Here Comes The Planet 74 – Frascati (2018)

Frascati is a small town about half an hour from Rome which we visited on a winery tour. Apart from having some of the oldest businesses in the country, it also has some beautiful views of Rome in the distance, as well as the vineyards dotting the hills. A lovely spot!

Read Amanda’s entry on our Frascati wine tour here.

Here Comes The Planet 73 – Rome (2018)

As we’ve both been to Rome before, this time we opted to check out some of the spots we’ve skipped during past trips. We sought out the Quartiere Coppedèo neighbourhood for its unique architecture, the modern art museum and finally the Castel Sant’Angelo, which along with some great views over Rome has some very cool old weaponry on display.

Also, we muse on the timing of church bells over Rome!

Read Amanda’s entry about this part of our trip!

Using Hotel Swimming Pools in Sorrento

We really wanted the use of a pool while we were in Sorrento, but were staying in an Airbnb rather than a hotel. I figured there would probably be some hotels where you could pay to use their pool, so I did a bit of research online. Most of the information came from scattered TripAdvisor posts. Since I couldn’t find one definitive source regarding the use of swimming pools in Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast, I thought I’d compile my research for others.

After doing my online research, I went and enquired at four hotels in Sorrento which have swimming pools, and three of them allowed non-guests to pay to use the pool. The only one which didn’t was the Grand Hotel la Favorita. Here’s some information on the ones that do:

Hotel Central

We only had enough time in Sorrento to sample one of the pools, and we ended up going with the one at Hotel Central. It cost €10 each to get in, and was open until 7pm – unfortunately I neglected to check what time it opened, but I suspect it was 9am.

Hotel Central had a medium sized pool with a good number of lounges in both shade and sun, with a solarium off to the side. The pool was quite warm when we visited – absolutely lovely temperature. The bar on site has a happy hour, reasonably priced cocktails, and chair service. If we had more time we would have gone back!

The entrance is the “Central Fitness Club” just to the right of the front doors to Hotel Central, and to the left of Hotel Gardenia, which has an arrangement with Central so that their guests can use the pool as well.

Hotel Carlton International

Costs €15 per person, open from 9am to 6pm and use of the pool by non-guests is subject to availability. Also has a bar with a good range of drinks and food available.

Grand Hotel Flora

Costs €15 per person, open from 9am to 6pm and provides you with towels. We didn’t actually get to go in and see what the pool looked like or the facilities, but the Flora certainly looks like an upmarket place so I imagine they at least match the other hotels we checked. The website states it also has a pool bar.

I hope this helps other people in our position make the most of their time in Sorrento!

Catching the Bus Along the Amalfi Coast, Italy.

We had booked four full days in Sorrento with the thought that we would use it as a base to see the Amalfi Coast.

Sorrento is not actually on the Amalfi Coast, it sits on the northern side of the peninsula and the AC runs along the south side. On the map below you can see Naples in the north, Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii in the middle and then the route the bus takes from Sorrento to Amalfi. To go from Sorrento all the way to Salerno to see the whole Amalfi Coast takes two buses and about 3.5 hours – you have to change at Amalfi. Amalfi is also where the buses leave to climb up into the hills to reach Ravello.

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Although it is not far in a straight line from Sorrento to Amalfi or onwards to Salerno, the route is incredibly twisty-turny and the road hugs the cliffs. On our second day in Sorrento we bought the ten euro day pass and caught the 6:30am bus to Amalfi where we stopped for a hearty and not-at-all-Italian breakfast.

Then we continued on to Salerno and then back, stopping in Amalfi for lunch. While the first bus was less than half full when we set off at 6:30, it was standing room only before it got to Amalfi and every bus thereafter was full to the absolute limit, often turning away customers.

Just being on the buses along the route is an experience. The buses have a very loud and distinctive horn that they blast before all the sharp bends in the (often vain) hope that people will stop in an appropriate place so the bus can make it around the turn without having to stop. Usually people either don’t know what to do or don’t care and come on anyway, which means that they then have to reverse back around a corner. Traffic builds up so quickly that it sometimes takes quite a while for people to make enough space for the bus to move forwards and clear the road.

Frequently people have parked along the side of the narrow road, making the bus driver’s job even harder. There are tow-away signs all over but no-one seems to care.

People also seem to dump rubbish, either in bags or just in pieces, along the road and it’s kind of infuriating that Italians (and tourists I guess?) don’t seem to respect the unbelievable heritage and natural beauty they’ve been given – and on the other hand, if you’ve been elsewhere in Italy you just have to shrug and acknowledge that it could be so much worse.

The coastline is stunning. Easily one of the world’s most dramatic and beautiful and enhanced by the ancient towers that dot the promontories, built over a thousand years ago to watch out for Saracen and Turkish raiders. The houses and hotels lean vertiginously over cliff edges and lemon and olive groves cascade down mountainsides.

Positano is the most steep, the oldest, and possibly most picturesque of the seaside towns.  We didn’t get off the bus in Positano but it is easy to admire from the road.

We spent some time looking around Amalfi and particularly at the cathedral, which is very grand for such a small place – this is because Amalfi was once a maritime hub, so powerful it minted its own coins. It was devastated by a tsunami and plague centuries ago but signs of its past wealth remain.

In all the towns along the coast beaches are divided into sections. The largest is for the people who rent loungers for the day and a much smaller part is sectioned off for people who just want to lay a towel down. I find this process offensive – beaches should be for everybody, not a select few, but at least in Amalfi people can put their towels down even between the loungers if there’s space.

Admittedly Luke and I didn’t swim at any of the beaches. Apart from the beaches consisting of boiling hot grey pebbles or grit, it is hard to enjoy a beach when there are only two of you. There’s no way we’d leave our bags unattended which means only one of us could get in the water at a time.

Fortunately Luke did some research and found that were at least three hotels in Sorrento that would let non guests use their pools for a fee. We found the Hotel Central was cheapest and enjoyed several cocktails and a peaceful swim in their small and quiet pool. Happy days!

Luke loves the blue drinks!

Also check out the little awning on the beach chairs here! You’ve probably all seen this before but I thought it was nifty. More useful if the chair is actually in the sun but you get the idea.

So, we spent one of our days in Sorrento travelling the length of the coast, then our last full day saw us head back to Amalfi, again on the 6:30am bus, to catch the next bus to Ravello. Obviously the next Ravello bus departed just as our bus pulled in (because Italy) so we waited for half an hour then managed to grab a seat. The ride up to Ravello is perhaps less hair-raising than the drive along the cliffs but the road is even narrower in places (at one point it is only one car wide) and the hairpin bends are even more tight.

Ravello town square.

We had breakfast and a wander around Ravello, looking at the Cymbrone Gardens (where parts of Wonderwoman were filmed) and admiring the views of the hills from higher up before heading back to the bus.

There was a huge crowd waiting to catch the bus back and Luke made it on before the bus driver cut everyone off. I called out ‘my husband!’ and pointed to Luke and the driver kindly let me board last. This meant I had to sit right next to the bus door with my back pressed against the front window and leaning against it so the driver could see his mirrors.

Going through a tunnel backwards in a bus.

Going through a tunnel backwards in a bus.

It was kind of fun in a white-knuckled way and an older lady in the front seat kept smiling and grimacing understandingly at me when we sped up or turned a tight bend. When people got up to get off towards the end of the route everyone was very courteous about making space and letting older people sit down, as well as letting the driver know what was going on at the back door of the bus.

By the time we got back to Amalfi to catch our last bus to Sorrento there was a huuuuuge group of people waiting in the bus bay and so I went off to investigate other options and we ended up deciding to pay an extra ten euro to buy a seat on the private ‘city explorer’ bus (you know those red ones you see in major cities) that only sold enough tickets to fill the seats. No standing room and better aircon. Totally worth it!

Catching the buses along the Amalfi Coast is quite an experience and can be exhausting. There are big scrums, people push and shove a bit and it’s frustrating if you don’t know precisely where the bus stop is. Staying in Sorrento worked out well as we were at the beginning of the line and therefore always got a seat in the mornings – important when the ride is nearly two hours long.

If you’re thinking of visiting the area and catching buses my advice would be to go out of season. Of course if you enjoy combat sports and the smell of sweaty strangers and bus exhaust fumes then by all means go in Summer!

The lady with the red bag kept my spirits up;-)

The driver who let me ride shotgun. He looks so relaxed!

Perfectly suited to a full size bus.

Naples to Sorrento Via Pompeii

Due to our Airbnb host getting back to us rather late on the morning we left, we were not able to take an early train to Pompeii.

We arrived at the main station in Naples at about 10am to find the platform rammed with people waiting for the notorious Circumvesuviana, the private train that runs around Mount Vesuvius from Naples to Sorrento, stopping at Pompeii Scavi (scavi means ‘ruins’) and about 30 other stops along the way.

It is an old dirty train and it was PACKED. We were standing up the whole way and it was hard to avoid knocking into other people as the train sped up and slowed down to stop at places where hardly anyone got on or off.

At Pompeii the train pretty much emptied and we’d read that the entrance to Pompeii was about 500 metres up the road. This wasn’t true – it was almost opposite the station. Super handy, as were the free bag lockers that were, quite miraculously, mostly empty. We’d brought along all our luggage and were a tiny bit concerned that our bags wouldn’t fit but they did, plus there was an office for super large bags near the ticket windows.

We put our bags in then sat at one of the two open air restaurants opposite the entrance to the site and had a sandwich and a drink. Even at such a touristy location the prices weren’t awful – we could have food and a drink from about ten euros each. The restaurant also had quite an interesting display of labeled herbs and fruit trees spread around the tables. Here’s some lemons that were on display. Huge!

Eventually we sucked up our courage (it was a very hot day) and ventured out. The ticket queue was long but moved at a reasonable speed and we downloaded a Rick Steves audio tour of Pompeii while we waited.

Eventually we got in and wandered around, stopping in shady spots (there aren’t many) to listen to the podcast tour. If you haven’t heard of Rick Steves and you like travel, he’s worth investigating. My friend Jess’ mother, Wendy, recommended him to us. He’s an American who runs tours and writes and makes travel videos about Europe. He talks to locals, promotes sustainable and low cost travel and has quite a nice accent and enthusiastic manner. We listened to quite a few of his podcasts and watched his videos before we left.

The audio tour was quite informative and we also listened in to a few bits of guided tours that happened around us. It did seem that a few of the major buildings were closed while we were there and so we didn’t see the public baths and a few houses.

We stayed for about two hours but eventually the heat defeated us. There are taps on many of the street corners and so I did what I do at summer music festivals and soaked a cotton scarf and wrapped it around my head and shoulders. It helped somewhat but the reflected heat from all the dirt and stone was intense.

I think my favourite part of the city was the mosaic of Alexander the Great – someone I studied in high school and found fascinating. The mosaic (a replica, the original is in Naples) depicts a battle between Alexander and Darius, who led the Persian army. The guide who was talking near us was asking his group if they knew about Bucephalus (Alexander’s horse – a legend in itself) and various other things and I wanted to butt in and show off but managed to restrain myself with great difficulty.

We left knowing we hadn’t seen it all and probably wouldn’t come back. I did enjoy getting a feel for the layout of the city and the technology and everyday life of people who lived so long ago. I would love to see parts of the city restored more fully – we didn’t see any actual work going on while we were there and weeds seemed to be taking over many of the central buildings, with ancient frescos open to the elements. Considering what a tourist draw and money spinner  the place is, it’s hard to believe there isn’t money or interest in looking after it better.

We collected our bags and walked back to the station to find a sign being displayed at the kiosk saying that for the princely sum of four euros (rather than the regular price of two) we could buy a ticket on the express train to Sorrento. Yes please! When the train pulled up there were staff in the doorway making sure only the people who’d paid extra got on the express, which meant that we and perhaps another ten people got to enjoy a slightly newer and cooler train for the rest of our journey.

Why they didn’t offer this service (or perhaps didn’t advertise it) for the rush-hour period to get there I couldn’t say. That’s Italy for you.

Anyhow, we arrived in Sorrento to find that our next Airbnb was three flights up in a building right in the middle of the old town. One of those places that is an apartment block with a central atrium full of plants and laundry.

Our apartment had windows on three sides, a rooftop deck and a shower with disco lighting.

We celebrated our arrival with cool showers and then enjoyed wearing nothing but our undies and drinking some ice cold limoncello on the roof.

Saluti!