Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Monreale (Sicily log 6)

Fortunately, the weather was not so hot today - at times, it was even fairly cloudy and as I write these words at 9:30pm, even a few drops of rain fell. Tomorrow is supposed to be even cooler, not that it will matter as tomorrow we fly home.

Today we decided to visit the neighbouring town of Monreale, mainly to see its cathedral. We had incomplete information about how to get there; we took a regular AMAT bus from Piazza Politeama to Piazza Indipendenza then another bus to Monreale itself. Unfortunately, the last stop of this second bus was about 1.5 km from the cathedral. As it happens, riding the bus with us was a group of French tourists along with a local who both spoke French and was going to the cathedral himself. He led our small group for a short walk until we reached a spot - although it wasn't clear to me what was going to happen next. A local taxi driver had created a shuttle service for himself, taking people to the cathedral for one euro each; we jumped at the chance.

The cathedral is definitely astounding and worth visiting, whereas the rest of the town isn't particularly interesting (at least, not to me). After a cheap lunch at one of the pizzerias lining the square in front of the cathedral, we were faced with the problem of how to return to Palermo. I wasn't looking forward to the option of telephoning the taxi driver who would take us to the suburban bus stop, then riding another two buses. There was a taxi in the square who took us back to Palermo - to our hotel, in fact - for twenty five euro; the ride lasted only twenty minutes. A much better option.

After resting, we went out again in the evening for a cup of tea at Bon Toast, then wandered around the area of Teatro Massima. After dark, the building is lit by several coloured spotlights, further enhancing the beauty of the building. Several photos ensued.

So, tomorrow we head for Palermo airport at lunchtime for a connecting flight to Rome, and thence to Israel. I doubt very much that I'll write anything tomorrow.

To sum up our holiday: Sorrento, si! Sicilia, no!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The heat! (Sicily log 5)

Breakfast in our Palermo hotel was so-so; it was ok, but definitely ranked in third place. It also started at 7:30am as opposed to 7, allowing me to sleep later. The breakfast room is fairly small and reviews suggested to get in early - sound advice.

Once out of the hotel, we made a beeline for the Piazza Castelnuovo in time for the first (9:30am) hop on, hop off, bus around Palermo. The plan was to enjoy the tour, then get off at the Cathedral stop so that we could walk to Mercata delle Pulci, an antiques market. The weather was bearable when we started the tour, but already at 10am, the heat was getting to us.

Mercata delle Pulci is a short road with shops/stalls on both sides of the road, selling the sort of item which my wife loves. Plates, pots, kitchen utensils, clocks, furniture, candelabra - all at least fifty if not a hundred or a hundred and fifty years old. In the first shop, I found a small accordion like the one being played by the boy on the way to Pompeii; I was seriously considering buying the object, but when I tried to play, it seemed as if the reeds were broken. I don't know exactly how we would have got it into our luggage anyway.

I went off to read for an hour while my wife continued poking around. In the end, she bought three small objects (I haven't actually seen what she bought), each costing about 5 euros. One wonders how she managed to bargain with the shop owners as none of them seemed to understand English (presumably they showed amounts by their fingers). One also wonders how the shop owners make a living as we were the only clients there for an hour.

By the time we had finished, the air was stifling, so we walked back to the main road, had an ice cream then waited for a few minutes, when fortunately the bus came around again. We continued on the bus until we came back to the botanical gardens which we had seen in the morning. The gardens cover about 30 acres and it was quite hard work dragging ourselves around as it was incredibly hot. We admired a huge ficus tree at the beginning of the gardens, but it turns out that there was an even bigger tree further on, which is an emblem and a well-known attraction of the modern garden; this was imported in 1845, making it nearly 170 years old (one wonders at what age it was imported). The picture doesn't give a good idea of how massive this tree is and how many aerial roots it has.

We also saw a bush which we had last seen on our trip to the lemoncello factory; as we were in botanical gardens, this time we could see the scientific name for the bush, which is datura cornigera, aka the angel's trumpet. Again, the picture doesn't match with reality: in Italy we have seen yellow flowers whereas the picture has white ones.

Leaving the gardens, we staggered back to the main road just in time to see the bus stop at our station, so we ran across the road and alighted, delighted. On the way back to the piazza, I saw one of those illuminated signs which shows the date, time and temperature: 38 degrees celsius! Once back in the apartment, we drank some more water, turned on the air conditioner and had long, cold showers.

It's now half past five, which means tea time. Shortly we will leave the apartment, go to Bon Toast for a cup of tea then choose a restaurant for our evening meal (we skipped lunch because of the heat). Today is our 33rd wedding anniversary!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Welcome to Palermo (Sicily log 4)

After breakfast, we packed our bags (in fact, we never unpacked them) and walked the short distance from our hotel in Catania to the intercity bus station. After a short wait, we alighted the coach to Palermo and arrived after just under 3 hours of traveling. Once there, a taxi took us to our hotel. I am fairly sure that our taxi driver gouged us by charging the exorbitant fare of 20 euros for what transpired to be a fairly short journey. Let us not forget that Palermo is the stronghold of the Mafia (a news item broadcast on this morning's news said that 95 people had been arrested in a police operation against the Mafia in Palermo) so I wasn't about to argue (too much). Fortunately, we won't have to take a taxi to the airport - there is a shuttle bus.

We have a huge suite in our hotel/bed and breakfast, Residenza d'Aragona: a large bedroom (the same size as in Catania), an even larger sitting room (complete with chairs, sofa and even an extra bed) and separate bathroom. The hotel is situated only a few metres away from Via Roma and within easy walking distance of many of the main tourist sites in Palermo, so we have already forgotten the experience of Catania.

There is a trattoria situated right across the road, so we went there for lunch: a delightful grilled sea bream. An unpleasant surprise awaited us after the meal: the menu quoted 12 euro for the fish but we were charged 15. We won't be returning there to eat - and there's no need as there are plenty of other restaurants within walking distance.

From there, we walked to the Massimo Theatre, which is an imposing and impressive building (the picture at Wikipedia was taken from the wrong side, if you ask me). We had been told that there was a laundromat "at the back of the theatre"; after wandering around, I found the sign for the laundromat, but not the laundromat itself. After looking on the Internet, I found an address of a laundromat (somewhere else), but we can manage without the visit.

From there, we walked to what seems to be the centre of Palermo, Piazza Castelnuovo, found the information booth (which didn't really help us) then got on one of the two open air buses riding around the city (these are double decker buses, so we sat downstairs; again, it was very hot and we wanted to avoid the sun). As opposed to Catania, a ticket cost 20 euro but it's good for 24 hours, so tomorrow we will make good use of the ticket. It turns out that there are two lines and by accident we took the lesser line. Tomorrow we will have time - and also it won't be hot in the morning - so we'll get the correct bus. We have a few destinations in mind to spend time.

Walking back to our hotel, we passed the Bon Toast coffee shop, where we had the traditional 5pm cup of tea. This was quite possibly the best cup of tea that we have had in Italy! The mug was of a decent size (normally we get served in cups which we consider to be half size), the water was boiling and the milk was cold. We were even served little wafer biscuits to go along with the tea.  After finishing, we had a short chat with the staff, who were amused to note that it was time for afternoon tea (5pm). Once again, a minor problem with the bill: the menu stated 2 euro for a cup of tea, so our bill should have been only 4 euro; we were charged 4.50 euro. I wouldn't make an issue of this as the tea was definitely value for money (in Capri, we had a worse cup of tea in a cup half the size at twice the price), but I do feel that the price paid should reflect the price in the menu. We will probably return there for afternoon tea each day, and next time I will ask about the price difference.

We're now cooling off in our apartment before hitting the streets again to soak up the evening of Palermo.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Open air bus (Sicily log 3)

Today is Sunday and almost all the shops are closed in Catania, especially the tobacconists which is near the hotel. This means that we couldn't buy bus or metro tickets today, thus reducing our possibilities of getting around the town.

We walked to what we thought was the Piazza Duomo (in fact, it's the Bellini theatre) where we had lunch. We then walked to the real Piazza Duomo and were impressed by its size. Just as we arrived, we were approached by someone selling tickets for the open air bus (which we had glimpsed from afar in the previous days); his brochure said the cost was 15 euro per person but sold us two tickets for 10 euro each.

Unfortunately, the open air bus was, obviously, open air which meant that the sun was beating down mercilessly on my body. The ride itself was quite interesting, taking us first to the beach area (displaying many volcanic rocks) and then into the cleaner and more historical parts of the old city. After an hour, we were back in the piazza.

First we refreshed ourselves (I had an excellent banana milkshake), then we hired the only taxi in the square to take us to the Bellini Gardens, which we had seen on the trip. As someone wrote, [a] very large and rather pretty garden in the heart of Catania, with the main/front entrance just across the street from a fabulous gelato shop. The date is always written in flowers on the front hill, and there are plenty of small whimsical niches in the garden where busts and statues hide. My wife thoroughly enjoyed this lovely green oasis in the middle of chaos and street litter in the city outside (as another reviewer put it).

We were in a quandary about how to return to the hotel. It was too far for my wife to walk and we didn't have any tickets for a bus, so we were hoping to find a taxi. Unfortunately there were none, so after about fifteen minutes of waiting, we became petty criminals and rode on a bus without paying. This bus didn't take us to the central train station as we expected but instead turned to the main road near where our hotel is situated.

So at least today's activities balanced our jaundiced view of Catania. Tomorrow we will catch a coach from nearby the train station which will take us to Palermo. I had thought that we would travel by train but it turns out that there is no direct service and would take at least five hours. The coach takes two and a half hours only.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Circumetnea railway (Sicily log 2)

Before we came to Italy, my wife had been talking about a railway ride which goes around Mount Etna. It transpires that she's been referring to the Circumetnea railway, which is a single track, narrow gauge railway. It turns out that the data in her guidebook is inaccurate.

With great difficulty, I managed to find a timetable for the railway, one which came into operation only a few days ago. One has to take a train from Catania to Randazzo, then get off and wait for another train which goes from Randazzo to Giarre. Apparently one can catch a normal train from Giarre back to Catania. There is a train leaving Catania Borgo station at 7:51 in the morning, but this seemed to be too early - especially as this station is not the station near us but elsewhere in Catania. The next train leaving Borgo is only at 10:44, and this would have entailed a 40 minute wait at Randazzo. 

It occurred to me that it might be better to first travel by regular train from Catania to Giarre (7:49 am, with the station five minutes walk from our hotel), then board the special train at Giarre at 8:53, arriving at Borgo at 12:10 with only a ten minute wait at Randazzo. So this is what we did. It's interesting that no one who wrote a review at Trip Advisor considered this possibility.

The first step cost 2.85 euro/person and was very comfortable. I should point out that we were helped in buying our ticket from the automatic machine by an old man who was waiting by it. He proved very helpful - until at the end, when he asked me (in Italian) for a contribution towards a cup of coffee (as I understood it). In other words, we had to tip him for doing something which I could probably do myself. I suppose that it's one way of making a living.

Once we arrived at Giarre, we disembarked and walked maybe a hundred metres to the other ferrovia station; this seemed to be totally abandoned, although a few more people (some local, some obviously not) turned up. On time, the small train - two carriages - appeared, and we set off on our trip around Etna, a still active volcano which reaches over 3000m at its peak. The ride to Randazzo takes an hour and the view was quite interesting. It appears that there are many agricultural smallholders; we would see houses dotted around, each with its little vineyard along with lemon and olive trees.

At Randazzo we disembarked, and after a few misunderstandings with the local staff (none of whom spoke English), we waited ten minutes until a second train came along. This one had only one carriage and so was almost immediately filled up before leaving. Unfortunately, the view from here back to Catania was very uninteresting and did not hold our attention; it was also quite hot in the carriage. 

At one of the stops, we were told to disembark and get on a bus which was waiting by this station. We were only too pleased to do this as the bus was air conditioned and the seats were more comfortable. Unfortunately, after about twenty minutes (after having passed through a few dirty towns), the bus stopped outside another train station and we were back on the ferrovia for the final ride into Catania.

I wouldn't recommend this ride to anybody, but if pressed, I would suggest riding from Catania to Giarre, taking the first hour of the trip to Randazzo then returning to Giarre and thence to Catania.

We found the metro station which would take us back to the main train station but of course we had neglected to purchase suitable tickets in advance (there was nowhere in the metro station to buy them). I belatedly realised that we would be able to purchase the required tickets in a tobacconists, so I retraced my steps to the ferrovia station where there was a tobacconists. I tried to buy metro tickets, but when the cashier saw my ferrovia tickets, she said that we were entitled to two free metro tickets (again, this is what I understood from her Italian) and gave me them to me.

Thus equipped, we went down into the metro and took the first train back to the main station. Actually, we got off at Corso Italia for I imagined that we would easily be able to find somewhere to eat in that area; this turned out not to be true but I won't go into that.

All in all, this was not a good day! The public transport in Catania isn't very good, the streets are incredibly dirty, it's difficult to find somewhere to eat and nobody seems to speak English. This is not a destination for foreign tourists! The contrast is especially great after coming from Sorrento which is clean, pleasant, filled with restaurants, geared for tourists and almost entirely English speaking.

Fortunately, tomorrow will be our only other full day in Catania (we leave for Palermo on Monday morning), so today's lessons will be taken to heart.

[Edited 10 July 2014 to remove repeated words and phrases]

Friday, June 20, 2014

First day in Catania (Sicily log 1)

Our impressions of Catania - especially after Sorrento - are not very favourable. In a sense, this is not surprising as Sorrento is a town geared for (British) tourism whereas Catania seems to be an ordinary town which just happens to be a port and near Mount Etna. The hotel where we are staying seems quite nice - certainly, the owners have invested in the decor and there is an inner atrium - but the area is not very salubrious. The only good thing which I can say in the location's favour is that the hotel is very close to the central train and bus stations.

There is a very interesting statue outside the train station called Fontana di Proserpina.
During the day, the statue looks forlorn, with birds hovering over or sitting on the statue. One gets the impression, though, that it looks much better at night. Certainly the fountains weren't working when we were there. Google Translate mangles some elegant Italian into the following: At the beginning of the 19th century, the municipal administration of Catania decided to build a fountain in the square outside the railway station; for this task was called the architect Giulio Moschetti, born in Ascoli but adozione. Moschetti of Catania was already in town, he was in fact working on the decorations of the Teatro Massimo Bellini, but gladly accepted this second assignment. Thus was born in 1904 the Fountain of Proserpine, a monumental sculptural group depicting the god Pluto, on a chariot drawn by horses and mermaids, in the act of tearing the earth Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter. 
One good thing which can be said about Catania is that the food is much cheaper than in Sorrento.

Sorrento to Catania (Sicily log 0)

Yesterday (Thursday), we spent a few more hours wandering around Sorrento, and in a sense, saying goodbye to the town that we had come to love in a few short days. At 5pm, a taxi came to take us to the port of Napoli, where we would be traveling on an overnight ferry to Catania in Sicily.

We were the first people to board the ferry, having arrived almost an hour earlier than we needed to. After showing our ticket to a worker, we were directed to the fifth floor; there we found an office where our second copy of the ticket was taken. A porter led us to our cabin via a lift and a series of winding passageways, although I discovered later on an exploratory trip that we were actually very close to the office (albeit a floor up). I also discovered the dining room which would open at 8:30pm.

The cabin was small, but sufficient for two people, including small toilet and even shower. We arranged some items in the suitcases, I unpacked my CPAP machine (there are electricity sockets in the cabin) then laid down to rest until the dinner gong. Dinner was served cafeteria style which suited us fine; the food was reasonably tasty although not particularly hot. After dinner, we went back to the cabin and prepared for departure; although this was stated to be 9pm, I don't think that we left until about 9:45. After several unintelligible announcements over the tannoy (maybe they were running lifeboat drill), I started feeling lurches in my stomach which presumably were the effect of the ferry taking to the seas. These lurches, whilst not violent, were sufficient to prevent me from relaxing enough to sleep. I'm not trying to imply that I felt sick, but rather my mind was translating the movement into the feeling of being on a very modest roller coaster.

I know that I did sleep a certain amount, but I felt that I had great difficulty in getting to sleep. Ironically, I fell asleep at 5am (I had just looked at my watch) only to be woken by my wife's alarm at 5:30 - I know that I was asleep because she woke me from a dream. Theoretically, the CPAP machine can tell me how long I slept, but I suspect that it shows its activation time and does not measure sleep time. I don't have the means with me to read the memory card of the machine so this will have to wait till we get home (although I had considered inserting the memory card into the video camera and accessing it from there).

It's now 6:15 am; I can see land from my porthole although I have no idea how much longer we have to sail. After we disembark (which will probably be a long and painful process), we will find a taxi to take us to our hotel in Catania, presumably to discover that we are too early to check in. We will leave our suitcases there and go in search of somewhere to eat. Then maybe I'll be able to upload this entry.

Continuation: the ferry arrived at about 9:00 but we didn't disembark for about another hour. When we did reach dry land, we had to wait for about 15 minutes until a taxi kindly turned up which took us to our hotel. We've just checked in and naturally the first thing that I did was check the Internet connection.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Modes of transport (Sorrento log 7C)

I forgot to mention yesterday the varied modes of transport that we used:

  1. Hydrofoil - from Sorrento to Capri and back
  2. Taxi - both from Sorrento Marina Grande to Sorrento port, and from Capri Marina Grande to Ana Capri
  3. Chair lift - from Ana Capri to Mount Solaro and back
  4. Bus - from Ana Capri to Capri
  5. Funicular - from Capri to Marina Grande
  6. Lift - from Sorrento port to Sorrento town

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The isle of Capri (Sorrento log 7B)

We had seen the weather forecasts with some trepidation: today would be cloudy with a fair chance of rain. My wife was somewhat disappointed that we had penciled in the trip to Capri for today; my defense was that at the beginning of the week, today was supposed to have good weather.

We dressed suitably: I wore long trousers and took in my backpack my new umbrella and a sweatshirt which I have yet to wear this holiday. My wife left her straw hat behind and took her jeans jacket. In the taxi on the way to the port, we asked the driver about the weather, and he said that if it did rain, we could expect only a short shower of maybe 20 minutes duration.

There was a hydrofoil boat leaving Sorrento shortly after we arrived at the port, so we were in Capri reasonably early (the trip takes only 20 minutes). My wife's guidebook had warned about dangerous roads leading from the marina to Ana Capri ("upper Capri") and advised to travel in a taxi and not by bus. So we took one of the many taxis waiting (a very stylish red convertible) and rode to Ana Capri at the cost of 20 euro. When we arrived, we looked at each other (and at the taxi driver) and asked ourselves what was so dangerous about the road. True, the road is on the mountain side so one theoretically might go off the road and thus off the mountain, but that side of the road had a large fence. Maybe the fence had been erected after the guidebook had been written.

The taxi driver dropped us off right by the chair lift ride to the top of Mount Solaro. We were about to buy tickets but the driver told us that the chair lift was temporarily closing as the weather was inclement. It was fairly cloudy, so presumably the operators knew what they were doing. Although we were disappointed, we realised that there was a good chance that the chair lift would shortly return to operation. So we turned around and saw that we were standing outside the large shop which we were looking for. While we were inside the shop, it started raining heavily, but fortunately we were otherwise occupied. By the time we had finished with the shop, the rain had stopped.

We then went outside and followed the sign to Villa San Michele which was only a few hundred metres away. The house itself wasn't that impressive, but it has a fantastic garden. My wife was in seventh heaven looking at all the trees and flowers and how they were arranged; I enjoyed it as well. The story of Dr Axel Munthe seems very interesting and I might even seek out his book when we come home.

The rain seemed to have scared off the tourist groups so we were pretty much alone in the villa. As we left, there were several groups preparing to enter, so we knew that it was time to head for the chair lift. As opposed to the chair lifts in Switzerland, here everybody rides on their own. The first minute was slightly scary but after that, it was possible to relax and enjoy the ride, which takes just over ten minutes.

The view from the top of Mount Solaro to the gulf of Naples and the gulf of Salerno was breathtaking. As we had heard one of the guides saying earlier, the north side of the island (where the port is located) is nothing special, but the view from the southern end is divine. I totally agree. We spent maybe an hour at the top, reveling in the view. I should point out that after the rain, the clouds dispersed and it became very hot. I had to apply sun tan lotion when we were on Mount Solaro and I'm not sure that it was that effective.

After we came down (both literally and metaphorically), we had lunch in one of the many restaurants, picked up my jacket then took the bus to the village of Capri. The buses on Capri are very small (probably necessitated by the narrow roads and sharp turns) and the drivers try to cram as many people in as possible. We were the last ones to board but fortunately had enough breathing space. We disembarked in the centre of Capri, a place which isn't really worth writing about. After the traditional gelato, we took the funicular down to the port (more shades of Switzerland).

Most people, when they arrive in Capri, take a boat trip around the island and visit the blue grotto. The description of this in my wife's guide book was so unappealing that I suggested that we skip it and not ruin the wonderful impression that we had of Capri. I know that I was being contrary, but she agreed with me. Friends of ours who had visited Capri had not been very enthusiastic about the grotto. So we took the first boat back to Sorrento and arrived just before five pm, tired and slightly dehydrated, but very happy.

Tonight is our last night in Sorrento. Tomorrow we have to pack, but instead of returning to the airport, we travel to the port in Napoli, where we will take the overnight ferry to Catania in Sicily. We will be a few days in Catania then a few days in Palermo before coming home.

I'm not sure whether today was better than yesterday, but whichever way one ranks the past two days, they were the best of our day. We very much enjoyed our stay in Sorrento. I should mention at this stage that almost the entire economy of the Sorrento peninsula and the Amalfi coast is based on tourism. That said, we never had the feeling that we were animals being herded around; apart from yesterday and today when we came into a certain amount of contact with tour groups, we had easy access to everything. The people here are very warm and very helpful; no tourist is taken for granted. I can definitely recommend Sorrento as a prime tourist destination.

Intermission: the tale of the linen jacket (Sorrento log 7A)

I lay the blame at John Le Carre's feet. His books are filled with dodgy Brits wearing crumpled linen jackets, and in the same way that I have learned geography and history from his books, I have also learned a little dress sense. I bought a jacket in Prague which is a very nice jacket, but it's not made of linen. I bought a jacket in London which is lighter than the Prague jacket, but still not linen. I'd near enough given up the idea of buying a linen jacket.

I should explain why I want a linen jacket: sometimes I would like to dress slightly smarter than I usually do. The jackets which I have seem too formal and certainly too hot for Israel. A linen jacket might well be smart enough but also cool enough.

We were walking the alleyways behind Piazza Tasso in Sorrento on our first evening when we came upon a row of shops selling ladies' clothing in linen. My wife bought a very nice linen jacket for 32 euro. We thought that maybe my time had finally come and that we would be able to buy for me a linen jacket, but no such luck. There are plenty of shops selling ladies' clothing in linen, but none for men. Apparently the Positano fashion industry likes working with linen, but they make mainly (if not exclusively) for the signora.

That evening I tried googling linen jacket Sorrento and obtained an address on Corso Italiano, the main road. I knew that this address was the other side of Piazza Tasso from us, but I had no idea how far. When we returned from visiting Pompeii, I had the opportunity of finding the shop (the train station is on "the other side" for us). I walked along the road, looking for the shop, but didn't find it. After I knew that I had gone too far, I turned back and looked closely at the street numbers. As it happened, occupying the number which I was looking for was Emporio Armani - quite a coincidence. I entered and asked the shop assistant whether she knew where the shop which I was looking for was located. She said that maybe it was in Piano di Sorrento, which is a different place altogether. While I was there, I asked whether she had any linen jackets - there were some suitable items, but a quick look at the price tag dissuaded me. True, it's Armani, but I think that 650 euro for a jacket is a bit out of my league.

We tried other shops but no one seemed to have what I was looking for. The only jackets we found were formal suit jackets, not linen. On the Amalfi coast trip, we saw again plenty of clothes for women but none for men. On a whim, we asked our tour guide, Vanessa, if she knew anywhere in Sorrento which might sell such a jacket. She mentioned a few places; somehow the conversation turned to Capri, and she said that there was a large shop in Ana Capri which almost certainly would sell such an item. We added this to our list of activities for Capri.

Today, we were in Capri. As chance would have it, we arrived in Ana Capri just outside of the store which Vanessa mentioned, so we went in. They had plenty of jackets but seemingly none made of linen. We asked a sales assistant and she took us to an aisle where there were linen jackets of several colours: cream, grey, light blue, dark blue and black. I would have liked light blue but the ladies were of one mind that the jacket had to be either dark blue or black.

Unfortunately they didn't have in stock a jacket in dark blue (let us not forget that my arms are shorter than they should be for my waist size) so I tried several black jackets until we found one suitable. The sleeves had to be shortened slightly, but the shop had a seamstress who could do the alterations. We left the jacket to be altered then did whatever one does in Ana Capri (see separate blog) before returning to the shop and picking up the jacket.

The price? Let's say that it's somewhere between the price of my wife's jacket and the Armani jacket. It's certainly the most expensive piece of clothing that I've ever bought, but that isn't saying very much.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Amalfi coast (Sorrento log 6)

Today started with a rushed breakfast as we had to be at the meeting point early; unfortunately, our breakfast lady came a bit late so breakfast took longer than expected. Then the taxi which we had ordered for 7:35 didn't come on time. Our efficient hotel clerk phoned the excursion company to explain the situation and as a result, the minibus waited for us to arrive.

Today we drove around the Amalfi coast, which is to the south of Sorrento. First, there was a drive of around an hour and a half before we had our first (pit) stop, before the town of Positano; here we bought the traditional shirts, etc. Then onward into Positano, which had been described by my favourite painter, Paul Klee, as "the only town in the world conceived on a vertical, rather than a horizontal axis." When we were in the early stages of planning this trip to Italy, my wife had considered staying in Positano, although that idea was swiftly dropped when she read about the number of steps one has to take to get around. Dubrovnik has nothing on Positano in this respect.

It's a pretty place, for sure (as the Europeans tend to say), but I'm not sure that I would like to stay there at all. As our guide remarked, anyone who wants to do anything on their holiday (like shopping or going on excursions) would stay in Sorrento; only someone who wants to relax without doing anything would be better off in Positano.

From Positano we continued through Praiano (which is basically the same) and onto Amalfi. Here we disembarked from the bus and boarded a boat waiting to take us on a cruise up to the end of the Amalfi coast (just past the village of Maiori). This was very interesting and of course broke up the monotony of the bus ride, but it did cost extra money. I have just checked the tour prospectus and this trip wasn't even mentioned.

After we returned to Amalfi, we had about an hour to explore the small town, which is dominated by its cathedral. We started with ice cream - very tasty but also a large portion and a proportionally large price - then carried on walking through the 'tourist lane', filled with shops mainly selling the same things. If Sorrento is big on wood inlays and sandals, then Amalfi is big on ceramics. Several shops had a bewildering variety of ceramic goods for sale, some of them purely decorative and some somewhat useful (olive oil bottles, pizza slicers, ice cream spoons, etc). We resisted the temptation.

After Amalfi, we headed for the hills; first we ate in a restaurant in a village whose name escapes me, then we continued onto the small town of Ravello. One can't tell this from the map displayed above, but Ravello is about 400 metres above sea level. The road which leads there allows only one lane of traffic; a traffic light determines whether traffic can go up or down. The town itself is dominated by a large town square which is surrounded by a large number of shops and cafes. After walking around for a bit, we stopped for tea in one of those cafes.

Ravello hosts classical music concerts throughout the year and also has a music festival in the summer. This apparently is due to the fact that Wagner composed the second part of his opera Parsifal here. I gleaned the fact that Israeli artist Asaf Avidan is due to appear at this year's festival in a few months.

From Ravello, we drove back to Sorrento in a roundabout route which took us over the milk mountains (separating the north side of the Sorrento peninsula from the south side), so called because they are made of limestone which apparently reminds some people of milk, reaching an elevation of around 800 metres. From there, we descended to the area around Pompeii and returned to Sorrento via the same coastal road that we traveled yesterday (and of course on our first day, from Napoli to Sorrento).

After returning to our hotel at around 5:30pm, we rested for a while before walking to the Marina Grande and eating a spaghetti alla Napoli at the Taverna Azzura. With regard to this restaurant, I had read a good review of it previous to arriving in Italy, but to be honest, I wasn't impressed by it in either of the two meals that we ate there. Today, we ordered tea with cold milk along with our spaghetti but were served hot milk. This makes for a revolting cup of tea! I find it hard to reconcile our experiences with those mentioned in the review.

Today was definitely the best day of our holiday so far.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The mist covered mountain (Sorrento log 5)

Today we took an excursion to see Vesuvius. We knew that the weather was going to be cloudy, which meant at least that it wouldn't be sunny and hot (with no shade). After about an hour or so of driving, along with commentary from guide Fabrizzio, we arrived at the parking lot of the mountain. After a short walk to the ticket office (10 euros each), we started on the long trail up to the top of the mountain.

As we started, we could already see clouds coming into the area. As Vesuvius is 1,210 metres high, we spent most of the walk to the top walking through a cloud. At times, visibility was down to a few metres; my shirt was damp as was my beard and my right ear was hurting from the cold. Once we got to the top of the volcano, one could hardly see anything.

A disappointment.

Just as we started to walk down from the top, it started raining quite heavily. We had come prepared with the umbrellas that we had bought a few evenings ago so we didn't get very wet. After about ten minutes (which seemed to last for ever), the rain stopped and the sun came out. There were good views of  Naples and its bay. But once we were back into the bus, there was more rain.

From this washout, we traveled to the mineralogical museum in Vico Equense. The museum director showed us around for a few minutes. There were some interesting pictures of Vesuvius over the years, along with a collection of minerals extracted from the volcano and fossils (including one of Ciro, the smallest dinosaur known).

The bus took us back into Sorrento but refused to take us down to our hotel, so we walked. We had a late lunch in the harbour; at one time, there were very heavy clouds and a strong wind, suggesting that rain was on its way, but this time, the rain kindly waited until we got back into the hotel.

A few hours later, it's still raining heavily on and off, which has prevented us from doing anything more demanding than lying on the bed and watching television. All the programmes are either local or else dubbed, so everything is in Italian. Have you ever watched Starsky and Hutch in Italian? This adds a whole new level of meaning.

Tomorrow we are going on the 'Amalfi drive' - I hope that the weather improves.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Due Golfi train ride (Sorrento log 4)

Today we went for a trip called the Due Golfi train ride. Someone who doesn't know Italian might think that this has something to do with golf (maybe the golf is due something?), but it literally means 'Two gulfs'. Practically, it means a trip in the hills above Sorrento; at one point, we were surrounded by water: on the right hand side, the bay of Naples, on the left hand side, the bay of Salerno.

We took a taxi to the place where we would be picked up; a minibus took us through the winding hills to a town called St Agata. Here we transferred to one of those toy trains which one sees sometimes (there's also one in Sorrento which we saw the other day); this then took us around the various villages in the Sorrento peninsula, stopping at a limoncello factory and at a shop which sold agricultural produce. The trip lasted for about two hours; we saw sights that we probably won't see on our impending trip of the Amalfi coast and there was a certain amount of childish fun riding around on a train.

We had the foresight to take with us a suitcase of dirty clothes, as I knew that there was a laundromat next to the pickup point. So when we were dropped off, back in Sorrento, we went into the laundromat and did laundry. This cost all of ten euro (soap, laundry, drying) and took about an hour; unfortunately, it was quite humid inside the laundromat and I started getting a headache. Fortunately, this dissipated after lunch.

On our way back to the hotel (dragging the suitcase full of clean clothes), we passed by the Inlaid Wood Museum. This had been recommended to us by one of the shopkeepers when we bought some inlaid wood products; it lies on our route from the town centre to the hotel, but was always closed when we passed (it shuts at 6:30pm). Today it was open (entrance 8 euro each), despite what the linked website says (today is Sunday).

I wouldn't say that this museum is for everybody (and in fact, we were the only people there at the time), but I would heartily recommend it for anyone who is interested in the subject. There are also a few rooms devoted to Sorrento as it was in the nineteenth century - mainly paintings but also with a room of bedroom furniture which has to be seen to be believed - which I found very interesting. The comments book (which we signed at the end) showed that many people do in fact visit the museum. 

For the price conscious amongst you: we had a light supper in the hotel, which cost all of 12 euros. I calculated that having the same in a restaurant would have cost 16-18 euros, which means that it's 33% cheaper eating in the hotel. I thought that the hotel has an arrangement with a nearby restaurant, but it turns out that they employ someone to make the food in the hotel kitchen (that someone is also one of the breakfast waitresses). From an economist's point of view, I wouldn't have thought that this extra activity can pay its way, but obviously they know better. After all, with so many restaurants scattered around the town, some are going to be fairly empty with barely enough customers to cover the rent; here, the overheads are going to be much lower, consisting solely of the cook's salary.

Here's the recipe for making limoncello (I'm not sure of the relative quantities): pour a litre of 100% alcohol (!) into a closed container and add lemon peel. Leave for a week. Filter out the lemon peel, add sugar and mix. This means that limoncello is fairly lethal: today they said that it was about 30% alcohol but I think that it's much higher. There's a slightly less lethal version which is made with either lemon peel or melon; milk is added as well thus lowering the alcohol percentage. The recipe sounds very much like the recipe for making gin. Here's another recipe, which starts off with vodka and adds water, so the result is going to have a lower alcohol percentage. Limoncello should be served cold - someone explained it that this way, first one tastes the lemon and only afterwards does the alcohol kick in. I would be pleased if someone could make a teetotal limoncello....

Well, actually there is something like that; it's called lemon soda and I've been drinking it for the past few days. It comes in a can whose picture appears on the left. Whilst similar to ordinary lemonade, it has a much more pronounced lemon flavour and is extremely good when served cold. The one I had today was not cold and was less good. No preservatives added. Obviously I can't take one home with me (as opposed to a bottle of limoncello) because it's carbonated.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Pompeii (Sorrento log 3)

Today we went to Pompeii. I am going to write less about my personal experience and more in the style of a travel help.

There is no need to book any planned excursion from Sorrento to Pompeii. We took a taxi from the hotel to the train station (the hotel can book us a taxi to anywhere in Sorrento for 12 euro), then bought a return ticket on the commuter train to Pompeii, which cost 3.50 euro each. Sorrento is a terminus for the Circumvesuvian train line, so there was a train waiting for us. 

The journey took maybe half an hour; at first the train was fairly empty but it quickly filled up. A group of musicians (two accordions, sax and tarbuka drum) started walking through the carriages and playing, making it almost obligatory to give them a few pennies. After they got off the train, a child started playing a toy accordion - not tunes, just odd notes up and down the keyboard. He wore a worried look and looked like an urchin. We tried to develop an understanding of why he might do this - did he need some extra pocket money? Were his parents so poor that they were dependent on the almost non-existent musical skills of this child to earn a few euros so that they could put food on the table? No one (that I saw) gave him any money which probably contributed to his gloomy expression.

Once we arrived at Pompeii, we walked maybe 100 metres to the entrance to the ruins. From the moment that we stepped off the train, we were bombarded with calls to hire guides, buy books and souvenirs, etc. We ignored them. A ticket to the ruins costs 11 euro per person which has to be paid in cash. There are free guide books and a map. There are also guides offering their services, either to groups or to individuals. We did neither. There are enough tour groups wandering around the huge site that one can easily attach oneself to a group for a few minutes, hear an explanation, wander around some more, hear another explanation, etc. 

In a sense, the ruins themselves are fairly self explanatory. They also cover a great deal of territory - after all, this was an entire town destroyed. The basilicum (church) is fairly big but the forum is huge. On the other hand, individual 'houses' are very small. 

It was very hot while we were there and very little shade; despite that, we saw many people with uncovered heads who weren't drinking water. I wish them well. 

After about two hours of wandering about and seeing the sites (including a warehouse in which are stored hundreds of utensils, along with a mummified boy and a dog), we decided that we had had enough. The exit from the site is not where the entrance is, a fact which confused us slightly. Here again, there were several stalls selling the same souvenirs; most of them had very pushy owners. We ignored them and went to the end stall which had a proprietor who was truly glad for our custom. We bought the obligatory shirt, magnet, post cards and book and had a short conversation with the stall's owner; I didn't catch whether the places were allocated randomly or whether the rent changed according to position (and of course, her English wasn't really up to such economic concepts; I was trying to read between the lines).

We had a short walk back to the train station, where after a short wait, we boarded the already full train from Naples back to Sorrento. Fortunately there were just enough empty seats for us to sit. Also boarding was the child with the accordion - along with his mother. We were able to see her persuading him (against his will) to display his meagre talents whilst walking up and down the aisles. This was almost a scene out of Dickens.

Once we arrived back in Sorrento, our first of call was a restaurant; then we went back to the station in order to find a taxi which would return us to the hotel. The fare was an astounding 21 euro! I had previously thought that the 12 euro that the hotel requested was expensive. When we talked to the desk clerk, it turned out that the hotel has an arrangement with a company to transport guests from the hotel at a reduced rate, but that they are not allowed to return guests from random locations to the hotel. This is a pity.

In the evening, we walked back up to the town and went into the Villa Fiorentino, which is a large house with grounds (and almost directly opposite the mobile telephone shop). They are housing an exhibition of Picasso from various stages in his career, although it turns out that almost all of the exhibits were etchings, most of them erotic and few of them interesting. The only room which caught our eye was one housing natural history etchings from 1942; these were excellent (but hardly what one would have expected from Picasso).

As we exited the house, we noticed that the weather had begun to turn: the wind was blowing and a few drops of rain had fallen. We quickly turned into the English Inn again, and just as we did, a thunderstorm began, complete with lightning, thunder and rain. This must have gone on for about half an hour and quickly emptied the streets. After we had eaten and the rain had almost disappeared, we came out and bought umbrellas at a shop doing a roaring trade. Almost immediately, the streets were filled again with people.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Shopping (Sorrento log 2)

The breakfast room of the hotel is in the basement. We took the lift to this floor; the door opened on the 'wrong' side and suddenly we found ourselves in what appeared to be a cave, with a path hewn out of the cliff. This short passage led to the breakfast room, where we had a standard breakfast.

We left the hotel fairly early and went back into town. The plan for the morning was to get the mobile phones working (one of them was having problems) and to check out the shops whilst buying as little as possible. When we got into town, we agreed on a rendezvous and time, then split up. As per the previous evening, it took some time to be served in the mobile phone shop as the proprietors seem to enjoy talking at length to their customers. After getting the phone fixed (it seemed to be connecting to the wrong network), I went to the rendezvous, found my wife, gave her the phone and showed her how to call me ... only to discover that once again, it wasn't working. I went back to the mobile shop, waited in the queue again, then had the phone fixed again. This time the proprietor showed me what to do should the problem occur again.

In the mean time, my wife had cast her eye on hand crafted jewelry boxes, some with musical accompaniment and some without. After purchasing what she wanted, I took her back via a street which she hadn't seen before which contained a few shops selling the sort of clothes that she likes. We agreed to the same 'rules' as in Dubrovnik: wandering around town in the morning, having lunch, resting for a few hours, then going back into town at around 5pm when the sun has gone down.

We had a lovely lunch at a different fish restaurant at the marina - this one is owned by a fishermans' collective. The fish was grilled as opposed to fried and there was more of it. For me, this is as close to paradise as it can get, eating a freshly caught fish with the background of the bay of Naples (as we were eating, fishermen brought in another bucket of fish).

After resting, we had tea in the hotel then walked back up to the town where my wife tried on several dresses and shirts. When we finished with the clothes, we bought some Sorrento souvenirs (lemon soap, lemon oil, lemon chocolate) then headed for the ice cream parlour where I had eaten the previous afternoon. I hadn't intended to eat, but my wife was hungry so she had what the Italians call a salad (I would call it cheese and tomatoes) while I had a tuna sandwich, followed by their delicious mint ice cream. 

We walked back to the hotel by a different route - it's like we walked two sides of a rectangle to get to the clothes shop, another side to get to the gelateria and the final side back to the hotel. I think this way is shorter but I'm probably in a minority.

All in all, we had a lovely day. Tomorrow - Pompeii!

Traveling (Sorrento log 1)

Yesterday we started the annual ritual of going on holiday. This means getting up at 1:30am in order to leave for the airport at 2:30am in order to check in at 3am in order to get into the duty free area at 4:15am in order to buy a few items then have a small breakfast in the VIP lounge before boarding at 5:30 before taking off at 6am....

The only interesting thing that happened before taking off was that I suddenly noticed a large black man entering the duty free area just behind us; after taking a second glance, I realised that I was looking at Sophoklis Schorsanitis (aka Sofo), champion basketball player of Maccabi Tel Aviv. A few children went to have their picture taken with him and I encouraged my wife to do the same. Unfortunately, it seems that I can't download the picture from her phone at the moment.

Our plane took us to Rome, where we arrived at around 8:15 local time. After a bus took us to the terminal building, we walked and walked and walked until we arrived at the ticketing office for local flights. After a brief discourse with an attendant who resembled actress Katherine Heigl, we walked a bit more until we arrived at gate B19, where a plane was going to take us to Naples (or Napoli, as we tend to refer to it). Embarking took a bit longer than expected and we had to wait in the plane for some time as apparently one passenger had not turned up.

When we did eventually take off, we had a short 35 minute flight to Napoli; we were met at the airport by an agent who took us to a pre-booked taxi. Whilst in the airport, I had tried to get money out of an ATM without any luck (and I tried two separate cards) which caused me to suspect that either the machine was no good or else we were going to have cash problems. This was explained to the driver; we stopped somewhere along the way and fortunately this time I was able to extract cash from the wall.

After about an hour and a half of driving (most of the way was on a one lane per direction road and we were behind a lorry), we eventually arrived in the picturesque town of Sorrento, which is going to be our base for the next week.

We are staying in the Hotel del Mare, whose biggest advantage is that is one minute from the Marina Grande, a very pleasant harbour lined with the inevitable restaurants. After we arrived, we immediately went there to eat lunch (it was now 2pm local time).
We ate in a restaurant which I had read favourable reviews about but to be honest, I wasn't overwhelmed (I like my fish grilled, not deep fried). By the time we finished (the mixed cooked vegetables which I ordered arrived after I had finished my meal: very tasty but I would have preferred it with the fish), we went back to the hotel. 

The only important task which I had to do was buy mobile phones and I knew that there was a shop nearby. As it was very hot (and humid), we decided to rest for a while. After an hour, I got up and made my exploratory way to the main street of Sorrento. The location of the hotel is its great advantage and disadvantage: the harbour is a minute away, but getting to the town means walking up stair on the cliff, continuing on through narrow passageway and continually running the gauntlet of being run over by a motor scooter. In truth, it takes only 15 minutes and is mildly tiring.

Once I arrived on Corso Italia (the main drag) and found the shop, I was chagrined to discover that it was closed whereas every other shop was open and doing a roaring trade. I consoled myself with a cone of excellent mint ice-cream in a shop a few doors down, then returned to the hotel. I checked with the hotel clerk who clearly knew the shop and said that the proprietors close for siesta every day; it would reopen at 5pm. As it was now 4:40pm, I didn't fancy going straight back.

After recording some videos with my wife, I persuaded her to come with me and check out the town. She was very enthusiastic about the harbour, less so about the steps (she has problems walking) but restored her enthusiasm when she saw the various trees, shrubs and flowers along the way. She became extremely enthusiastic when she saw the goods on display in some of the wood crafting shops! Today we will be spending the day in town.

After I finished my business in the phone shop (which took quite a time), we walked across the road to the English Inn: I had read mixed reviews (mainly positive) of this place, but looking at the menu, we realised that it was exactly what we were looking for: poached egg on toast with tea! During our trip, we want to eat as little pasta/pizza as possible because of the calories. Fish and vegetables for lunch is fine, but we may have a problem with dinner. 

Then back to the marina, an ice cream on the water's edge (after we were persuaded by a very pushy waitress), back to the hotel, into bed and sleep ... until 1:30am, when the alarm on my wife's telephone went off (she forgot to cancel it). Oh well.

This is the entrance to the hotel. During the day, no one was outside, but when we came back, all the seats were taken. We can order sandwiches and tea from the bar. The rooftop of the hotel is also a bar, but we have yet to visit it.

I managed to back up the pictures from my wife's camera - here she is with Sofo.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Statistics books

I know that it's very sad, but for the past few weeks, I only seem to have read books about statistics*. Most of that time has been spend reading  "Intermediate statistics for dummies" by Deborah Rumsey; this book has introduced me to such concepts as multiple regressional analysis, and I was very excited to read about using this technique with forward selection.

Just after having updated my draft research proposal with material on forward selection, I received some pages from my mentor on multiple regression in which he came out strongly against this technique. It was difficult at first to understand what his objection was, but after a few more readings of Rumsey's text, I began to realise that forward selection is maybe not such a good technique and that it would be better to replace it with the 'best subsets' technique. Here is a very good description of the technique.

As I write in my proposal, The final analysis necessary for dis/proving the hypotheses will be performed by multiple regressional analysis, using the 'best subsets' method. King (2003, p394) writes that "This approach allows the researcher to compare a number of models via summary statistics and then select one or more best sets of variables. Note that a computer program has not selected a model for the researcher". Both forward and backward stepwise methods suffer from the problem that once a variable has been included (or discarded), it cannot appear in any later models.

To quote a sentence from the linked article, "In general, if there are p-1 possible candidate predictors, then there are 2p-1 possible regression models containing the predictors. For example, 10 predictors yield 210 = 1024 possible regression models. That's a heck of a lot of models to consider! The good news is that statistical software, such as Minitab, does all of the dirty work for us". I won't be using Minitab, but rather the freeware program OpenStats which fortunately supports the best subsets technique. My research has about 18 different predictors which could mean that I would need 262,144 models! I strongly suspect that several of the predictors which I have listed in my research have little to no correlation with my dependent variable (EUC practice) and so I can discard these predictors before using the best subsets technique. I expect that about six predictors will take part in the final model, which means that there will be 64 possible models.

I read the 'dummies' book on the Kindle and once again came to the conclusion that whilst it's fine to read novels with the Kindle, it's very hard to read learning materials. All the many tables which Rumsey provides are mixed up and unreadable, and I find myself constantly flipping between pages, making it very difficult to maintain a level of understanding. So I have ordered a 'real' copy of the book. Once I have it, I will practice entering some of her data sets into OpenStats.

Not content with this, I have also been reading a book called "Naked statistics", which provides a very understandable introduction to statistics. To make things easier, there aren't many numbers in the book (I suspect that many people get put off by the endless tables of numbers, the raw data for statistical analysis), but rather descriptions. This approach makes concepts such as mean, median, standard deviation and hypothesis testing much easier to understand. 

I haven't finished the book yet so I don't know whether it scales the lofty heights of multiple regression (I suspect not).

I would definitely recommend both these book to all DBA students, suggesting that first they read 'Naked statistics' and only then start on 'Intermediate statistics'.  To quote part of the introduction, "In hindsight, I now recognise that it wasn't the math that bothered me in calculus class; it was that no one ever saw fit to explain the point of it." This books explains very well the 'point' of statistics without going into the maths (at least, not very deeply).

* For light relief, I've been rereading the late Fred Pohl's "Gateway" series in the past few days.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Ricotta fritters

I tried another of Jamie Oliver's 15-minute meals: ricotta fritters with tomato sauce.

The ingredients are
400 g ricotta
1 egg
1 tablespoon white flour
40 g parmesan cheese
and flavouring (lemon zest, nutmeg, etc)

I mixed the ingredients, then added eight dollops of the mix to a frying pan with a little olive oil inside. Unlike Jamie, my fritters did not turn "nice and golden"; some parts seemed uncooked whereas other parts seemed burnt (the picture on the left comes from Jamie's site, and is not the dog's breakfast that I prepared). After a while, I gave up trying to create separate fritters and instead mashed the entire mix and spread it out in the pan. When I judged that it was cooked, I poured my version of a tomato sauce into the pan and cooked for a few minutes more.

The meal turned out to be reasonably tasty, although I strongly suspect that this was due to the tomato sauce and not the cheese part. I don't know what went wrong: maybe I didn't put in enough flour, maybe Jamie's ricotta has a higher fat content (and less water) than mine, maybe he used a non-stick pan.... Looking up ricotta on the wiki shows that it should have about 13% fat; my ricotta had only 5% fat and I assume that this is the problem.

Here's a different recipe -
2 cups flour
2 eggs
1½ cups milk
⅓ cup caster sugar 
2 heaped tablespoons ricotta cheese 

Next time around, I'll try this alternate recipe, although there's still no guarantee that it will work with 5% fat ricotta as opposed to 13% fat.