I knew this was going to be a long, tiring day. Besides our first travel day (which included our flight into Rome, a train to Chiusi and driving to Cosona--our first agriturismo in Tuscany) this south-bound leg of the Voyage would be tough. First of all, we had already stayed up late the night before to pack, so we were missing a bit of sleep.
Secondly, we would have to get on the road by 7am to get to the Hertz office in Florence to return our Fiat 500L (we fell in love with that car). Florence was just over an hour's drive from San Gimignano where we were staying. Judging by our first experience with car renting in Italy, I knew that dropping off the car and paying could easily take an hour. Our train would depart for Naples just after 10am--I'd rather wait a bit for the train than miss it. The Hertz office was on Borgo Ognissanti, only a few blocks walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station, but we were walking under burden--six bags total, two bags each.
Checking out the day before...
We planned on checking out from the pseudo-chic Mormoraia agriturismo because their useless staff were rarely in the office, and I wouldn't take a chance on them being in as early as we had to leave. As it turned out, when I did try to check out we had all sorts of hassles. I asked for a discount since the apartment we rented wasn't fully equipped for cooking as advertised (missing cutting board, knives, pots, and no basic staples, like olive oil, sugar, spices or salt--even though they grew and produced their own olive oil and had spice gardens in their gardens) and neither the TV or WIFI worked. I asked them to at least take off the extra charge for the overpriced breakfast we were forced to have in the little cafe on the property.
"Impossible" they said. I asked to speak to the manager... and found that the texting, short-skirted, out-of-work photo model was in fact the "manager". So I asked to speak to the owner. "He is never here". This made sense because the place had all of the pristine, big money out-of-country developer smell devoid of any authentic history. I also told her that their expensive bottle of swill wasn't worth the 30 Euros we paid. We were already getting fantastic bottles of wine from local alimentari for under 6 Euros. One more complaint we had was the laundry facilities advertised were small, household machines in the cellar of another building which the housecleaning staff used to clean all the sheets and towels of all of the 10 or so B&B rooms and apartments! Disgusting. Besides, we had to wait our turn to use the washer... and then discovered that the dryer didn't work. We were given a rickety drying rack to place on the landing of our apartment's entrance.
I then asked for her to call to get the discount approved, or I might challenge the entire charge with my credit card company. She did call him. We waited. And waited. About 20 minutes later, we spoke to the most insulting, unprofessional person ever. He actually suggested I was lying and told his "manager" to go back to the apartment with me and have me show her everything that was broken or missing. He even suggested that perhaps I stole their knives, cutting board, sugar and spices. He said that since we rented an apartment and not a "B&B room", breakfast wasn't included so he didn't want to remove the charge for breakfast, even though we would have cooked our own breakfast IF we actually had all the tools to make it.
In the end, after almost half an hour debating over the phone, he finally took off the breakfast charge. Madonna mia, what a jerk. Just to illustrate the difference... At our previous lodging (Agriturismo Cosona) they supplied us with everything we needed to make breakfast. We had a completely equipped kitchen, pantry with basic staples (olive oil, coffee, tea, spices, sugar, salt, etc.), pretty good WIFI, a TV with many stations and as assortment of bread, pastries and jams.
We were happy to see the dust of Mormoraia in the rear view mirrors of our Fiat as we started out for Florence...
As it turned out, the drive to Florence was smooth and uneventful. I think it took about an hour and 10 minutes. We drove over the Ponte all Carraia and took the first left toward the Hertz office--a garage building in the middle of a block with several car rental outfits on it. We pulled into a garage bay and got the paperwork done in about 10 minutes. Fantastico! Ahead of schedule!
While we were there, Lucas and I had to use the men's room and found this...
Lucas hadn't ever seen such a sight. I actually had seen many when I lived in France years ago. In fact, I had one that I shared with an old lady across the hall from my Paris studio apartment (she emptied her chamber pot into it), but that's back when my knees were fully functioning! In the U.S. these "Turkish toilets" wouldn't pass the Americans with Disabilities Act and would be outlawed. But, after all, this is Italy where handicapped people have few building codes to help them.
Riding the Italian Rails
After struggling with our rolling luggage over the cobblestone streets for about 10 minutes, we arrived at the very busy Stazione Santa Maria Novella and waiting against a side wall with our luggage bound together with these great cable locks which prevent a thief from snatching and running off with one bag. I could easily imagine a lot of distracted, tired tourists get ripped off in this station. It was loud and chaotic.
I went off to find some drinks and snacks for us while we waited--my first experience with a busy commuter coffee shop in Italy. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out the routine of looking for what you wanted to order first, and ordering everything with the cassiere (cashier) before collecting your drinks and snacks. The cassiere gives you a receipt which you then give to a person behind the counter who gets your espresso or pastries. Once this person fills the order, he puts a tear in the receipt and hands it back to you (so you can't use it again).
It's a bit confusing, especially since I didn't know what I wanted to order until I walked down the entire display counter, trying to see what was on sale in between all the other people crowding there. In any event, I got some gassata (sparkling water) for the Voyage, some cioccolata calda for Lucas and an espresso for Lisa, and a few cornette. Lisa and Lucas were happy for the refreshments.
Within an hour, the Frecciarossa pulled into the station...
We were delighted when we settled in on the Frecciarossa--a beautifully designed train. Very comfortable, wide seats with a table in between. There were luggage racks above the seats and another area for larger pieces. There was even a video display that showed our progress on a map and the current speed. Of course, Lucas just had to double-check the speed with his speedometer app on his smart phone. What we all loved was the incredibly clean and high-tech gabinetto (bathroom) at the end of the car with a futuristic sliding door.
The video below shows what it looks like going 158 MPH!
The ride on the train toward Naples was interesting. Many business types on board. Not too many kids. Good scenery--Central Italy has many mountains. In about 2-1/2 hours, we arrived at Napoli Centrale station--about 300 miles. If we were to drive, it would have taken us about 5 hours (Autoroute), not counting any rest or lunch stops, and besides, I don't enjoy long highway driving. I would want to take smaller roads and explore... making this type of car trip take the better part of a day.
A Close Call with Naples
OK, now to navigate this busy station. I've heard that pickpockets are all over this place, so we put our antennas up, with all my important documents and credit cards nestled safely in my leg wallet strapped around my thigh. This station had been recently renovated, so it looked very modern and fairly clean, but it took us a minute or two to get oriented enough to find the exit we needed. The cleanliness ended at the exit. Like most big city train stations, surly types were hanging around the exits. We had to cross a four lane avenue (Corso Arnaldo Lucci) to get to the tiny Hertz office one block away. In reality, the Italian drivers made it into six lanes.
Believe it or not, crossing the street was a tough task. You see, the Corso is where the A3 Autoroute dumps all of the traffic coming into this part of Naples... yes, right in front of the train station. More so than the average Italian driver, Neopolitan drivers pay no attention at all to crosswalks, stop lights, stop signs, traffic lanes or pedestrians with a kid and lots of luggage trying to cross the street. We actually backtracked a bit away from the Hertz office to another crosswalk that had a stoplight--not that it really stopped any traffic, however.
When we reached the other side of the street, we were hit with the chaos that defines Naples. It reminded me of New York City back in the early '70s when it was a dangerous and filthy city. A mix of languages, mixed sounds, mixed smells, mixed classes... and some seedy types in the mix as well. There was a working class, suited female exec rushing past the street peddler selling hats and knock-off handbags, blue collar workers bumping into a mom with a stroller dragging a toddler, cellphone hugging businessmen and backpacking students, street vendors hawking street food and tourist kitsch. There were smells of diesel fumes mixed with fried something or other blending with the odor of 20 or more trash dumpsters lining the curbside... and a few weary Voyagers (us) trying to make our way through the cacophony toward the Hertz "office". I mean, I'm a former New Yorker, but this is a bit of a madhouse.
This Really Hertz!
I put "office" in quotes because of the look of the place. In Italy they merely rent the Hertz name and don't really embrace the whole corporate identity, look or feel, as they do in the States. They offered the option of two locations to pick up my rental car--one at the airport and this hole in the wall.
In typical Italian fashion, we had to wait for the Hertz staff to come back from their riposa... thankfully, in this big city, it was a short one--from 12 - 2pm, not 12 - 3:30 or later like smaller towns. Mind you, there was a staff of four at this "office", ALL of them were out to lunch at the same time! We then had to wait another 20 minutes while they took care of another couple that were waiting at the locked door when we arrived. When the paperwork was completed, we asked if there was a driver to get the car (look at the photo above... we knew there were no cars here waiting for us). We were then told that we would have to cross the Corso yet again, and given a map with directions to the "parking lot" where our Fiat 500L would be ready to go. I asked, "Quanto lontano?" (How far?) He said, "Solo 30 metri". We were off.
This time, we crossed the street at a roundabout, feeling a bit intimidated when we stood in the middle of it waiting for a break in the cars zooming past. OK... andiamo! We made it to the curb and started walking... past the foul graffiti... past the urine smells... past the tired looking social security office... past the beggars looking for a handout... past a couple of hookers... past the stench of even more dumpsters... past the Ramada Hotel (Wow, this must be a great place to stay) --still no sight of a "parking lot". When we reached the corner of this very long block, I was looking around for a "lot", but just then Lucas looked down the side street and noticed a tiny, two foot long Hertz sign on a garage building halfway down the street. What eyes on this kid! Oh, and it was more like 350 meters--not 30. I measured.
Great... we could get our second Fiat 500L in no time and be on the road toward our Amalfi villa and the southern leg of our Voyage. No such luck.
First of all, this was a parking garage. The Hertz thing seemed like an afterthought. I suppose the local guy who owns the rights to Hertz has a bunch of cars that he moves around through different brokers (often, rental brokers partner up). When I asked if they had my Fiat 500L with automatic transmission (I wanted that to help deal with the Amalfi Coast Road) they seemed surprised and said "No". I had reserved the car rentals three months before, and had confirmed both rentals within two weeks of our departure! I was assured by the international Hertz helpline that my reservations were solid.
He said not to worry, that he would upgrade us to a Volvo SUV (they pronounce it "suv"). He then asked another man to bring it down... I was shocked how big and wide this car was. It had a standard shift and was diesel (read: noisy, low power and stinky). The final insult was that it was filthy!
When I asked if they had anything smaller, he said they didn't. This was the only car they had. Really? So much for picking car types through Hertz Italian bookings! Never again, Hertz! As a small appeasement, he offered to have the car cleaned... but it would take over an hour--he would have to send it somewhere else. In Italy, when someone says "one hour", they mean "when I get to it... sometime later". We had a two hour window to meet the manager of our rental villa, so we took the Volvo as is.
The drive out of Naples on the A3 was interesting. I'm used to commuters on our local highways being lane jockeys, but these Italian drivers move their cars so damned close as they try to do what motorcycles do back home--lane cutting. They sort of do a slow drift into your lane--and not necessarily at the front of your car, but at the side or rear! I had to use my peripheral vision to anticipate when someone was trying to make a brand new lane in between my lane and the next. What were two lanes turned into three... when there were three lanes, it often became four! I had been on Autoroutes in the North which were a pleasure to drive on. Here? Not so much.
The Road to Villa Le Cicale
As we drove up into the mass of the Amalfi peninsula into the hills, we felt refreshed. The air smelled of the sea and lemons. There is a notch in the mountain just past Castellammare di Stabia that wove us through village after village toward le Cicale (the Cicadas), a villa hanging onto the cliffs far above Furore's lovely bridge over its small fiord. We stopped at an alimentari to pick up supplies in Pianillo and had a wonderful experience. The older couple who ran the place were so helpful and friendly, helping to choose the best cheeses, sausage and even a couple of bottles of vino (at 4 Euros each). We stocked up on gassata (gassy water) and Fanta (in Italy it's simply seltzer and orange juice!). Bread, snacks, some fruit and tomatoes--both fresh and passata for making sauce--topped off our list. We were ready for le Cicele, making dinner and taking in the sunset over the Adriatic...
I had checked out la Cicale on Google Earth so I thought I knew where their parking was for our Villa, one of several in this hillside complex. I pulled in and downhill and looked around but could not locate our villa or the owner's manager--Stefania. I walked back up the driveway, then downhill for about 159 yards alongside of the road (no sidewalk, cars buzzing by) until I got to the locked entrance gate to our Villa. I buzzed--nothing. So I made a phone call and a few minutes later, Stefania emerged from the next door neighbor's house. She immediately told me that we were parked in the wrong place with badly pronounced English and as Lucas noticed, her "hairy armpits". She had a rough dimeaner, like many Neopolitans I suppose. My Mom had that edge, too. She told me to park in the small upper parking area--the one I thought I'd never be able to turn into.
So first, I parked along the roadside (no shoulder) and quickly unloaded all the luggage. Then I went back uphill and attempted to pull into the small upper parking area. As you can see from the photos above, this was a real task. The driveway opening was about 1 foot wider than the width of the damned Volvo SUC. (I called it that instead of SUV). It was impossible to enter the driveway and make a right turn when coming downhill. I always had to make the attempt from downhill. But even when I was able to make the turn in between the steel posts (with cars buzzing by, or actually passing me), I came within an inch or two of hitting the concrete planter just inside the driveway. On top of this, this little lot was full of six cars. I would be the seventh--and biggest! The only spot left was on the left side at the edge of the cliff. Trust me... I didn't enjoy coming or going from this tiny parking area. But believe it or not, although the collision sensor went flat-line every time I pulled in or out, I didn't put one scratch on the beast of a Volvo--and this was with a stick shift, too!
After parking and joining Lisa and Lucas in our apartment, I wanted to de-stress immediately. But Stefania was still there. She felt the need to walk around every room, in every corner and teach us how to use the oven, the range, the toaster, the Moka pot, the fan, the light switches, the toilet, ad nauseum. After about 45 minutes of this, I guided her to the door telling her firmly in Italian, "Grazie mille. Ma dai ... siamo stanchi e dobbiamo nutrire nostro figlio!" (Thanks so much. But come on ... we're tired and we have to feed our son!)
With Stefania gone and the door locked behind her... the place was amazing. Our front door was down one flight of tiled steps from the road, opening onto a gorgeous veranda with the most amazing views of the Adriatic you can imagine. I could see the Furore bridge over a thousand feet below. There was an old man tending his vegetable garden just below our balconies. The rooms were big and cooled with cross breezes from a series of shuttered balconies and windows. All the floors were wall to wall tile, as is the Amalfi style. This was going to be a great hub to explore Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast.
First things first... We all fell on one of the beds for a little riposa of our own. Then dinner and those views. Night fell and made it that much more magical. We're on the Amalfi Coast! I'll believe it when I see it... domani.
It really has been a long, long travel day...