Trains on boats and new found friends

I descended the hill into Minori and found the tourist information office. Most of the town was still fixed on the football match that would dictate Italy’s world cup campaign. I could hear the cries from the windows of houses and restaurants as I passed. The lady recommended a place to me called the Hotel Europa. She said, its near the road, not anything fancy, but cheap. Sounded perfect for me. She gave me a postcard with this colourful, pristine depiction of an idealistic holiday resort. It may have looked like that once upon a time, but now it was looking a bit tired. As I approached the building, this little old lady approached me and started beaconing me to come in. Pointing and waving he hand like she really meant business, while muttering something in Italian I couldn’t comprehend. I got of my bike and walked it into the foyer of the building, with the little old lady fussing over me, pointing at where I might rest it. There was another lady at the counter, probably in her forties with thick curly hair and think rimmed glasses who cried out in a shrill loud voice “HELLO! You want a room?” I got checked in and parked my bike in a little room of the dining hall, then made my way up the stairs to my room. A group of four Italians were playing cards on the balcony and we exchanged a quick “Ciao!” as I passed. Heading back to the main town square, it seemed appropriate to dine at the Café Europa for dinner, while I sat surveying the activity of the waterfront, before retiring to bed.

The next day, I woke to the sound of traffic so clear, it was like it was in the room with me. I had a quick shower, then headed downstairs for breakfast. The duo from the night before were putting on a scene reminiscent of Fawlty Towers with the younger woman barking out “Mama!” and the old lady muttering in Italian before shuffling off to take care of the latest errand. There were a number of hotel guests around in the dining hall, and it became clear that the younger woman at the hotel had one one volume for her voice. At one point she came over to give me the Wi-Fi password for the hotel, and with her head leaning over my should proceeded to belt out more orders to “Mama!” and carry on a passionate tirade with another customer. I winced as the sound pounded into my left ear while trying not to laugh out loud at the spectacle.

Eventually I packed my things, checked out and said goodbye to Minori. With the extra distance I had done the day before, today would be a very easy ride. The next village was Maori, another quiet little place set among the hills. The road was still quite busy and now i started to see a few more lycra clad cyclists that i had seen the day before. one of them came up behind me and passed on a team sky Pinarello. I sat on his wheel and he asked me where I was from. I told him “Australia. Just like Richie Porte. You’re riding his bike.” we chatted for a few minutes before he said he had to stop now and go to work. Not bad to have a quick blast down the Amalfi coast before heading off to work at 11AM I thought! I passed a big group of people on scooters who were parked at one of the turnouts taking pictures. When I called out “Ciao!” as I went by there was an enthusiastic roar of “Ciao!” followed by cheers which put a smile on my face.

My guidebook warned me that the roads coming into Salerno would be confusing. It was the end of the little coastal villages and hello to a big port city. My first thought was to catch the ferry from Salerno to Sicily (or even Malta if possible). I managed to find my way across the lanes of traffic and follow the road that ran along the water front, hoping that the ferry terminal would be pretty obvious, or there would be some information point there. I continued along this way for a while, until I saw a sign for the passenger ferry. That must be it, I thought but as I pulled in to have a closer look, there was not much there and the sign was for smaller ferries to Sorrento and Amalfi coast. So then I decided to follow the signs to the tourist information centre, but after a while they just disappeared. The first sent me down the water front, which I kept following, until I reached the end of the pavement and ended up on the road heading out of town. So I gave up on the phantom information centre and the ferry and went looking for the train station. Train stations are generally big and easy to find. When I got there, the next train to Catania was leaving in 20 minutes. From Catania, I would need to make my way to Pozzallo where the ferry to Malta would leave on Friday. With my bike, the conductor told me to get on the last carriage where I left it precariously in the doorway and locked it to a hand rail. Since my reservation was for another carriage, I just found a seat wherever.

The train had these little compartments with 4 seats facing one another, like a modern version of the Hogwarts Express. I found a cabin where a couple were sitting, and sat down. They guy was sleeping and the girl was reading a book, so I got my laptop out. After a little while, the guy woke up and I noticed that they were signing to another. Always keen to meet new people, I got out my notebook and introduced myself. “Hi. My name is Phil and I’m from Australia. What’s your name? Where are you from?” The girl’s eyes lit up as she grabbed my notebook and replied “Hi Phil from Australia! We are from Hawaii! Misella and Bryce.” We carried on the conversation for a while passing my notebook back and forth. Misella has been here since April with Bryce just joining her. They will spend 2 months touring around Europe together. In July they will be camping with other deaf Europeans in the UK. It was lots of fun and I enjoyed getting to know them, and sharing some of my stories.

Suddenly there was a commotion with the engine driving the train being removed, and some of the carriages being disconnected. We all jumped out of the cabin to investigate. Then I realised what was happening, the train carriages had been shunted onto a ferry and we were going to sail across to Sicily. I did wonder how we would get there, whether there was a bridge or something. Then I spotted another guy in the carriage and called out to him. He was excited to hear someone else speaking English. He introduced himself as Joe from Bristol, and I introduced him to Misella and Bryce.

Once the train was secured on the ferry, we were free to roam about so the four of us went exploring. We made out way out the back where we could see the water, then another passenger told us we could access the upper deck, so we headed up there. On the upper deck it was quite windy, but we had a great view as we came into Messina. The ferry trip was very brief, so we had to jump back onto the train, but we watched with interest as the engine was reconnected and then coupled to the other carriages. Joe came and joined us in out little cabin, and we went on chatting, passing notes to one another. Bryce and Misella were getting off one stop before Joe and I who were going to Catania. We waved them good bye and exchanged details so we could keep in touch.

Joe was booked into a hostel in Catania. Since it was late, and I had nothing arranged, I decided I would make a reservation there too. That way we could keep each other company (and I wouldn’t get lost, hopefully). The hostel was a short walk from the station, and despite the cryptic directions we made our way there. It helps that it is located directly opposite an enormous Medieval castle! When we checked in we were both surprised at how nice, new and clean it was for the price. We dropped off our bags in the room, set up our beds and headed to the restaurant next door for dinner.

With the rush to get the train, I had skipped lunch. We shared some nibbles on the train, biscotti, prociutto and Misella even gave us some of her delicious homemade strawberry jam, but I was still pretty hungry. At the restaurant, a band was playing and it was packed, so we had to sit inside. It was good really, because we had a great view of the band, particularly the drummer. They played a mix of Italian songs, then some in English – lots of the Police and other classics of that era. The pizza and salad that I ordered was great, but too much to finish. We hung around for another song or two before heading back up to the hostel. It had been another great day, meeting more great people but I was ready for bed!

Cruising the Amalfi coast

I must have been tired, because I slept well into the morning. By the time I surfaced from my tent Anton has all packed and ready to leave. He had decided to catch the train to Napoli today and spend a few days there before taking his flight back to Munich. This first thing I wanted to do was check out Sorrento, so I left my things in the tent, grabbed my camera and rode off on my bike to explore. Sorrento is a busy tourist town, with lots of narrow alleys and one way streets full of souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels and cafés. I tried to make my way down to the waterfront, but quickly realised most of the fancy hotels occupy that precious real estate. Eventually I found a road down the the port, where the ferries operate. This was a narrow winding, cobbled road. Once there I saw a number piers for the larger ferries, and plenty of smaller private boats that you could take out for diving or whatever. The place was busy with tourists, mostly foreign, but I found a spot at a little café to enjoy some breakfast while I watched the boats come in.

After breakfast I climbed back up the hill, and took a right turn following the road. A little way along, I came to what appeared to be a private courtyard, but was actually a (comparatively) quiet little piazza. I ordered my first granita for the day (melone) and sat down to take in the view. I stayed for a while after finishing my granita, then weaved my way through the village streets again and back up the hill to the campsite. I packed my things to go, but before heading off I took a quick dip in the pool. It was very refreshing. After the swim, I bungee’d my shorts to the back of the bike (so they would dry out) and set off down the coast.

The journey took me around the coast of the Sorrento peninsula, through some lovely views of the water with a backdrop of hills. The traffic was pretty steady with a narrow windy road, but everyone gave me space which made me feel very safe. The only thing that startled me was a bus honking his horn to warn us all as he came around a blind corner. They do this a lot, since the road in places is too narrow for cars to pass in either direction, they give a little toot of the horn to let you know they are coming. Despite the cars, the buses and the scooters buzzing past, it was still a nice ride and the best way to take it in.

The first real climb of the day took me to a restaurant called Mira Capri, with outdoor tables position perfectly to survey the beautiful view of the Capri island just over the water. I stopped here for a light lunch, and found myself dozing off in the chair sitting under the shade of umbrellas with a gentle breeze. I could quite easily have dozed there lazily all day, but thought I should really keep going. I ordered an espresso, to give me a bit of an energy kick before setting off. While I sat there another couple, clad in lycra, riding road bikes arrived, something that unexpectedly had not been a common sight thus far. I said a quick “Ciao” before moving on.

The road undulated through the hills following the coast, looking down from rugged cliffs to the water crashing on the rocks below. Every now and then I would pass a hotel or villa clutching to the edge of the cliff face for unparalleled views over the water. Some had lifts and stairs down to their own private section of the beach front, adorned with an array of brightly coloured chairs and umbrellas. On other side, orchards of lemon trees and grape vines were etched into the hill side. Suddenly as I was descending a hill I felt a snap and my rear brake lever went dead. The cable had snapped. Luckily I still had my front brake, but not having a spare I would have to take it easy and nurse the bike now until I could find a bike shop. Something told me in this part of the world, that would be rare. Not long after, the cyclists I had seen at Mira Capri came past. I showed him my brake lever and asked him if there was a bike shop in Positano. I have no idea if he understood what I meant but directed me to the village turn off.

The goal for the day was Positano, a mere 35km from where I started in Sorrento. I planned to arrive in the mid afternoon, relax by the beach for a while, and then make my way to the campsite La Tranquilità, 5km east. Positano is a lovely picturesque village, with it’s narrow windy streets and buildings covered in flowers, but it seems that every tourist also knows this, so they make it their holiday destination. With hardly a square metre not covered by people (I could hear lots of American, Australian and Asian accents) it wasn’t really a place to relax. I decided to find the tourist information centre and ask for directions for the campsite. I started following the signs to the beach, which led me further and further downhill. Soon the road disappeared and I found myself negotiating steps through the souvenir shops, with my loaded bike, still surrounded by people on either side. I heard a few comments as I passed, with many who just stopped and stared. A man and his son from Korea stopped to ask me about my cycling journey, and were amazed to hear about it. Struggling, I finally made it down the steps to the beach that was buzzing with people moving around the cafes, on the beach, in the water, and at the pier for the ferries. I wandered around for a little while taking it in, then ordered a gelato to enjoy for moment to defer the inevitable march back up the stairs. After studying the map for sometime, I wandered off in the general direction of the tourist information. When I found it, I told the girl I had two questions please: First, where is the nearest camping ground? Second, is there a way to get back to the top of town without taking the stairs? She told me the nearest camping was Sorrento (where I had just spent the night) and there was no camping on the Amalfi coast. Then told me the only way to get back up, even with a bicycle, was back up the stairs. I was a little forlorn. Lonely Planet had let me down again it seems, I now had to lug my 40kg bike back up all those stairs and there was clearly no bikes (let alone bike shops in Positano!). Coming out of the office, I remember seeing little porter buggies on the beach that would take people’s luggage as they arrived at the port. Surely, they had a way to get back up to town, so I went investigating. I found this little tunnel, that went under the road, the popped out the other side and climbed, quite sharply through a series of switchbacks to the top. Haha! No stairs 🙂

Porter's tunnel in Positano

Porter’s tunnel in Positano

Once I had escaped Positano, I continued along the coastal road, looking for any sign of the illusive La Tranquilità or any other indication of camping. A few kilometres up the road I came to a sign for an info point. I stopped, but only to find out that it didn’t exist anymore, and the girl at the drinks stand agreed there was no camping that she was aware of. Bummer. I thought I would keep going until I found a nice little village, then find a hotel for the night. I continued along the road, the breathtaking scenery washing over me, and occasionally pausing to snap a picture. Just before the town of Amalfi, I came across a little stall on the side of the road selling granita limone. I pulled over to see an old man and woman who called out to me. As I came over the woman called out “Granita?” to which I replied enthusiastically “Granita!” It was truly the best I have ever tasted. I sat there for a while under the shade of their makeshift awning, and tried to make small talk with the old man. I wonder if you can call it “small talk” when it is a series of key words, gestures and smiles? At any rate, we muddled through happily. After finishing the granita with a couple of their fresh apricots I said “Ciao!” and went on my way.

Amalfi itself is also a lovely place, but like Positano it was hideously overcrowded. It was like disneyland without the cartoon characters. I stopped long enough to get a sense of the place, let it soak in and then pushed on. With all these undulating hills I was riding the front brake pretty hard. If it gave way too, it could have serious consequences. Then, out of nowhere this little shop appeared on the side of the road. I spotted the word “Bici” and thought it is worth a try. I showed the guy the broken cable, and he went through his box of spares pulling out something that might be suitable. I tried threading it through a section of outer cable, and it worked so it was worth a shot for 1 Euro. There was no place on the side of the road, or inside the little shop to make the repair, so I carried on until I found a place to stop.

The bike shop!

The bike shop!

Eventually I came to the charming little village of Minori. Much quieter, I had a good feeling about the place so decided to stop. I went past a restaurant with a big screen in the courtyard playing the Italy/Uruguay match. It was packed with people wearing the national kit, kids with faces painted. It was a real event. It was early in the game, and while I had no chance of getting a seat, I ordered a drink and watched on for a while. Rolling down to the water front in search of a tourist information office, I spotted a sign La Campanile – a camp site and picnic ground. Excellent. The signed pointed me away from the beach and through the town. I followed the series of signs all the way out of the town, up a long and winding hill. Finally I came to a sign that seemed to be pointing me up some stairs. I thought that is weird. Then a bus came along, and stopped so I asked about the campsite. Yep. It was up those stairs. OK. I could see about 20 stairs so started pushing the bike one at a time. I rounded the corner and the stairs went on further. I thought there must be another way. Then I saw a sign with a phone number so I gave them a call. There were 200 steps to the campsite and no other way in. Hm. Ain’t nobody got time for that! I tried to explain I had a bicycle, and they said they would come and meet me. After a quick chat, it was clear I had no choice but to roll back down the hill into town and find a hotel. However, I wasn’t keen to do that with only a front brake, so I got the tools out replaced the brake cable before setting off back into town to find a place for the night.