Drive the Amalfi Coast

Experiencing a new country for the first time is wonderful. Seeing it a second time through the eyes of family or friends is almost better. When I travelled with my family to Italy this spring, it was my fourth trip, but for my children, grandchildren and sister, the visit was their first. I relished their reactions in Venice to the gondolas and vaporettos on the Grand Canal, the pigeons pecking for crumbs in St. Mark’s Square, the architecture of the Rialto Bridge. In Rome, they were awestruck as our taxi scooted down a hill past the ancient majestic walls of the Coliseum and again when we stopped at the bottom of the avenue leading to Piazza San Pietro, where the arms of the larger-than-life St. Peter’s Basilica have welcomed the spellbound for centuries.

But what I most anticipated was the last few days of our trip when we would head down the autostrada to the Amalfi Coast. All of them had driven the California Coast, and I was anxious to see their reaction to the strip of Italy running from Sorrento to Ravello. After the second day, they agreed: for drama, the Amalfi outdistanced the California coastal drive by several hairpin turns and spectacular seascapes.

The Amalfi appears almost at the end of a tunnel, just past the putrid smog and dingy low-rise apartment buildings of industrial Naples. Suddenly, there is the sea sparkling on the right, just over the stone walls laced with spring flowers, and on the left, mountains rise majestically as the road we follow weaves a thin path hugging the cliff.

After a long cold winter in Canada, we’re ebullient with the breathtaking scenery, brilliant sunshine, wispy skies and 24 C temperatures and gleefully shed our jackets and sweaters. We stop for lunch at a trattoria perched on the side of the mountain and watch sailboats bob in the harbour as we tuck into delicate pastas dressed simply with olive oil, capers and fresh basil, and enjoy vino del cassa from a hand-painted ceramic pitcher.

The narrow cobblestone streets of Sorrento are lined with bustling markets selling lemons as big as grapefruit, clusters of ruby red tomatoes, freshly picked strawberries and plump olives, all fresh from the hillside farms. Deciding which pasta and wine to buy for tonight’s dinner at our villa is our only task.

Exploring the villa
We had reserved a villa before leaving Canada for our two nights here, and we wind our way further up the mountain on the south side of Sorrento to a point we believe only mountain goats can maneuver. There, perched above a spectacular vista of the sea in front and Sorrento far below, is Il Gioiello, our home for the next two days. The housekeeper speaks flawless Italian and I flawless English, both of us understanding only the major expressions in each other’s mother tongue. However, we manage to communicate the house rules and payment, and she leads us on a tour of the villa.

We follow the housekeeper from room to room – mouths hanging open, eyes round as giant marbles, poking each other with excitement as we take in the four bedrooms on the main floor, each with its own bath and terrazzo or, at the very least, an expanse of windows opening out over a sea that at night will reflect the rising moon and offer a view of the terraced town of Sorrento with its lights sparkling like thousands of firecrackers.

The living area is on the top floor with an even more fabulous view. The living room opens out onto two terrazzos, one facing southeast, one facing southwest for a perfect beginning and ending to each day. And from the large kitchen, another terrazzo extends for dining bordered with gardens of tender spinach and lettuce and groves of lemon trees.

The drive to Positano
No one can imagine a reason to leave this bit of paradise, but I insist we must drive the drive, so the next morning, we head for Positano with a plan that the round trip through Positano, Amalfi to Ravello and back will take a mere three hours. I promise we might be able to work in a hydrofoil trip to Capri in the early afternoon if our schedule holds true.

The drive to Positano is as I remember. We hug the mountainside, climbing thousands of metres into the clouds and coming to almost complete stops to negotiate the hairpin turns. Positano is perhaps the coast’s most dramatically beautiful town, defying all engineering logic as it hangs from the cliffs at a 90-degree angle. We decide the houses spilling over the mountain crags had to have been placed there by some mystic hand. There is one narrow road in to Positano and one road out. Halfway down, the roads become pedestrian walks, and we watch other tourists drag their luggage down cobbled staircases to hotels along the beach below.

The traffic becomes intense as we head on to the town of Amalfi with its whitewashed alleys along the same narrow road, past groves of lemon trees and smoky-green olive trees perched in terraced rows up the slopes. As we leave Amalfi, traffic has slowed to a stop-and-go pace. Then, the realization dawns: it’s Liberation Day, an important national holiday, and most of Italy, it seems, is driving the Amalfi Coast with us.

By the time we arrive in Ravello, there’s no parking outside the town walls. I’m disappointed because Ravello has a wonderful ambience, with a kind of solitude unique to a town set high in the mountains and inaccessible to automobile noise and fumes.

But my family has experienced the drive, so we’re all happy to return to our villa, even though the three-hour drive has turned out to be six. The sunshine and sparkling sea has warmed our hearts. There is a sense of pleasure in having experienced this corner of Italy where the people fish the sea, tend the terraces of lemon trees and, no doubt, appreciate life every single day in the small towns carved out of crisply etched mountain landscapes bordering the sparkling turquoise sea.

Besides, my son and his girlfriend, Kristen, are cooking dinner again tonight. There’s a sunset to watch, a moon to mesmerize us – and some good wine to go along with it all.