“Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue
sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully
designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side.” John Steinbeck
I have made this drive twice and have enjoyed it on both occasions. I first experienced it in 1976 when I went to Europe for the first time ever, to Italy, with my dad and then again in 2004 when I reprised the event and this time took my son to enjoy a few days in Sorrento.
The corniche provides one of scariest but most scenic motoring experiences in the world as coaches veer vertiginously around the jagged granite edges of the Lattari Mountains, twisting and tunneling and hairpin-bending, providing vista after stunning vista of gorges, bridges, cliffs plunging vertically into the glassy Thyrrenian Sea, and sudden improbable villages tucked picturesquely into the landscape.
The journey was punctuated with frequent stops to admire the panoramic views and the precipitous drops, which I was sure was just to remind passengers just how precarious the route really was. To the west in the perfect azure blue sea there were rocks and islets all of which seem to have a story attached to them. There were islands that were favourites of the Roman Emperors and a group of rocks called the three sisters that supposedly lured sailors to their deaths, and there was one proud outcrop which we were assured that when viewed from a particular angle resembled Garibaldi. I spent some time looking for the profile of the biscuit before I realised that it was Giuseppe Garibaldi one of the heroes of Italian unification! Actually you have to look very hard indeed and even when you think you’ve got still have a very vivid imagination.
Back in 1976 when I first went to Amalfi coaches drove in both directions along the route which led to long hold-ups and required skilled and dexterous driving to choreograph a passage without falling into the sea below because there is a nerve jangling absence of barriers. To give you some idea, John Steinbeck, who used to visit here in the 1950s, claimed that the Amalfi Drive was “carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side.” These days because of its winding nature and seriously limited width, the road only carries coach traffic one way, from Sorrento to Amalfi and to return to Sorrento it is necessary to take a more sensible but less scenically breathtaking inland route inland route back home.
On the way to Amalfi the coach stopped to admire the view of the town of Positano that clings improbably to an almost vertical cliff with buildings tumbling chaotically from the top right down to the black beach at the bottom. Transport in Positano is only possible on foot but it looked well worth the effort as it boasted the most picturesque pastel villas adorned by pink bougainvillea and pots of boiling red geraniums and sweet smelling Mediterranean herbs.
Positano was a relatively poor fishing village in the first half of the twentieth century but it began to attract large numbers of tourists in the 1950s, especially after Steinbeck published his essay about the town in Harper’s Bazaar in 1953: ‘Positano bites deep’, he wrote. ‘It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone’. And having seen it I like to think that I understand exactly what he was saying!
The coach stopped at a little bar and souvenir shop with a perfect view over the town and we sat on the roof terrace and admired the views and had had a first glass of lemonade made from the juice, the pulp, the seeds, the skin and even the leaves of the “Amalfi Sfusato”, which is the local lemon fruit. It has supposed therapeutic properties; it fights infection, stimulates the immune system, relieves stress, is an aid to smokers, stimulates growth and retards the aging process and enhances athletic performance. These lemons are so unique that they have a prestigious European Community Geographic Indication Protected Certification under the name of the “Amalfi Coast Lemon“.It was so good that we had another while we waited for everyone to use the restrooms and then get back to the coach.
And then we continued on our journey and on the way best of all, in my opinion, was the village of Vallone di Furore, a narrow fjord where steep rock walls sheltered an enclave of fishermen’s houses and a tiny harbour with a beach littered with small hard working fishing boats all resting for the day.
Amalfi was a beautiful town, but the traffic was horrendous and parking is a real problem. The coach operators have to book a slot in the main car park and there is a constant queue of vehicles waiting for their precious turn to set down their passengers. Once through the approach tunnels and finally inside it is a lovely town with a grand cathedral and lots of sprawling back streets with interesting shops and restaurants. While we were there we took an interesting boat trip with which provided views of the homes of famous film stars including Sophia Loren, Roger Moore and Gina Lollobrigida, who was said to be the most beautiful woman ever in the world and who had the lettuce called the lollo rosso named after her famous curly red hair.
The patron Saint of Amalfi is Saint Andrew whose relics, it is said, were brought to Amalfi in 1206 from Constantinople shortly after the completion of the town’s cathedral. It is dedicated to Saint Andrew and contains a tomb in the crypt which, if you believe it, still holds a portion of the relics of the apostle. During Mass on holy days, Saint Andrew’s relics are said to exude a liquid called ‘St. Andrew’s Manna’ and people are anointed with the liquid, and many believe it to have miraculous qualities. If it is true it sounds rather messy to me and I imagine the chemist shops probably think it is miraculous when they sell gallons of hair shampoo for what must be a massive clean up after these sticky events!
When we left Amalfi we carried on for a few kilometres along the coast to Majori where we finally left the picturesque road and headed inland for the return journey. After a while we stopped at the charming little town of Ravello which was just waiting to ambush tourists returning from the drive and in the busy main square there were an assortment of little tourist shops, cafés and bars. We looked around and then sat in the shade and waited for the appointed time to return to the coach for the last stage of the journey back to Sorrento.