Thursday, April 5, 2012
I awaken this morning looking forward to starting the day with another walk like Janel and I did yesterday morning. We take off on our favorite “loop” that goes up into the mountain behind our villa and ends up high over Praiano. Once again, it is a gorgeous hike even though some clouds appear to be forming over the ocean. We arrive back at the villa in time for a quick shower and a bit of yogurt before taking off on the day’s excursion.
The sea looks rough this morning. It looks like rain. A little rain won’t stop the SHL. A last minute decision to grab our umbrellas was very wise.
Today we have plans to go to Cetara – a small fishing village near Amalfi – and have reservations (thanks, Amex) at a restaurant there that gets rave reviews. More on that later. Since we have all day to get to Cetara we decide to brave the bus. I have studied the schedules until I think I understand them and we walk to our Praia to wait at the Fermata Sita (bus stop – Sita is the name of the bus line. I know from my music background that “fermata” is “pause/wait”).
Surprise! The bus arrives ahead of schedule. We get on, act like we know what we are doing, stamp our tickets and stand (the bus is packed). The driver is an expert and winds around the curvy roads barely missing oncoming traffic. We have been down this road before (on our way to Agerola), but finally come to a portion that is new to us. The views from the bus are actually gorgeous and the ride is pleasant once we get seats.
Since we have to change buses in Amalfi our goal is to arrive a bit early and have a look around. the time we reach Amalfi it is drizzling rain and tourists are walking around in an umbrella-filled daze.
To say we are not charmed with our first impressions of Amalfi is putting it mildly. Once again, too many tourists (and this is not yet high season) and too many touris “traps.” We scoot on towards the center and find a huge cathedral in the square. The Duomo is quite beautiful. We also spy a very interesting fountain.
Real rain is imminent and we pop into a cafe to sit under the sheltered terrace, have a coffee and people watch. Great choice.
This spot is prime for people watching and is made especially interesting due to the rain. We make knowing comments regarding the fashion sense (or lack thereof) of the passersby.
Since we are here, an actual visit to the Duomo seems prudent. However, after we climb the steps we realize that there is an admission charge for the tour and we don’t really have the time or the inclination to do so.
Back down to bus central to try and figure out which bus will get us to Cetara. We think we have chosen the correct one and board early in order to secure a seat (on the right-hand side, of course, in order to get the best view).
The thing about riding the buses on the Amalfi Coast is that you have to know where you are going and more importantly, you have to know exactly where you should disembark. Sounds easy. But, if it is your first time traveling to, say, Cetara and you don’t really know where it is, how large it is, how many fermata sitas there are, or at which fermata to get off it can be a bit tricky. The bus does not make every stop – it only actually stops at the fermatas when either riding passengers ring the bell, or there are obviously people waiting to board the bus. You certainly don’t want to “prematurely” ring.
The only thing we know is that it is about a 20 minute ride from Amalfi to Cetara so we relax for about 10 minutes. Then we begin to continually look out the window to try and get some idea of where we are. Passengers are occasionally ringing the bell and getting off the bus. We finally round a corner and look down below the road we are on. We see what appears to be a “tiny fishing village” and both Janet and I light up. It has to be Cetara. Should we push the ringer? We do.
Here is where our luck was really working. We prepare to get off, the bus stops (in the middle of nowhere) and a lone passenger boards before we can step off. We look at him an ask “Cetara?” He says NO – this is Erchie. Cetara proxima (next). We sit back down. Crisis averted. We imagine ourselves getting off the bus, walking at least 500 steps down, down to the “tiny fishing village” we can see from the road only to find out it is not Cetara.
I strike up a small conversation with the gentleman who boarded and tell him we are heading to Cetara for the restaurant – Al Convento. He knows of it (great!) and alerts us when it is time for us to disembark.
Cetara is a cute little village and we are struck by it immediately. Now, THIS, is our type of place. Al Convento is easily found from the center of town and we are all excited to be there.
I had discovered Al Convento when I saw a show about Italy done by our friend, Tony Bourdain. He loved the town, loved the restaurant and I knew we had to go. They specialize in seafood (surprise) and especially are known for anchovies.
The building is actually an old convent and it is lovely inside. Very warm and inviting. However, that is pretty much where the “warm and inviting” aspect of this lunch began and ended. The owner/chef – Pasquale (I recognized him from the tv show) served us, but was none too attentive. He wasn’t rude, just not friendly. Certainly not what we have been used to on this trip.
Even so, we plowed on and had a great lunch. Our starter was a plate of anchovies prepared in several different ways – fried, marinated, grilled, etc. We also had a whole fish with some squid and a rocket (arugula) salad. I have eaten more rocket this trip than ever in my life. The Italians seem to include it with everything. We loved this particular salad and proceeded to “room around the arugula” in the salty olive oil on the fish plate. (“rooming” is kind of like dipping, swiping, sopping, etc)
All in all our lunch was a bit disappointing. Al Convento gets such rave reviews and we just didn’t quite see it. The food was good, not great. We want great.
After lunch we wandered around Cetara a bit while waiting for time for the bus. Janel wanted to get some of the jarred tuna for which Cetara is famous. However, most of the shops were closed up tight. We headed back to the bus stop and Janel decided to make one last ditch effort. She ran off down the street and came back gesturing for us to join her. She found the Holy Grail of shops carrying products from Cetara. We all loaded up on tuna,! anchovies and sun-dried tomatoes.
We were all dreading the bus ride back – change in Amalfi once again. It went pretty smoothly, though and we were able to get seats all the way. Some of us snoozed and some kept our eyes open in order to “ring the bell” at OUR stop in Praiano.
After a nice, long chill at our villa it was time to prepare for the evening. We had been wanting to go to Vivaro Wine Bar in Praiano ever since we got here. Logistics were keeping us from it. We can walk there (about 25 minutes), but won’t walk back in the evening because the lack of visibility on that curvy road at night would make it a dangerous trek. The supposed “local” bus stops running at 8pm. We have not ever seen a taxi or know how to contact one. We had talked with our driver – Giovanni – yesterday about Vivaro and he told us it is one of his favorite places and we should simply contac him to arrange for one of his drivers to get us home. He tell us that the owner, Gennaro, would take great care of us.
I emailed Johnny yesterday and told him we would like a ride back from Vivaro tonight, but he has not responded. We are bummed. I try calling Giovanni on Skype and get no answer. In keeping with our motto of “Less Fretting, More Prosecco” we open up a bottle and try to think of what we can do to get to Vivaro. Janet has a brilliant idea. The bus tickets we purchased are 24 hour tickets! We can take the Sita bus in the direction of Positano and just hop off in town in Praiano. Great. But how can we get back home? The last Sita bus is at 10pm – waaaay to early to leave a wine bar.
I try to call Johnny and he answers! Of course he can send a driver to pick us up at the Wine Bar. What time would we like to leave? We are not sure and he suggests we call him around 10:30 and let him know how much longer we think we would like to stay. Perfect. It is now dark and we know we must try to catch the bus. It is supposed to come in 20 minutes. We down our prosecco and run out the door.
The wait for the bus is so long that we figure it is not coming. There are brief thoughts of hitchhiking, but that gets nixed. Then we hear the bus and get all excited. Until. . . it flies right past us!!! We are not at the right stop. Our hearts sink. We trudge back to the villa and decide that our final chance is to call a number on the bus website that says “taxi.” I am fairly certain that they will not speak any English and that this will be an exercise in futility. Janel makes the call. She starts speaking Italian like crazy! She makes him understand where we are, where we want to go and that we want to go NOW. Unbelievable. Thank you, Janel – that Pimsleur course has paid off handsomely. We toast to Janel with the prosecco that we had left unfinished and tromp (down the steps) once more to the bus stop where the taxi will meet us.
Not 5 minutes after we get to the stop does a red, local bus come by. We don’t think it would be right to get on since our taxi guy is coming so we let it go. However, the taxi is coming from the same local bus company and we laugh when he arrives 5 minutes later. We figure it is the same guy who was just driving the bus!
We made it to the Wine Bar! Success. This place is tiny and completely cute. We love it the moment we enter.
The owner/chef/bartender, Gennaro is a wizard. The whole operation is a one-man show. He is super-friendly and finds a nice bottle of red wine for us. He asks us what we would like to eat – meat or fish. Of course, we say fish (there is NO menu). He says he will see what he can do.
This place is amazing. Gennaro heads off to the kitchen and comes out a bit later with three beautiful pieces of tuna crusted in sesame seeds. It is outstanding. He then tells us that he will prepare us a little pasta. Ok. We are in your hands. Periodically, Gennaro steps out front to greet friends or have a smoke and then re-enters the dining area or the kitchen and continues to get everyone served. It is all very chilled and relaxing. No menus/no prices.
Our pasta appears in really cool plates. We determine that the ratio of pasta to seafood is perfect. And this one is a bit spicy! We love it. Maybe best pasta of the trip.
It is already 10:30 so we ask Gennaro to call Johnny and tell him we would like a pick up at midnight. No problem. He asks us if we would like a fish. Are you kidding? We would love it, but we are stuffed. He seems disappointed.
Gennaro returns with a gorgeous plate Pecorino and Parmesano with a bit of honey and balsamic. We order another bottle of wine and settle in. The Parmesano is exquisite. Janel and Janet both love the Pecorino, but I cannot get past the Parmesan.
Our taxi arrives and we reluctantly must leave. Hugs all around from Gennaro. We are so happy we got to experience Vivaro. It is a completely unique place and is perfectly executed. How lucky are we?
We are not sure what we are going to do tomorrow and will decide when it gets here. For now, it is time to say Ciao for the night.