When an aging American veteran led his younger friends to his final celebration of the victory he had helped to win, he inspired a 20-year quest, and a love affair with an ancient land. In these true stories, discover the humor, beauty, heroes, friends, and misadventures of traveling through Italy. Emperors and cave-dwellers, elderly goat-herds and ghost towns come to life in visits to the hidden corners of the cradle of modern civilization. Whether you are a frequent visitor, or have been only in your dreams, Romancing Through Italy will alternately lead you to delight, sadness, inspiration, fear, and laughter. Come along on an intimate journey to explore the culture, heart, and soul of this storied land.
It was the proverbial example of the square peg and the round hole. The low, arcing shape of the narrow two-lane tunnel that loomed ahead was obviously impassable for our tall, and very rectangular, inter-city passenger coach, which slowed to a crawl as it approached its dark maw. It was clear that the tunnel wasn’t built with our bus in mind, and now, wedged between a looming mountain and a sheer drop to the sea, we wondered what sort of solution Italian ingenuity would produce.
My wife Susan and I had confidently left nearby Sorrento en route to the famed Amalfi coast, climbing up the steeply sloping mountains that offered glimpses of Mount Vesuvio looming over the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Napoli. Atop the narrow ridge we had suddenly caught sight of the open sea to the south. The peninsula rises to more than 1,100 meters, or more than 3,700 feet, at its highest. We had chosen the front right seat hoping for a good view of the Latteri Mountains and Italy’s rocky Amalfi coast, but perhaps had received more than expected. The view that appeared before us seemed to be, terrifyingly, straight down, with only a low guardrail between our bus and a drop of perhaps two thousand feet.
Our camera had come out to capture the image of a fishing boat leaving a curving wake through the deep blue of the water, pulling a clearly-visible seine net. It was as if seen from an airplane. We tensed as the bus passed around heart-stopping curves, goggle-eyed at the scenery. As our bus snaked along the narrow, twisting roadway, few intrepid drivers had taken the rare opportunities to pass us. No doubt we were leading an entourage as we approached the small tunnel ahead.
There as no possibility of turning around. To our left, sheer walls of rock rose nearly a thousand feet above our heads, defying even trees to gain a treacherous foothold. To our right was a sheer precipice. An expanse of blue sky arced over sparkling Mediterranean waters where, impossibly far below, waves dashed against the face of the cliff, rebounding in powerful surges back toward distant Sicily. Before us now was the storied challenge. Our knuckles were whitened by our grips on the metal bar that seemed our only defense against a sudden and terrifying plunge.
No doubt cut through the solid rock of the mountain years earlier, when motorized traffic was uncommon, the narrow arc ahead could accommodate the square shape of our bus only if we took to the center, straddling the double stripe. That’s exactly what our driver proceeded to do, clearly comfortable with this often-repeated maneuver accompanied by the loud blaring of the buses’ distinctive two-note horn. “OoookAnnnnng” reverberated through the very seats, only to be echoed by a returning two-note sound. No, it wasn’t an echo, but another bus approaching from the opposite direction in the curved tunnel, using the same center-of-the-road technique. The on-coming headlights gave us another moment of angst.
Both buses came to a stop near the center of the tunnel, with warning flashers on. In response, no doubt, to some unwritten rule, our driver promptly put our bus into reverse. Our trailing entourage of vehicles seemed familiar with the drill as well, and passengers dutifully leaped from their cars, waving their arms and shouting to stop the approach of more yet more cars.
True to form, Italy was introducing us to its enchanting ways. Glimpsed through our rear-view mirror, the entire line of traffic began snaking backwards like a giant inch-worm, a couple of meters at a time, in a scene so evocative of Italy that we marked it down in our memories as a peak experience. Eventually we found ourselves out of the tunnel, where the opposing bus, trailed by its own entourage, quickly squeezed past us. We resumed our journey with the horn blaring as before.
The year was 1995, and it was our first trip to Italy. Even though it’s a place known as the heart of romance, we found plenty of other sorts of experiences, including some sad, some that brought tears of laughter, and others that left us feeling haunted. During multiple visits over two decades, we wandered through ghost towns, were stopped by military police, delighted in charming hilltop towns and brooding Etruscan ruins, watched artists create spectacular treasures, and visited a park of monsters. But most importantly, we made friends, creating bonds that endure for lifetimes. The stories and adventures related here are all true (although a few names have been changed to protect the innocence of bystanders and friends).
Despite the legendary beauty of the Italian landscape, the famous landmarks, and the wealth of art, architecture, and history that permeates the nation, it was the Italian people themselves who made the deepest impression upon us. Their openness to strangers, the joy of living that they exhibit every day, even the peculiarities of their lifestyle, seemed to elevate the commonplace to become special. On our first visit to Italy we embarked on a voyage of discovery of new places, experiences, and adventures. These are a few of the stories we gathered, the insights we gained, and the people we came to love.