Sunday, April 4:  Palm Sunday, Amalfi Coast

A bit of late start this morning, I was awakened by the church bells for 8 AM mass. Turned out option number 2 for breakfast was the gelateria across the street and a brief survey of the items available for breakfast was nixed. We couldn’t recall the name of option number 3. Back to Bar Pica, where he remembered us (one of the few places where it was possible to tip and I had chosen to). The milk was cold, without asking.

We got to the Cathedral down at the other end of our little side street, via Pieta, about 9:30 AM and snagged good seats for Palm Sunday mass. The locals, in the know, stayed in the plaza out front where the olive branches were to be blessed by the bishop from the balcony of the adjacent building. Yes, I said olive branches, not palm fronds. Here’s the story.

During a Saracen invasion of the area, a sudden storm dashed the pirate ships on the shores of Sorrento. No one survived, but a slave girl. She came into town to the cathedral on Palm Sunday where the populace was hiding and she asked to be converted to Christianity. Her only offering was a pouch of sugared almonds. So the local tradition is to decorate the olive branches with candied almonds in all sorts of colors and elaborate configurations. Pat approached an older woman and her 20-something daughter, holding large bouquets, and asked if she could take their picture. Afterwards she complimented them on their bouquets, and the daughter said her mother made them. Then the mother suggested the daughter give part to Pat, presenting her with a small olive branch decorated with twenty or so baby-blue and white sugared almonds. (Photo 8) It was the epitome of what Rick would call “going local.”

Mass was interesting, even in Italian. It was packed, with many families standing in the aisles. I took note of the painting on the ceiling above, where the executioner has a sword raised, ready to commit the act, while the previous victim (with sick green skin) had his head and torso graphically depicted on the two extreme sides of the painting. The choir had children from first grade on up, along with young adults. There was the usual communal hand-shaking (I thought that might be a strictly US custom), but everyone in the family took communion on their tongues.

After mass, I visited the deli again. I tried to tell the gal that I liked yesterday’s provolone, but I was game to try something different today. She offered me a taste of cheese on the tip of her very sharp knife, and I said it was OK. After paying, I asked her what type of cheese we had. “Provolone,” she said. Oh, well, it was a nice try.

Today’s expedition was a bus trip along the Amalfi Coast. We walked down to the train station and I went to buy bus tickets. As I came out of the tabachhi shop, the bus pulled up about 20 minutes early. And then we got closed out, only two seats left. Turned out it must have been an extra bus, since the one we expected was ready to go 15 minutes later, and we got good seats (right side, outboard), and the bus left half-full. On the return trip we followed Rick’s suggestions to the letter, sitting in the front row and enjoying the driving maneuvers.

Photo 8  Palm Sunday at Sorrento Cathedral
Photo 9  Amalfi
We passed through Positano, a favorite of the Harrington’s, then on to the town of Amalfi, some 20 km and about an hour’s travel away. The road is very skinny, in places seemingly suspended above the water lying hundreds of feet below. The buses require both lanes to negotiate some of the hairpin turns. Imagine the natural splendor of the Northern California coast and double it, the civil engineering of the “Going to the Sun” road in Glacier National Park and double it, the driving habits of the Trinidadians in the mountains on the north of the island and double it, mix in some gelato, a few tourists and young women in the second seat of speeding motorcycles hanging on for their life, and you have the drive along the Amalfi Coast. Stupendous! And on the public bus for just 4.80 euro per person round trip (“andata e ritorino”).

The engineering lesson to be gained is that if you want to build a platform 3 meters wide to park your car just off the road, and the average slope of the cliff is 80 degrees, then you only need to build a tower 17 meters tall to support the structure. This seems to be the key concept to all construction along the Amalfi Coast. They boys got an environmental science lesson about the terraced hillsides that were abundant. We also learned that a small dog can ride at the feet of a Vespa driver, and enjoy the view by peering out around the front wind screen. (I’ve seen a 50-pound propane canister carried in the manner.)

We manufactured lunch in Amalfi, augmented with candy bars from the nearby bar. (Photo 9) Then we caught a bus inland, up, up and up, to the small town of Ravello. There was a small square where we had gelato, granita (lemon, yumm) and a cappuccino. Pat investigated a cameo shop, where we finally found a chain suitable for Robert’s religious medals. Pat bought a cork stopper with a ceramic top painted with a lemon, an accessory for her dwindling bottle of limoncello.

After about an hour in Ravello, we retraced our steps on the two bus routes. The boys had time to dip their toes in the Mediterranean Sea, major body of water number 4 on the their life lists (Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans). As we sat on the bus, I gave Robert a lesson on buying bus tickets, getting them validated and the consequences of not getting them validated. David thought it was all pretty silly, so I quizzed him on the value of an unvalidated ticket (purchased from the tabbachi shop); a ticket validated, but not expired; a ticket beyond its validation time; and the reason we validated them rather than trying to use them repeatedly. He thought that was all a bit like splitting hairs. Then twenty minutes into our ride, the transit police boarded at one stop and inspected all our tickets. Lesson amply demonstrated.

Approaching Sorrento proper, we got stuck in a protracted traffic jam on the narrow street. Eventually we consulted our maps, and escaped to walk the remaining two kilometers. We saw the bus again very near the central square, doubling back to get to the train station.

For dinner, Rick suggested Pizzeria Giardienello, which was an excellent suggestion. I broke down and had a draft beer, as I was very thirsty. It was my first since our first night, having become very proficient at the chant, “vino della cassa, mezzo litro, rosso; litro aqua no gas.” Tomorrow is the Archaeological Museum (it hold two-thirds of Pompeii according to one of the boys’ American peers we met today) in Naples and a city walk through one of the more chaotic cities of Southern Italy, or all of Italy, for that matter. We are debating what to do Tuesday. If we were true to our study trip aims, we’d go to see the Greek temples at Paestum, but I think we all need a down day to take care of some errands and see some things in Sorrento proper. Stay tuned.