ringing in the decade reading Darwin & cliff-clinging on the Amalfi coast

villa rufolo arches

«To admit this view is, as it seems to me, to reject a real for an unreal, or at least for an unknown, cause. It makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception; I would almost as soon believe with the old and ignorant cosmogonists, that fossil shells had never lived, but had been created in stone so as to mock the shells now living on the sea-shore.»—Charles Darwin

01.01.2011—Ravello, Campania

after capodanno in Calabria we set forth through the mountains north. around Maratea (in Basilicata) we decided to get off the autostrade & onto the coastal road. when we got to the shore we saw the statue of the redeemer high on a hill above us:

Maratea the redeemer

Christ the Redeemer (Maratea)

those that read the last post might recognize this statue from the coast to coast video though in the video it's where we started our journey when in fact it's on the other end of Basilicata. after hanging with the redeemer we went back down the mountain & continued along the spectacular coastline (reminiscence of Big Sur on a smaller scale). after a half an hour or so we came to a sign that said the road was closed but it was sort of half-laying on it's side & spray-painted over so i continued on. after another fifteen minutes we came to a landslide with a bunch of parked cars. sure enough, the road was closed. so we turned around & backtracked all the way back past the redeemer to the autostrade. or at least near the autostrade—we had to drive next to it for like 20 km before we could get back on it.


Rivello (not to be confused with our destination of Ravello): yet another hilltop town

in Salerno we gassed up & got a mozzarella panino then got on the coastal road to Amalfi—probably one of the most insane & technically challenging pieces of driving i've ever experienced. & it's not even high season—i can't imagine bringing a car here in the summer. the road is barely wide enough for two normal (which here means compact)-sized cars to fit by, yet people still drive like maniacs, passing on corners, & there's big busses blaring their horns at every turn & kamikaze motorcyclists on their Ducati crotch rockets & pedestrians & tourists & cyclists all sharing this narrow little stretch of road. there's no margin for error, either you'd grind against a cliff or plunge over the guardrail into the sea. at least once our side mirrors got hit (but side mirrors are to Italians what whiskers are to cats—sensors to detect whether you can fit through). here's what the road looks like without traffic:

amalfi coastal road

narrow roads of the Amalfi coast

needless to stay i wasn't doing much sight-seeing until the car was parked, which also easier said than done. we went back up the hill towards Ravello but somewhere along the way took a wrong turn until the road we were on (in the town of Portone) got narrower & narrower & eventually just petered out into a dead end on the side of a cliff. there was no room to turn around so i had to back up with only inches to spare on either side. we were trying to decipher the vague directions to the B&B we were staying at. & this is where you should be paying attention if you are reading this for advice on where to stay in Ravello, because we almost learned the hard way: when i was looking into it on the internet or tripadvisor i remembered reading about a B&B Limoni i think though i accidentally made a rez at this place called "Giardino di Limoni B&B" thinking it was the same place. fortunately we walked down the wrong alley (& when i say "down" i mean down 250+ steep steps) until we saw a tile saying "B&B I Limoni". they were really nice & told us we were mistaken & where the other Limoni B&B was (& that they had nothing to do with each other). we went back up & down steps & through dark lemon groves until we found Giardino dei Limoni. we were shown to our room & all i can say is never have i been so overwhelmed by a smell. it's not that it was a strong or disgusting smell, but there was this underlying smell to our room that was awful, & we couldn't pinpoint what it was or where it was coming from. it smelled like rotten clams or cigarettes or mildew, or something gone off, we're not sure what. i tried to light one of those citron candles to get rid of the stench, but it wasn't helping. j was just sitting there without taking her jacket off or unpacking, just looking disgusted & sad. despite the fact that the Amalfi coast is one of her favorite places in the world, she was talking like she just wanted to go home to Rome. & this was supposed to be the part of our trip when we just unwound reading & hiking around. beyond the smell the place just had a bad vibe (or maybe it was the smell causing it). we hadn't asked at the other limoni B&B if there were rooms but it seemed like a cool place so we snuck back there & asked & they did & it looked (& smelled) infinitely better so we went back to the Giardino & (after debating whether to make up some excuse) just told him the truth, that it stunk. from what i could tell of my limited Italian he either said that the smell would go away once we cooked something or that someone had cooked something in there giving it that smell. regardless life is too short to endure such a stench. to make matters worse the gate was locked (even though he said it wouldn't be) so we were crawling over this fence each time, so it really felt like we were on some escapade. once we got situated in B&B Limoni we felt much better. the hosts (Luigi & Rosalba) were really nice & brought us a bottle of the most amazing wine i've ever had (homemade). they have acres of lemon & citrus trees & when we left they gave us a huge bag to take with us. they were leaving for Rome the next day but let us stay there anyway, so we had the whole place to ourselves. it was awesome, great views, the only downside (if you read the complaints on tripadvisor) are all the steps you have to go up & down, but we are gluttons for that stuff. if you have to walk up steep stairs for 20 minutes to get to town & the nearest restaurants it makes everything taste oh so much better. the first night we went into Ravello & ate at La Vittoria (excellent pasta & seafood & pizza).


Ravello lit by stars


woke up at B&B I Limoni & had breakfast on the terrace in the lemon groves with an amazing view of the sea below. hung out with our hosts & they gave us some decent maps & told us the best places to walk (at the smelly Giardino place the guy looked us like we were nuts when we asked about walking here or there saying "but you have a car, why would you walk?"). we set off down the hill north. we've been to the Amalfi coast before but only further north around Positano. so this was new territory. we wound down through the medina-ish alleys of a town called Atrani.

 Atrani wall

Atrani space


Atrani stairs

Atrani alleys

then we continued along to the town of Amalfi. had a coffee & walked around the harbor.

Amalfi coat of arms

Amalfi harbor & coat of arms

as we were walking back along the waterfront we hard some music so stopped & watched. it was a marching band playing instruments that seemed to be made of household items like toilet seats, pots, lids, soup cans, etc. not sure what the story is behind this, but it reminded me of the steel drums of the West Indies which were invented because slave owners used to take drums & musical instruments away from the slaves so they took garbage cans & turned them into instruments. maybe it was the same story here i don't know, can't seem to find much information about it except that i think it's Neopolitan folk music. we followed the parade as it went into the center of Amalfi.


tiolet seat player

toilet seat player


amalfi folk music


soup lid stacker smoker

soup lid stack player with dangling cigarette


accordion player with braces

accordion player with braces & designer glasses


amalfi duomo

Amalfi duomo & the styling maestro


duomo with soup can lids

more soup can lids & duomo

the band continued on but we stopped off in the duomo pictured above.

view from in duomo

view looking from duomo


duomo arcade

tourists in the duomo arcade


amalfi arch

view of Amalfi belltower from cloister


fresco in duomo

fresco in the Amalfi duomo


manger scene

manger scene in Amalfi duomo

then we had vongole in some restaurant whose name i can't remember except that we were served on by one of the girls that was in the parade (the one in the video playing the tambourine with red curly hair). explored more of Amalfi then headed up into the hills stopping at a paper mill/museum (museo della carta). if you are in Amalfi & like paper i'd recommend doing this, all sorts of ancient machinery & milling equipment for making paper (& they even let you make some yourself).

paper mill

Amalfi paper mill


moldy umbrella statue

mossy fountain in Amalfi

hiked further & further up into the hills. lots of waterfalls & abandoned structures & trees. we weren't even sure where we were (googlemaps was saying we were nowhere near where we thought we were) & there were no towns in sight & it was getting to be dusk. we ran into an old man who assured us we were going the right way so we stuck to the trail until we emerged over a high ridge into a town called Portone.

waterfall amalfi


portone church

belltower in Portone

after Portone we continued up & across to Ravello getting there right about dark.

ravello church in the shadows

shadows on Ravello belltower

went to some place called Cumpa Cosimo for dinner which i guess was pretty good but popular & touristy & a bit forced how "mama" makes the requisite visit to each table (for us it was just to bring us the bill).


our last day we were planning on doing a whole lot of nothing except relaxing & reading, especially considering at least one of us had sore legs from all the hiking the day before & the weather had turned cold & drizzly. but still we couldn't help going for a morning walk which ended up leading well into the afternoon. we walked around beneath Villa Cimbrone. there's some church there that had all these tin body parts encased behind glass (see below). not sure what they are called here or what they are for but they reminded me of the milagros in Mexico (though milagros are quite a bit smaller) that are religious charms used for healing purposes (depending on what body part ails you). the wiki page says milagros have their origins in Spain but doesn't say anything about Italy, so i'm not sure what these are.

milagro self portait

milagros in Ravello?

after looping under the cliffs of Villa Cimbrone, we went into it. Villa Cimbrone was built by some rich British lord dude who had all sorts of artists & writers (including the likes Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence & T. S. Eliot) visit & stay there.

ivy wall

ivy covered wall in Villa Cimbrone


cimbrone umbrella pine arcade

umbrella pine


madonna tit fountain

now this is what i call a fountain (in Amalfi piazza)


bare bust

busty bust & infamous Cimbrone view


cimbrone nymph

statue (behind bullet-proof glass?) in Cimbrone gardens

somewhere near Villa Cimbrone we also came across some gallery near a church that had some interesting paintings by this guy named Angelo Accardi who seemed to have a thing for ostriches & jumbo jets in strange settings. i just googled him & his site has all sorts of cool stuff on it.

angelo accardi

Angelo Accardi

then we went to the other villa in Ravello, Villa Rufolo. definitely some decadent people that picked Ravello to live, for obvious reasons.

money shot

the "money shot" of Ravello (typically done in watercolor). google "Ravello" if you don't believe me.


villa rufolo view

gardens in Villa Rufolo


rufolo bush hole

Villa Rufolo

after the villas we were hungry. we were told (by at least 2 people) the coastal town of Minore was 15 minutes on foot, which might be true if you were a crow. we had vongole & sardines at some place in Minore called La Botega that was really tasty & low key. did i mention that the sardines are amazing in Amalfi? we walked around Minore then trekked back up to our lemon grove.

ducks in Minore

sea ducks in Minore

it's weird how influential On the Origin Of Species is, at least in circles i care about, yet if you ask around very few people have actually read it. most people shrug it off saying they know what it's about so don't need to read it. strangely it's a lot like The Bible (how many people actually sit down & read it cover to cover?). so i figured it was high time i heard it straight from the horse's mouth (especially as i just recently read the Bible (the The Dead Sea Scrolls version) i figured it was only fair). you might think people don't read On the Origin of Species because it's all archaic & unreadable, when in fact it's well-written & easy to read. it reads almost like it was written yesterday. to truly appreciate it you have to consider the time in which it was written & what a leap of faith it must've been to come up with an idea like natural selection. it almost seems common sense now, given all the evidence that has been accumulated. but back in Darwin's time they didn't even have cameras. so all his evidence was either direct observation (both of animals & fossils), illustrations, or reading other's observations. reading On the Origin of Species is the closest you can get to being in the mind of a man who came to the realization of the single most profound idea on this planet, who discovered the underlying mechanism not only of why were are here, but how we (& all animals) turned out how we did & how us animals continue to propagate (often blindly) & are driven to fill every available niche on this planet—it's in our nature. at least for me, every observation (of both animals & humans) i make i can't help but to think in terms of natural selection. in fact, i'd go as far as to say that natural selection is at the root of why i fundamentally can't relate to America—the fact that more people in the U.S. don't believe in evolution than any other European country (except Turkey) is astonishing to me. or that «in the U.S., only 14 percent of adults thought that evolution was "definitely true"»! between this & the collective mindset that re-elected Bush i feel a deep & fundamental disconnect with America. Italy is a Catholic country (whose prime minister makes Bush look like a saint in comparison) yet at least most people here believe in evolution & have the smarts to take their religion with a grain of salt.

i won't bother to summarize the book as i'm sure you already know what it's about (unless you're an ostrich or a typical American). but one thing that struck me in reading it (the part where he talks about breeding in the domestication of animals & says: "Not one man in a thousand has accuracy of eye and judgment sufficient to become an eminent breeder") is that i was wondering if Darwin's realization of natural selection was genetic, a mutation, a dormant gene expressed or turned on? & was he himself cognizant of this, that he was "selected"? & did he fathom the implications that Richard Dawkins would take his ideas to, & that the idea of natural selection itself is a meme? (and then you can think of the idea of a meme as a meme but that makes my head hurt (see also, my Strange Loop post)). & speaking of the bible i find it ironic that it gives many "laws" governing animal breeding & food preparation & reproduction—rules for survival—in a sense it is a memetic form of unconscious selection. & it was interesting (to the language-obsessed me) that even in thinking up natural selection Darwin on more than one occasion uses language as an analogy:

But, in fact, a breed, like a dialect of a language, can hardly be said to have had a definite origin. A man preserves and breeds from an individual with some slight deviation of structure, or takes more care than usual in matching his best animals and thus improves them, and the improved individuals slowly spread in the immediate neighborhood. (...) As soon as the knowledge of any new sub-breed are once fully acknowledged, the principle, as I have called it, of unconscious selection will always tend,—perhaps more in one district than in another, according to the state of civilisation of the inhabitants—slowly to add to the characteristic features of the breed, whatever they may be.

and again later in the book:

It may be worth while to illustrate this view of classification, by taking the case of languages. If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, were to be included, such an arrangement would be the only possible one. Yet it might be that some ancient languages had altered very little and had given rise to few new languages, whilst others had altered much owing to the spreading, isolation, and state of civilisation of the several co-descended races, and had thus given rise to many new dialects and languages. The various degrees of difference between the languages of the same stock, would have to be expressed by groups subordinate to groups; but the proper or even the only possible arrangement would still be genealogical; and this would be strictly natural, as it would connect together all languages, extinct and recent, by the closest affinities, and would give the filiation and origin of each tongue.

you also realize reading On the Origin of Species what a great scientist Darwin was. he never interjects his ego into his work but purely states observations & the logical deductions you can make from them. he was reluctant to even publish On the Origin of Species & even when he eventually did (together with Wallace) it is with the disclaimer that it is "necessarily imperfect," & despite all the evidence telling him otherwise, he always remained self-critical & full of self-doubt, trying to refute himself, as any good scientist should. in learning about natural selection in college (because of course in American high schools this doesn't happen) i remember them trying to build it up like Darwin scooped Wallace & that both were in competition to publish their results first. but you get the sense reading On the Origin of Species that most important to Darwin was the idea speaking for itself, not that he had come up with it. there was plenty of others before him that had eluded to the idea (including Lucretius) but it's one thing to simply pontificate or wax poetically about it & another to fully develop it as elegantly & comprehensively as Darwin did. & when Darwin mentions Wallace in On the Origin of Species he is nothing but gracious & gives him credit & kudos. scientists nowadays are typically pompous & competitive, driven by the publish or perish mentality, or getting the Nobel prize. even Richard Dawkins, brilliant as he is, at times gets defensive & pontifical & stoops as low as his critics in slinging mud back. the breed of scientist that Darwin was is a dying breed.

most of the book is pretty technical & tedious for the average reader, though he gives lots of interesting examples to support (or try to refute) his claims (some of his favorites being cuckoo birds, slave-keeping ants & blind cavefish). of particular interest (for me, in the context of my obsession with the hexagon which i also go into in the above Lucretius post) is the hive-building phenotype expressed by bees:

If a number of equal spheres be described with their centres placed in two parallel layers; with the centre of each sphere at the distance of radius x √ 2 or radius x 1.41421 (or at some lesser distance), from the centres of the six surrounding spheres in the same layer; and at the same distance from the centres of the adjoining spheres in the other and parallel layer; then, if planes of intersection between the several spheres in both layers be formed, there will result a double layer of hexagonal prisms united together by pyramidal bases formed of three rhombs; and the rhombs and the sides of the hexagonal prisms will have every angle identically the same with the best measurements which have been made of the cells of the hive-bee.

in other words, the hex-hives maximize the efficiency of space. Darwin comes back to bees a few times as behavior that is difficult to explain with natural selection (for example bees dying when they sting you) because at the time i'm guessing social insects must not have been fully understood. but we know now you must consider the entire colony as the organism. Darwin & beehive building doesn't have a hell of a lot to do with Amalfi. ideally you'd read On the Origin of Species in the Galapagos or some species-diverse place. but if you think in terms of human evolution it's interesting to consider. when i'm in Amalfi or these hilltop towns all over Italy i always think it's crazy in terms of natural selection. if you are logical & only consider survival then it makes no sense, having to cultivate crops on the side of a cliff. or going out of your way to build cities on mountaintops instead of in the valleys below like most other people in the world do. most people that live in crazy places on the sides of cliffs (like the Dogon) do so for reasons of security, to protect themselves against invaders. while that might've have had something to do with it, i'd like to think Italians live in places such as Amalfi simply because they choose beauty. their ancestors decisions were not purely for survival but for living well. Italians are people that don't just eat to live but they live to eat. they enjoy their food & the views.

the book j was reading on our trip was The Italians by Luigi Barzini. i won't go into this until i read it for myself but the one thing that struck her from the book, the one prevailing characteristic (according to Barzini) is that Italians are a sad & defeated people. a nation that has been, that has lived through their own downfall, that let their great city of Rome be sacked. but is admitting defeat such a bad thing? especially if you can do it with humility & grace. Japan has a similar defeated, yet humble, air that is perhaps at the root of their success (in my opinion anyway—like Italians, they've perfected the art of living). i'd rather live defeated than with the baggage that the Germans have to live with, which is beyond defeated. when you are eating linguini vongole or mozzarella di buffala or a slice of pizza with fiori di zucca you are swallowing a bit of pride with that & maybe that's why it tastes so good. maybe that swallowed pride has been rechanneled into the way they live their own lives rather than the need to live beyond their borders. Italy has been through the world-dominating greed & vanity phase American is going through now. going back to NYC last month one thing that struck me (that i'd all but forgotten about) was how you get nickled & dimed for everything, how every interaction in the states is motivated by greed & monetary gain. if there's a way to make money off something Americans will figure it out. you get taxed for everything, you are expected to tip for everything. here there is no tax & you don't need to tip, so whatever price is listed is what you pay. there are popular restaurants to eat at here that could get away with charging more but they don't. their brains aren't wired to think that way. you could even say that thinking about Italy in terms of natural selection doesn't make a lot of sense because they have one of the lowest birth-rates in the world (in 2009 only Japan & Hong Kong were lower). they are beyond just surviving. now they are living.

buganvillia sunrise

hex-branching bougainvillea in winter

«As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generations I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.»—Charles Darwin

pine canopy

pine & vine canopy





(©omPostED|tranScribed) 2011 Derek White