“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
On the second day dad finally dispensed with his tie and dropped a couple of gears down from civil servant to holidaymaker mode and first thing in the morning we had continental breakfast in the dining room. Bread and jam for the first meal of the day was another new experience for me because I had only previously been used to having raspberry preserve at teatime but I quickly adapted and by the end of the fortnight I had become completely used to it.
Today was the first of our trips; the famous Amalfi drive, which some claim to be the most picturesque in the world, all along the coast from Sorrento to Amalfi, and right on time the coach picked us up and headed out of town.
For most of the route the road is carved out of the side of the vertical coastal cliffs giving spectacular views on one side down to the Thyrrenian Sea and on the other up to the towering cliffs of the Lattari mountains soaring high above. The journey was punctuated with frequent stops to admire the panoramic views and the precipitous drops designed I am certain to remind passengers just how precarious the route really was.
It takes a certain kind of driver to drive a coach on the Amalfi drive because the road is full of impossibly tight bends, sheer falls from unimaginable heights and barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. In theory this should keep the speed down, but not in Italy and as the coach weaved in and out of the contours of the route and we enjoyed views from the window that you normally only get from an aircraft at thirty thousand feet it was best not to analyse too deeply the engineering that keeps the fragile ribbon of tarmac mysteriously attached to the side of the mountain.
To the west in the perfect azure blue sea there were rocks and islands 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 resembles 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 it you still have a very good imagination to fill in the detail.
Back in 1976 coaches drove in both directions along the route which led to long hold-ups and required great skilled and dexterous driving to choreograph a passage without falling into the sea below because there was a nerve jangling absence of barriers and some of these were twisted and broken where vehicles had collide with them. These days, because of its winding nature and 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 a vertical cliff with buildings tumbling chaotically from the top right down to the beach at the bottom. All 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 hanging as though in expectation of a carnival and pots of boiling red geraniums, fuschias with ballerina like blooms 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 John 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 been there I like to think that I understand exactly what he was saying even though it looked dangerously precarious, hanging off the side of the mountain like lichen clinging to rocks and just waiting for an earth tremor of sufficient strength to send it all tumbling into the sea.
Best of all, in my opinion, was the village of Vallone di Furore, where steep rock walls sheltered an enclave of abandoned and partially collapsed fishermen’s houses and a tiny harbour with a beach littered with small hard working fishing boats all resting up for the day.
Amalfi was a nice town as well, but the traffic was horrendous and there was nowhere to park. 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. In the narrow streets of Amalfi, traffic takes priority over pedestrians and crossing the street by the harbour or walking up the hilly main street was a hazardous challenge. Once finally inside it is a lovely town with a grand cathedral and lots of sprawling back streets like a spider’s web with interesting shops and seductive bars and restaurants.
While we were there we took an interesting boat trip which provided views of the homes of famous film stars including Sophia Loren, Roger Moore and Gina Lollbrigida who, by the way, was said to be the most beautiful woman ever in the world and who had a lettuce named after her famous curly red hair, the lollo rosso.
The patron Saint of Amalfi is Saint Andrew whose relics, it is said, were brought to Amalfi from Constantinople following the sacking of that city by the Crusaders in 1206 and shortly after the completion of the town’s cathedral. The cathedral, which is dedicated to Saint Andrew, contains a tomb in the crypt which, if you believe it, still holds a genuine portion of the relics of the Apostle. During Mass on holy days, the Saint’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 disgusting and I wager the chemist shops think it is miraculous when they sell gallons of hair shampoo for the big clean up after these messy events!