Amalfi Coast: Gem of the Mediterranean

Michael Brown negotiates the perilous roads of the Amalfi Coast and discovers a treasure trove of delights.

Positano is the jewel in Amalfi's crown. Photo / Thinkstock
Positano is the jewel in Amalfi's crown. Photo / Thinkstock

Despite what your spam might tell you, there are some situations where biggest is definitely not best.

Though the 1000cc Chevrolet with the boot capacity of a small wheelbarrow I was driving would have won the scorn of supercar-loving Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson, even he would have to acknowledge this tiny car was perfect for negotiating the twisty, vertiginous roads of Italy's Amalfi Coast.

These are roads with mirrors on almost every bend so you can see fat-bottomed buses coming around the corner; where shifting into fourth gear is worthy of applause.

Yes, these are tortuously winding roads, but while the drivers are keeping their eyes fixed to the bends, passengers are treated to eye-wateringly perfect views across the Mediterranean.

The Amalfi Coast, 50km south of the sprawling, chaotic city of Naples, runs for 60km from the town of Sorrento on the north side of the Sorrento Peninsula, taking in Positano, the town of Amalfi, and Ravello before finishing in Salerno.

It's an Italian jewel, with coastal towns perched on clifftops rearing sharply out of the Mediterranean.

Beyond the coastal route, the rugged mountain terrain means there are few roads, giving the region a certain tranquillity, even in peak season. It also means walking is the most common mode of transport in each town, and often the only way to negotiate the labyrinthine lanes and staircases.

In the 11th century, Amalfi was a renowned and powerful naval town, and home to 70,000 people. It was a major trading post and lays claim to having introduced such everyday necessities as paper, coffee and carpets to the rest of Italy.

Today, the town is a Unesco World Heritage site and home to a more manageable population of 10,000. The only armada is a fleet of tiny fishing vessels, which head into the Mediterranean each night, before returning laden with clams, prawns and mussels.

Most of Amalfi filters up into the narrow and steep Valle del Dragone (Valley of the Dragons) but the centre is dominated by the 10th century Arabian-Norman cathedral of Sant'Andrea and the ancient towers from which the town was once guarded.

There is little order apparent in the town's design as streets duck under arches, and staircases jut out oddly with little indication of where they might lead, making it fun to explore on foot.

Although Amalfi is the best-known of the coastal towns, Positano is arguably the most beautiful. It is divided in two by a sharp rock face which leads down to an idyllic sandy beach. The houses here are anchored into the mountain and take on a Moorish style, painted in bright colours.

Like Amalfi it has a stupendous outlook over the Med - which seems to appeal to the hundreds of cats who call Positano home; they prowl the rooftops and lap up leftover seafood.

The Amalfi Coast also takes in the far more glamorous, far less laid-back island of Capri, a 45-minute ferry ride from Sorrento. As many as 5000 people venture to the island every day in the high summer tourist season but, if you can time your trip to avoid the crowds, it's worth a visit.

The island was made famous when Roman Emperor Augustus made it his playground and when later Emperor Tiberius retired there in 27AD (and where, thanks to his legendary orgies, he is infamous as something of a porn king). Once you've taken in the pretty town of Capri, visit its higher altitude (and cheaper) neighbour Anacapri. Tucked 500m higher in the mountains, Anacapri was, until the 1950s, connected to Capri (traditionally the towns were bitter rivals) by only a stairway of 800 sweat-inducing steps. Now a bus winds around a stomach-churning road.

The island's craggy coastline is punctuated by more than a dozen sea caves, and the Grotta Azzurra is the most spectacular. Sitting 15-20m below sea level, it's accessed only by a small entrance, but what it hides inside is breath-taking.

The light that seeps into the cave radiates a magical blue colour and the white sand bottom gives anything below the surface of the water a silvery glow. Locals believe dragons and witches inhabit the caves but it doesn't stop them, or the tourists, from exploring.

Like the Chevrolet, the caves might not seem that inviting at first glance but it doesn't take long to appreciate what they, and the rest of the Amalfi region, have to offer.

IF YOU GO

Like most of Europe, the Amalfi Coast can be overrun in the peak summer season and bookings are essential everywhere. The climate is so inviting even in winter that off-season is a better time to visit, even if a handful of places and operators will be closed.

How to get there: Naples is Italy's third-largest city and is serviced by an international airport. Regular trains, buses and ferries venture to Sorrento but a rental car is the easiest way to get around.

What else to see: The ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii and the cone of Mt Vesuvius lie between Naples and the Amalfi Coast.

Michael Brown visited Europe courtesy of Flight Centre.

- Herald on Sunday

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