Living on the Amalfi Coast means learning to live with the Amalfi Coast Road. This twisty road—the only one along the stretch of the coastline—offers an intoxicating blend of captivating views, tight spaces and treacherous turns. For many travelers it is a lasting memory, sometimes amazing, sometimes frightening, but always memorable. As it’s the only road, it means that getting around on the Amalfi is an adventure – for locals and visitors alike. It also means that if you plan to get around on public transport that you are in for quite the ride on the local buses.
When I’m on the bus and hear gasps from first time visitors while the bus careens around yet another curve, I often think of John Steinbeck, who wrote an essay about Positano for Harper’s Bazaar in 1953 that put the Amalfi Coast on the map for many Americans. Before writing about Positano, however, he had to get there. Then just as now it was along the Amalfi Coast Road. Steinbeck arrived with his driver, “Signor Bassani Bassano, Experienced Guide – all Italy – and Throt Europe,” who gave him a good and proper introduction to driving in Italy.
“To an American, Italian traffic is at first just down-right nonsense. It seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next and he usually does it. But there are other hazards besides the driving technique. There are the motor scooters, thousands of them, which buzz at you like mosquitoes. There is a tiny little automobile called ‘topolino’ or ‘mouse’ which hides in front of larger cars; there are gigantic trucks and tanks in which most of Italy’s goods are moved; and finally there are assorted livestock, hay wagons, bicycles, lone horses and mules out for a stroll, and to top it all there are the pedestrians who walk blissfully on the highways never looking about. To give this madness more color, everyone blows the horn all the time. This deafening, screaming, milling, tire-screeching mess is ordinary Italian highway traffic.”
In a place as transportation challenged as the Amalfi Coast, we don’t just have “ordinary Italian highway traffic” here. We have the cacophony Steinbeck experienced all condensed into a road, as he described it, “carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side.” Add in a zillion buses and the curves and you’ve got yourself the wildest ride in Italy. Steinbeck’s description of his first drive down the Amalfi Coast road is still one of the best I’ve ever read. While I suspect it might be a little more challenging to hit a chicken now than it was in 1953, you probably wouldn’t have to try too hard to make it possible.
“We squirmed and twisted through Naples, past Pompeii, whirled and flashed into the mountains behind Sorrento. We hummed ‘Come back to Sorrento’ dismally. We did not believe we could get back to Sorrento. 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 … And on this road, the buses, the trucks, the motor scooters and the assorted livestock. We didn’t see much of the road. In the back seat my wife and I lay clutched in each other’s arms, weeping hysterically, while in the front seat Signor Bassano gestured with both hands and happily instructed us: “Ina da terd sieglo da Hamperor Hamgousternos coming tru wit Leeegeceons“. (Our car hit and killed a chicken.) “Izz molto lot old heestory here. I know. I tall“. Thus he whirled us “Throt Italy“. And below us, and it seemed sometimes under us, a thousand feet below lay the blue Tyrrhenian licking its lips for us.”
The bit about Sorrento always makes me laugh, which surely wasn’t Steinbeck’s sentiment at the time as he sat weeping hysterically in fear in the back of Signor Bassani Bassano’s taxi. And the poor chicken.
Daily life and getting around are intertwined with the Amalfi Coast Road here, and it’s no surprise that there are stories—and a lot of them—that I’ve heard over the years. If you think that riding the bus on the Amalfi Coast makes you feel queasy now, you should hear the stories of back in the 60s when the buses were filled with cigarette smoke. When she was young, my husband’s sister would get sick to her stomach the day before thinking about the bus ride to Salerno! Or another friend who still can’t stomach alici (anchovies) after a childhood spent taking the bus through Cetara when the heady scent of alici wafting through the bus windows would combine with good old fashioned motion sickness. Bleck. Or the man in Amalfi who ages ago used to drive the bus to Naples and ran his own courier service delivering packages—and even chickens—back and forth. Again the poor chickens.
While you might think it’s madness, it actually works. That’s the amazing thing. Well, besides the fact that the Amalfi Coast Road even exists. A road along the coastline didn’t exist until the 1830s when construction began. It took nearly 20 years to build, bulldoze and tunnel the road along the coastline, now officially called SS 163. Before 1850 the only way to get around the Amalfi Coast was by walking along the maze of stone pathways that connect the villages or to take a boat. Public transport? Um … your own two feet. Although you could hire a donkey to get to where you needed to go, which is what Wagner did when he visited Ravello in 1880. It’s not unusual during the summer months to still see donkeys giving a hand to visitors, but these days they’re hauling suitcases and not German composers.
Getting around on the Amalfi Coast has always been an adventure. Even after the first road was built, there were still many villages that didn’t get road access even until the 20th century. In a day and age when we rather expect multiple options for public transport while traveling and precision with schedules, the Amalfi Coast is a reminder that not all places can be tamed. This is a place with an incredible natural landscape that we must adapt to in order to experience it to the fullest.
So when you’re squeezed into a bus zigzagging along the coast or hauling your luggage up a long staircase, remember that it’s just daily life on the Amalfi Coast. And if you’ve got a bit of a sense of humor, like Steinbeck, it’s also part of the fun. You’re taking part in a long tradition of traveling on the Amalfi Coast. Just pack your patience, some good motion sickness medicine and get ready for an adventure!
PS: Check out my book Moon Amalfi Coast for detailed information and more tips on getting to and traveling around the Amalfi Coast!
Italy Blogging Roundtable
I’m pleased to be joining a wonderful group of Italy writers in a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Every month we write about a theme, and you can read about this month’s topic – Public Transport – at the links below. We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Please share the stores if you’ve enjoyed them!