Ciao Atrani

I leave the Amalfi coast with a heavy heart. This is my longest stop of the entire ride so far. People have started to acknowledge me in the street, and in a small town like Atrani you rapidly become part of the community. Even the dogs recognise me!
I have watched dolphins hunting for young tuna, blue rock thrushes flying out of impossibly steep cliff faces with their unusual call, observed praying mantis at close quarters ( what strange beasts! ) and spent whole days watching my fellow human beings ( even stranger beasts ). Lizards are my favourite creatures; they are very inquisitive animals and enjoy staring you out.

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Capri was a surprise. Once away from the port area and its mass tourism, you realise why it was so popular with the film stars and wealthy few. A short climb and descent brings you to the other side of the island, and the crowds dissolve to leave you having lunch beside the clear waters of the Mediterranean. Your legs can rapidly take you somewhere very special.

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My favourite haunt in Atrani was right on the beach, a cave formally used by fishermen. Bar Nettuno is run by Andrea and his wife, and their hospitality was remarkable even by Italian standards. Town Hall permitting he hopes to convert the upstairs area into a small restaurant, but bureaucracy works slowly here. I wish him every success. Should you ever find yourself in this town, wander the few yards from the square and take a seat. You will have no regrets.

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On my last evening in Atrani a male choir was singing in the church just two doors down from my room. The unaccompanied voices rose beautifully through the stone stairs and passageways, a most uplifting sound; there could not have been a more fitting finale to my stay here.
Tomorrow I am reunited with the bike, and hopefully the muscles will deliver the necessary power once more after an extended break. Sicilly is in my sights and a certain beach is calling for my attention.

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Atrani

Just around the headland from it’s more famous neighbour Amalfi is the town of Atrani. Not many visitors seem to make it this far; it’s probably the ten minute walk that puts people off. Because of this, the place has a very
local feeling to it, and last night as I ate a meal in the square I was treated to a visual feast of Italians socialising outdoors. They seem to be very good at this and I can only conclude that it’s climate induced: warm evenings.

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I’m staying in a wonderful old building overlooking the square which is run by two brothers. They seem to like cyclists and offered me a simple vaulted chamber which suited my needs completely. Friendly folk.

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The buildings here seem to merge into the rock, and at times they are the rock. When the need arises for more space, as in the case of this restaurant kitchen, they just carve one out and add windows. Simple.

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The backstreets of Atrani are a fascinating labyrinth of alleyways and steps,
with no concession to modernity ( or lighting ). In the early afternoon these are often deserted with only the sound of cutlery on china and muffled music coming from within the shuttered houses. There is no concept of trespass either. On several occasions I have taken wrong turnings and virtually walked into people’s rooms but nobody appears to mind.

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Everywhere are the reminders of what deeply religious people the Italians are. Along with their devotion to family it forms the backbone of their beliefs, and appears to make them a very contented race.

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I have rapidly developed a great liking for this place, and as I intend to stay here for a week there is a strong possibility I may like it even more before the bike heads down the road on the last lap to Sicilly.

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Buried by a mountain

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In the warmth of an Italian evening, Mount Vesuvius has a benign beauty about it. Looks can be deceptive; this is an active volcano which has a history of spectacular eruptions, the most famous being in AD 79 which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum with one hundred thousand times the energy of the Hiroshima bombing. An estimated 16,000 people died. Although tragic for the victims, the event has left us with a unique view into the everyday lives of ordinary citizens.

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Herculaneum sits between modern day Ercolano and the sea, with Vesuvius ominously close in the background. When the eruption occurred, Pompeii was downwind and consequently suffered mostly from ash; Herculaneum on the other hand was in the path of the pyroplastic flows and resulting intense temperatures. Much is still to be excavated here, with dwellings full of debris.

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What fascinated me was the existence of charred timbers from the conflagration, evidence of the intense heat which came from the flows.

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This was a fairly affluent neighbourhood in relation to Pompeii, and consequently many of the houses are richly decorated, often with murals of scenes from mythology. The one that captured my imagination however, was this beautifully rendered figure. The wallpaper of its time.

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Shrines were, I understand, common in the homes of wealthier individuals, and this one remains remarkably intact. Close inspection reveals great craftsmanship, no expense spared.

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Day to day living is well represented as you walk around the streets. There are four bars for instance, all intact, with the vessels for storing wine at the ready. What conversations took place here? The bakery with its oven has two corn grinding devices, beautifully carved and in near perfect condition.

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Probably the best preserved building is the bath house, a great communal facility, with it’s vaulted ceilings and tiled floors. You can almost feel the steam and hear the idle chatter.

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This is ultimately a sad place, and evidence of people’s demise is down at the former shoreline in the boat houses. Huddled skeletons showing the victims’ attempts to avoid the inevitable end are plain to see.

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On a happier note this modern Italian family, but for their clothing, could well be latter day Herculaneum citizens in front of their well appointed villa.
It truly is a remarkable place.

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Hand built in Italy

I am staying in Sorrento for a few days, a busy tourist town with many hotels and a surprising number of English people. The new port is a constant back and to of excursion boats out to Capri and the Amalfi coast. Just below me however, is the old harbour which remains wonderfully Italian. They had a Festival of the Fish the other night, with food stalls, live music and fireworks. Any excuse for a knees-up it seems.

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One street back from the seafront is a company which still makes boats in a traditional fashion, some entirely of wood and others in glass fibre with beautiful wooden trim. They are a sight to behold. It was like a moth to a flame for me.

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Even if boats hold no interest for you, there is something about the craftsmanship that has a strong attraction. The workmen were totally unconcerned about me wandering around the factory and machinery: a very refreshing attitude.

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Another thing that interested me was the average age of the workforce. Some appeared to be well past retirement, but obviously still enjoyed what they did. Better than working in B&Q.

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In the harbour just around the corner the company’s product stands out from the crowd of massed produced vessels, their sleek lines gracing the blue waters of the Bay of Naples.

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Sorrento has other hidden gems. Just inland, not two hundred metres from the main square is a most unusual sight. A deep valley cut into the soft rock contains the mortal remains of an old mill, long since fallen into disuse. The unique environment of high humidity has created a perfect habitat for lush vegetation, including several ferns, all of which are gradually claiming back man’s endeavours.

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Napoli

I have left my island retreat after three days of rest and relaxation, and the journey began with the climb back up the hill I had descended so rapidly.
Before leaving, I was waved on my way by a kindred spirit. Aaron was holidaying with his family,and although not even two he had a great sense of adventure and was constantly wandering off up the road to explore.
I wish him a wonderful life and many happy travels in the future.

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As the ferry steamed along past Naples towards the dock, I realised just how big a city it is, and why it comes third in importance after Rome and Milan. Having a sea access must also give it an edge over the others. Its reputation for problems is widely known, but in my short stay all I have experienced was a people with a zest for life and a great attitude towards strangers.

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I had already decided to stay in a hostel/ hotel here, but seemingly it’s a very popular place even at this time of year. The town centre was fully booked, so I walked south through the city in a thunder storm which left me soaked as usual. For some reason, when I decide to stay in a room like a normal human being, I’ve either had a puncture and my hands are black, or I’m looking like a drowned rat. Thankfully I never seem to have a problem with these drawbacks. Mount Vesuvius sat brooding to my right as I strolled up another street looking for somewhere to stay. The very helpful receptionist at the hotel directed me to a local pizzeria .Neapolitans lives spill onto the streets; consequently I walked past the establishment twice thinking it was somebody’s kitchen. What a place. Obviously a family business, they had won numerous awards for their skills. Naples is the birthplace of this dish, and the Margherita I ate last night was exceptional.

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A day walking around the city is quite an experience. The locals live life in top gear, and as a visitor you have to adapt quickly to their way of doing things. Towering houses rise up above you, scooters rush past you (even on the pavement ), and animated conversation and business deals are all around you. I have never been anywhere else quite like it.

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I took a tour of the subterranean cisterns carved out of the volcanic rock by the Greeks and Romans. They run for miles under the city with tiny passages linking them. Walking these with nothing but a candle to light the way was a test for a claustrophobic.

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I had a lottery ticket chosen for me by a budgerigar today. It seemed quite happy with its day job, and must surely beat being locked in a cage with a dead cuttlefish for company.

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Ischia

I was riding along the other day, minding my own business, when I passed some road kill. I have seen much on this journey as you can imagine. This however was a Porcupine ( either that or a very well-fed hedgehog ). I had no idea that they were natives of Italy but apparently they are. What is more, after doing some research, people actually keep them as pets. Can you imagine snuggling up next to one on the sofa to watch TV? Give me a dog any day.
I have deserted mainland Italy for a while. North of Naples the roadside rubbish returned, along with the girls on chairs, so I took a ferry out to the island of Ischia in Naples Bay. I am staying in the busy port town tonight, but it promises great beaches and thermal springs, being volcanic in nature. Even Angela Merkel comes here, so what’s good enough for the German Chancellor is good enough for me.
The rich and super-rich drop by occasionally in their floating palaces, much to the interest of the locals, who stand and stare at the privileged sipping champagne on the aft deck. I couldn’t help comparing their life style to those just a few kilometers away.

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The sea level in the harbour is in places the same height as the stone quay. This creates an interesting situation amongst al fresco diners when a ships wash creates a surge of water. The resulting wave comes through the tables at ankle height. No problem for a scruffy cyclist, but more affluent folk have to lift their expensive footwear high! It kept me amused anyway.

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Ischia was one of the earliest places colonised by the Greeks, and an earthenware cup excavated here has the first rudimentary examples of the Greek language decorating it’s sides. The Romans left more. This aqueduct is still in remarkable condition, testament to the building skills of their masons.

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Being volcanic, this island is extremely fertile and there is still an abundance of flora in full bloom. I can never resist taking pictures of Bougainvillea.

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These fruit and vegetables looked remarkably fresh, and the lemons were the biggest I have ever seen. Tomatoes have such a flavour to them, the olives sweet and full of oil.

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I only cycled 5k today, from one side of the island to another, a distance record for the trip. It was worth the monumental effort just for the view that unfolds, and as I sweep down the hairpins towards the beach and campsite, Matt Monroe is singing ” On days like these ” in my head. He probably had somewhere like this in mind when he sang it.

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End of season

I’m gradually working my way down the coast from Rome towards Naples. I will be meeting people on the Amalfi coast so there is plenty of time to stand and stare. Which is fine by me. Italy has that effect on you, although the northern section of this road does not leave the best impression, lined as it is with rubbish thrown from cars and prostitutes sat on plastic chairs. An interesting combination.
South of Anzio things improve dramatically.

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I had lunch by Anzio harbour ( a name from history to conjour with ). Harbours probably rank higher than squares in my estimation; there is always something to look at. Men mending nets, packing or preparing fish; boats of all varieties and the therapeutic sound of water lapping on hulls. I could have sat there for hours.

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Even though the weather is beautifully warm, for the Italians the tourist season is effectively over. Last night I was the sole occupant of the campsite, and many bars and restaurants have closed.My travel-worn appearance and loaded bike have attracted the attention of locals with time on their hands. I’m happy with that, I’m sure I would do the same.
Breakfast was en route this morning in one of the bars that was still trading. Once again I found it difficult to tear myself away, and because I’m not travelling to any schedule I don’t suppose it really matters.

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Tonight I am camping yards from the breaking surf in Terracina, a town which has a reputation for murals of all kinds, painted everywhere, and superb fish dining. I shall be sampling this shortly.

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Lastly, I have treated the bike to some new bar tape, gold in colour. I think it makes it look very Italian. As I spend so much time looking at it, it may as well be easy on the eye. I’m sure you will rest easier in your beds tonight because of it.

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"Not a shred of evidence exists in favour of the idea that life is serious" Brendan Gill