#TravelTuesday – A Bird’s Eye view of the Stunning Amalfi Coast (Guest Blog by PJ van Zetten)

Through my networking endeavours I recently met a new colleague and friend, PJ van Zetten. I found PJ to be a warm, humorous, experienced and well-travelled business woman, and I wouldn’t hesitate to put my future travel plans in her expert hands!

PJ van Zetten is a bit of a League of Nations – born in Germany, of British parents, educated in the UK, France and Germany and married a Dutchman. PJ considers herself a second generation travel agent, as her mother opened a branch of a well-known agency on the Isle of Wight. PJ worked there during the holidays for no wages, as to pay her would have been ‘nepotism’, according to her mother.
PJ went into business travel and loved the decisiveness of people who had to be in a certain place at a certain time.  She became involved with leisure travel when her clients wanted to fit in a holiday, with their family or loved ones, in between the business elements.
PJ found she loved this even more as it opened up a whole new area of creativity. And then came redundancy. Via a couple of short term jobs, she landed in a book shop, to learn the business with the aim of starting her own bookshop café.
PJ found she was talking to customers about travel and giving them hints and tips and the benefit of her 30+ years in the business.  Shortly thereafter, someone asked her if she had ever heard of Travel Counsellors.  She drove up to Bolton for an interview and came away with an offer. It was the best 400 mile drive of her life.  As PJ goes into her eleventh year; having built a business from scratch, with an upward curve to the graph, year on year, she cannot imagine doing anything else with her life.
The best feeling in the world is phoning a client, who has just returned from holiday, to hear the words ‘That was the best holiday ever’, followed by ‘Let’s talk about the next one’.
PJ’s clients stay with her for years, because they know she tailors their holiday to their needs, wants and desires – PJ is not an order taker, she is a dream maker!

As my clients set off, in less than a month, for their 10 day holiday in Sorrento, I feel a huge sense of satisfaction and achievement.

Last year I decided to go to Italy for my early autumn holiday. I had not decided which region to visit, when a networking client gave me a referral for his 2017 holiday… To Italy!

The family wanted to go to an area I knew only by reputation and other people’s holidays.

Why not, says I to myself, go there? ‘Two birds, one stone!’

So off I went, flew to Naples, hired a car and drove to Sorrento.

Sorrento

Named after the ancient Greek word for ‘Siren’, Sorrento would surely have provided a beguiling coastal allure to Ulysses on his Odyssey! The town was colonised by the ancient Greeks and their town plan still survives: East to West for the sunlight, and North to South for the prevailing winds.

Note to the wise – if your nerves are not in first class working order, I would not suggest you drive the Amalfi Coast. Narrow, windy roads, stunning drops, assertive Italian drivers and large oncoming coaches can test the strongest of nerves.

Sorrento is a great place both to enjoy for itself and to use as a base to explore the area.

Let the local buses take the strain! The SITA local bus service will take you from Sorrento to Positano and Amalfi, both visually pretty and attractive towns. For anyone with mobility issues, Sorrento is a bit flatter – the upper town and the marina.

These coastal towns get pretty crowded in high summer, so going, as I did in September, worked really well. Enough people to make it interesting but nowhere was too full, and I could always get a table at my favourite people-watching restaurant, right in the central square of Sorrento, Fauno Bar.

Across the main square, Piazza Tasso, is the little Dotto train that trundles around Sorrento.

Ravello

Also well worth a visit is Ravello, inland and high up, served by a one track road, controlled by traffic lights. When the lights turned green, I went …. only to meet a truck coming down…gulp!

Fortunately he knew the driveway to squeeze into so I could pass. As I drove past he yelled, “Signora bella e folle!” at the top of his voice. When I asked at a shop in Ravello what this meant, the owner laughed and said, “Oh you met Giovanni. He says that to all the women drivers…it means beautiful, crazy lady.” There is a bus from Amalfi up to Ravello, if you prefer not to be ‘crazy’.

The views from Ravello are stunning and it has an interesting history, dating back to the Romans. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site. It has had many famous visitors including Humphrey Bogart, who was filming Beat the Devil. He and John Huston, the director, and others drank and played cards there so often, they named the room after him.

If you want a week away from everything, maybe with that special man, the Hotel Rufolo is the ideal romantic getaway, superb views, a pool overlooking the bay and scrumptious food – the menu is posted at the gate if you fancy a lunch there. It is not cheap, about €100 for two but worth it for the views and the ambience.

Pompeii and Herculaneum

I spent one heavenly week exploring the area – delightful locals, delicious food, stunning views round every bend, the amazing Herculaneum for my historical and cultural fix (if wanting to visit Pompeii as well, always do this before Herculaneum – doing it the other way can lead to disappointment).

If you are not taking a private tour of the ancient sites, the next best way is to take the Circumvesuviana Train, the Sorrento-Napoli line. Not the most elegant of trains – think London Underground in the 70’s – it is cheap, convenient and it stops at Pompeii and Herculaneum – you can get off, do Pompeii, and get back on again for Herculaneum. Also you can visit Naples, the opposite end of the line from Sorrento.

Another word to the wise – pickpockets are rampant on the trains, especially out of Naples. Only take exactly what you need and keep it close!

I found Herculaneum one of the most moving places I have ever been. I took the audio guide and walking round, listening to the commentary, I could get a real sense of what it must have been like for the inhabitants, literally having nowhere to go and waiting for the end of the world. A humbling experience that made me very grateful for all my blessings.

Capri

On the day before my departure, I planned my trip to the magical island of Capri, as the cherry on my Amalfi cake. It is certainly beautiful and the scenery is breath taking. It is billed as one of the most romantic places in Europe … You can decide.

Many locations in Sorrento offer a day tour to Capri. Well worth booking of one these, as a boat trip around Capri is also included. They take you to the Blue Grotto, where swimming is banned. If you hire your own boat, the choice is yours.

As a lone female traveller, I never felt uncomfortable or threatened. The locals are friendly and have a good sense of fun. They are delighted to talk to you, and of course sell you something if they can, and learning a few words of Italian will go a very long way towards aiding communication.

A bird’s eye view (by drone) of the stunning Amalfi Coast:

I took dozens of photographs and could recommend, with personal digital backup, a great place to stay which ticked all of their boxes. I suggested things they could do, told them of some nice restaurants I had tried and where were the best places to take a day trip, when they wanted more than to lounge round the pool, soaking up the sun.

They loved this and I left their home, with a booking tucked into my iPad.

If you would like to know your Amalfi from your Zabaglioni, I would love to talk with you. PJ’s website.

A half hour complimentary chat, by phone, Skype or at a local coffee shop could save you hours of time, effort and possibly money.

Photo Gallery:

The Lake District Revisited (Fresh on my Mind!)

“A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.” ~ William Wordsworth

After a few years away I’m reminded of how utterly peaceful and wild the Lake District is. I’m not sure if you can call an activity filled week a relaxing holiday, but a change of scenery does recharge flat batteries; and the scenery doesn’t get much better than in the Lake District.

Boats on Crummock Water

Boats on Crummock Water

The only downside is surviving a long, cramped road trip with excited and irritable children…

I could feel my mood lifting with each new adventure, and it reminded me of how Beethoven felt when he arrived in the countryside outside Vienna. His ‘pleasant feelings’ were enough to inspire his gorgeous 6th Symphony in F Major, affectionately known as the ‘Pastoral’:

We’ve been swimming, kayaking, boating, walking, climbing, carting, riding, waterfall-chasing, sightseeing and exploring. Oops, I nearly forgot eating. Noshing is a favourite pastime of my continually ravenous offspring!

Ruby on Bruno at Rookin House

Ruby on Bruno at Rookin House

With precious little time to unpack, get the kids ready for the start of a new school year, scribble some thoughts and generally catch-up before a really busy week ahead, I’m in the mood to recapture the essence of this timeless landscape and bottle some of that elusive holiday elixir before it inevitably evaporates into the ether of everyday life…

Having a walk on one of the short trails at Grizedale Forest.

Having a walk on one of the short trails at Grizedale Forest.

Speaking of which, the cyclists in the Tour of Britain 2016 (stage 2) are taking on the Lake District today!

Panoramic view of the Kirkstone Pass towards Windermere

Panoramic view of the Kirkstone Pass towards Windermere

I thought I’d share a few verses inspired by the Lake District (the adventure capital of the UK):

Lakeland Odyssey

Primordial power forged an ancient, rugged landscape,

Charming, green meadows bask in vast, watery valleys,

Craggy peaks beckon climbers with breathtaking escape,

Steep, narrow gorges unto rocky waterfalls marries,

Misty fells echo with blustery wind and frothy streams

Brooding clouds sit on mountains; shade beams.

Borrowdale

Borrowdale

Sheep roam free on verdant, mossy hill,

Around every bend a panorama is ready-made,

Urban ears tune-in to the sounds of nature’s will,

Pray for pristine, eternal beauty to never fade,

Sweet scent of pine is heady, lakes intoxicate;

Beguiling trails, swathed in ferns, raise heart-rate.

On the shore at Derwentwater

On the shore at Derwentwater

Epic views nourish weary souls of lacklustre beings,

Technology depleted cells absorb primal energy,

Erosion has carved and sculpted sights for seeing,

Forests, hills and wild tarns imprint on memory,

Immortal land of glinting lakes and majestic mountains,

Time has no meaning, no anxious hours of doubting…

Tarn Hows Panorma

Tarn Hows Panorma

Empty minds follow active bodies and forceful feet,

Expanded lungs breathe in splendour, exhale worry,

Thoughts drift to distant skies, for you to meet,

Your lighter load; clear of junk, free of hurry,

Eyes soak up shades of purple, brown, grey and green

Reflective, blue depths ripple with opaque sheen.

Low-flying cloud over Derwentwater!

Low-flying cloud over Derwentwater!

Droplets of rain saturate air of altitude,

To moisten and glisten on tingling skin,

Experience the elements; feel alive, renewed,

Ebullient weather to embrace, even revel in!

Excitement courses through throbbing veins,

Glorious, arduous exploration always remains…

Climbing tree at Tarn Hows

Happy hikers traverse rock, heather, grass and slate,

Well-trodden paths lead to abundant treasure,

Custodians of Earth, seek life beyond the gate.

Cherish every panorama of pigment-rich pleasure,

Such untamed beauty, it’s hard not to be fulsome,

Hallelujah! Cradled am I, in nature’s primeval bosom.

Part of the inner Castlerigg Stone Circle

Part of the inner Castlerigg Stone Circle

Yonder peaks stretch as far as the eye can see,

Yachts and steamers traverse deep, silent lakes,

Be you walking, climbing or sailing: feel the glee,

Imbued with prehistoric strength – or aches!

Summer is ebbing into the tides of history,

A brief Lakeland odyssey is part of my story…

Approach to Aira Force near Ullswater

Approach to Aira Force at Ullswater

I took my own video at the magnificent Aira Force waterfall near Ullswater, but I found a really good one already uploaded on youtube to leave you with. It really does roar!

Memories of Spain – Sun, Sea and the Sierra de las Nieves

Andalucia has many distinctive attributes in summer. First, there’s the heat; unrelenting, oven-like and intense.  Then there’s the sweet, dry scent; that wonderful evocative smell, carried on the breeze, a mingling of salty ocean droplets, lemon groves, pines and dusty mountain air. It’s fuller and headier at night. The Cicadas contribute a constant roar, as millions of wings rub instantaneously providing nature’s soundtrack to accompany the rugged mountain and coastal scenery of the Costa del Sol.

Forest HillsForest Hills, our home for the week, nestled into the foot of the Sierra de las Nieves at Estepona, and resembled a small Moorish Citadel clinging to the hillside. Our spacious apartment had a lovely large terrace that overlooked the coast on one side, and the mountains on the other. Most days the heat haze obscured the Rock of Gibraltar, but on our last day the wind freshened and changed direction, and we could clearly see the British enclave and the mountains of Morocco across the narrow stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.

view of Gibraltar and Morocco from our balcony

The Spanish coast along the The Strait of Gibraltar often gets a battering from strong winds, and the day we visited Cristo Beach a hot dry wind from the Sahara whipped up the sand in our faces.  The two types of winds we experienced are known locally as the easterly Levante and its westerly counterpart, the Poniente.

Estepona marinaQuieter and less touristy than neighbouring Marbella, Estepona is a pretty coastal town that boasts a beautiful long beach with an immaculate esplanade and a smart marina with plenty of eateries. On the morning we went sailing it was cool and cloudy (much to our amazement), and as our yacht for the trip, Intrepido, left the harbour (the sails were up but we needed power as the sea was like a millpond), we embarked on our two hour mini-cruise in search of Flipper as we headed towards the hazy horizon.

After a bit of moaning about the cold air and lack of sightings my girls perked up as we were soon visited by a small pod. Imagine our delight as a mother and young one surfaced near the bow. The sound of their exhalations was exhilarating! We were soon joined by about three more inquisitive visitors. The sea was clear and still, we could see them darting under the front of the yacht, the light reflecting off their silvery skin just beneath the surface of the water.

Dolphins at the bow

I took hundreds of pictures, but they were so fast (even when jumping out of the water), that by the time my camera had clicked there was just a ruffled patch of water showing on my screen. Luckily I had two decent pictures to show for my efforts. Throughout the encounter Emily and Ruby were ecstatic. It was a very special environment in which to see these playful and lithe creatures. The skipper let the girls have a go at steering too, it was so sweet to see them showing him their right from left, but they didn’t quite progress onto port and starboard…

Langostine saland at La PintorescaAfterwards we had lunch at La Pintoresca. Located at Pantalan 5 on the Marina, just behind the Real Club Nautico building, it’s a delightful tapas restaurant run by the friendly and welcoming Jacob. Nothing was too much trouble, and he served us fresh, mouth-watering delights that made for a memorable meal. The small swallows in the palm tree by the balcony watched us intently and the occasional boat left the harbour. If you are ever in the area I can thoroughly recommend his establishment. Even my daughter Emily who has been known to be a tad fussy was raving about the food we ate!

Some days are special. Friday 1st August was one such day for us. We are normally game for an adventure, and Monte Aventura certainly made sure we had one in the stunning limestone mountain range of the Sierra de las Nieves. I wanted the girls to see the real Spain, and an ecotour seemed the best way to do it.

La Concha MarbellaWe were collected (along with another family also staying at the same complex) by 4×4 Land Rover driven by our eager and enthusiastic guide, Hugo. He established an instant rapport with the girls and his English was superb. He was very personable, and what he didn’t know about the ecology of the area wasn’t worth knowing. We drove to Marbella, and on our way into the mountains we passed the UAE Royal Family’s Spanish summer residence. Bougainvillea adorned walls and we looked up to the peak of La Concha above us.

view of the coast from the Sierra de Las Nieves biosphere

Once off-road we were able to stand and hold onto the roll bars whilst Hugo encouraged us all to push! As we entered the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of the Sierra de Las Nieves Hugo pulled out some local fauna for us to inspect and we discussed the attributes of these native plants. Fresh fennel, thyme, rosemary, mint, and other plants were examined and Hugo explained about the local grass, esparto. Think Espadrills! It has many uses and is known for its toughness and durability. Hugo showed us the esparto made slings that local shepherds used to herd their goats in the area, and we each had a go at flinging stones into a disused quarry. It was great fun; and once the technique is mastered the stones can travel for miles it seems. It was the only time I have let Emily and Ruby anywhere near such apparatus!

view of La Concepion reservoirWe looked down towards the Presa de la Concepcion, a 7km long dam and reservoir built in 1971.  Due to a drier than normal winter last year Hugo explained that it was only fifty percent full and thus causing concern for the remainder of their hot dry summer.  After a group photo we left the coast behind us and tackled the hairpin roads of the Nature Park. Hugo told us about the varied fauna of the area, we saw olive groves, pines, almond trees, cactus leaves and flowers, and the African originating carob Trees. Planted by the Arabs many centuries ago they have thrived, their fruit being a popular source of food for local animals and people alike. The Arabs developed a measurement system using the seeds, now known today as the same weight system for evaluating gems – the carat.

Soon we approached the medieval fortress of Istan (meaning high place). The ‘White Village’ was built by the Moors in the 15th Century due to its natural spring, and their original aqueduct is still in use to this day. Hugo parked the Land Rover at the source of the spring for us all to have a drink and cool off, and proceeded to show my girls giant tadpoles, butterflies and even dragonflies that were buzzing around us.

Emily Ruby and mum along the aqueductWe walked down by the concrete gullies (built around the ancient irrigation system) picking blackberries as we went. We saw oranges, avocados and pomegranates growing in the hill beside the path. Our first panoramic view of Istan greeted us along this pathway. We then met Juan, a 91 year old local resident (and quite a character), who greeted us with fresh tomatoes marinated in olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt, fresh bread and oranges and a mixture of local wines which we drank from the pouch in the appropriate manner: held at arm’s length squirting into ones mouth! He showed us his workmanship with esparto and then came with us to the town square fronted by the ancient mosque turned church, where we had a delicious lunch.

Istan (featuring Juan):

Afterwards we headed further into the mountains and through the indigenous Cork Tree forest, where mature trees (50 years plus) are harvested for their special bark. Hugo showed us a cross section of a sample, with the lines indicating the age of that piece of natural cork. The trees regenerate after about a year, but are not then harvested for at least another ten years. Cork has a porous quality that makes it perfect for letting wines breathe, and the many other uses that man has found for it in bathrooms and kitchens. We learnt that the Cork Tree is impervious to fire, and is well suited to the dry and arid summer landscape where frequent bush fires can occur. They will survive these blazes as long as they have not been recently harvested.

Sierra de las Nieves overview:

Twenty minutes of dusty off-road driving later, and we were rewarded with our final destination of the day: a fresh water pool replete with waterfall which was home to turtles and other small fish. For mum, me and the girls this was the highlight of our trip. We all clambered over the smooth rocks that lead to the pool listening to the sound of the water tumbling from the rocks high above. Our dip was totally refreshing and magical. The girls stayed in the shallows with mum as I swam down the deeper, narrow gorge to the waterfall, and leant against the rock behind its pristine effluent stream.  I’ll never forget the sensation of the droplets hitting my sun parched face.  We spent about twenty minutes enjoying the cooling effect of its clean, clear water and then climbed back out and into our Land Rover ready to travel back.

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Ruby was just about old enough to enjoy the trip we did, but it wouldn’t be suitable for kids under 5 years. Hugo has a passion for his country and the local ecology that really shines through. He often told us interesting facts about the wildlife of the mountains, especially the goats and wild boar; and was very adept at spotting eagles soaring and diving around us. He really made the day enjoyable for all of us, and I’m certain the family we were with had a great time also.

All in all a fabulous day and a fabulous holiday!

Small photo gallery: