The four women stand out from the mostly professional crowd on the packed subway train leaving Rome’s Colosseum station in the evening rush hour. Grubby jeans and T-shirts, rotten teeth, greasy hair slicked back into buns and large cloth bags slung over shoulders in a sea of business suits, sharp ties, cellphones plugged to ears and smart briefcases.
Bird’s eye view: The towns that dot the Amalfi coast. Photograph: Sujatha Bagal
They are hard to miss, particularly because one of the four is pregnant, her belly spilling out from underneath her tight-fitting tee. But I would have completely missed the dirty fingernails had I not caught five of them at the end of a slender hand slithering into my husband’s trouser pocket.
“That woman’s hand is in your pocket,” I say to my husband, surprising myself with my matter-of-factness. His hands fly to the pockets. Startled, the woman recoils. Then, to my utter amazement, she turns to one of her accomplices and shakes her head sadly, as if to apologize. She receives a comforting nod and wave of the hand in return.
Needless to say, our senses are on hyper-alert for the rest of the journey back to the hotel.
This is just the latest in a series of events that has sent our nerve-ends tingling since our arrival in Italy five days earlier. Naples, our port of entry into Italy, is a pulsating mass of pandemonium. Horns blare, vehicles zigzag and ignore speed limits, obeying traffic lights seems optional. Waste is piled high on the streets because the garbage collectors are on strike. And then, when we arrive at the hotel we discover our haggling skills are sub-par. The concierge manages to bring down the taxi fare many more notches.
Ravenous from the circuitous flight, we head out for a late lunch. On Via Partenope, a broad street girding the Gulf of Naples, a bright sun renders the sea a shimmering blue. A warm, moist, late afternoon breeze wafts in from the sea. A couple of blocks down, we come upon a string of restaurants overlooking the gulf. The first one looks inviting — wicker chairs, crisp tablecloths, relaxed and happy patrons and bright interiors. We ask for outside seating. Views of the city and the ancient and majestic Castel dell’Ovo jutting out into the sea are hard to resist. The waiters hover over the kids, making sure they are settled and comfortable.
The food arrives and everything else recedes into the background. Warm bread with garlic butter, Caprese salad with thick slices of mozzarella and luscious tomatoes, pizza and pasta. The thin-crust pizza amplifies the flavours of the cheese and the toppings; the pasta is simple. Everything seems fresh and uncomplicated.
I know. Italy and food. It’s a cliché. But the funny thing is, the best part about eating the food in Italy is not the food (although, it does count for a lot). It’s the act of eating itself. It’s communal. Everyone around us who speaks Italian is in a big group, talking nineteen to the dozen. Kids of all ages pepper the tables at all times of the day and night, even quite a few newborns in their bassinets. No one seems to be in a hurry to finish and leave. The riotous aromas and tastes of the food meet their match in the serenity imbued into the partaking of a meal.
All this is so irresistible we return to the restaurant as often as we can when we are in Naples. But really, this experience clones itself over and over again during our stay in Italy.
When we are not eating (or plotting when and where to eat next), we ditch the guidebooks, abandon the itineraries, stash the street maps in the backpack and head out.
Snapshots: (top) A shopkeeper selling fruits; and (above) the pockmarked pillars of Pompeii. Photographs: Sujatha Bagal
The Amalfi coast, stretching eastwards from Naples along the Tyrrhenian Sea, lends itself easily to our whimsical agenda. One day, we head to the Neapolitan port of Beverello and catch a ferry to hop along the coast and the nearby islands.
Perched precipitously on the cliffs rising from the sea, narrow, winding roads lead up to towns with impossibly romantic names — Sorrento, Capri, Amalfi, Positano. Colourful markets selling fresh fruits, melon-sized lemons, garlic pods and ripe, fiery red chillies and tomatoes (“Viagra naturale,” claims a shopkeeper) are a staple, as are shops stocked with all manner of tempting trinkets; narrow lanes lined with gorgeous homes that suddenly pop open into airy squares; and, of course, restaurants with the most mouth-watering menus on display. But it’s hard to miss the coast’s natural beauty. Lush greenery swamps the hills, the sea looks forbidding and calm all at once from way high up.
Our drive along the precariously winding coastal roads from Naples to the ancient maritime commerce town of Amalfi confirms our suspicions — your senses come alive to the thought of shelving your current existence and staying put at one of these towns for ever and ever. Imagine Somerset Maugham’s The Lotus Eater with a slightly different ending.
At a particularly spectacular viewpoint on the coast, we spy steps leading down. Excited at the prospect of finally getting close to the sea, we head down and come to a grotto in the cliff wall. We hop on a boat for a ride deeper into the cliff. The backwaters take on a glow in lustrous shades of blue and green as light streams into the water through a slit in the rock. Just as our eyes adjust to the sensory overload, the boatman launches into a ballad. The drawn-out notes trilled to the accompaniment of languorous swishes of the oars fill the quiet. In that small space deep inside the cliffs, craggy walls and a low-hanging ceiling intensify the colours and sounds so much that when we finally come out, the scenery seems muted.
A few must-see destinations manage to sneak their way into the itinerary. Pompeii, in the shadows of a brooding Vesuvius, is our last stop on our Naples leg. The lushness of the coast gives way to arid plumes of dust swirling from the dead streets and homes to the pockmarked walls, statues and pillars that have managed to survive the ravages of the fire and ash that rained down nearly 2,000 years ago.
On foot, by metro, bus, boat and car, we discover the mesmerizing beauty of the Amalfi coast. But I know, long after I’ve looked at the photographs for the umpteenth time, that the strongest memory will be of the intangibles — people letting us cut the line because we had a child in a stroller, the camaraderie at the numerous restaurants, the warm breeze off the Gulf of Naples, the blue of the sea, the vibrant colours of the lemons and chillies in the open-air markets. Yes, even of the feeling of having been nearly pick-pocketed.
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