The Quiet Charm of Positano in Winter

There’s just something about a beach town in winter. It’s a curious blend of melancholy and hope. Melancholy because the whole town is a bit deflated. It’s purpose and reason for existence is still there (the beach, the ocean) but the spirit, the visitors, are nowhere to be seen. It feels hopeful because, well, obviously, the people will come back again and the town will come alive again.

At least, that’s how it felt in Positano.

Positano

After an early morning of gazing in wonder at Pompeii’s penises, we left the quickly growing crowds of tourists (seriously, go early. You’ll have the place to yourself) and headed off for a drive along the Amalfi Coast. It was predictably gorgeous scenery: a thin thread of a twisty road clinging to cliffs, the blinding blue ocean backdrop giving you a sense that you were about to drive right off those cliffs. No road shoulders, so no opportunity to stop and look at the tiny presepe (nativity scenes) nestled into roadside caves all along the way.

We saw these tiny nativity scene setups for sale in a market in Salerno. People set these up in roadside caves all along the Amalfi Coast. They look like little graveyards or roadside tributes or something.
We saw these tiny nativity scene setups for sale in a market in Salerno. People set these up in roadside caves all along the Amalfi Coast. 

(It now seems funny to me that word: presepe. So close to precipice, as in flying off of…)

We crawled along Positano’s sidewalk/street until we found a Tetris-style parking garage. Then we went off to be charmed by the little beach town.

During the summer, Positano is mobbed with thousands of visitors flocking in from nearby Capri or Sorrento or Ravello. But on a misty, chilly (by Italian standards. Really it was in the 50s) day in early December, it wasn’t busy at all. Sure, there were a few other tourists poking about, but not too many. I’m guess going to a seaside resort town in December does not top the list of a lot of must-do activities when one visits Southern Italy.

So you could really just meander through and soak it all in.

Meandering in Positano.

The architectural details were still lovely.

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There were still flowering vines clinging to brightly colored walls.

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Most businesses were closed for the winter, their wooden doors shut tight. But a few places were open to sell their world-famous, brightly painted ceramics and limoncello to stalwart tourists.

Positano graffiti
Positano graffiti

You could still walk under the canopy of arched branches, and imagine what it’s like when the sun dapples down through them.

Positano

The beach was fairly deserted, and all the little fishing and pleasure boats were piled up waiting for spring. We sat and watched a couple of dogs chasing each other up and down the beach in total freedom without having to dodge a bunch of people. Dogs don’t care if the sun is shining or not: a good beach is still a good beach.

Positano boats
You can see the happy beach dog in this grainy picture.

Most of the beachside restaurants were closed and boarded up, their patios draped in heavy plastic. If you closed your eyes and let the sound of the waves carry you, you could imagine what it’s like here in the summer. The murmur of conversation and laughter, the tinkling of plates and silverware, the shouts of waiters. But then, you probably wouldn’t be able to hear the ocean if the place was crowded.
Positano in winter

We slowly made our way to one of the few open restaurants for a nice, leisurely, wine-filled, seafood lunch. No need to hurry. There’s nowhere to go. No one’s waiting for us to vacate our table. There are no shops we need to get to before they close, no mobs of tour buses dumping yet more people onto this charming little seaside town.

Positano lunch

The people will come back again. But for that day, Positano was all ours.

Positano winter

Positano beach in winter.

Here’s a much more informative overview of Positano, should you ever want to go.

Time Travel to Another Naples: The Bourbon Tunnel

In Italy, December 8 is a national holiday. Something about a feast and some reception and being really, really clean, like immaculate.

I don’t know all the details, but there was a parade with red banners and gold fringe. And a lot of offices and government buildings were closed, and everybody was out and about, shopping and eating.

Neapolitan parade

As far as I can tell, it’s the equivalent of Black Friday. The streets were mobbed with families pushing strollers and carting shopping bags.

Since I’m a good little tourist, I knew that it was a national holiday and tried to plan my visit around it.

I used it as an excuse to visit an underground escape route.

Naples has quite a vibrant little underground scene. I’m not talking “underground” as in, sketchy clubs and coffee houses frequented by emo kids looking to get buzzed while listening to My Chemical Romance (I’m not even sure that reference is accurate. What do emo kids listen to? Is anyone called emo anymore?).

I digress. What I mean is underground structures that you can visit in Naples. Like tunnels, catacombs, cisterns and bomb shelters. It’s surprising that streets don’t just collapse upon themselves since they’re seemingly built over the urban planning equivalent of Swiss cheese.

One of these underground tours was located right near my hotel. And, as luck would have it, it was only open Fri-Sunday and on Holy Days. Which included the National Holiday of Feasting on Immaculate Libation Day.

The Tunnel Borbonico, or Bourbon Tunnel, is down a small alley off the left hand side of a very small street off a slightly larger street off the Plaza Del Plebiscito. Basically, if you make it all the way down the street to the church, you’ve gone too far. Also, there’s a bike barrier blocking the alley, so….look for that.

Bourbon Tunnel entrance
Signage for the Bourbon Tunnel.

There’s another entrance/exit at a very posh parking garage nearby. I’m not sure if that’s easier or not, but it does provide a nice excuse to go shopping (although, you’d then have to carry all your bags through the tunnels).

The tours are at 10, noon, 1:30 and 5:30. Me, and the rest of holiday-making Naples, showed up for the 1:30 tour. The place was packed. There was a small holding area for the groups and it was brimming with people. All of them, as far as I could tell, Italian.

Sure enough, a diminutive and perky English-speaking tour guide (I think her name was Sarah?) comes in and calls for all us foreigners and I’m the only one who steps up. My 10 euros got me a private tour. (You’re not allowed to take pictures, so most of the following pictures are from the Bourbon Tunnel website and are linked)

Sarah explained the history of the tunnel as we proceed down a very narrow and cramped stone stairwell. It was conceived in 1853 by Ferdinand II of Bourbon as an escape route from the Royal Palace to the nearby naval barracks. You see, Bourbons had had a rough time of the whole king business, particularly in Italy.

In fact, turns out that trusting the Neapolitan military probably wouldn’t have been a good move for Ferdinand. In 1856, a soldier attempted to assassinate him, and it’s believed that the infection he received from the soldier’s bayonet led to his ultimate demise.

Ferdinand’s tunnel was never really finished during his shaky tenure on the throne. That’s because Ferdinand had some seriously grandiose plans for what was essentially a “get out of Dodge” tunnel. He wanted a whole underground world with shops and other distractions. He drove the poor architect, Errico Alvino, crazy with his add ons and demands.

The tunnel runs about 530 meters long, and 30 meters underground, and is full of caverns and evidence of it’s past as a aqueduct system that provided water for this area of Naples until the mid-1800s. Sarah, who was very much working on her Hollywood-style teaser hype (“You’ll never believe what happened next. Follow me to find out more!”) told me how workers tasked with cleaning and maintaining the wells would sometimes use them to sneak into the wealthy houses to steal from them during the night. And, sometimes, they would get frisky with the lady of the house and nine months later, the equivalent of the milkman’s kid. (She told me the Italian phrase for it but I can’t find it in my notes.)

During World War II, the tunnel and aqueducts were used as an air raid shelter and makeshift military hospital. All told, nearly 10,000 Neapolitans took shelter there throughout the massive German bombings. People whose homes were destroyed moved down into the tunnels permanently. There is tons of debris – handwritten messages on the walls, abandoned toys and household items. It was actually very moving.

After the war, the tunnels were used by the police as an impound lot until the 1970s. Several cars, motorcycles, and, of course, Italian scooters are still down there covered in dust. Finally, the tunnel was used as a sort of municipal dump, with people throwing piles of garbage down there (including dismantled statues), until 2005, when the Associazione Culturale Borbonica Sotteranea began a five year restoration effort and opened it to the public.

It was a lot of history for an hour-and-a-half tour. As I made my way up and out and back into the crowded streets, I thought a lot about the many lives of that tunnel, and the resourcefulness of the Neapolitan people, and how there can be a whole other world of living history right under your feet. How you can miss the whole thing, if you don’t know it’s there, or if you get lost on a tiny side street on your way to an even tinier alley. You really have to pay attention and look hard at things you might take for granted, I guess.

The only picture I was allowed to take with my camera, at the end of the tour, looking back at the tunnel.
The only picture I was allowed to take with my camera, at the end of the tour, looking back at the tunnel.

Ultimately, I decided to the whole situation might be better considered over a pizza and some wine. It was the Italian National Holiday of Feasting on Immaculate Libation Day, after all.

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Pompeii’s Erotica: If It’s in a Museum, It Must Be Art

So, apparently, Pompeii is old Italian for “penis.”

Pompeii penis
This one is carved into the cobblestone.

Yeah, I know, right? Nobody saw that coming.

But they are everywhere at the ancient Roman town-city near Naples.

Pompeii has long been on my travel bucket list. Why yes, I am aware that my travel bucket list is incredibly lame. It also includes visiting 221B Baker Street and that Japanese island inhabited by cats. (If you click on that link, be prepared to squee. That second picture slays me.)

Vesuvius looming over Pompeii.
Vesuvius looming over Pompeii.

Pompeii has always fascinated me. The fact that there was the very affluent and sophisticated city completely frozen in time has always had a hold on me. I also found it hauntingly ironic that the city motto was something along the lines of: “enjoy life while you can for tomorrow is uncertain.” Especially when you live in the shadow of an active volcano.

So I was quite geeked out when my tour companion for life, XFE agreed to take me to Pompeii, even though he’d been there on a previous trip. I was so excited to go to a place I had read about in awe as a nerdy, history-loving pre-teen.

But after visiting, I’m now worried that the adults in my life probably thought I was a pervert looking at dick pics in her bedroom all that time, and not a nerdy, history-loving pre-teen.

Squint. There's a penis there.
Squint. There’s a penis there.

Somehow, in all my reading about Pompeii, I had missed out on the fact that the place was basically some sort of “50 Shades of Pompeii” sexual playground. AncientDigger.com explains:

Sex was a completely normal and fulfilling experiencing in Pompeii, and most of what we know about the eroticism that took place there was left on the walls….Some of the most recognizable and erotic art and archaeological finds in Pompeii were statues, large pools, and several murals of Priapus.

It is important to remember that all of the artwork in Pompeii discovered thus far has a much deeper meaning for the people that lived there. The Pompeians were enamored with eros and this obsession drove them to experiment with love, take risks with questionably clean prostitutes, and often drove men to partake in lewd acts with anything with a pulse. Is this the reason for the amount of sex that took place at Pompeii? Possibly.

….

Pre-Socratic philosophers believed Eros was a natural force responsible for creation. It was not just good or bad, but destructive. Eros was vital because it operated as a social concept, yet it had moral implications. It was hard to control because in many cases, individuals would become slaves to it. This may have been the case in Pompeii.

Oh dear.

Well, just know: Penises are everywhere at Pompeii.

Pompeii bordello art.
Pompeii bordello art.

They’re engraved on the streets.

They’re on the walls.

Pompeii bordello art

And, they’re in Naples’ exceedingly excellent National Archaeological Museum.

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In fact, they have a whole “Secret Room” devoted to erotica from Pompeii.

Not-so-secret room at the National Archaeological Museum
Not-so-secret room at the National Archaeological Museum

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I guess it’s like San Diego, which allegedly is German for a lady whale’s lady parts (thanks, Katie, for the reminder and insistence that I find this gif).

The Emotional Healing Power of Naples (and Pizza)

My cab driver doesn’t seem to have enough hands.

I’m bumping along Naples chaotic, narrow, cobblestoned streets in the back of a cab. My cab driver is holding his phone up to his left ear, swerving in and out of the bumper-to-dented-bumper traffic. I think he’s fighting with the person on the other line. He’s yelling and using his hands to enunciate his point, which is a bit of a problem while holding the phone and driving. There’s definitely no 10 nor 2 at this point of the driving game.

He really needs another set of hands.

I feel much like my Neapolitan cab driver. I don’t have enough hands or arms to get them around all the feelings I’ve had over the past two months.

rainy street in Naples
It rained my first day in Naples, which suited my mood just fine.

I’ve been bouncing on the emotional trampoline. I’ve run the gamut – white-hot raging anger, debilitating fear and sense of rejection, plain-old-run-of-the-mill sadness, tears optional, although frequent, as it turns out in my case. The raw twin realizations of the number of people who I had misplaced my trust in, and the surprisingly small list of supporters who would reach out to me when I was no longer around. *

On a good day, a certain scabbed-over numbness would set in. Then I would wallow in a bit of a pity-party, who-cares, what’s-it-all-for mentality. All of which goes against my feisty, fighting nature.

Turns out, Naples, Italy is the perfect city to go to if you are hollowed out and disappointed by life and humanity and especially former co-workers who you thought were you’re friends.

First of all, it’s an incredibly human city, where you can watch the soap opera of life play out millions of times a day on its quaint little streets. Families fighting with each other, enjoying each other. Couples making out and pushing each other away. Strangers eyeing each other with suspicion or disinterest. It’s reassuring to see that emotions can run a gamut, not just on the negative end of the spectrum.

Neapolitan Santa

Also, Naples is dirty and has its scars. It was the most bombed Italian city during World War II, getting bombarded over 200 times by both Allied (good job there, Mussolini) and German forces after Italy switched sides. Today, plaster is falling off its buildings or they’re covered in graffiti. Trash piles up frequently due to garbage strikes and very small rubbish bins. Every car on the road bears scrapes, dents, dings. In many ways, it looks like they stopped building after the bombings.

Typical building at the Piazza del Plebiscito
Typical building at the Piazza del Plebiscito. Note plaster situation.

But Naples messiness is also achingly beautiful — that whole shrugging off unpleasantness and just getting on with life is admirable.

Naples grafitti

And it is a very, very proud city. Especially of its place in pizza history. Don’t even try to suggest the pizza was not invented in Naples.

Pizza at Brandi's in Naples
Plaque near the place where Margherita was invented.

It’s a city that has never given up, rolling with the fates, but never forgetting who it is at its fundamental core. Remember those Germans who bombed them? Yeah, eventually they also occupied Naples. But the people of Naples, they don’t put up with that kind of crap. In September 1943, the townspeople rose up and threw out their German occupiers right before the Allied forces rolled in on October 1 to “liberate” them. It’s known as the Four Days of Naples and it is pretty badass.

Naples defiance via shop window
Naples defiance via shop window. (It says “F&*%k You All!!! Best Price”)

I’ve been through some dirty stuff recently, and my psyche and ego are certainly a bit scarred. But I’ve also got an inordinate – perhaps even Neapolitan-sized — amount of pride. So, I’m glad I trampolined my way over to Naples for a quick visit and history lesson. Naples and its lessons on resilience have helped propel me to a new, more familiar emotional state – defiance.

Neapolitan cat don't care
Neapolitan cat don’t care.

(*I should also unequivocally state that there have been a handful of former ex-colleagues who have reached out and been incredibly helpful to me in so, so many ways, even if it’s just a cup of coffee and a vent session. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge them. And, of course, always XFE, who goes through it all and who took me to Naples anyway.)

I Bet Princess Kate Doesn’t Have to Deal With Dirty Gutters

I got back from Naples, Italy very late last Wednesday and I’m suffering from carb withdrawals. A pasta depression, if you will.

For example, when I walk downstairs for breakfast in the mornings now, there is no artful display of delicious Italian pastries and nobody brings me a frothy cappuccino. There are no royal apartments to tour and gawk at. No afternoon arancini or cone of misto mare eaten while strolling the quaint little streets and washed down with a Nastro Azzurro. It’s all very, very sad.

My re-introduction into American-style domestic responsibility was a bit bumpy. I had to get up very early on Thursday morning to meet the gutters guy from We Get High Roofing and Gutters. Yes, that’s the company’s name. Which made it an easy name to remember, even though I had gotten the recommendation during a very drinky Thanksgiving event.

Anyway, last Thursday’s meeting was early and it was freezing and I felt bad sending Martin up his ladder to our roof, but our gutters and downspout needed cleaning. And I wasn’t about to do it.

Plus we were particularly interested in getting some of those screens put on the gutters to keep the leaves out so we wouldn’t have to get the gutters cleaned out every fall. Martin quickly burst my bubble.

“You have janky gutters,” he informed me.

“Yes, I know, they’re very dirty. Lot’s of leaves. But if we can put those screens on, I think it will help,” I countered.

“Sure, I can clean them, but you have janky gutters,” he replied.

“OK, I get it. The gutters are janky. That’s why you’re here. So just clean them and install the screens and that will be great,” I reiterate. My man-boss, XFE (who was still in Italy for work) had been pretty adamant about getting the screens installed. I really didn’t want to mess this directive up.

Also, as this point I’m thinking, “dude, you’re being awfully judgmental about my gutters. I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen worse.”

“I cannot put the screens on because you have janky gutters,” Martin informed me.

What the hell? I’m thinking, is this guy trying to upsell me into installing totally new gutters or something? What’s his game?

“Janky gutters are very nice, very authentic, very popular in this area, all the houses have them. They’re historic,” Martin tries to reassure me. “But you can’t put the screens on them because they lay flat. That’s why you can’t see them at the roofline. See?” Martin shows me pictures of our roof that he took on his phone.

Finally, it occurs to me: Martin is explaining that we have YANKEE gutters. Yankee. Not janky. I mean, they were janky, as in dirty and filled with leaves, but they didn’t need to be replaced. And you couldn’t put screens on them.

Martin’s accent and my still-on-Italian-focused ear were not getting along that morning. So, I let Martin get on with his excellent work (I really do recommend them. He did a great job for a reasonable price and provided lots of before and after pictures.)

Meanwhile, I slunk inside, made some non-frothy, non-cappuccino coffee, and wondered if the Royal Palace in Naples had Yankee or janky gutters.

Princess Poe reflecting on chores

Friday Links: Sassy Cats See Buildings Shaped Like Food and/or Brains Edition

I’m frolicking in Naples, Italy right now, eating all of the thin crust pizza, and pasta, and creamy pastries, and just fried everything I can get my sticky little fingers on while my travel-buddy-for-life XFE actually works. Maybe the guys who make the expandable suitcase below could branch out into some expandable pants in time for my return.

This is the proper way to eat Italian cheese. I learned that from a Euro of Hollywood, so it’s a FAKT.

In the meantime: