed limits, or most any other conventions. No one uses turn signals: after all, that would give away your strategy. Once you sort of understand the local rules, it's a blast. Once you get off the highway, lots of the dynamics change. The signs directing you to Ravello will show up occasionally, but maybe not at the spots where you need them most at the places where you need to turn left or right. Once you get on the road from Angri to Ravello, it's spectacular. Amazing views on a twisting, narrow mountain road, with switchbacks every few minutes. And of course make-up-your-own-rules driving. And finally, Ravello.

The setting of this city is from a fairy-book. A city covered with flowers and trees, with a jaw-dropping view of the bay 2000 feet below. It's like being in a helicopter, but without the noise or the seatbelts.

And the smells! The flowers and trees are in full bloom, and each block brings a sweet whiff. Except when you're passing by one of the dozens of little restaurants, and then you get a (very welcome) noseful of swizzling garlic and herbs and olive oil, or maybe lemons.

I am staying in the Hotel Graal, a 3-minute walk from the square in the center of town. The bedroom is minuscule, barely enough room to walk between the bed and the wall, yet this is one of the most beautiful rooms in which I've ever stayed. And that's because the tiny bedroom opens onto an 8'x6' balcony, which overlooks the magnificent bay and the town of Minori. The balcony is covered by a trellis with vines and hanging flowers (sort of an Italian sukkah, if you know what I mean), which gives both privacy and coziness. You would be hard-pressed to find a lovlier spot to pass the time, or write a trip report, than this delightful balcony.

I forgot about the birds. How could I forget about the birds? Along with the sight of the bay and the mountains and Minori, along with the smells of the flowers and herbs, there's the constant sound of the birds. Because we're so high in Ravello, we're actually sharing living space with all sorts of birds, who chatter happily all day. Well of course I don't really know if they're chatting happily, but that's what it sounds like to me.

The Graal is by no means one of the most expensive hotels in the area (I'm paying a rack rate of 185€/night, breakfast included), but I'm finding it a wonderful place to stay. When I arrived, the welcome was as warm as I'd ever received (on a par with what you might expect, for example, in places like Thailand or Ireland), and that always makes a stay more pleasant. They have an particularly pleasant restaurant, and you can take your meal on the terrace that overlooks The View. Breakfast this morning was fabulous, with a huge array of fresh fruits and juices, cereals, bakery stuff, meats/cheese, yogurt, etc. Highlight for me was the still-warm crusty bread and the home-made preserves -- including a lemon preserve. Now that one was new for me -- an interesting mixture of sweet and tart.

The next day, or possibly the one before
A small disaster, as my camera appears to have had a meltdown. It was just a small pocket one, a Nikon Coolpix, but it was useful. No idea if the photos taken so far survived -- have to see if the card is readable when I get home. So now I have a clunky, non-zoom, disposable Kodak camera that uses ... Film! I feel so retro.

Got a nice piece of locally-made ceramics today while exploring Ravello. Main excitement in the Piazza del Duomo at lunchtime was a bride having her photos done. She looked nice, but the tuchas-length veil seemed a bit much.

If Ravello can be used as a guide, and I'm not at all sure that it can be, then there's certainly a difference in the way people dress in the north compared to here. Much more casual, less stylish, less attention to detail here, and I'm obviously excluding tourists from the equation. You go to Varese or Bologna or a Tuscan town, and everyone, young or old, fat or thin, is dressed to look their best. You never, ever see someone looking like a schlump. Not so here.
Interesting mix of hotels thus far. A miserable pit with snotty French attitude the first two nights, a gracious and impeccable place the next two, and now a warm and friendly inn with a view for which "spectacular" would be a cheap understatement.

I've applied some Japanese ways to my stay here. Now you have to understand that I'm spending oodles of time on the balcony, which, because it's outside and covered by a trellis and vines, tends to have plenty of little leaves and dirt and stuff. The room, on the other hand, is beautifully tiled and clean. So mimicking the Japanese custom of a separate set of footwear for every room, but without getting too much into the complexities that I won't try to explain (probably because I don't understand), I have my Room Socks and my Balcony Socks.

The very thought of comparing Italian and Japanese mores sets my head spinning. No two cultures could possibly be less similar. In Japan, everything works. In Italy, nothing does. Maybe the similarity is that in Japan, all the people take it for granted that everything works, while in Italy all the people take it for granted that nothing does. In Japan, everyone abides by the laws. In Italy, it's a national sport to find ways of avoiding, or just ignoring, them. When I bought the ceramic piece today and asked for a receipt, the proprietor looked at me as if I had 2 heads. (I'd received a substantially better price for paying cash, and therefore not creating any record of the sale.) On a different trip, in Venice, I'd purchased a glass piece for a substantial price. That time, I was able to get a better price by agreeing to pay half with a credit card and half in cash. The owner told me that he reports the credit card sale to the government (for tax purposes), then pockets the cash. An old friend who once lived in Italy told me that most shopkeepers here keep 3 sets of accounting books: one set for the government, one set for their wives, and one set that's the actual truth.

DonTopaz is offline  
Jun 16th, 2011, 08:26 AM
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Lovely - keep it coming!
ekc is offline  
Jun 20th, 2011, 04:37 PM
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Hoping for more!
cw is offline  
Jun 21st, 2011, 04:40 AM
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June 5
Paris was sizzling yesterday, about 85F in the afternoon. The Canal St-Martin was a fine place to spend the afternoon., starting just a block or so from Place de la Republique. I'd never actually seen canal locks in action -- essentially, they allow a canal, and any boats that might be using it, to go uphill or downhill. All of which got me to wondering: can a river go uphill? If so, why doesn't the water spill out of the banks?

Here is an Absolute Truth about Paris: If there is a restaurant or snack bar on a main street, it will inevitably be not nearly as good as the restaurant or snack bar just around the corner, on the smaller street. This is guaranteed 100% of the time.

Today was moving day, as I left the shabby Crowne Plaza for the fantastic Park Hyatt. Now this is one of those rarities in Paris, a commercial establishment where the word "customer" is not defined as "someone who is an annoyance." Little requests (please make up the room as soon as possible, could you break this 100 euro note into smaller bills, etc.) are not only fulfilled, but fulfilled with a smile that does not seem terribly forced. All this comes at a price, of course -- cheapest room is 600€/night, and most rooms are 900 or more/night. If you can score a free room with points or similar, though, it's a bargain. And as long as the room is no-charge, it makes it a pleasure to enjoy and pay for a light lunch in the Terrasse (chicken club sandwich, glass of Sancerre, and a small bottle of water for 56€), or a small breakfast in the room (32€).

The Tuilleries is just down the street, and it's a great place to pass the time and watch Paris go by. It's filled with kids playing, lovers strolling, buskers busking (within the rules, of course), and anyone else who is looking for a pleasant time. The busker thing is a bit weird. A woman, maybe about 18 or 20, was playing a violin along one of the walkways, adding some literal grace notes to the ambiance of the park. Every once in a while someone would drop a few coins in the open violin case in front of her, though she certainly wasn't soliciting anything. In a few moments, some security dope came up to her and said a few words -- apparently, it was OK for her to be playing, it was OK for her to leave the violin case open, but it was NOT OK to have any money showing. So, each time anyone put some coins in the case, she had to stop playing and hide the coins.

This was every bit as ridiculous as the scene yesterday in the park in the Place des Vosges. Now this is one of the most beautiful city squares anywhere, gorgeous (and ultra-expensive) residences in a square surrounding a park. On this hot and sunny day, the park was filled with people relaxing and sunning themselves. A 20-ish, maybe 30-ish, woman sitting not far from me found it was too warm for both her bikini top and her blouse, so off came the blouse. And out came the Security Man. Non, non, non, madame! Incredulously, swimsuit tops are not decent enough for the Place des Vosges, and she was required to put her blouse on. There's a photo of this in the mess posted earlier in this thread. (Of course, in true Gallic tradition, she simply rolled up her blouse so that it became a 2nd bikini top, and that apparently adhered to the rules.)

And, oh, by the way, this island of great morality, La Place des Vosges, is home to none other than M. DSK and his lovely wife.
DonTopaz is offline  
Jun 21st, 2011, 09:39 AM
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Don, I totally agree with your theory on restaurants/cafes on main drags.

This city girl had a similar experience in Strasbourg, watching the canal locks in action. I had never seen such a thing! Way cool.

I still need to pick up my jaw from the ground regarding the Hyatt's room rates. Wow.

I'm really enjoying your report - keep it coming.
YankyGal is offline  
Jun 21st, 2011, 12:53 PM
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I too think your restaurant/side street theory is probably true and a good thing to remember when walking around looking for a place.

Took a look at your photos--Paris street scenes were great and I loved the hotel views in Italy. Interesting tidbit about M. DSK living at Place des Vosges.
cw is offline  
Jun 21st, 2011, 02:12 PM
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Loved your pics of Sorrento!
elnap29 is offline  
Jun 22nd, 2011, 07:45 AM
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Nice shots! More, please. Hope your camera survived.
TDudette is online now  
Jun 22nd, 2011, 09:48 AM
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Two days earlier, June 3
The flights to Frankfurt and onward to Paris are nondescript. Plenty of flight attendants in business class (esp compared to AA/UA), and the FAs don't treat the customers as if we're a bother to them.

On the BOS-FRA flight, the purser came over and chatted, addressing me by name -- a nice touch. I had a terrific appetizer of grilled salmon, shrimp, and green, and that was plenty for me. Had breakfast in the Sen lounge. It was overcrowded, as always, but the breads and, especially, the mango smoothie, were wonderful.

Remind me never to take the Air France bus if I arrive at Terminal 1 at CDG. I got out of the terminal at 10:10 and saw that the next bus to Gare de Lyon was at 10:29. Reasonable enough. Bus leaves on time. But from Terminal 1, the bus does not head off to Paris. Instead, from T1, the bus goes to the several stops at Terminal 2. At the 1st stop, a well-behaved crowd of at least 20 people were waiting for the bus. Each one has to discuss whether or not this is the right bus, then figure out the fare, then pay the driver. And of course each one speaks a different language, none of which is the language of the francophone-only driver. Not that the bus driver ought to be polylingual, but WHY CAN'T AIR FRANCE FIGURE OUT HOW TO SELL THE TICKETS BEFORE PEOPLE GET ON THE BUS???? Process is then repeated at the 2nd stop at Terminal 2. It is 11.10 when we leave the airport for Paris, 40 minutes after the bus departed from Terminal 1.

I'm staying at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Place de la Republique, and it's not the first time I've stayed at this hotel. First time was around 1980, when the hotel was a Holiday Inn. Back then, Republique was not a terribly welcoming area -- nothing awful, but not very appealing, either. First impressions this time are not much different: there's a seedy looking park in the center of Republique, and the street encircling [can you encircle an oval?] the park has a bunch of fast-food restaurants and some tired-looking bars and brasseries. But, as is often the case, a closer look shows something much more interesting. This is not an upscale neighborhood, but it is a terrifically diverse and intriguing one. A highlight is the canal, which is just a block or two to the north, and where it's no burden to spend hours strolling and sitting and people watching.

This is outside the well-worn tourist route, so the locals outnumber us camera-toters by a wide margin. The neighborhood is home to a wide swath of nationalities, and no one seems to care who is paired up with who. All in all, an appealing place to be. And when you need a nosh, you pretty much have your pick of Turkish or Algerian or Senegalese or Tunisian or Polish place for a bite. Or, there's Pink Flamingos pizza, a small chain run by an American and his French wife. I had the Ho Chi Minh pizza, with marinated chick and shrimp and coriander with a vietnamese sauce.
DonTopaz is offline  
Jun 22nd, 2011, 09:51 AM
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Day before that ... June 2
I've already checked in and got my boarding pass, and I arrive at Logan at 2:45 for a 4:30 flight. Perfect timing. Drop off the car at Hertz, and the guy asks "did you get in an accident?" Well I'd picked up the car 3 hrs earlier, driven straight home and then to the airport, and the boo-boo the guy was looking at seems to have come from a bullet, not another car. Whatever.

So there's no one in line at security, and I head down to the end of the terminal to the Lufthansa lounge. There are a zillion xeroxed signs in the terminal that say "Air France Lounge opposite Gate 3." Whoop-whoop. I get to the LH lounge, and find yet another Xeroxed sign telling me that the Air France lounge is opposite Gate 3. Another sign says the LH lounge is closed while under construction. Oh, I see. I was supposed to understand that "Air France lounge is opposite Gate 3" means "LH lounge is closed, and you can use the AF lounge instead."

Gate 3, by the way, is at the polar opposite end of the terminal from the Lufthansa lounge. So I pass by the departure gate and see that the flight is now scheduled for 5.30. Feh, delayed flight. But no, not delayed -- I'd just gotten the foolish flight time wrong. How long have I been doing this? I am a certified idiot.

So I'm about halfway through the trek from one end of the terminal to the AF lounge end, when the terminal eardrum-piercing alarm bells/laser/fireworks go off. This particular concert would continue for 25 minutes.

An inauspicious start to a trip.

But the AF lounge is not disappointing. It's huge compared to the LH lounge. Furnishings and ambiance are not particularly nice, but the snack selection is excellent for the U.S. (several types of bread, platters of sliced turkey, roast beef, and ham, soup, and various chips. Bar isn't huge, but has everything I need (vodka, tonic, glass, 2 ice cubes).

Time for the trek to the other end of the terminal and the flight to Frankfurt.

The End
DonTopaz is offline  

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