By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
There was a moment the spirit of Italy pulled me into its arms and seized my soul.
It was just after the early-morning swig of Limoncello at the roadside stand when Mario popped the CD into the player in the van and … voila!
From that moment, we were flying on a sing-song course along the ever-winding and drop-dead gorgeous Amalfi Coast. This was the Italy we’d come to see, and Mario Frenna, our guide and intrepid driver, grasped that perhaps better than we did.
That is why he selected the CD that would serve as the soundtrack for the day, featuring 22 jaunty Italian songs performed by an impressive artist known locally as “The Voice of the Coast.” The singer, Domenico Pignieri, is popular with the taxi drivers and tour guides in Naples because he is one of them.
“Everyone calls him simply Uncle Mimmo,” Mario said. “And yes, he still works like a private driver in Naples. All drivers consider him a legend and have a copy of his CD in the car.”
So “Volare” sashayed into “That’s Amore,” which yielded to “Mambo Italiano” and “Arrivederci Roma,” then sidestepped to “Buona Sera Signorina (kiss me goodnight), and on to others I can’t name because, well, most of it was in Italian.
Pignieri paid tribute to an Italian-American singer of distinction with an English rendition of “My Way.” There was also an Italian version of the Sinatra classic on the CD as well.
It all got one’s feet tapping, heart soaring and taste buds watering for pizza. Although, the latter was due perhaps more to the many signs we passed on the road advertising the staple of the region, including one touting “Pizza every day.”
In the small town of Vico Equense, Mario pointed out a restaurant with a name that “means University of Pizza because they teach how to make the original Napoli pizza. But trust in me, the only original pizza is in Naples.”
Spoken like a true native of old Napoli, which he is.
No better way to experience any place than to be shown the way by someone who lives it. Mario makes his living as a tour guide, but clearly gets a kick out of showing off the virtues of the region he calls home.
Fran and I were fortunate to connect online prior to our western Mediterranean cruise on the MS Divina with Kyle Brinkman, a TV news director in Lafayette, La., who was recruiting fellow passengers to join his family on small-group shore excursions. Janetta Clement, a Toronto resident who worked in the travel industry, had experience with SeeAmalfiCoast tours, which specializes in day trips to out-of-the-way places that locals love and large coach tours seldom reach.
The $450 Euros, split seven ways, was more than reasonable for an unforgettable eight-hour romp along one of the world’s most romantic stretches of coastline, plus a brief stop at Pompeii on the way back to Naples.
We’d barely passed through Sorrento when The Voice beckoned us to “Come Back to Sorrento.” But there was no time for turning back on this day.
“Your cruise ship is on my mind like an Incubus,” Mario said at one point as he pushed ahead on a tight time schedule.
He was on a mission to showcase the full panorama of whitewashed villages clinging improbably to rock cliffs in constant postcard poses overlooking the sea.
They are depicted so enticingly on the walls of art galleries everywhere. Here they were for real coming in rapid succession, creating a sensory overload like the best fireworks show, each radical swing of the road eliciting an “ooh!” for a sun-splashed scene followed by an “aah!” for the next vista that topped it.
None of it could have been fully appreciated without someone such as Mario acting as visual director, knowing which standout overlooks merited a stop to savor, as well as a master driver taking the Mercedes van through the endless hairpins with the expertise of Mario Andretti.
“Think that the second name of the Amalfi Coast road is the Mama Mia road, because it is all curves. Lots of tourists, big buses, traffic, bikers, huh? So at the end of the tour you say, ‘Oh, Mama Mia!’
“I still remember my first day with my boss, with Mr. Vito. At the end of the day I say to him, ‘You are crazy.’ Now it’s normal. The key is to have the patience, huh?”
Mind-boggling to think that he makes this drive day after day. Mario is glad to do so, as he noted, as jobs are difficult to come by for young people in the region – Naples has the highest unemployment rate in Italy, among the worst in Europe.
It would be impossible for the uninitiated visitor to navigate and appreciate this passage on your own. You’d miss all the sights just trying to avoid a crash.
Not only are you traversing the edge of cliffs hundreds of feet high, the traffic is quite insane with motorcycles buzzing in and out of the steady stream of cars, vans, buses and bicyclists.
The road in some places, is so narrow that the side mirror of Mario’s van passed beneath those of oncoming tour busses while practically scraping the retaining wall on the other side. At times I felt queasy from the constant sway of the switchbacks.
Most important, you’d miss all the local color and fun facts without Mario’s steady commentary. Such as, hearing the skinny on the former secret hideaway of Rudolf Nureyev on the largest of the trio of Li Galli Islands just off the coast.
“There are a lot of legends,” Mario said, “about the big parties of Mr. Nureyev with his boyfriend Freddie Mercury.”
These are the same islands Homer wrote about in the Odyssey as inhabited by devious sirenes seducing sailors to their demise on the rocks with their enchanting songs.
The whole coast is a thick catalogue of tales about rich and famous figures who have been drawn by the beauty and quaint charm that attracts tourists by the thousands. Also irresistible are the famous lemons, the omnipotent fruit of the region and the essence of Limoncello, the zesty liqueur that casts a party spirit throughout the region.
I wasn’t enthralled by Limoncello, at least not to start the day, but Amalfi-grown lemons are remarkable, many of them larger than grapefruit.
The lemons are so highly promoted they obscure that the mild climate produces a varied assortment of other fruit and produce. Mario refers to it as “tutti frutti.” There are oranges, cherries, peaches, apricots, as well as grapes, olives and nuts.
The agriculture was as impressive as the towns, the gardens carved into the steep, rugged terrain, in terraced layers evident everywhere as we made our way along the coast.
There are about a dozen towns along the stretch of the Sorrentine Peninsula commonly referred to as the Amalfi Coast. Mario had three on the agenda.
The first was Positano, arguably the most picturesque and photogenic. The buildings are all peach, pink and terracotta, the narrow streets snaking through a maze of restaurants, hotels and boutiques, selling everything lemon-themed imaginable.
Though unabashedly geared to tourism, it was at the same time charming and oh, so Italian. That was enhanced by Mario’s boss, Mr. Vito himself, sitting by the main street into town in pressed white shirt, tie and dark shades looking like a spitting image of De Niro.
Steinbeck wrote a short story about Positano. Vacationing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are said to have composed “Midnight Rambler” in one of the cafes, though it is difficult to find the inspiration for it from the setting.
While Positano overlooks the sea, the port town of Amalfi draws the visitor right down to the water. This once was one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean. Now it seems notable as the turnaround point for most of the large tourist coaches.
So it was crowded, chaotic, but an interesting stop. Mario gave us 40 minutes to explore the city center, which was bustling with activity along the crowded Piazza del Duomo lined with shops and cafes. The Duomo di Sant’ Andrea, a 9th-century Roman Catholic cathedral is the centerpiece attraction with its 62-step walkup.
I am more attuned to the oddities and anything that cuts across the common grain. So I gravitated to the Friggitoria, which turned out to be a take-out joint for fried seafood. And was curious about a car with an Amalfi 6 Tu banner moving slowly with a message blaring from a bullhorn on the roof. I suspected some form of public protest but learned it was eliciting support for a mayoral candidate.
In pleasant contrast to the cacophony of Amalfi was the final stop on the coast, serene and soulful Ravello. The peaceful outpost is a little bit of heaven perched on terraced slopes high above the sea. Centuries ago is was regarded as a safe haven, but more recently it has attracted and inspired creative types with its lavish gardens, quiet streets lined with shops, cafes, gelaterias and stunning views.
Richard Wagner composed the second act of his opera Parsifal in Ravello in 1880, and the town is now the setting for an annual summer-long outdoor music festival. Gore Vidal lived there for 30 years. Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollobrigida filmed “Beat the Devil” there. Kyle, in our group, saw a plaque commemorating the event.
Ravello was where Mario served the day’s piece de resistance with a stop for lunch at Al Ristoro del Moro. There we dined on local fish and other delicacies of the region on an outdoor patio more than 1,000 feet above the sea.
We lingered until there was barely time for a quick stop at Pompeii on the return to Naples. Pompeii is a major attraction for those intrigued to see the remains of the Roman city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago.
I was more interested in what Mario said about those living today in the shadow of the volcano.
“Usually every 100 to 150 years we have an explosion. We are waiting for the next,” he said. “If you look down to Vesuvius you can see 1 million of people living there today. For me, they are crazy. Scientists say we can know three months before an explosion. OK, but your apartments, your houses are there. You can’t bring them with you.”
He paused to let the thought sink in before adding, “I live in Naples; I’m OK.”
Better yet to stick to the high ground in a place like Ravello, one of those outposts that are easy to return to again and again. So cue the orchestra and pass the Limoncello.