Friday, April 2:  Rome to Sorrento

We awoke in time to pack and meet our 10 AM car pickup appointment at the airport. The boys were happy to say goodbye to the “same old” breakfast each and every morning, but were apprehensive about giving up a location and room they had enjoyed so much. The desk clerk remarked at what an excellent rate Pat had negotiated for the room. Just prior to our taxi arriving I called the airport to confirm that our car would be ready, something I was late doing the night before, and that I perhaps should have done days ago. To my relief, they were expecting me.

The hotel had arranged a flat-rate taxi for us and the driver was a great foil for my improving Italian. We saw St. Paul’s Church from the car, on the southern outskirts of town. At the airport, it took a moment to locate our contact, but David found him holding a sign with our name. We walked over to the snack bar, he copied some info from my passport, had me sign a few forms, gave me the registration and the keys. Boom!, the $27,000 car was now ours. And I mean ours. We own it right now, having signed a promissory note for entire cost of the car, due the day after we arrive in Paris. At 10,000 km we have to pay to have it serviced. However, Peugeot has also signed an agreement to repurchase the car from us in Paris for roughly $25,500, and I doubt we’ll make 10,000 km. However, its our call as to whether or not we want to exercise the purchase option.

The agent walked us outside to a nearby parking strip, showed us how to put in gas and how to work the CD player (there are controls on a stick off the steering column) and walked away. The car is a Peugeot 406, a nice deep shade of blue (Robert’s favorite color), spacious (technically a 5-seater) with climate control. Manual transmission, which is fun (sometimes!) to have again. Brand-new, only 60 km on it. It seems to handle nicely.

We got everything arranged and pulled away from the airport. With only 10 liters of gas, we had instructions on the best place to refuel nearby, so we stopped there after a few miles on the motorway. A fill-up cost us $71! Gasoline is about $5 per gallon. Back on the Rome ring road, then south on the autostrada towards Napoli (Naples). I’d been watching traffic and street signs carefully all week, so the driving became less hair-raising pretty quickly. On the motorway, you slide from lane to lane slowly, with no signal. If you need to pass a slow-moving vehicle, you are allowed to slide a lane to left, even if you cut in front of somebody else, provided they have a clear shot to their left to move over a lane before hitting you. Motorcycles (motorscooters, Vespas) may pass you at anytime. If there’s not enough room, you should move over in your lane to make room for them. I only made one real mistake, a slow truck going uphill pulled out in front of me to pass an even slower truck. Once I thought to move left myself, the moment was gone, since a very fast (150 km/hr) car had then closed on me to the point where I couldn’t pull in front of him, since he was already in the fast lane. In a moment of personal weakness, I tapped the brakes. Then I pulled left behind the fast car, but had lost so much momentum, I had trouble accelerating and impeded a few other cars. While it all looks chaotic, people tend to change lanes in anticipation of minor jam-ups, so it all moves quite smoothly. There is less of this sense that cars “own” their lane as when we drive at home.

We tried lunch at one of the wayside areas (Autogrill), like they have on the tollways in Illinois. Not bad and the price was right. Panini sandwich with green olives in the bread, grilled. The adults and the bambinos all tipped the bathroom attendant.

At the tollbooth, we got into a line, pulled forward as a few cars paid, and then they switched the light to red and dropped the gate right in front of us. Had to put it in reverse and nose into the line next to us. 9.40 euro for 150 km. We then skirted Napoli, the country’s third largest city (can you name number two?), a densely packed metropolis of 2 million people where unemployment is at the one-third mark. Quickly another tollbooth loomed, and we wondered if we were suppose to retain our ticket from the last segment, since we had none. No worries, 1.40 euro for everyone. We passed Napoli with Mt. Vesuvius on our left, the Mediterranean Sea on our right.

The motorway ended and we got on a two-lane road for the run into Sorrento. At first it was elevated, but soon it twisted along the coast, frequently passing inland through long tunnels. Motorcycles passed us often (slide courteously right as they do), on curves, against oncoming traffic, or in tunnels, or on occasion with all three conditions in effect simultaneously. Smaller cars passed us on curves along the coast, converting one lane to one and a half. As we neared Sorrento, we got “stuck” behind a larger Mercedes truck. This was convenient as any constriction in the road that he could negotiate, I knew I could too. And oncoming traffic didn’t challenge him, so I could sneak through right behind him. Going up one twisty section, a group of about ten cyclists were effortlessly descending in the opposite direction. If you know me, you can guess my sentiments at that moment.

In Sorrento proper it took us a while to locate our bed and breakfast, doing several circuits and going the wrong-way on some one-way streets. Eventually we found the central plaza again and double-parked on a corner, in a location I later learned was reserved for police. I got out, asked a policeman the way and quickly found our place. They told us where to park and I returned to the car. I needed to pull a big U-turn into the plaza out of our parking location. Cut off one car trying to go around us at the corner, dodged a pedestrian, blew a shift, killed the engine, restarted the car and finished the maneuver gracefully.

Palazzo Starace is the fourth floor of a building on the main drag in Sorrento, Corso Italia, and the owners live on the floor above. Our room is spacious, with one large room for adults and the bambinos have a long skinny room of their own, all fronting the street. We have a small vertigo-inducing balcony. The boys have rearranged their furniture to suit. We have tickets to any one of three “bars” for our breakfast. We are a block off the main square, so its an ideal location.

We went out for gelato (too expensive), visited the cathedral plus another church (noting Palm Sunday schedules), took in the thirty Ferraris lined up on a blocked-off Corso Italia as part of a car club show, located the tourist information office at the Foreigner’s Club and then Pat sought out some of the local specialty, limoncello, a lemony liquer. The farther we went from the center of town, the cheaper it got. Acting on a tip from the TI, we found a shop were they were manufacturing it and they had the best prices. They only use the peel, so the boys came home with eight peeled lemons to make lemonade with. Pat was astounded by the mammoth lemons she saw at the produce stand. It was a Kodak moment, and the proprietor came out of the shop to smile broadly as Pat held up his produce as if it had won a blue ribbon at the Lake County Fair.

Dinner was at Aurora Pizzeria, and since Napoli invented pizza we each selected one of the fifty varieties on offer. Mine was smoked cheese, gorgonzola cheese, meat (ham?) and raddicio (bitter red lettuce). It was superb! And we may have stayed within the budget, to boot. The waiter complimented my Italian and the female manager paid compliments on the bambinos. We ate outside, adjacent to Plaza Tasso, the main square and I remarked that it was much closer to my conception of traveling in Italy than our stay in Rome.

As we paid the bill and dusk descended, a group of about a hundred citizens marched into the square, led by eight or so priests and a large wooden cross. They stopped several places and sung hymns, leaving a lit red candle behind on the pavement. No doubt connected with the upcoming Holy Week.

After dinner, Pat and David headed home, while Robert and I went searching for Internet access (the room has no phone) and football jerseys. Not much luck on either front. However, I did find a replacement battery for my camera. I told the clerk that I couldn’t find one anywhere in Rome. He replied, “We are the best shop in the country.”