Naples: Life, Death & Miracles  © 2002-2017       contact:     Jeff Matthews  
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main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry Feb 2015

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Adventure on the High C's    (I took my conch horn along!)

Like most would-be but never will-be sailors, I am moved by these lines from Tennyson's Ulysses:

Push off, and sitting well in order smite
the sounding furrows, for my purpose holds
to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars…

I suppose that's as long as I don't have to do the furrow-smiting, myself, it has a nice ring to it. It was, then, in this spirit of meek adventure that I eagerly boarded the good ship Down East, a 5.5 ton, 26-ft fiber-glass auxiliary sloop with twin keels (image, above right), built by Westerly in England, owned and sailed by Captain Bill for a trip from up here (Naples) to down there (Scario, in the Gulf of Policastro, almost to the ends of the earth or at least to the ends of the Campania region of Italy (see map, the route marked by the black line from start to finish is about 90 nautical miles/166 km).

Day 1: We started at Nisida (image, left), a very historic small island just outside the bay of Naples, in the bay of Pozzuoli (both of which, together, constitute the gulf of Naples). As you sail out and around the island to head south, you see the island of Ischia and its tiny companion, Procida, off the western end of the gulf. At this point, you have a choice: either hug the Posillipo coast back to the NE in the direction of the city of Naples or sail straight out to the SE towards the island of Capri and the narrow strait that separates it from the mainland (the end of the Sorrentine peninsula). Turning back in towards Naples has a lot to recommend it. You sail along the fabled Posillipo cliffs (Virgil lived here!), today the site of some of the most luxurious villas in Naples. It's a string of rocky coves and little boat harbors taking you into the Mergellina harbor just a mile from the commercial port of Naples; you will have had a nice sail, but now you will have to head back out, due south, taking you across the commercial shipping lanes in and out of the main port; thus, since our goal was to get out of the gulf of Naples, cross the gulf of Salerno to the third and last gulf in Campania, the gulf of Policastro, we chose the shortest route, aiming straight across to that tiny slit of water between Capri and the mainland. I say 'we'there were three of us: Capt. Bill, Pasquale (the mechanic, who could fix anything), and myself (the helmsmanaaarggh! The helm, you say! Indeed, I was relieved they were just talking about that funny-looking steering wheel.)

The run across the bay of Naples is spectacular. If you want you can stop anywhere at Capri. That is tempting. You can spend days there. Years, really. Some have done that, but it wasn't for us, so we just took in the view without going ashore; it really does look just like this (image right). The main town of Capri is just to the left of the 'saddle' in the middle. The sun-lit buildings halfway up on the high point of Mt. Solaro on the right are the sister-town of Anacapri, with many stories all her own to tell (for example). Then you sail towards the strait and pass beneath the height of the east end of the island atop which are the ruins of Emperor Tiberius' villa.

There is some peril in enjoying the view as you head through the straits. There is a bit of traffic, the currents are tricky and you might be relaxing just a little too much. The straits, however, are three miles across and you shouldn't really run into any rocks; just in case, the mainland side looks like the image (left). That is Punta Campanella, the tip of the Sorrentine peninsula. The structure is one of the old Saracen Towers of which there are still many hundreds strewn along the coast lines and islands of southern Italy as you move down the Tyrrhenian sea, around into the Ionian along the bottom of the boot and then up again into the Adriatic. Sicily has them, as well, as do the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily. They were put in place during the centuries of ferocious raids from the sea, first by Arab and, later, by Ottoman raidersfierce pirates with names such as Khayr Ad-Din, known as "Barbarossa"—Red Beard. The beacon/lighthouse station at Punta Campanella was established in 1846 and, like most stations today, is automated. Had we chosen to sail to starboard around Capri instead of along the calmer leeward northern side, we would have seen what I believe is the only lighthouse in these waters with a real human tending it—the Punta Carena lighthouse at the SW tip of the island of Capri. It was built in 1866 and is beautiful.

Rounding Punta Campanella puts you in the gulf of Salerno. It's somewhat of a Wizard of Oz moment, the part in the film where Dorothy steps out of her black & white house that has crashed down in Oz—and the film suddenly goes into color. As lovely as the sail across the gulf of Naples has been, you now are at the beginning of the Amalfi coast, a jagged line of immense beauty, cliff after cliff leading past Positano to Amalfi, where we moored for the night. The waters and small islands along the coast are now part of a protected marine park, but there is something else—this is the land of the Sirens of Greek mythology, the temptresses of Ulysses, Jason, and Aeneas. By most accounts our local waters hosted three: Parthenope (“virgin"), Leucosia ("white goddess"), and Ligeia ("bright-voiced"). All three dashed themselves into the sea and washed ashore. Two have given their names to parts of southern Italy: Parthenope was the original name of Naples; Punta Licosa is the tip of the southern end of the gulf of Salerno—still ahead of us) and the siren Ligeia, says local tradition, washed up farther south along the Calabrian coast near what is, today, Lamezia Terme. In other words, these really are, if not 'beyond', at least in the middle of, "...the baths of all the western stars."

Day 2:  Although Salerno, itself, has its own fascinating history (the warrior princess, Sichelgaita!), it also has a large port with a lot of traffic that we chose to avoid. It's a straight run of 26 nautical miles (49 km) across the gulf of Salerno from Amalfi to the small port of San Marco just to east of Punta Licosa, the end of the gulf. It is flat beach and potentially a smooth sail, almost boring, as long as you keep your mind on ancient history—here is where the Greeks founded Paestum, or all this was part of the independent Duchy of Salerno before the kingdom of Naples, etc....that kind of stuff. But if you let your thoughts stray to more recent history, your thoughts can sour very quickly. This whole stretch was in September of 1943 the site of Operation Avalanche, the Allied Invasion of the Italian mainland in WWII. From these same waters we are sailing through, the Allies landed 190,000 men on the beach we are now staring at. My friend, Herman (r.i.p.) was in that invasion (his accounts are here) and told me that he pitched his tent in a temple at Paestum, saying "she" would protect him. I said, "Herman, how did you know it wasn't a 'he'? Maybe Jupiter, somebody like that. "He smiled; "Well, I guess when it's your war, you can tell it your way." Avalanche was (until superseded by the invasion at Normandy in June of 1944), the largest sea-borne invasion in the history of warfare. The beach was tenaciously defended by 100,000 German troops. Military strategy and common sense tell you that invaders have to outnumber defenders, and with invasions from the sea, invaders have to really outnumber defenders. Two to one is an advantage, yes, but not much. The Germans were not overrun, although they eventually withdrew back towards Naples. Losses on both sides were heavy. The Allies suffered 2,000 dead and 3,500 missing (which, I think, means 5,500 dead). The Germans suffered 3,500 total casualties. Our sail was relatively smooth although we had some heavy rain and unwelcome lightning. As it got darker it got gloomier. Maybe there is still a pall over that stretch of coast. Hard to say. I was glad when we found San Marco and docked.

Day 3: The run from San Marco out to the lighthouse (pictured) on the little isle of Licosa (siren #2!) at the end of the gulf of Salerno is less than an hour. The lighthouse is from 1951. The cape, isle, adjacent waters and the entire bulge sticking out into the Tyrrhenian Sea are part of the Cilento and Valle di Diano national park, one of the most scenic areas in Italy. It's a run of 27 nautical miles (50 km) to the SE along the "bulge". The coast was beautiful, as we knew it would be. It also had a number of busy, if not highly populated (except in the summer months) coastal towns such as Acciaroli, Marina, Pisciotta and Palinuro. That last one is named for Aeneas' helmsman, who, spurned by a local girl (there's a town named for her, too!nearby Camerota) threw himself into the sea and drowned, thus fulfilling the prophecy that before Aeneas could ever land on the coast (to found Rome) a member of his crew would have to be lost. That leg of the trip exposes you to small towns and even traffic noise, especially in the summer. You can watch landlubber insects scurry along in their motor homes that they probably hauled down from Germany. The southern tip of that bulge is called Punta degli Infreschi and when you round that to head NE for the home-stretch to Scario, you are in the bay of Policastro. Then, there is another one of those  "moments," not exactly like the Wizard of Oz. Maybe something stranger.

his time it's serene, even spiritual. You turn to the NE, around
cape Infreschi, and time, itself, just disappears. All the roads that ran from NE to SW to keep those coastal communities full and happy are now running parallel to but well inland of the home-stretch coast. You can't even get to the cliffs above the water from inland unless you are a determined hiker. (Yes, there are a few and they deserve the view, a clear one of the entire gulf of Policastro over to the other side where the coast straightens and starts its long run down to Calabria.) But where you are now sailing, there is nothing, and today that is a startling sight. There are some coastal caves (image, left) that are of extreme interest to anthropologists because they show evidence of very early human habitation (see this link) way back before there were car-horns and roads. It's all just a slow instant of respite from civilization, a big beautiful stretch of nothing. It's not that long a run at all, but if you play your sails right, you can make it last.

Then you are in Scario, the first port town in the gulf. It's big enough (1100) to have a good small harbor that fills up with motorized yahoos in the summer and small enough (1100) to make it seem absolutely empty 10 or 11 months out of the year. It has a nice lighthouse from the 1880s, a beautiful seaside promenade, a delightful church and is almost unknown to people who don't live there. Most of the tourist trade heads farther over in the gulf to Sapri (pop. 7,000) where there is loud music and nightlife. Don't do that. Stay in sleepy Scario. You'll need the rest.

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