The little town of Amalfi, on our approach from Salerno

It’s crazy that as much as we have traveled, and in particular as much as we have traveled in Italy, neither Mark nor I have ever been to the Amalfi Coast. It is, after all, one of the world’s great holiday destinations, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and – here’s the big one – the filming location for Wonder Woman’s Amazonian birthplace, Themyscira, in the current film Wonder Woman. Well, finally, that huge gap in our world travels is over.

We’re going to spend nine days here on the Amalfi Coast, three in Amalfi, two in Ravello, and four in Positano. After that it’s Capri and Naples, but for now here’s what we found in Amalfi.

While today it’s a tiny village of less than 5,400 residents that’s been turned over to tourism it was once, along with Genoa and Pisa, one of Italy’s great and powerful city-states. At the turn of the first millennium it was a major trading power with a population of perhaps 80,000, one of the few Christian states that traded freely with the growing Islamic state. That didn’t stop them from participating in the Crusades, of course, and during the appalling Fourth Crusade – when European powers attacked their host, Christian Constantinople instead of trying to free Jerusalem from Moslem control – they captured the supposed relics of St. Andrew the Apostle and carried them back to Amalfi. Today those very same relics lie in Amalfi’s Cathedral of St. Andrew.

David Geffen’s yacht, the Rising Sun, was anchored in the bay the whole time we were here. It was huge but according to one reference I found online accommodates just 16 guests. At the same time it has a crew of 45. I think you have to be a billionaire several times over to afford something like that.

And what about today? Today there are tourists. Lots and lots of tourists, including some pretty fancy ones. We noticed right away a big boat anchored in the bay and asked around what it was. It seemed too big to be a personal yacht but too small to be a cruise boat. With a little research Mark learned that it was indeed a personal yacht, one owned by music- and movie-producer David Geffen At 454 feet that sucker is the 11th largest yacht in the world. As Hollywood royalty Geffen hosts all the big names on it – Oprah, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Leonardo DiCaprio – but I first heard of the boat just a few months ago when no less than Michelle & Barrack spent part of their post-White House holiday cruising French Polynesia on the boat. We didn’t see any of them, but the boat was anchored there the whole time we were in Amalfi.

And what did we do in Amalfi? I’d read that the town beach was worth avoiding so the first day we took a little boat to an isolated beach maybe 20 minutes up the coast. It was fun, there was a nice restaurant called Da Teresa, but not really worth going back to. I was particularly annoyed when the waiter at lunch pointed out that service is not included on the bill. Service is always included in Italy and Europeans never tip anything more than spare change; this was just an attempt to drag a few extra bucks out of guilty Americans. So the next day we went to the town beach instead and I thought it was really a lot better: a bigger beach, easier to get into and out of the water, and a lot more lunch choices.

Mark, with Amalfi in the background, as we set out for our day trip to a neighboring beach

Of course eating is a big part of traveling in Italy and we had a couple of good meals. At one place called L’Abside we had what seemed like the best eggplant parmigiana I’ve ever had. It made me realize that if I travel France looking for the perfect steak tartare I should travel Italy looking for the best eggplant parm. Except I may have already found it.

And then there was one last visit with Lisa, Mark’s old college friend studying down in Salerno and finishing up her five-week Italian sojourn. She took the boat up from Salerno on our last night and we shared wine until it was time for her to go back and us to find dinner.

Mark & Lisa bid farewell in front of the Byzantine-influenced Cathedral of St. Andrew

All in all Amalfi was a fun little town. Probably a little too touristy for my tastes, just too crowded and all. But it certainly is beautiful and it was a good start to this exploration of the Amalfi Coast. Next stop, Ravello.

The Cathedral’s bell tower, the bay, and the yacht at sunset from our hotel terrace

The town beach was a lot nicer than I’d expected

Perhaps the world’s greatest eggplant parmigiana

Enjoying a glass of wine on the terrace before going out to dinner. I suspect that on my iPad there I was reading something about the train wreck in DC these days.

Paestum’s Temple of Neptune, a remarkable monument to the time when what we call Italy was known as Greater Greece

We love Italy; it’s our favorite country, so far at least (we’ve never been to Romania or Suriname yet, so we can’t be definitive about that). And for all that Rome and Tuscany and Genoa are great, we love southern Italy best of all. So after Mark’s two weeks in Lucca (and my four days there) it was off to the train station for the trip to Salerno. While the journey from Lucca to Florence was slow and frustrating – we had 18 minutes between the time our train was supposed to get in from Lucca and the train down to Salerno was supposed to leave, and we were about 17 minutes late – the high-speed train through Rome and Naples and then on to Salerno was comfy and relaxing.

Mark enjoying a good-enough salad in the restaurant car on the trip down south

Salerno itself isn’t such a great city. A city of 135,000 people, it lies about 35 miles southeast of Naples, at the edge of the peninsula that includes the Amalfi Coast. To be honest, there’s not a lot great you can say about Salerno. It’s got a cathedral that’s attractive and worth seeing. The original building dates back to the 11th century, though it’s been remodeled substantially since then, and it allegedly holds the remains of St. Matthew the Apostle (color me skeptical).

Mark in the Cathedral’s colorful crypt where St. Matthew supposedly rests

The old historic center of town has a great Neopolitan feel to it, for us anyway, with the narrow, winding streets that the sun almost never gets to. And nestled in that old town is Salerno’s medical school, a late medieval institution and the oldest medical school in the West. As long ago as perhaps the 9th century (the ancient history is sketchy) city leaders of Salerno began to use ancient Greek texts, then accumulated at the monastery of Monte Cassino south of Rome. Because of Salerno’s location on the coast, their contact with Arabs – then far advanced relative to Europeans in terms of science and medicine – gave them the opportunity to enhance that Greek knowledge with more modern Arabic insights. And thus was born the medical advancements of the West. Right there in Salerno.

A typical narrow street in Salerno’s historic center

So in Salerno itself, besides the cathedral and old city, there’s not a lot to draw you. Although it is on the coast and we love the Mediterranean, there is not much good to say about the beach. The big deal, though – and it was a big deal – are the old Greek ruins of Paestum. And we almost missed them.

Salerno’s sad municipal beach

As we were planning this trip through the south we learned that Lisa, one of Mark’s old college friends who today teaches Italian in the Chicago Public Schools, was going to be studying in Salerno the same time we planned on being there. At our first dinner together she asked what we were going to do in Salerno. We gave her our too-common, g response “Oh, you know, walk around, see what’s here. We don’t have anything in mind.”

Well, Lisa didn’t want to waste her time in Salerno so she started throwing out ideas and when she mentioned Paestum our ears perked up. Paestum was an early Greek colony established in the first millennium BC when the Greeks were spreading out; while today we think of this as Italy, back then it was known as “Greater Greece.” Paestum was a big stop on the 18th century European “Grand Tour” and only a few miles from Salerno so we were excited about going down there.

Early the next morning, then, we hopped on a train for the 40-minute ride down to Paestum. The big draws in Paestum are three large temples still standing after over 2,500 years. There are few places in the world where you can see even one ancient Greek temple still standing, and here there are three. Throughout the ruins are old city streets and the foundations of many, many buildings. Even the remains of a smallish amphitheater, part of which was demolished so a 19th century Italian could build a road through it.

Two of the temples – Hera in the foreground, Neptune just a bit further back – are in remarkable proximity. Who needs that many temples so close to each other?

The temples – believed to have been dedicated to Hera, Neptune, and Athena – were really pretty amazing. Big old columns that have been standing there for century after century. One of the great things about the site is that you didn’t have to admire them from a distance: here you could walk right into and through two of them. There’s nothing quite like that “up close and personal” approach.

Near the site was a pretty good museum, too, that included the Tomb of the Diver. Discovered in 1968, the tomb dates to about 470 BC is made up of five limestone slabs, each of them painted in fresco. The four sides are scenes from a surprisingly homoerotic symposium, while the cover slab is that of a man diving into waves. Of thousands of Greek tombs recovered from this era, this is the only one with frescoes of human subjects. And as it was protected from the elements for nearly 2,500 years – it was, after all, buried – the slabs and the art are in remarkable condition.

Underside of the top of the Tomb of the Diver, remarkable art from nearly 2,500 years ago

Our three days in Salerno went well, then. We had fun with Lisa, including taking her out for her birthday, and started to relax into the vibe of southern Italy. From here we head just a little north up to Amalfi where we’ll spend a couple weeks lazing on the Amalfi Coast and then out to Capri. I’ve been waiting a long time for this!

Mark & Lisa at the Temple of Neptune

Mark photographing the temple

Another shot of Mark & Lisa

The Temple of Athena

One wall of the Tomb of the Diver was this fresco of a symposium, the time for drinking and entertainment after a banquet

You think I was kidding about the erotic nature of the tomb? Check out this closeup of the loving couple. Look back at the picture above and notice how the guy to their left is going “Whoa, what am I missing?!?”

The other long wall of the tomb

For dinner one night I chose a restaurant that featured free wine. Yup, free. Just go up to the tap and pour as much as you want. Lisa, who used to work in the wine industry, was not wildly impressed by the quality. It was free, though.

Food in southern Italy is alwys great. Here is some pasta (for Lisa, of course), a tomato salad, and scallopini.

Street art in the old city

Out for wine before dinner on Lisa’s birthday!

Thoughtful Jim

And finally a Mark-and-Lisa selfie at Paestum

Here we are with Mary Beth atop Guinigi Tower with great views of Lucca and Tuscany. Built in the 14th century as a status symbol by Lucca’s ruling family, it has trees and a garden on the top.

The plan was to spend two weeks in Lucca, a Tuscan city of about 90,000 people that lies 50 miles west of Florence. In his quest to master all the languages on earth Mark would study Italian for two weeks with his old college friend Mary Beth while I would hang out. Mark & Mary Beth kept their end of the deal but I took the opportunity to spend most of those two weeks back in Minnesota.

Lucca is an interesting city, but perhaps better for my four-day stay than Mark’s two-week sojourn. There is some interesting history: Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus met here in 56 BC to reaffirm their triumvirate that ultimately led to Caesar taking sole power (and then getting killed). The city was, for several centuries, and independent city state and, after Venice, the second-largest city state with a Republican constitution. And one of the city’s most notable features is that the medieval walls remain intact and today are topped with a great elevated parkway for walking and running and reading and hanging out.

Mark on top of Lucca’s city walls, now a great two-and-a-half mile parkway

Today Lucca is a major tourist destination for those passing through Tuscany. Mark and I had been here twice before, but both times just on day trips so we figured this time it made sense to linger a bit. The problem for Mark was that apparently it’s a little small to justify two weeks. The old city walls encase an area of narrow, winding streets with some good restaurants and lots of fancy shopping, but ultimately there’s not a lot to do or things to explore. I had the notably strange experience of arriving in Italy from Minnesota feeling strangely “at home” here – I’ve spent more time in Italy in recent years than in Minnesota, I guess – but Mark was ready to get out.

The elegant – and hot – living room in our apartment

Part of his problem was that he didn’t like the apartment we rented for two weeks. It was a huge flat – entrance hall, big kitchen, massive living room, three bedrooms, servants quarters (seriously), and a small balcony with access to a clothes line so you could feel like a real Italian hanging clothes to dry – but a little shabbier than it appeared in pictures. The big deal, though, was that there was no air conditioning. With daytime temperatures up into the low 90s and night temperatures in the low 70s, that meant it was just too hot in there. I suspect that’s extremely common in Lucca’s many older buildings but that didn’t make it any better. It was just too hot.

While I was in Minnesota Mark and Mary Beth hosted a few guests. She was in Italy largely because her 13-year-old son Luca (crazy coincidence, huh), participates in an annual summer music festival in nearby Garfagnana so during the weekend Luca and Sven (the father/husband) came to visit. And entirely coincidentally another old college friend of Mark & Mary Beth’s, Lisa, was in Italy too so she stopped by for a couple days.

Old college friends – Mark, Lisa, and Mary Beth

Lucca: nice old town surrounded by intact city walls, good tourist infrastructure, Italian classes, and good friends. All good. But too hot without AC if you’ve become spoiled. As we have.

Mark, Luca, and Sven hanging out

Luca in Lucca. While he was up in Garfagnana for his music competition Lucca has some music chops of its own. Puccini was born here and the city hosts a summer-long music festival that attracts stars like Eric Clapton and – later this year – the Rolling Stones. Yes, they’re still alive.

Isn’t that just attractive?

Some great food in Lucca

Mark is having vitello tonatto, his favorite Italian dish, while I discovered steak tartare on the menu. Pretty much a perfect lunch sitting out there on the street.

On a summer day in Europe, there’s pretty much nothing more refreshing than an Aperol Spritz. It’s not low carb, but sometimes you just have to.

Lucca’s San Michele in Foro, built over the ancient Roman forum. The fa├žade dates from the 13th century.

The first day of school is always exciting!

Here we are back up on the Guinigi Tower with those crazy trees way up in the air

Mary Beth is fun, smart, and stunningly photogenic. Oh, and the mother of four great kids. You try to find something to fault her for, but it’s hard.

And one last shot from our apartment. This is part of the servant’s quarters. Not bad!