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by Caroline M. Jackson

It was a clear October morning as our cruise ship anchored in the shadow of the cliff below Sorrento on Italy's Amalfi coast. First to disembark by tender were the early birds bound for daytrips to the romantic Island of Capri or historic Pompeii. Wanting to explore Sorrento independently, my husband and I headed from Marina Piccolo to the town's upper terrace where we nudged our way through a swarm of enthusiastic guides.

A scenic drive along the Amalfi coast looked appealing. Our guide snuffed out her cigarette and shepherded aboard our trolley bus. Her sugar-pink lips almost kissing her hand-held mike, she introduced herself as 'Geena' and would sporadically get our attention by prefixing every narration with "Allora". Mostly, she was engrossed in a passionate conversation with the young bus driver who skillfully negotiated the busy cliff-hugging road. When scenic highlights were in short supply, the operatic music would be cranked up a couple of notches. By the time we returned to Sorrento, we were relieved to find a quiet café where we could 'chill out' with a lemon mousse gelato and a refreshing glass of limoncello.

Our next day would be "at sea" as we headed south through the Straits of Messina towards the port of Bari on the southeast coast of Italy. It was near nightfall when my husband burst into our cabin shouting: "Quick! Bring your binoculars and head to the upper deck." I shot out my comfortable chair and followed him. Once my eyes had adjusted to the dark, I saw a large foreboding outline etched on the near horizon - the island of Stromboli which is on the same volcanic chain as Mt. Etna and Mt. Vesuvius. Training our binoculars towards the crater, we held our breaths as a fiery red explosion gushed heavenwards from the cone belching cinders and incandescent lava fragments into the night sky. Plumes of ash now curled and formed surreal clouds. Somehow our ship seemed infinitely small in the face of such a natural phenomenon.

The next morning, on arrival at the Italian port of Bari, we took a one-hour drive inland to the fairy-tale town of Alberobello. Now a Unesco site, it is famous for its curious white-washed Trulli houses some of which are five centuries old. Like a community of perfectly made beehives, each house boasts a conical grey pointed roof. It is believed that the main reason for their odd design was to avoid heavy taxes in the Middle Ages. Trulli walls were so cleverly constructed with drywall stones that the removal of one stone would cause the whole dwelling to collapse. Word would get out and by the time the tax man arrived many days later, the house would have 'disappeared', the stones having been relocated elsewhere. Today, however, the walls are firmly held together with mortar.

As we strolled along one of the town's narrow streets, a local resident opened her door and beckoned us inside her dwelling. The interior was cool, simple and absolutely spotless. Refusing any offer of compensation, her smile said it all. She was delighted to share her home with visitors from another land. We left feeling truly blessed.

Now cruising eastwards across the Adriatic to the coast of Croatia, we reached the famous fortified town of Dubrovnik. Renowned as the 'Pearl of the Adriatic', this walled city proved to be the perfect destination for the independent traveler. The two-kilometer-long ramparts have been completely restored and offer bird's eye views over the city's red tiled rooftops and the sparkling coastline. Back down at street level, we spent hours wandering along the winding pedestrian streets and tarried beside Onofrio's fountain before visiting the Rector's Palace, once the seat of the government.

Our last port of call before arriving in Venice, was a short visit to Koper , Slovenia. Bordered by Croatia, Italy, Austria and Hungary, it is a mountainous country with a fascinating history. Being a nature lover, I signed up for a guided walk around the Secovlie Saltpans which like a patchwork quilt, lie in the estuary of the Dragonia River bordering Croatia. For many centuries, windmills pumped the water and even though the salt basins are now operated by sluice and pump, the salt is still much valued for its purity. The whole scene had a surreal quality and I felt I had truly stepped back in time.

Photos: Hamish Jackson

1. Alberobello, Italy
2. Dubrovnik
3. Dubrovnik-1
4. Saltpans, Slovenia
5. Street Scene, Sorrento

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