Friday, October 25, 2013

What Comes Blair McDowell

For me it has always been place. I find myself in a place I love and my mind starts churning. What if….?

Sometimes it’s a character who occurs to me at that point, more often it’s the glimmering of a plot. It was that way when I started writing Romantic Road, the novel currently in press with Crimson Rose. I was on Germany’s famous Romantische Strasse, the winding scenic road that connects a number of walled medieval German towns when I thought, “What a great setting for a chase story -- about a woman in peril. Maybe the name of the road could have a double meaning.”

The characters and plot evolved from that moment.

Sometimes the aura of a place so captivates me that it calls out for a story. It’s that way with the Amalfi Coast, in Italy, where I’m traveling now. There’s this wonderful little inn in Positano, halfway between the sky and the sea. A few years ago I stayed there for a week. The book I’m presently writing is set in part in Positano and Rome. But to be sure, I felt I had to be there again. Although I’m a hundred and fifty pages into the story I have yet to come up with a title. When In Rome? That’s Amore? Love Italian Style? Perhaps the name will come now that I’m in the right setting.

I keep detailed logs in the form of blogs as I travel. In the next few days I’ll post those where my book-in-progress is set. I hope they will give some pleasure to armchair travelers as well as those who may be thinking about the next vacation.

Blair McDowell 

The Amalfi Highway, Italy

The Amalfi Drive is one of the scariest in the world to navigate by car. It gives “hairpin turns” a whole new meaning. The road twists and turns half way between sea and sky, so narrow at times that there are lights allowing traffic to move in only one direction at a time. When a bus comes toward you, as happened to us several times, you must literally hug the cliff to let it pass.

Why bother? It’s simply some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, and it’s interspersed with tiny charming towns: Amalfi, Positano, Ravello, Minori, Maiori… we love the names of the last two, being musicians—Italian for minor and major. But having been here before, our favorite towns are Positano and Ravello. On our last trip, we stayed in a dreamy little inn, the Casa Teresa in Positano, a hundred and ten steps down from the road. Much of the novel I’m presently writing is set in Positano. However, we opted to stay in Ravello this time. Our faulty memories of it told us that once in the town, the terrain was relatively flat. (WRONG!). Just to be careful, we booked into a hotel with a lift.

The Amalfi Highway, Italy
Ravello, Italy
To get to Ravello, you leave the twisting, turning Amalfi Drive and head upwards on an even narrower twisting, turning road. Ravello sits like an eagle’s nest on a mountain top overlooking the whole coast. Our trusty GPS, Geraldine, took us right to the door of our hotel. The wife of the proprietor of the small, family-run Hotel Garden, was at the car instantly telling us we could not park there. It was pouring rain, a virtual downpour. Bags were hastily unloaded and she led us to the entrance as a young man, presumably her son, took the car away to a legal parking lot. Yes, the hotel did possess an elevator, but to get to it one had to go down eighteen wet slippery steps from the road. This is not easy for a traveler with a tricky left knee and a painful right hip, and a cane. We now know that in the future we must ask “How many steps are there before we get to the lift?”

Garden Hotel, Ravello, Italy
Entrance to Garden Hotel, Ravello
However we soon found ourselves ensconced in a room with a view forever, and all was forgiven. We discovered we were right next door to a restaurant we had discovered on an earlier trip, da Salvatore, one of the best we’ve ever encountered in all of Italy.

I was content to sit on our little balcony and enjoy the view and then eat at da Salvatore, but JP was seeking some culture, so she bought a ticket to a concert to be held that night in the historic grounds of the Villa Rufolo.  Ravello hosts a world-class chamber music festival from June through October every year. The concert didn’t start until 9:30 pm—I knew it would be wasted on me.

Villa Rufolo, Ravello, Italy
Part of Villa Rufolo in Ravello
There are two sites in Ravello that make the trip up the tortuous road worthwhile. The Villa Rufolo dates back to the 13th Century and has extensive and beautiful gardens.  But Cimbrone is my favourite. Situated on a rocky promontory, it was first an ancient Roman villa. Building has been built over building in the succeeding centuries.  The gardens and the view from the Belvedere are spectacular. Composer Richard Wagner is said to have used it and the Villa Rufolo as his setting for the second act of Parsifal. Cimbrone operates as a luxury hotel today. Guests are picked up by helicopter at Naples Airport and transported there, thus eliminating the need for a long, traffic clogged drive.

We enjoyed sitting at a café on the piazza in Ravello that afternoon, watching three successive wedding parties, three brides all dressed in white satin and lace, descend the
church steps to be pelted with rice and rose petals. We enjoyed it less later, when one of those brides held her reception over our heads until midnight.

Ravello, Italy
Ravello Street
I must explain that most of the hotels start with the main level at zero. Then the rooms descend the cliff. At the Hotel Garden we were on -1. That’s minus one. The music and laughter was immediately over our heads. We cannot seem to escape weddings on this trip. This brings the number we have observed to eight.

I must admit I would not opt to stay in Ravello again. I much prefer Positano. Artist Paul Klee said of Positano that it was “the only town in the world conceived on a vertical rather than a horizontal plane”. Positano with its pastel houses, vistas of the azure sea and narrow little laneways that always end in steps is my favorite on this coast.  It’s crowded with bus tours during the day, but they don’t arrive until after ten and they’re gone by four.

One might expect such cliffs and precipices to denote a rather barren landscape. Nothing could be farther from the reality. The steep hills are terraced and covered with grape vines from which a very pleasant local wine is made.  There are many lemon and orange orchards. Lemons here are the size of grapefruit and are delicious. Both desserts and an aromatic after dinner liquor, Limoncello, are made from them. Olive trees and palm trees vie for position and hibiscus and bougainvillea are everywhere. From one end to the other of the Amalfi Drive is one vast lush sub-tropical garden.

Sorrento, Italy
Sorrento at sunset
After two days we left Ravello and headed for Sorrento. My desire to see Sorrento comes largely from hearing Pavarotti sing about returning to it on countless recordings. I’m a huge Pavarotti fan.

Once again our trusty Geraldine took us without a hitch to the Hotel Belair. I really got it right this time. This lovely four star hotel sits right in the edge of the promontory, hanging out over the Bay of Naples. It is decorated beautifully and tastefully in Italian style with many antique pieces. Our room is a delight. And for once our two beds are comfortable and wide enough so that I don’t worry about falling out of mine in my sleep. Across from us, in the distance, we see the Naples and, looming over it, Mount Vesuvius, the still live although hopefully dormant volcano that destroyed Pompeii two millennia ago.

The food in the restaurant is far better than we’ve come to expect in hotel dining rooms. Nevertheless we’ll explore other options. As I predicted in my last blog, the prices of everything escalate as we move north. But, apparently, so do the standards. The last four-star hotel we stayed in (near Paestum) was in no way comparable to this jewel.

Hotel Belair, Sorrento, Italy
Hotel Belair, Sorrento
As I’ve been writing a thunder storm has raged outside. We can see a massive waterfall gushing down the cliff from above the town to the sea. The concierge said, “Don’t go into town in the rain. Nothing moves.” JP took the storm as an opportunity to nap. She’s sound asleep.  Fine. I’m more than content to sit and write.

But now the sun has come out. With any luck we’ll be able to get into the cliff-side pool in an hour or so. Life could be worse.


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