Absolutely amazed in Amalfi

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May 28th 2010
Published: May 31st 2010
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We woke early (6.30am) to catch up on writing and prepare for our bus trip to Amalfi. We caught a train to Sorrento and then piled into a bus with scores of other tourists sharing the same intent. The journey was reasonably long (1.5 hours) and numbers were high, so many passengers had to stand in the aisles. While the trip was breathtaking, it was also downright scary, and there were times where I couldn’t look as we teetered precariously on sections of road where a knee high fence was the only thing separating us from the sheer drop to the ocean below. We arrived at midday and checked into a fantastic hotel - our room had three balconies that opened directly onto Amalfi’s waterfront. As I stood on one of these I could hear conversations of people as they swam in the Mediterranean - the town’s small gravel beach was less than 100 metres away.

We checked in, showered and then drifted through the afternoon in the narrow backstreets of this fantastic little town. My birthday fell the next day, so we purchased a pair of shoes as a present in the smallest shoe shop I have ever seen.

We headed out to dinner in a small backstreet restaurant, where the owner had set up a table in the narrow street outside just for us. As we dined, people came and went from their homes, oblivious to the fact that we had invaded their street space. My fresh pasta with prawns and slightly steamed fresh mussels with lemon were perfect, and the house red was great. We picked up a bottle of local red and headed back to the hotel to sit on one of our balconies and watch the bustling town go by. The moonlight on the Mediterranean was beautiful, and while we could have stayed there all night, we knew tomorrow was a long day that included a four hour hike along the coastline.

Just as I was leaving our balcony, I noticed two tourists staggering in stilettos on the cobblestones. The Amalfi coastline is a beautiful place, but it attracts a strange mix of tour groups covering all age groups, including large Contiki groups...

We woke early (6.15am) in preparation to hike the Path of the Gods, a 12km stretch from Agerola to Positano. We ventured out into Piazza del Duomo for a quick café latte and pastry before exploring the majestic Cattedrale di St Andrea. We then bussed to Agerola and started the four hour trek along the coastline at 11am. It was perfect weather for walking - warm and slightly overcast, and the opening views were breathtaking. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that this was a challenge I wasn’t ready for. I quickly realised my fear of heights is more a fear of sheer unprotected drops, and there were to be many of these. I didn’t read the warning signs at the start of the walk, so it was too late at the end of the walk to read that sections of the track were ‘unprotected by side parapet’. In some sections the track was less than a metre wide with a steep cliff face on the right and a sheer drop on the left. For me this was hell, yet for others it was a walk in the park. After about an hour we stopped on a ledge of the track that dropped into nothingness only metres from where I was sitting. This was it. I had to keep moving and get off the track as soon as possible. This meant Ren had to stay with me and keep my pace, which was so unfair for her. I hugged the cliff side of the track and walked with my head down, looking only metres in front of my feet. I walked quickly and reassured myself I’d get to the end. It’s hell to have phobias at times like this. We came to a section of the track where we had to traverse a boulder that stuck out from the cliff face, and I just can’t remember a time where I was this scared. An Australian guy coming off the boulder in the opposite direction said the track was about to get much worse (he was terrified of heights), but he added ‘just look down and grit it out’ - which I did.

It didn’t help arriving at a sign saying Positano was two hours away, but I had no choice but to keep walking - head down and eyes on the path. Ren loved the views, but had little time to enjoy them - she simply stayed just behind me and re-assured me all the way. A truly incredible travel partner! We arrived at Nocelle at 1.15pm, and the sheer drops and narrow tracks were behind us. All that remained was our descent into Positano by steps - all 1700 of them. My relief was immeasurable.

After ambling down the steps, we finally arrived in the bustling seaside township of Positano, tired and exhausted. We sat down for a quick drink on the waterfront before catching a 3.30pm ferry back to Amalfi. It was fantastic to be back at sea level, and the feeling of the warm wind blowing from the Mediterranean was very calming. Looking up at the steep and rugged coastline from the ferry was an amazing experience, made even more so by the fact that we could see how high we had walked. It is hard to believe that a coastline such as this can be so densely inhabited.

We arrived back in Amalfi at 4pm, showered and then headed out to wander the streets of this beautifully atmospheric little town. We noticed a production of some kind setting up on the steps leading up to the Cattedrale di St Andrea, so decided to drop by at 9pm to watch the show. We headed out for dinner at 7.30pm, and my smoked mozzarella wrapped in lemon leaves and salmon ravioli were absolutely sensational. The house red was great and many carafes made their way to the table throughout the night. At the end of the meal, a birthday cake appeared under my nose and the entire restaurant joined in to sing happy birthday (to my absolute embarrassment)! It’s been at least 40 years since I’ve had an ice-cream cake for my birthday, and it was fantastic.

We headed back to Piazza del Duomo where the production had already started. It was a ballet supported with an amazing light and pyrotechnic show (complete with a dancer abseiling down the bell tower). The piazza was packed and the mood was fabulous. It was a brilliant end to my birthday.

The Campania country side is tranquil and divine - the yellows and greens of olive groves, fig trees, and orange and lemon orchards planted on the steepest of hills; dramatically contrasted by the blues and greens of the spectacular coastline when we reached it. The Amalfi Coast really is a fantastic place to visit and the drive there is equally...er...fantastic! The roads are not quite wide enough to fit two vehicles at once which made for interesting reversing when two buses met on the road! The bus drivers do a fabulous job negotiating the large buses along the narrow roads, constantly tooting their horns to warn oncoming drivers and suicidal vespa riders that we were on their side of the road as we came around a blind corner...a road poised on the side of a cliff at that! Andrew had read about the Amalfi Coast road in a travel magazine a few years ago and really wanted to experience it - well we experienced it! The bus ride from Sorrento to Amalfi was downright scary but also utterly beautiful… 😄

There were a few sick people on the very windy trip, and strangely I was a bit off colour too, but I suspect it was more to do with a bit of sunburn from Capri rather than motion sickness. It didn’t stop me from enjoying the trip and watching the sheer drops off the side of the bus with absolute awe; but Andrew’s discomfort with sheer drops meant he couldn’t look. However when we got off the bus in Amalfi and that fresh sea air hit us - we just knew a coffee with a view was in order.

While all the towns on the Amalfi Coast are just gorgeous, we are based in the tiny town of Amalfi which we think is the prettiest and most charming of the coast towns we’ve seen. The views here more than live up to the brochure hype, but unfortunately because of this it just swarms with day trippers until about 6pm. We stayed at Hotel Fontana which is fabulously located in Piazza del Duomo (the main square), which as its name suggests is in the shadow of the beautiful Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea (St Andrew’s Cathedral). And on the other side of the hotel - the beautiful sea! The Lonely Planet Guide described Amalfi as the perfect place for ‘aimless wandering and long, lingering lunches’...so of course we HAD to go. 😊

This is a fabulous hotel and we highly highly highly recommend it. If we thought our hotel in Santa Maria degli Angeli was large, the room here was gigantic. When we walked into our room we were faced with a cute sitting room that ended in French windows leading to a balcony that looked over a piazza and marina and through to the sea; and if that wasn’t enough our bedroom was palatial and had two similar balconies. We spent every free minute sitting on one of the balconies watching Amalfi life go by...one funny moment I will remember was a delivery guy passing under our balcony singing out ‘Volare’ and without even thinking I replied ‘ho-ho’. Andrew burst out laughing...I wish I could have seen the guy’s face.

Watching the ‘action’ on the beach from our room was fantastic, but coming from a country where the beaches belong to everyone, it is an odd experience to have to pay to use them here. Technically you should be able to walk past the private deck chairs and umbrellas for rent and access the water, but it doesn’t quite work that way in reality. A deck chair and swim can cost as much as €10.

We were only here for two days and will be hiking in the cliffs for one of those, so we were a little sad that we didn’t have longer to explore all the other little villages in the surrounding mountains and the coastal townships along the coast; however another trip to Italy to visit Puglia, Calabria and Sicily has been discussed, so revisiting Amalfi will definitely be on the agenda then. 😊

All the food in Amalfi was wonderful, but Trattoria San Giuseppe was a fabulous find by Davide. It was up a flight of steps off Piazza del Duomo and in amongst entrances to local houses, and well away from the tourist crowd. We started with a gnocchi alla sorrentina (creamy gnocchi with tomato and mozzarella sauce) and scialatielli alle gamberti (local handmade pasta with shrimps) that disappeared in two minutes flat. Secondo was grilled veal for me and a bowl of the freshest mussels for Andrew - the best of both we have tasted on this trip! For dessert we had fresh melone (cantaloupe) and a local torta al zabaione e amarena di nonna (grandma’s cake with egg custard and cherries). Just Beautiful!

After a late start the next morning because of a cancelled bus, we finally left for Agerola at 10:15am to begin the Path of the Gods trek to Positano. But before we began the walk in Agerola, we had a coffee, gelato and toilet stop at Il Ritrovo in Piazza Paolo Capasso. We highly recommend this place, not just for the great service but also for the great coffee and gelato. It was wonderful to start my walk with a bacio gelato in hand. As we started to ascend into the cliffs behind Agerola, it became very apparent why this is considered one of the most beautiful treks in this part of the world. Whenever I had a chance to catch my breath on that walk, all I could say was wow! The hike was surprisingly not as physically challenging as it looked (thank god!), but we had to navigate a few loose gravel sections along the way that were difficult. There are quite a few hiking tracks that crisscross these cliffs and not all of them were well marked, so we had to keep an eye out for signs and markings too. Andrew’s fear of heights kicked in big time on the most exposed section of the walk (about an hour in) and it wasn’t a pleasant hour or so for him after that. I took as many photographs as I could because I knew Andrew wasn’t able to see this glorious view and I wanted share it with him later. We were both very relieved to reach the more stable and fenced part of the walk just outside Nocelle. After walking for more than two hours, we were faced with 1700 steps to tackle to descend to sea level. By now my dodgy knee from the Cinque Terre walk was making itself known so we took the steps slowly. We were wonderfully entertained by one of the local dogs (Andrew christened him Raphael) who decided to keep us company for most of it and when we stopped to take photographs, he would hurry us up by running back to us and rounding Andrew up. He also gave us heart attacks by chasing lizards off the steps and onto the cliffs at full speed, stopping only inches from the edge! Once we reached this part of the walk, it was just the two of us and the spectacular view…and the hundreds of tiny Italians and tourists way down on the Positano beach milling around the eye catching brightly coloured umbrellas lining the coastline… 😊

This was probably the most physically and mentally challenging but most rewarding hike I’ve ever been on! And not only is the four hour walk itself astoundingly beautiful, but the destination is not too shabby either. Positano is a beautiful place and understandably where the rich and famous come to play. There are just as many steps to climb here as in the Cinque Terre, and if there are no steps, it’s a near vertical street! That afternoon after drinks on the Positano beach, we caught the ferry back to Amalfi, relaxed on the boat’s deck and took in our last view of this part of the coast. Amalfi looks like Positano from the water but is much smaller and far less ritzy.

We loved the shopping in Amalfi’s small shopping strip (uphill from Piazza del Duomo). We made a few fantastic purchases including Andrew’s birthday presents - shoes! and a hand painted wooden plaque of San Andrea. We also saw a pack of briscola/scopa cards in a window (the game Alvaro taught us to play on platform 6 of Genoa station) and I think it amused and pleased the old shop keeper that we wanted to buy it.

We celebrated Andrew’s birthday night with a magnificent feast at Trattoria Al Teatro where the antipasto of provola alla griglia in foglia di limone (smoked mozzarella wrapped in lemon leaves and grilled) was the most gorgeous thing to start the night with. For the next course Andrew had the ravioli al salmone (salmon filled ravioli) and I had the risotto alla pescatora (risotto with seafood). As expected the seafood was a winner down here and we are yet to have a bad seafood dish in Campania. For dessert, Davide surprised Andrew with a strawberry ice cream birthday cake - very sweet! This was also the Amalfi Coast and More trip’s farewell dinner, however as we had predicted at the start of this trip (see our Neither pomp nor ceremony in Napoli or Pompei post) this had not been a cohesive travelling group so there wasn’t the same level of friendship and connection between the travellers or Davide (the group leader) as with our other two trips in Italy.

Much later, as Andrew and I were sitting on the edge of the fountain in Piazza del Duomo watching a free ballet production (with impressive lighting and pyrotechnics) on the many steps of Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea; we knew that the travel gods had truly smiled on us in many ways today and protected us through a hard trek too. It was such a wonderful way to celebrate Andrew’s birthday and the last day of our stay in Campania. 😄

We travel back to Rome tomorrow and start our journey home...


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