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Autumn on the Amalfi Coast: A Sort-Of Road Trip

(As a long-time reader on the forum, I’m happy to submit my first (long) trip report. These travel highlights cover late October/early November 2021 on the Amalfi coast. I’ll discuss the good and the bad of a self-driving tour and the weirdness associated with traveling during a pandemic. My DH and I decided the health risks were relatively low for a quick 3 hour flight (our first in 2 years) to Napoli from our home in Sweden.)

The weather forecast for the Amalfi Coast in late October/early November predicted cloudy days, rain and thunderstorms, but generally mild temperatures. In preparation for the trip, I had mapped out our itinerary by home base and activity based on the weather. We are pretty active travelers so I also made sure we made time to relax. Finally, we would do most of the driving ourselves because DH gets very carsick on windy roads unless he is driving (as well as seasick on wavy waves).

I was already jetlagged when we arrived in Napoli, the caveat of a pre-dawn direct flight. We caught a shuttle from the airport to the Hertz lot and loaded up our smart, automatic Toyota Yaris hybrid. Once out of the parking lot, it was sheer pandemonium. Fortunately, my DH has nerves of steel and is quite expert at driving in demanding and unpredictable situations. Still, driving out of the heart of Naples (why not build an airport in the middle of a huge metropolis?) was like crawling through several layers of Dante’s Hell, with cars instead of bodies. On top of that, the car’s navigation system spoke to us in Italian, of course (we finally fixed that), as the route it took us on kept adding more driving time. In exasperation, we turned to Google Maps to set us on the right path. After nearly an hour of circumnavigating the intense traffic, we were on the Autostrada.

The on-again off-again rain gave the trees and mini-farms along the Autostrada a dewy green veneer that contrasted with the dingy concrete apartment buildings and industrial sites that poked out amongst them. Scrums of cars weaved in and out of lanes at varying speeds, a few trying to get somewhere really fast. Others drove erratically, sometimes saddling two lanes at the same time, as though they couldn’t decide which one to be in. Tail-gating was endemic... and yet, we survived.

The shift from the Autostrada to the coastal highway was striking. The sun peeked out behind a blanket of clouds, and for the first time that morning, I felt a mixture of relief and excitement. We were in Italy… and the sea was beautiful.

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SORRENTO
Homebase: Grand Hotel Royal, Sorrento (we originally booked the Grand Hotel de la Ville and were upgraded. Molto molto bene!)
Sorrento as a homebase was the perfect place to unwind after a day of sightseeing. Unlike Amalfi, you could easily walk a few blocks and be in normal neighborhoods, away from the tourist hub. The farmacia, the ufficio postale, the supermercato, all provided a change of pace from the trinket sellers on Via San Cesario. The still-blooming bougainvillea, oleander and purple morning glories gracing walls and above walkways were lovely.
Highlights:
1. Pompeii - the Circumvesuviana train was very convenient. Pompeii was an amazing place for an archaeology geek like me. It was a nice, warm sunny day too. Food options in late October consisted of one on-site cafe that served hot sandwiches, snacks and drinks. Overall, Pompeii was busy but not too crowded and there were only a few instances where rooms felt tight. Several small European tour groups arrived as we were leaving. The advice to wear comfortable shoes cannot be understated as there were a lot of cobbles, mini-boulders and uneven surfaces. We scheduled a whole day to absorb the magnitude of the place and not have to rush around just focusing on highlights. We made sure to rest, refresh and hydrate as sites like these can cause a bit of mind fog after a while. The bathrooms were also difficult to find.
2. Herculaneum (Ercolano) - incredible site with well-preserved homes and interiors. The view down into the site from the top entrance is very compelling and gives you a birds-eye view and sobering perspective of the boat sheds. Unlike at Pompeii, you are surrounded by a thriving, living city, similar to the Roman forum. I preferred Ercolano to Pompeii in many ways, mostly because it was a fairly compact site and I never felt rushed or felt like we were chasing the highlights.

3. Capri - we took the ferry from Sorrento and the boat was full but not crowded. The water was fairly choppy, which should have been a clue for our first destination: the Blue Grotto. Once off of the ferry, we took a bus that stopped directly above the Grotto. Unfortunately, boats were off limits due to the bouncy waves. We took the bus back to the port and got another one to Anacapri for the ski lift to Monte Solaro. The ride was fun (if you have a fear of heights, maybe skip this) and I enjoyed the views of the Bay and residential backyards. We ate lunch at Sciue Sciue per RS, and savored the delicious Scialatielli (first of 4 times) while being reminded by the nice gentleman there to pronounce “Capri” with the emphasis on the Ca, not the pri.
4. Napoli - yes, dear reader, we drove back to Napoli. The Autostrada was fine but the city traffic… yikes. We drove in squares until we found our open parking garage (Google maps again!) and set off on Rick’s Naples Walk (the Via Pignasecca was heaving with tourists and locals), ate lunch and visited the Pompeii rooms at the Archaeological Museum. Phew. I must admit that even though I love large, humming cities, Naples was a hard place to love. But, to quote Signori Rick, “Like Cairo or Mumbai, it’s shocking and captivating at the same time…” I heartily agree, having experienced both cities. A lot of people live and thrive in Naples; it is home and home is a good thing.
Hikes and Climbing:
Roman Ruins of the Ruderi Villa Romana di Pollio Felice (Sorrento) - not much of a hike out but pleasant on a warm-ish sunny day. The fishermen below the ruins were amazing to watch as they cast their rods far, far into the sea. They were catching fish too. There were old-timers and younger guys all competing but also helping each other. There is a pleasant swimming hole near the main trail but we did not come prepared to swim. We took the bus back to central Sorrento (the guy at the corner market sold us train tickets instead of bus tickets! Head slap. Lesson: make sure you have the right tickets!)

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Sentiero delle Dei (Nocello to Bomerano and back) - we walked the high route to Bomerano and then came back on the lower route. Lovely, classic hike in areas reminiscent of the Dolomites. We came upon amazing views, amusing goats and their big, old herding dog, who liked us. The pushy goats really wanted our sandwiches. There were a lot of people on this hike but never too many for discomfort as we were really spread out. Walking sticks were great for my knobby knees. If you can only do one hike on the Amalfi Coast, do this one.

Monte Costanzo & Punta Campanella (Sorrento) - this airy hike starts in Termini, goes along easy paths next to olive orchards, winds along verdant hills and eventually leads to the promontory of Punta Campanella, where there is a 14th-century watchtower and lighthouse. It’s a fine spot to stop for lunch* and try to envision what the long-gone temple to Athena must have looked like in that setting. It felt a bit more ominous on a gray, windy day but the hike was fun!
*About lunch: at a little market around the corner from our parking spot-with- a-view in Termini, I bought grainy, brown breakfast rolls, bresaola, a way-too-big portion of cheese (Pecorino? Parmigiano?) a bottle of senape (mustard), and some plums, all done with a mix of pointing and crappy Italian on my part. The guy behind the deli counter was pleasant and patient despite the line forming behind me. This is what I love about traveling.

Paretone Rocks, above Positano. - a nice change of pace on a sunny day. If you’re a climber, check online for up-to-date info on Amalfi Coast climbs. We used a tri-lingual (and a bit outdated) book called Sportclimbing on the Costa d’Amalfi. The translations in English are a bit lacking. (Caution: police checkpoints are ubiquitous in Sorrento and Amalfi. We got pinged on the way home and had to show our car registration. Once we were free to go, I jokingly posited that it was karma for not tipping the guy who got our car for us at the hotel. From then on, we made sure to tip whomever got the car for us.)

Restaurants we liked: It has been my experience that in Italy, you can get a very good meal for a reasonable price virtually anywhere. Many restaurants on the Coast cap a meal with a refreshing shot of cold limoncello.
Franco Pizza (believe the hype on this one), Z’Intonio (funny waiter, fun vibe when we were there -- kind of felt bad for the couple trying to have a romantic dinner), Lion Russo and Ikura (Yes, sushi! Usually, I try to avoid restaurants touting more than one specialty -- “pizza, kebab, sushi!” -- but the chefs at this fusion restaurant rocked.).

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AMALFI
Homebase: Hotel Residence, Amalfi
(tip: a room with a view comes with street noise.)

Highlights:

  1. Drive along the Amalfi Coast - beautiful views and twisty, windy roads hugging the mountains on one side and guardrails and tumbling hills on the other. It is hard to imagine doing this drive in the height of the summer season. Good driving skills are necessary, especially the ability to back up on an incline. It also helps to have good vision, perfect timing, luck, and even ESP. The Sita Sud bus drivers are amazing! (tip: on the way back, you can touch some walls from the passenger window. Somewhere between Maiori and Amalfi, it is a good idea to fold in the passenger side mirror.)

  2. Villa Cimbrone gardens (Ravello) - lovely on a damp, somewhat rainy day, which gave it a bit of gothic-y, Lord Byron-y atmosphere. There were few visitors and we had most of the footpaths to ourselves, which we roamed and roamed. Lots of Umbrella Pines, garden rooms and many roses still fragrant in the gloom. The panoramic view from The Terrace of Infinity was definitely infinite.

  3. Paestum (Poseiden) - it was a long-ish drive but I thought it was worth it (I wasn’t driving). After the winding roads of the Amalfi coast, the Autostrada was a relief. The smaller coastal road leading down to Paestum revealed a string of ghost hotels and resorts. Many buildings were decrepit and shabby while a few partially-built shells of some contractor’s dreams had been left to rot, concrete and steel skeletons abandoned to the elements. Several of the resorts, built to face out into the sea, seemed to have been vacant for some time. Maybe they were just closed for the season.

At Paestum, a far older ghost town, I loved the simple grandeur of the site and the way you could envision how the temples were the centerpiece of the day-to-day lives of the city dwellers so long ago. A few sprinkles and then partly-cloudy skies afterwards gave them an ethereal glow. It was a bit creepy walking alone around the amphitheater, knowing that gladiators and slaves were often pitted against wild animals for entertainment. (Look how far we’ve evolved!) We visited the site museum last until tourist fatigue set in, then ate a late lunch at Bistro 72. It was a relaxing finale to a beautiful day.

Hikes & Climbing

Upper Valle delle Ferriere - a beautiful hike on a cool day. We were the only people on this hike. We ended up across the valley from our starting point and had a late lunch at Gerry’s Pub, with breathtaking views of the valley and Amalfi. Gerry was very nice!

Valle dei Mulini, Ferriere, and Pontone - a link of hikes that traverse along the old paper and iron mills above Amalfi. Waterfalls and the Antica Ferriere ruins were especially magical in the dappled sunlight. Across the valley, the numerous steps down to Amalfi were knee-numbing and definitely not a highlight! Walking sticks and a partner to complain to, highly recommended!

Capo d’Orso (past Maiori) - in climbing, we sometimes call unexpected hardships, an “epic”. The approach to this climb nearly became an epic because the beta (information) from our climbing guidebook was not so va bene. Fortunately, after a lot of huffing and puffing (on my part) we made it to the base of this limestone cliff and found our climbs. We were shortly joined by a couple of Italian climbers who verified that we were, indeed, in the right place. Molto bene.

Restaurants we liked:

Taverna Apostoli (Amalfi) - The food was delicious and the owners were very nice - we ate there twice; Chiostro (Amalfi); La Perla (Amalfi); Ristorante Vittoria (Ravello); Shabu (Amalfi) Yes! Soba, ramen and sushi (again!) for the locals and open year-round; Taverna Buonvicino (Amalfi) - classy, understated ambience, where the food was delicioso!

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Parking:

Parking in Sorrento: We saw 2 Parcheggios, underground parking garages, that charge an average of 20-25 euros per day, near our hotel in Sorrento. For our trip, I chose hotels that had parking options as we did not use the car all the time. The Grand Royal had its own parking garage.

Parking in Amalfi: We parked at the Luna Rossa Parcheggio up the hill from the Amalfi town harbor on the road to Atrani. It was very convenient to drop off the car and walk through the pedestrian tunnel down to the Amalfi town center. The tunnel also goes to Atrani (About 20 euros/day).

Parking in low-season at Herculaneum, Paestum, Vesuvius, Maiori, Minori and Villa Cimbrone was easy and convenient. Parking in Napoli on a Sunday was difficult and nerve-wracking. The parking garage we used charged by the hour and the size of the car.

Travel during COVID:
There was nearly universal compliance with masking indoors wherever we traveled in Italy. On trains and buses, in restaurants and museums, and when crowds got heavy outdoors, many people wore masks. Everyone we came into contact with was graceful, considerate and working hard to make the best of the current situation. I felt much safer there than in Sweden, where there is virtually no masking at all.

All the archaeological sites and museums we visited required vaccination documents. Many of the restaurants, cafes and shops we patronized also requested to see them. We carried paper copies of our Swedish Covid Vaccination QR codes along with the e-versions on our phones.
My First Aid Kit included a thermometer, a Pulse Oximeter, blue surgical masks and comfortable KF94 (Korean equivalent) face masks. I also packed various cold/flu/allergy meds, as well as hand gel, alcohol wipes for the plane and several PCR test kits.

Packing:

We had to check two bags because we had hiking poles and climbing equipment. Having to check bags also contributes to over-packing, in my opinion. I had grand illusions of stepping out into the Amalfi twilight in my little black cocktail dress, sipping an Aperol spritz, while warm breezes caressed my bare arms and legs. It was just not warm enough! In fact, the dressy clothing that I had packed never got worn. The Italians, many of whom were tourists, dressed casually (but still looked sharp) and this time we did not go anywhere that required a fancy dress.

Conclusion: The Good, the Bad and the Weird

The good thing about our first Covid-era trip was that the sliver of Southern Italy that we visited felt very safe and protected. Our hotels, the places we visited, the restaurants we ate in, and the local communities, all maximized safety and had systems in place to protect residents, workers and guests. In many situations, being flexible and having a sense of humor helped enormously.

Both of our hotel stays included breakfast and both solved the social distancing requirements in their own ways. The Grand Hotel had several stations where a staff member would fill your plate with your choices or whip up an omelette. The breakfast room was a huge and airy atrium. The Residence Amalfi had guests in the dining area check selections off a printed list of offerings and your order was brought to you at your table. (Both worked really well and, I believe, also helped a lot of food from going to waste. I love a good buffet but… if you’ve ever been to Vegas, you know what I mean.)
When we were hiking or climbing, we were often the only people on the trail for extended periods. The only thing I would change would be to go in late September/early October because we would have drier, warmer days and nights (and I could wear my little black dress). The people were gracious, the food, hearty and delicious, and there was beauty around every corner.

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The (always) bad part of the trip is not particular to Italy: the use of highly fragranced bath products, laundry soaps and cleaning agents by hotels and other lodgings, which give me headaches, itchy skin and a sore throat. I’ve partially solved this problem by bringing my own bath products, sleep sheets, and pillowcases, but the fragrant aftermath of room service is a constant struggle. (When I get home, I have to air out and launder everything because the lingering smells are so pervasive.)

The weird part of this trip was the psychological aspect: was it safe enough to travel again? I think for this trip, the answer was yes. Mask use, distancing, and Covid safety protocols on the part of the airlines and tourism industry all did their part in ensuring a safe trip. As I write though, the numbers are going up in many parts of Europe (and now we have the Omicron variant.) It will be interesting to see what the new normal in Covid-era travel will be like in the weeks, months and years to come. Ciao and thanks for reading!

Resources and Inspiration:

Rick Steves Naples & the Amalfi Coast, 6th Edition, Avalon Books, February 2020.

Walking On the Amalfi Coast, Gillian Price, 2nd Edition, Cicerone, 2017.

Naples and the Amalfi Coast, Bryan Pirolli, et. al, Dorling Kindersley (Penguin Random House), 2020.

The Trip to Italy, film starring Steve Coogan and Rob Dryden and directed by Michael Winterbottom. BBC, IFC Films, 2014.

50 Italian Standards: Le Piu Belle Canzione Italiane in Versione Chill Out, various artists, Pyramide, 2018. (Heard songs from this collection at a restaurant in Napoli.)

The Osterholm Update: Covid 19, podcast with Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director, The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota.

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Thank you, Moomin, for an excellent trip report! I liked your details and could almost feel like I was in your chaotic drive through Naples with you! 😊

Amalfi is in the plans for a trip with my daughter next year that was postponed from 2020, so I’m glad to read your impressions and restaurant recommendations, also.

I struggle with fragrance headaches, also - especially chemically created perfumes, men’s cologne & laundry fake scents. Windows that open in a hotel are my friend!

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Yes, I felt like I was traveling with you. So much fun. We did both the Path of the Gods and the hikes above Amalfi when we visited a few years ago. The steps down to Amalfi in the latter were brutal!! We made the mistake of going to Positano afterwards!

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Sounds like a great trip! I really enjoyed the report! Some day I will get to this area…..

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Dear Jean, BethFL and Travelmom,

Thank you for your kind words, they are much appreciated! The Amalfi Coast is such a special place.

Travelmom, you will get there!

Jean, yes, windows and balconies are also my friends!

BethFL, Oof! Yes, those steps are really something. We almost went to Positano but my knees didn't want to go. 😉

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Great report, thank you. It's timely because we plan to do the RS Sicily tour next year and then a week or so in Sorrento. Great idea to list your resources, I'll be heading to the library.

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Thank you Allan! Sicily's on my future travel list as well.

Btw., The Trip to Italy (and the other 3 in the series, are playing on HBO Max right now.)

Happy planning!