Planning a visit to the town of Amalfi, on the appropriately-named Amalfi Coast in Italy? Or would you like to just learn some more about it, and enjoy some travel writing? Then settle back, grab a favourite beverage (and perhaps a chocolate cookie if you’re feeling particularly devilish), and read on!
The Beginning Of The End
This was it. My last full day in Italy. I pulled open the curtains and opened the window, listening to the ever-present rooster crowing, and breathing in a full lungful of pine-scented air. The last full day of a trip is often filled with negative emotions – regret for things you no longer have time for, melancholy that tomorrow means a return home to normality, anxiety that bags need to be packed and organisation performed.
But I was determined to make the most of this last day. Although I wanted to get back to the hotel a little earlier than I had been on the previous days (for the purposes of tearfully packing bags, plus I hadn’t yet sampled the hotel pool. As a child, when we would choose the family holiday by going through the holiday brochures together, I would pick my favourite destinations based purely on how awesome the pool looked, so you can see how distressing it was that I hadn’t yet dipped a toe in there), there was still plenty that I wanted to do. And at the top of that list was the small, yet well-known, town of Amalfi.
Strolling out of the hotel with a belly bulging from bacon indulgence, I caught the early bus to Amalfi from Sorrento’s train station. I’m not sure whether the buses from Sorrento are extremely frequent, or whether I’d just been really lucky that week, but whenever I arrived there my bus would appear a few moments later. Perhaps there were hordes of keen-eyed Italian bus drivers waiting around the corner, able to spot a tourist off to visit the Amalfi Coast from a mile away. Perhaps bus drivers are guardian angels, disguised by a crisp white shirt and a look of indifference etched upon their faces. In either case I didn’t care: being first to the bus means that you’re first to choose your seat. And if you’re going to the Amalfi Coast, you want to sit on the right-hand side of the bus, for that means that you’ll be getting one of the finest views in Europe for zero extra cost.
A View To A Thrill
Let’s do some maths, beloved reader! (no, it’s fun maths, I promise!)
A return ticket from Sorrento to Amalfi will cost you the tiny sum of €6, and it lasts all day so you can hop on and hop off again. Like the look of Positano, halfway to Amalfi? You can stop there for a gelato and some lemon goodies, and then continue on your way. Want to explore the Grotto Smeraldo (Emerald Grotto) just outside Amalfi? Same deal.
Now, open up another page, and google for Amalfi Coast tours. See those prices? Yup, you can pay anything between €50 – €350. I don’t doubt that if you want a really in-depth tour with a knowledgeable guide, it’s probably an absolutely fair price – indeed, I’d love to try them myself. But if you’re on a budget, please don’t think that doing an expensive tour is the only way that you can see the beauty of the Amalfi Coast. If you just want to experience it, see the views, and you’re not too worried about going into the details, catch the bus and get an all-day ticket. You’re going to get the exact same views as you will on a coach tour. And trust me, those views are completely worth it.
Fountains Of Pain
The bus drops you off in Amalfi at the bus station, which you could be forgiven for mistaking for a mere car park at the harbourside. But at least it’s a scenic car park, with a glittering blue sea behind you, and in front the town of Amalfi, nestling beneath towering mountains. I wondered what the view would be like from the top, and immediately felt out of breath just thinking about it. Yeah, maybe not.
Yup, walking through the town seemed a much more civilised idea. It was a beautiful, warm and sunny day, and after crossing the road from the bus station and walking down a street with shops selling the most gorgeous ceramics, I entered the Piazza Duomo. The piazza is rather predictably dominated by the towering cathedral of Sant’Andrea, as well as tourists trying to take an uninterrupted photo of the towering cathedral of Sant’Andrea, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the fountain which is just to one side of the piazza. Handsome structure, isn’t it?
And would you like to guess which part of the fountain gets the most attention from the people milling around it?
Doesn’t look comfortable to me, I’ve got to say. No wonder she looks a bit startled.
A History Of Amalfi
One thing that surprises a lot of visitors to Amalfi is that the town is, to put it mildly, a bit on the petite side. The surprise comes from the fact that if you’re aware of your medieval or Italian history, the name Amalfi pops up quite a lot, and was one of the bigger players in the whole country. So how did somewhere so small become so significant?
The answer is pretty simple: the town used to be a lot larger. A vassal of the Byzantine Empire until 839, it gained independence and became a self-sustained duchy, taking advantage of a favourable location perched between the north coast of Africa, Sardinia, Sicily, and the interior of Italy to set up something of a Mediterranean trade empire. The population reached 80,000, and the town itself became quite fabulously rich, rivalled only by Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. The cathedral was built in the 11th century, the rich Byzantine style of the building reflecting the prosperity of the population.
And then it all started going a bit wrong. The Pisans, perhaps frustrated by their inability to build towers, became increasingly miffed that Amalfi was doing rather well for itself. A series of raids followed, until it was finally taken by the Pisans in 1137. The town and its operations was slowly run down, lest it become a competitor to Pisa again, until it suffered the final blow – an earthquake in 1343 caused a tsunami which wiped out the entire port and lower half of the city, and carried it wriggling into the sea. Amalfi was finished as a trading power, and settled into its new status as a small town, where it has resided ever since. But for such a small, idyllic place, it has one undoubtedly proud history – see how many times you can spot the blue and white Amalfi Cross as you walk through the town (spoiler: it’ll be quite a lot).
And one of its proudest monuments is the Cathedral of Sant’Andrea.
I urge you to visit the Duomo di Sant’Andrea – it’s a stunning building, a triumph of medieval architecture, and it’ll only cost you €3. Who can complain with that?
I shuffled in with the other visitors, and out first stop was the Choistro del Paradiso (Cloister of Paradise), and it’s an apt name. The cloisters look like something from a Middle Eastern palace, complete with palm trees, and historical treasures are liberally scattered around it. My history-loving eyes just about fell out of my head; Roman sarcophagi were casually placed around the walls as if the bishops had run out of somewhere to put them and decided to pop them outside like a piece of patio furniture. Artwork adorned the walls. If this was just the cloister, what on earth was going to be waiting for me inside? A unicorn?
Not a unicorn (boo). But loads of bishop-y bling! The Basilica of the Crucifix now houses the Duomo’s museum and treasury, and all the pieces of display were very impressive. They ranged from beautifully-carved statues, to croziers and crucifixes which dripped with precious gems. Mitres and robes were protected by glass, the ancient cloth well-worn but still vibrant. I could’ve happily spent a whole day in here, but I was acutely aware that there were even more precious treasures within the cathedral proper.
From the Basilica, you traverse the steps to the Crypt of St. Andrew, voices becoming hushed as the room darkens. And this is the heart of the cathedral – it is dedicated to St. Andrew, and it is here that his remains lie. A statue of the saint, sculpted by a student of Michelangelo, stands guard over his reliquary. The bones were brought to Amalfi from Constantinople in 1206, during the Fourth Crusade, and have remained here ever since.
But alas, I only had limited time today. It was time to hit the streets again.
The Not-So Mean Streets of Amalfi
Amalfi is a wonderful place to just have a wander, and see what you find. And aside from the occasional car roaring up the main street, sending tourists scattering into the safety of the shops (excellent for business, I would wager), it’s a really peaceful place. It’s a great place to go to find a quirky souvenir – I admired the clothes being sold at Antica Sartoria – they’re SO FREAKING BEAUTIFUL. I resolved to come back again with an empty suitcase and a decent wedge of money. But it’s also a great town for buying ceramics; you see quite a few shops selling tiles, plates, bowls, statues, and houses made with the most colourful and creative designs. (okay, I lied about ceramic houses. But I wouldn’t be surprised.) My favourite was one which stocked homewares, but everything had a cat motif, or was in the shape of a cat. This was my kind of shop. I limited myself to a mug which was, rather predictably, in the shape of a cat wearing a bow tie. I salute you, Italian cat lover.
My other favourite thing about Amalfi, and you see this quite a bit on the roads around the Amalfi Coast, are the little model villages. The most obvious example is a fountain which is halfway up Amalfi’s main street (Via Lorenzo D’Amalfi), which usually draws a small crowd. They’re another example of the local presepe, or Nativity scenes, which are a traditional Neapolitan art, and I was extremely fond of this one – little baby sheeps!! Who doesn’t love a lamb? There were a lot of coins thrown into the fountain, and I wondered how many wishes had been made on this spot. I hoped that at least a few of them were wishing for the continued health of the sheep, who seemed perilously close to the water’s edge and the goldfish beyond.
Atrani, and the Cutest Puppy In The World.
One of my main goals for this trip was to walk to Atrani, a small town east of Amalfi, which holds the distinction of being the smallest community in the entirety of Italy, with a surface area of 0.12km, and a population of 870 lucky, lucky people. However, this being the Amalfi Coast, it’s impossible to walk there without risking your life just a little bit. But statistically, most walkers on the roads in this area crawl away with at least three limbs intact, so it was all good.
The roads in the Amalfi Coast are a little bit tight on space as it is, so I sighed and wistfully thought about pavements, because there sure as hell wasn’t going to be any here. And so it proved: I spent most of the journey either throwing myself out of the way of honking vehicles, or pressing myself so tightly against guard rails, with only a scrap of metal between myself and waves crashing on to jagged rocks thirty feet below, that I gained dent marks in my backside. But there were two highlights that made the rather pant-soiling walk worth it.
The first was a hotel situated on a blind turn in the road. I liked it straight away for being so high above the road that the catering supplies were having to be winched in. Seriously. A pulley protruded from a ledge of the hotel, high above the road, whilst the delivery guy clipped a carabiner clip and tugged the rope to signify that the goods were ready to be winched up. How awesome is that? Goodness knows how they get visitors and suitcases up there. I had a vision of squawking guests being menaced with a carabiner and carried off into the air, legs kicking. But even better was the fact that the hotel had plaques outside commemorating its history as a former monastery, and some notable guests.
Not a bad way of showing off your guest book.
The second was the part you’ve been waiting for since you read the sub-heading of this section: the cutest puppy in the world. He was waiting outside a bar, chilling in the shade, and was genuinely the cutest pup I’ve ever seen. I don’t usually take photos of people’s dogs without asking permission, but in this case I could only make a noise that sounded like “BURRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” and I’d taken about fifteen photos before I even realised it.
I couldn’t help myself.
Atrani: A Hidden Gem
To my surprise, Atrani seemed largely untouched by tourists. This was puzzling considering its vicinity to Amalfi, and especially so considering that it’s such a perfect little town, recovered well from a devastating flood in 2010. Houses nestle around a central square with a handsome clock tower, and Italians relaxed in the shade of parasols, enjoying gelatos. I chose to buy a granita (chipped ice mixed with fresh lemon juice, making a delightfully slushy refreshment which will give you brain freeze), and enjoyed it at a table with a view of the sea. No-one around here seemed to speak English, which I loved. Atrani felt a million miles away from the hordes of visitors in Amalfi; it felt like an authentic living, breathing Italian town. Plus I speak Italian, so I was good.
I wandered down to the beach, walking through a passageway cut into the buildings and decorated with depictions of saints, keeping the local sailors safe. I sat on a rocky wall and watched the blue sea gurgle and slap against the land. Sometimes, especially near the end of a trip, it’s just nice to sit and collect your thoughts. Atrani was perfect for this, peaceful and quiet, unspoilt by the noise of modern life. A man swam in the waters, wave tips glistening in the sunlight. A pair kayaked in the distance. And I thought, not for the first time on this trip, I could really live here.
But alas, the end of my trip was calling, and I had to get back to Sorrento and the hotel to ensure I was organised in time. But I certainly left Atrani and Amalfi with a heavy heart.
Buses and the Amalfi Coast
But I had one more source of entertainment for the day: the bus back to Sorrento.
Buses and the Amalfi Coast make for an interesting combination. You have narrow roads which were never built with large vehicles in mind, and wondrous villages and views. You also have visitors who come to see this famed coastline in their droves, some in private cars, some in coaches, some who take the bus but have no idea about how the Italian bus ticket system works (buy at a shop, validate on the bus). And at the centre of all this, you have one person; a single brave soul who is the eye of the hurricane. This person is a bus driver. Indifferent at every other location, as soon as he’s charged with safely guiding a bus out of the Amalfi Coast, he suddenly turns into a slightly stressed leader in the vein of the Roman generals.
Having correctly validated my bus ticket, and sitting smugly in my seat near the driver (no finer view!), I watched as the poor guy turned away about forty confused tourists whilst trying to mime the word “tobacconist” at them. This consisted of frantic pointing, and charade-worthy mimes of cigarette smoking. After about ten minutes of attempting to herd cats and getting mostly everyone on board, the bus launched itself into the traffic, busier at this time of the afternoon. Horns were honked, brakes were slammed. Certain turns required reversing backwards around corners, and allowing the oncoming traffic to go first. Our driver leaned out of the window, and barked “Vai! VAI!” at motoring fools who didn’t take the correct opportunity to move their vehicle. We roared past a group of nuns, who were having a picnic on a grassy bank at the roadside, serenely enjoying the view as our driver popped a few more blood vessels. And I thought to myself, God, I love Italy. I love the chaos and the good-natured people. I love the culture and the history. I love the self-deprecating humour of the Italians, and I love the fierce pride they have for their country. If I could live anywhere in the world, I’d live in Italy.
But I wouldn’t ever apply for a job as a bus driver.
As our bus returned back to Sorrento, I felt a sense of despair – that was my last outing of my trip. How on earth could I return home and be happy about it? I was so lost in my thoughts that I was startled when I realised we were approaching my stop, and I stood up so quickly that I smacked my head against the air conditioning vent above me. I think I literally saw stars, and wobbled off the bus to crash ungracefully on to the pavement. Maybe Italy was telling me to cheer up, because things can always be worse. And more embarrassing, for that matter.
At the hotel, I made up for my previous lack of aquatic activity by completing 26 lengths of the pool, still lost in thought (and nursing a mild concussion). I didn’t want to leave. What if I never got back here? What if this was the last time? What if something happened that made me unable to travel? Considering how nervous I’d been before the trip, the thought was unbearable.
I hopped out of the pool and dried myself off as best as I could, trusting the sun to do the majority of the work for me. Slipping shorts and t-shirt over my swimming costume, I sat and watched the sun beginning to slide down towards the horizon, before I headed back up the stairs to my room. A couple walked silently behind me. Perhaps they were leaving soon too; perhaps they were overwhelmed with sadness and a fear of never returning.
Then I reached my room, took off my shorts, and realised that I had a massive wet patch spreading from the seat of my shorts where the wet swimming costume had been underneath. I looked like I’d had a catastrophic toilet failure.
Stop being ridiculous, carina, Italy whispered into my ear. Laugh. Be happy. You’ll be back.
And I knew that I would.
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Have you been to Amalfi? Have you ever had an embarrassing “no, I haven’t peed myself, I swear!” moment? Are you an Italian bus driver? Tell me about it in the comments below!