‘I’m not sure if I want more gelato. Someone fetch me a cat! I’ll spill its guts and check its entrails for omens’. I called this a little more loudly than I intended as we walked through the little Italian village of Erchie to our apartment on the Amalfi coast. There was a cat disappearing through the door of the little store where we occasionally bought supplies. I hoped the owners weren’t listening as I looked for a beast for the slaughter.
We had just returned from a drive exploring the towns of Amalfi, Positano and Ravello. Emma had been reading us all a book about the ancient Romans when we got stuck in traffic, something of a problem in this part of the world.
The Romans of old were a superstitious Gods fearing lot, a bit like the ancient Greeks. They concerned themselves deeply with what mood the Gods were in, particularly before making major decisions. Like whether to go to war. Or in our case whether or not to have gelato on a Wednesday afternoon. The mood of the Gods could be discerned through omens which came in many forms, including the entrails of slaughtered animals. I lacked the services of a professional omen reader to interpret the entrails of my cat but figured I could work it out. How hard could it be?
Quite hard apparently, as the people of Pompeii discovered in 79 AD. Any reliable omen system surely should have seen the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius coming. You know the story. It was a lovely morning and the good Roman citizens of Pompeii were going about their business when Mount Vesuvius blew its stack in a rather impressive way, ejecting molten rock and ash 18 kilometres into the atmosphere.
It was an explosion beyond superlatives. The people of Pompeii looked up, saw a column of smoke and ash stretching kilometres into the air and then went back to their business because they had no notion what a volcano was. You see now the flaw in the omen system. Someone missed a mighty big mood swing on old Zeus’s behalf and shortly they were going to pay the price. Within 24 hours the whole city had been buried beneath 7 metres of pumice, ash and other pyroclastic goodness, which was bad for them but good for us because it was like the whole town was wrapped in glad wrap and put in the fridge until we came to take a look.
We made a decision to visit on the first Sunday of the month when entry is free. Free entry being a good thing when staying on the Amalfi coast in Italy where everything else is the opposite of free. We got there early, half an hour before the gates opened, in the hope of avoiding the crowds. Instead we arrived just in time to line up behind countless busloads of people from a massive cruise liner that had pulled into Salerno that morning. Guess we should have consulted a chicken before picking our day.
So many people visited Pompeii that morning we later learned that they shut the gate at 11.30 and wouldn’t let anyone else in until 2.30 because there was no room. Which is saying something because Pompeii was once home to 10,000 people. The weight of visitors took a little bit of an edge off the visit but every now and then we found a quiet spot on a side street and soaked in the atmosphere. We sat down to lunch in one such place, sitting on a tall gutter at the corner of a cobbled Roman street, well preserved buildings providing some shade.
As we munched corn crackers, cheese and tomatoes it occurred to me that 2000 years ago, in this very spot, on these very stones, in this very place, all hell broke loose as the reality of the volcanic eruption literally rained down from on high. Rocks the size of footballs smashed buildings and pumice and ash quickly buried the lot. My imagination ran away with me and I could just see terrified people hurrying up and down the street looking for shelter with nowhere to hide.
And then a lady speaking in foreign tongues and waving a purple crocheted dinosaur atop a stick lead a tour group past and the spell was broken. At least for a while. We found another spot where the view up another side street framed the conical shape of Mt Vesuvius in the background, only a matter of kilometres away. I had a moment then too. I could just imagine the view all those years ago when the eruption was in full flight.
It was a little scary. Vesuvius is still active. The most active volcano in Europe and it will erupt again, only now it is surrounded by a population of over 3 million rather than the 10,000 at Pompeii and Herculaneum back in the day. The hope is that the modern day omen readers, scientists with seismographs, can provide 3 to 4 weeks warning before it happens.
My other favourite spot was the very intact gladiator amphitheatre. We walked out onto the arena through the very tunnel where so many walked to glory or an horrendous death and stood in the very spots where the vicious contests unfurled. My imagination ran away with me again. It was enthralling and would have been even more so if the Italian authorities hadn’t deemed it appropriate to build a whopping great wooden pyramid shaped museum in the middle of the arena. ‘Why there?’ I asked myself, but there was no reply.
Italy is a marvellous country, but methinks they could do with some assistance when it comes to presenting their amazing historical sites. We paid forty euros to visit Mt Vesuvius, which was also amazing with stunning views of Naples, the Mediterranean and deep into the plugged up Caldera of the volcano. But for forty euros ($60 AUD) there’s not so much as a water closet for the bazillion visitors that come every day. Instead you pay another euro to stand in a queue to use one of six port-a-loos!
I don’t get it, but that sounded very much like a grumpy old man rant. Let’s move on. Think of somewhere peaceful… I know. Erchie, our home on the Amalfi Coast. We loved Erchie, a tiny little Italian village nestled on a stony beach between soaring craggy hills right on the Mediterranean. The water was crystal clear and beautiful shades of blue and green.
Our apartment was just 30 metres from the beach at the western end of which was an imposing ‘quadrangular bastion of medieval origin, built by Charles I of Anjou in 1278’. In the little bay a dozen or more colourfully painted wooden row boats bobbed up and down their moorings from the wake of ferries and cargo ships which plied the waters further offshore.
The Amalfi Coast is one of the busiest in Europe, but happily for us the tourist busses don’t call into to Erchie. It’s an Italian secret and a very atmospheric and relaxing place to spend some time. It was just so… Italian, quiet during the week and busy on the weekends as folk from Naples came down to relax under the umbrellas of the privately owned beach front or sit on the pebbled shore of the public walkways which found a little room in between them. There is much to be said for Australia’s public access to beaches.
On about five of our ten days we went absolutely nowhere. We had breakfast on our little balcony overlooking the water, made our way down to the beach where Amy and Oliver paddled around on the windsurfer board that came with the apartment and read books in the sun. There were tiny grocery stores and even a gelataria a short walk away when we needed to top up our supplies or indulge our senses. It was very pleasant, although the dodgy Wi-Fi caused me some anxiety. Wi-Fi, I need Wi-Fi!
On the other days we explored the broader Amalfi coast which is every bit as fabulous as its reputation suggests. It is just stunning. How else can I say it? It’s stunning. Quite one of the prettiest stretches of real estate I’ve seen. The coast jumps abruptly up from the sea rising to over a kilometre in height and its steep craggy cliffy hills are laden with terraced groves of lemon trees, interspersed with the remnants of what I presume to be native vegetation of shrubbery and umbrella pines.
Towns and villages cling to the headlands and ravines that sit amongst it all, connected by a thin ribbon of road that has no right to exist in this vertical landscape. The road contours its way around the cliffs suspended by pillars and posts and ducking through tunnels through the mountainside often to emerge straight on to bridges over high ravines.
The whole place is quite spectacular, and totally impractical. There is just not enough land to go around, with the road itself barely wide enough to fit two passing vehicles. That however doesn’t deter countless tourist coaches or local busses which clog the bitumen strip. A thirty kilometre drive from Erchie to Positano can take hours and more than a few nervous moments praying not to be tied up on the travel insurance roundabout due to damage to the rental car caused by an accident in which you are stationary!
Getting out of the car to look around is a whole other challenge. If you can find a park, then you’ll need a second mortgage to put your car in it for any length of time and so find yourself racing through town in search of overpriced pizza which you wolf down before racing back to your car to avoid being booked for staying too long by the parking inspector you saw circling like a shark when you arrived. That about sums up our hour in the gorgeous town of Ravello one afternoon!
There is however a more pleasant alternative. High above the main Amalfi strip is the little town of Bomerano where relatively few people venture and the parking is free. Bomerano is also the start of the ‘Path of the Gods’, a 7 kilometre trail with breathtaking views over the Amalfi coast, no need to rush and lungful’s of honey suckle and lemon scented air with every step you take. By what magic Emma discerns the internet omens which lead us to such places I will never know but I love her for it!
We spent 4 hours, maybe a bit more, strolling 12 kilometres from Bomerano to Nocelle and back. It was quite the highlight of our time, gazing down upon the beautiful coast littered with magnificent motor cruisers and yachts, across wildflower strewn meadows at the foot of cliffs and tumble down little farming houses and up the coast across Positano towards the island of Capri.
For those that are interested, I never did catch that cat and so I had to make up my own mind whether the Gods would smile upon a late afternoon gelato. I think however they must have been well pleased because the gelato was smooth and creamy and really oh so good.
 To consult a chicken, place food before it. If it eats, then the Gods are pleased and you should do whatever you were going to do (chickens were generally consulted before going to war). If it doesn’t eat then woe betide, you should go back to bed. A Roman sea commander once consulted a chicken without an appetite before heading into battle and went into battle anyway. He got trounced. Which just goes to show you should always trust chickens.