Driving on the Amalfi Coast

The Wildest Ride in Italy

Driving on the Amalfi Coast

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.”

Buses on the Amalfi Coast

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.

Driving on the Amalfi Coast

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.

Traffic on the Amalfi Coast

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.

City Sightseeing Bus Amalfi Coast

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.

Getting Around by Bus Amalfi Coast

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: Planning on getting around the Amalfi Coast by bus? The local SITA bus company has just been released the summer schedule this week, and timetables and routes can be found at their website www.sitasudtrasporti.it. For a more comfortable ride with audio commentary available in multiple languages, consider the City Sightseeing buses.

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italy-blogging-roundtable

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!

Italy Explained6 Reasons You Should Travel by Train in Italy

ArtTravHow Not to Let Public Transportation Ruin Your Holiday in Florence

BrigolantePublic Transportation: Getting to Assisi from Rome and Florence

Easter Weekend Errands

Amalfi Coast Travel Rainy View

Not a bad view!

This morning we set out early to do some shopping for Easter lunch before the shops got too crowded. As Easter is really the kick off to the tourist season on the Amalfi Coast, we also hopped to beat some of the traffic. We got through the shopping at the fruit and vegetable shop (line not too bad), the butcher (line much longer) and even scored a small pastiera without too much of a wait at all. We whizzed past the traffic that was totally blocked coming into Amalfi (cringing because we knew we’d have to come back that way since there is only one road …) and decided to stop by the mechanic in Conca dei Marini to have him look at the tires on the car. Big heavy clouds loomed over the mountain, but the view toward Praiano with the Li Galli islands off the coast was still a lovely sight while we waited.

Amalfi Coast Travel Rainstorm

It’s going to rain!

After awhile the sky darkened and I watched as a rainstorm swept quickly across the sea toward the coastline. Just before the rain arrived there were several young tourists that passed by with a map looking rather confused and in search of a hiking path in the mountains high above. I poked my husband outside to help them, but there was really no convincing them otherwise, so he eventually just pointed them in the right direction. One wouldn’t really call this a good day for hiking, yet there were a lot of people out doing just that. At least the hiking group below were mostly fitted out for the rain, although their boots were sounding a bit squishy as they trudged past. They looked happy though!

Amalfi Coast Travel Easter Weather

It’s a long way to Tipperary, er, Positano in the rain!

On the way back to Amalfi we did get stuck in that traffic, and it was getting later and later by the moment and our stomachs were rumbling. I rustled through the shopping in the back seat of the car and pulled out the small casatiello, a rich bread made for Easter in the Naples area, and tore off a chunk for each of us while we waited. I suggested some sopressata and my husband dug out a knife he keeps in the car for emergencies. You know, emergencies like pre-Easter picnics in the car while stuck in traffic in Amalfi. One must always be prepared. It was hilarious and delicious at the same time. So, the shopping for Easter is done and there’s still a little sopressata left for tomorrow. Buona Pasqua a tutti!

A View to Vesuvius

Amalfi Coast Travel Vesuvius Naples

A view of Mt. Vesuvius from Chiunzi Pass

From the Amalfi Coast there are a few ways to reach Naples, but from Amalfi the quickest and easiest is via the Valico di Chiunzi, a pass across the Lattari mountains connecting the Amalfi Coast to Naples and the surrounding area. From Ravello, the road climbs higher and deeper into the mountains until you glimpse down and across the valley where Tramonti sits divided into a handful of different frazioni, or hamlets, decorating the mountainside. Once you reach the top of the pass and find a round about, giving one final glimpse down toward Tramonti and the Amalfi Coast, a few curves more and you catch the first glimpse of Mt. Vesuvius.

Amalfi Coast Travel Chiunzi Pass

Walk this way …

This massive volcano strikes me as small when seen from the top of Chiunzi Pass. Such a different impression than what you get driving along the autostrada from Salerno to Naples and you come around a curve and see Vesuvius looming in the distance. Here it seems so very peaceful and bucolic. Oh, how looks can be deceiving!

Seeing the Bear at Capo d’Orso

Amalfi Coast Travel Capo dOrso Bear Head

Ever wonder how Capo d'Orso between Maiori and Erchie got its name? Let's ask this fellow.

Just between Maiori and the little village of Erchie the Amalfi coastline juts out into the sea and comes to a cape called Capo d’Orso. The means Cape of the Bear. I’ve been told that there haven’t ever really been bears around this part of Italy. Instead, the name seems to have come from a unique rock formation that looks like the head of a bear looking down the coastline in the direction of Amalfi. While I’ve seen it many a time coming around one of the curves in the Amalfi Coast Road, I’ve never managed to get a photo of it. Recently, on the way back from a shopping trip to Salerno, I asked my husband to stop so I could take some photos. One of the advantages of the winter … less traffic! I finally got a closer look at this so called bear at Capo d’Orso.

Amalfi Coast Travel Meet the Bear

Finally capturing a photo of the bear of Capo d'Orso

Usually it’s the view from Capo d’Orso that would be described as breathtaking. As I walked around the curve to take a few photos I was very nearly knocked over by the wind. It quite literally took my breath away! After I braced myself and took the photo below, I got into the car gasping a bit. I didn’t feel back to normal until we reached Minori!

Amalfi Coast Travel Ciao Amalfi View from Capo Orso

A breathtakingly windy view from Capo d'Orso toward Amalfi

While the cold wind was a bit intense to stop for long to see the view, it did bring with it a beautiful and strange blue that the sea turns when the north wind blows. I was happy to enjoy the colors from inside the car the rest of the way home! I’ve been asking around trying to find out about how long this cape has been called Capo d’Orso. I suspect it might be as recent as when the Amalfi Coast Road was built before 1850 since the bear isn’t clearly visible from the sea. I’ll report back if I find out more!

A Sunday Drive to Salerno

Ciao Amalfi Coast Travel Drive

Zooming along the Amalfi Coast curves looking toward Amalfi

The first sunny weekend on the Amalfi Coast and everyone … and I mean everyone … hits the road for a drive. When there’s only one road, that can be problematic. But with the Amalfi Coast road, it’s always best to pack a little extra patience … and your camera! Fortunately, there are the views and the sheer magnitude of this road carved out of the mountainside to keep one company. The colors in the springtime are a nice touch, too!

Ciao Amalfi Coast Travel Broom Bushes

Bright colors of spring along the Amalfi Coast Road

A couple of weeks ago we had a Sunday lunch invitation with family in Salerno, so we hit the road along with everyone else. The scooters and motorcycles were out in droves. After the rainy spring, I can’t blame them for wanting to enjoy a ride on a sunny Sunday. What a view!

Ciao Amalfi Coast Travel Drive Salerno

Around the curve toward Salerno!

Spring was in full bloom and the scent of wisteria and lemon blossoms filled the car with all the windows open. What a heavenly scent … I wished I could just roll up the windows and keep it inside. Looking at the photos brings back the memories of that warm, spicy scent and the sunshine on my arms.

Ciao Amalfi Coast Travel Wisteria Drive

The scent of wisteria wafting through the car

After passing Capo d’Orso, the Cape of the Bear named after a bear-shaped rock, the road climbs higher and twists and turns as it winds in and out of ravines in the mountains. Before long there’s a quick glimpse of the harbor at Cetara, which is an absolutely charming little fishing village.

Ciao Amalfi Coast Travel Cetara Salerno

Catching a glimpse of the port of Cetara

The road curves through Cetara just above the level of the rooftops of many of the houses and about eye level with the colorful majolica tiled dome of the church. If you’re driving along the Amalfi Coast road and have time, do stop off in Cetara and explore the village, enjoy lunch and the pretty beach.

Ciao Amalfi Coast Travel Cetara

The colorful majolica tile dome and rooftops of Cetara

One of the most captivating parts of the drive is just barely catching a glimpse of an incredible panorama and then a moment later it’s lost between the trees or around another curve. It’s one massive temptation … curve after curve!

Ciao Amalfi Coast Travel Vietri sul Mare Salerno

Beautiful Vietri sul Mare and Marina di Vietri beach

It took me quite a few attempts to get a clear shot of Vietri sul Mare, above, with its beach area called Marina di Vietri. The beach wasn’t packed like it is in the summers, but it was definitely a popular spot on this sunny Sunday. Around a few more curves and I tried to catch a clear shot of of Vietri sul Mare with the dome and bell tower of the Church of San Giovanni Battista. There it is … can you see it?

Ciao Amalfi Coast Travel Vietri sul Mare

The Church of San Giovanni Battista in Vietri sul Mare

The Amalfi Coast road never fails to impress me, with it’s intense beauty, crazy curves and views that make you want to drive it again and again. If you’re lucky enough to be the passenger … bring your camera!