It was odd how I began waking up well before my alarm went off, a week or more before the clocks went forward: first 15 minutes, then 20, until I was tossing in my bed with an hour to go, unable to sleep but unwilling to drag myself into action. Does your body adjust to daylight saving with time, or is it just a spring thing? By the time the hour really did shift (hurrah! long long evenings full of light!) I was ready for it, waking as usual just minutes before the beeping began.
The morning that happened, we were in Positano. L was down there with his Sirenuse Journal hat on, gathering stories to fill that web mag for the coming months. It seemed like a shame to pass up the chance of joining him.
On the first weekend of April the Amalfi Coast was (relatively) uncrowded and utterly beautiful. There were people – Americans, I think, and very foolhardy – swimming in the sea. We opted instead for the long haul, up the steep stone steps to Nocelle where a delightful young couple, full of passion for their animals and their work, flew their birds of prey for us. When they’re not doing it for visitors, they’re doing it for airports and hospitals and anywhere else that needs a fierce fowl to flush out pigeons and swallows and any other pesky poultry clogging up the works. To see the birds soaring with a sheer drop to endless blue beyond was superb.
Then we continued along the Sentiero degli Dei, which wiggles along a contour line high above the blue below. It was cloudless and still and the temperature could only be described as perfect. There were groups – French, American, Australian, local – scrambling along the rocky path. Every now and then the locals would stop to chat. One man who had lived in Epsom for six months decades ago told us at length how wonderful it was, and how he missed it – as if it were some unattainable land to which no return was possible. Neapolitans (and people from thereabouts) have this odd habit of beginning to talk and not letting go, as if they’d been in isolation for months or perhaps years and don’t want to miss this chance for human interaction. It’s oddly charming.
You have to drop down from the Sentiero towards Praiano to reach San Domenico, a monastery-plus-garden sitting on a green raft amid dramatic drops, looking somehow oriental and exotic. There were surprisingly beautiful frescoes inside, and churchy boys kicking a football outside. One asked us if we’d like a lemonade at their makeshift bar: this was the juice of a just-picked lemon with a little water added, and a bowl of big green olives to go with it. Had you stopped by in the Middle Ages, you might have been offered the same things.
The way that cultivable land is (or, alas, was) coaxed out of the sheer landscape is quite breath-taking. Towering dry-stone walls – true feats of engineering – were built to shore up long strips of contour-hugging field which, at their widest, usually stretch to no more than a metre and a half or two. At first you wonder why they’d bother: the fields look so rocky and sparse. But the little soil that fills these terraces is rich as rich, spat out of Vesuvius and cannily tended over generations. Any twig you stick in he ground hereabouts just grows, according to Nello Trapani, the head gardener at Le Sirenuse. And the vegetation is overwhelming in its lushness. It’s a good month or more ahead compared to our Umbrian green, with peas already on the plants and waist-high broad beans. And such lemons! I love the Amalfi lemon cages: great wooden structures with nets to protect this precious crop.
(Nello’s wife’s little nursery along the road from Positano to Sorrento is a gem, lovingly tended and with an eye on what has been planted among the lemon groves – such as hydrangeas – since time immemorial. Tumbling down slopes from the nursery proper are levels planted with olives and vegetables amid a riot of flowery early-spring wild vegetation: simply gorgeous.)
We spent a night in Naples too, which is always a delight in its inimitable way. I love that city’s barely contained (uncontained?) chaos. It never fails to live up to its own stereotype. On the way to Positano, going down the escalator to pick up the Circumvesuviana train, a well dressed, youngish man was walking briskly up the wrong way, huffing and mumbling at all we down-goers as if it were we who were going against the current. At the head of the platform, a small crowd of people were elbowing each other out of the way to get to a swarthy type selling train tickets, presumably at a premium and despite the fact that upstairs, any number of ticket booths and newsagents were selling them, with no wait at all, at the correct price: it’s difficult to see the logic, except that around here, if there’s a clandestine way of doing things, that’s what they go for.
On the Circumvesuviana itself – arguably the world’s most squalid train line, passing through a nightmare scenario of urban dystopia, seemingly created to thwack you down firmly to earth en route to the heavenly costiera – a Rom character climbed aboard right by where I was sitting and switched on his crackly loudspeaker at a volume which drilled into my brain. His daughter (seven? eight?) began pounding her tambourine, not necessarily in time with the music, and belting out O’ Sarracino – again, directly into my ear – at the top of her voice in a way that redefined the words ‘tone deaf’. This went on for ten excruciating minutes. Wonderful.
In Naples, we went to the MANN (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) where I hadn’t been for years. It is a museum that leaves you gasping – in wonder at the collection and in frustration at the curation. In a palazzo with soaring ceilings and wide airy spaces, it’s difficult to make out any type of organisational logic, if there is one. The labels are in Italian. No translation. No dates – not even a century. The audioguide is fantastically approximate, describing, more or less, what you’re looking at without adding any other information. In one case, I listened to a description three times before I identified which fragment of wall painting it related to: the number was nowhere near the artifact.
Contrast this with Herculaneum, where we went the next day. This is a dig sponsored by the Packard Humanities Institute and managed by the British School at Rome. It’s a neat little dig (most of the Roman city lies buried beneath the modern town of Ercolano) with excellent explanatory material. I’m told there are over a dozen archeologists and conservation experts working here full time, as opposed to three in huge Pompeii, and it shows.
It’s school trip time of year, and the site was full of bored teenagers and overexcited little ones. One group of primary school pupils was dressed as ancients, in white togas with red sashes; they were vying enthusiastically to show off their knowledge of Roman life to their guide. An old man walked up to one of the kids. “What on earth are you wearing?” he asked. “Can’t you see?” piped up one little boy. “We’re Senators!” They all applauded.
We got off the Circumvesuviana at the wrong stop for Herculaneum, and had to walk through Portici to get there. The straggle of battered, half-derelict apartment blocks along the train track looks a little more salubrious from the main road. We strolled through the park of the Reggia (royal palace) which is now the Agrarian Studies department of Naples University. Maybe much study goes on there, but no one’s getting much hands-on experience, I’d say: the dereliction is as complete (give or take an apparently operative greenhouse or two) as the unkempt charm of the place on a sunny spring day. In the botanical gardens, they had begun removing some of the trees uprooted and toppled by a tornado last year but it was not easy telling where the tornado damage stopped and the usual state began. Again, this did little detract from its loveliness.
L had an appointment at the Reggia, to see a particular frescoed room he has to write about. But we explored well beyond that room. One long series of rooms in this immense structure has been renovated, their frescos brought beautifully back to their full splendour. Some of these are home to the Museo Herculanense though you’d never know it because there’s no sign outside, and the website dedicated to it is fiendishly difficult to find. Inside, the custodians were very pleased but also very surprised to see us: visitors are clearly a rarity here. Panels (clear, informative, bi-lingual) explain the rooms and the exhibits. The latter are, on the whole, reproductions or virtual, the bulk of Herculaneum’s remains being in the MANN or further afield. But the presentation is intelligent, and the surroundings fascinating.
Further restored rooms stand empty, not in use for one of the rare one-off exhibitions held there when we visited: we had to open the shutters and turn on the lights ourselves to admire the decorations.
So we couldn’t help wondering why a new Herculaneum museum is planned, to a design by Renzo Piano and probably costing zillions. And what, you have to wonder, will go in it? Will the MANN relinquish some of its treasures? (You have to presume that MANN cellars are full of fantastic things, of the sort that made up the blockbuster Pompeii and Herculaneum show at the British Museum.) And if so, why hasn’t it done that for the truly impressive spaces of the Reggia?
As we walked through the backstreets of Ercolano, up towards the Miglio d’Oro stop to get our train back to Naples, we were rather more immersed in the seedy dystopia visible from the train. So a noble gate leading into a garden with freshly mown grass, and a path leading to one of the 18th-century villas that give the Miglio d’Oro (Golden Mile) its name caught our attention. Unlike so many of those villas which Neapolitan nobility built along this coast to be near to their Bourbon royals when they holidayed at the Reggia di Portici, this one was not crumbling but handsomely restored. As I peered through the gate, a car that had been exiting pulled up beside me. I explained I was just curious. The man inside began one of those typically Neapolitan disquisitions, unwilling to let me go until he had quite finished. He was most insistant that we go inside, to view the decorations and savour the library. Luscious garlands of bright pink roses had been strewn by a nameless artist across the ceilings of rooms where council workers now struggle to make do with outdated electronic equipment. Again, everyone was delighted but extremely surprised to find that anyone from the outside would ever make it that far.
Yesterday it snowed here in CdP, but only on the other side of town. April 7. Snow. On our side, we didn’t even have so much as a frost, though the tramontana (north wind) was howling and it was seriously nippy. Tomorrow 17°C is forecast. That’s spring for you.
There are more photos here.