Turns out, everything you might have heard about driving in Naples is true. Richard Jenkins drinks in the beauty of the Amalfi coast, while facing the terror of its roads head on
Whatever you’ve heard about driving the Amalfi coast, remember it. The cobbled, potholed streets. The endless buzzing Vespas. The utter disregard for the sanctity of human life. Within 30 minutes of taking control of a shiny new rental Citroën, we’ve already lost a tyre, a wing mirror and several centimetres’ worth of paint from various areas of the car’s body. My hands are locked in a rictus grip around the steering wheel, my legs twitch and my eyes are bulging. If you were to take me out of the car and lie me on my back, I’d resemble a squirrel that had frozen to death while climbing a tree, except much sweatier. Despite this, the city centre – despite reports that it is, to put it kindly, a place that ‘could use some work – was a pleasure: throbbing with vitality, colour and personality. Louche pedestrians smoked on street corners, road workers gesticulated wildly to one another and street vendors peddled ice cream and fruits. But if you have to drive through it, drive the smallest vehicle you can. Hire a Mini. Hire a Smart car. Hire a unicycle.
Eventually the narrow roads of the city gave way to the toll-heavy freeways, which in turn led to the mountainous roads further inland, and it’s here, at St. Agata Sui du Golfi, that the trip can truly begin.
We find ourselves at the top end of southern Italy to attend a wedding in the port town of Sorrento, but there’s plenty of exploring to be done while we’re in the area. We are staying at the hotel Don Alfonso 1890, and after the charming manager Fortunato has taken what’s left of our car to be parked, we’re free to poke around. Recently renovated in a romantic and elegant fashion, the boutique hotel has several strings to its considerable bow. First, the quaint Poet’s House where we make our home. Italian poet Salvatore Di Giacomo summered in this suite in the late 1800s, detached entirely from the rest of the hotel and with its own gardens and views of the distant mountains. Second is the hotel’s exquisite two Michelin-starred restaurant, ingredients for which are grown exclusively at the Iaccarino family farm, some 10 minutes away from the hotel. Third, and most excitingly, is the hotel’s immaculate grape cellar. It holds some 25,000 bottles of varying vintage, the oldest of which dates back to the hotel’s opening in 1890 and is now, according to the sommelier, “only good for salads.” The oldest drinkable grapes date back to 1918 and 1945 – the years that WWI and WWII ended. The cellar itself twists deep down into the mountains, culminating in a well that dates back to the 6th century BC. The walls are cool to the touch and the weight of 2,600 years of history lends an impressive power to the experience. Today, the deepest part of the cellar is used to age cheese, where the pressure and atmosphere can sink in to create a lasting flavour.
We emerge blinking back into the sunlight, ready to tackle the day’s first treat – more driving, down through the mountains to Sorrento’s port, and then to catch the ferry to Capri. A 45-minute trip (pro-tip, sit on the left side of the ferry to get the best views of the Amalfi coast), deposits you at the Marina Grande. Bustling with tourists from April to September and saturated in July and August, the island of Capri is best visited in late spring or early autumn when the weather is beautiful, but the public transport isn’t crammed to capacity.
The first step in reaching the island’s peak is by cable car, which wobbles slowly up the mountain’s first ledge and into Capri town, over beautifully quaint houses and gardens spilling with bougainvillea, through tunnels of jasmine flowers and picture-perfect lemon trees. After departing the funicular, winding alleys reminiscent of Venice converge on the Piazzo Umberto I, generally known as the Piazzetta. Chi-chi coffee bars and designer boutiques line the passageways, and shoppers with any sense keep their euros in their pockets – there are plenty of reasons that celebrities flock to Capri, and flashing the cash is one of them.
The first step in reaching the island’s peak is by cable car, which wobbles slowly up the mountain’s first ledge and into Capri town
A 10-minute bus ride (or 40-minute walk) along precipitous mountain lanes provides stunning views over the glittering Marina Grande, and access to the higher, quieter town on the island – Anacapri. This is where the island’s residents and workers normally live, and has a less crowded and more laid-back vibe. Handy signposts direct you on a comfortable walk around some of the city’s more interesting archaeological attractions, including the Chiesa Di St. Sofia, the whitewashed church overlooking the town square that dates back to 1510; and the Casa Rossa, built in the late 1800s by the American J.C. MacKowen, which houses a permanent exhibition of paintings portraying different views of the island.
Capri’s history is as rich as anywhere in the world. Made famous as the vacation getaway of Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius, the high sides of the island are made up of steep precipices that contain countless caves and grottos. The most famous of these is the Grotta Azzurra, a long and low sea cavern whose waters glow with a brilliant blueness, due to light refraction at the tunnel’s entrance. It’s a walkable distance of around 50 minutes from Anacapri, and it’s even possible to swim inside if you’re brave – but most visitors will be content to have an oarsman show them inside and give them the tour.
Love in the air
The next day was the big one. For me personally, as I had to give a speech, and in a lesser way my friend as he was merely getting married. Weddings in Sorrento are common, as you would expect in any place of such natural beauty. It’s customary, after the ceremony, for the bride and groom to walk through the city centre while bystanders at the outdoor restaurants that line the backstreets applaud the new union – a sweet tradition that adds to Sorrento’s reputation as a thoroughly pleasant place. If Naples is a flick-knife wielding mugger, Sorrento is the friendly police chief that gives you a hot chocolate at the station and a lift home.
Sorrento itself is the ideal coastal Italian resort. Big enough to have an atmosphere, small enough to explore in a day and a perfect hub from which to visit the rest of the Amalfi coast, it also boasts various luxury hotels, many of which have their own elevators cut into the cliffs to take you down to the beaches and jetties at the water’s edge. One thing Sorrento has in common with its Neopolitan cousin is a fondness for experimental driving. In fact, the traffic is so heavy during summer that local cars are only allowed to drive on alternate days: even-numbered license plates on one day, odd-numbered on the next.
Sorrento is the friendly police chief that gives you a hot chocolate at the station and a lift home
The next day, expecting to be worn out from the exertions of the wedding, we’d planned a relaxing getaway. What could be more peaceful than a drive along the coast towards Amalfi, for a soothing massage? Well, quite a lot, actually. Our treatments are booked at Monastero Santa Rosa, around an hour’s drive away from Sorrento. Perched high – and I mean high – in the mountains between Positano and Amalfi, just reaching the place is a bone-chillingly fraught experience. The coastal drive along the main thoroughfare is a delight, passing through small towns and villages that look like they were flung into the side of the cliff by a giant standing in the sea. However, once you leave the main road and start making your way further inland (and, therefore, further up the mountain) things get trickier. Roads rear up at altogether improbable angles, and you crest hills like a tiny ship climbing waves on a stormy sea. For my partner, this was all part of the fun, of course. She took great pleasure in admiring the stunning view as I crashed the rental into first gear and floored the pedal, hoping that there was nothing coming down the hill around the next blind corner. By the time we arrived at Santa Rosa, my legs had locked and once again my fingers had to be prised off the steering wheel.
Luckily the state-of-the-art spa did wonders for restoring my sanity. Built into the labyrinthine 17th-century monastery, the atmosphere is designed to induce relaxation. After 90 minutes of gentle pummelling in the semi-darkened massage room, my partner and I were led outside, clad in soft robes, to a breathtaking view. The hotel’s infinity pool juts out over 500 feet of cliff, and beyond that is… nothing. The turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea glistens and twinkles as far as the eye can see, and the result is staggering. It’s more than enough to make the frankly outrageous driving conditions worthwhile.
And then, of course, on the drive back we encountered a typically Italian experience. An enormous flatbed truck was delivering a forklift to a building site, blocking the road entirely. The entire queue of cars had no choice but to sit and wait until the men had finished their work, then thundered past on the road up the mountain, to cause havoc elsewhere. The Brit in me was desperate to push on to our destination, but the Italians in the queue had the right idea – enjoy the enforced period of calm. What’s the rush? For the first time on the trip, I found myself behind the wheel – and totally relaxed