A Beyond Here Feature travel story.
In the spring of 2016, our lives birthed a new adventure. We discarded our belongings, shedding all the excess weight of stationary living and traipsed through the European continent for three and a half months. Reassured of our actions by our excited and youthful minds, we decided to settle our next full year of existence, after Euro-hopping, in the artistic and eclectic city of Berlin. In preparation for our spastic movement throughout Europe however, we loaded our itinerary with destinations and activities. During our brainstorm, certain places did not breathe life into our minds until we talked to fellow travellers and felt our way around new cities like blind fools.
One of these unexpected yet pleasantly surprising adventures we fell upon was a visit to the Amalfi coast. It all started with a random conversation with a couple from Quebec. We were waiting at the Galleria dell’Accademia museum in Florence and they were behind us in line, looking around the lobby, speaking quietly, and showing off their obligatory Canadian flag on their backpacks. The flag flashed in front of our eyes like a signal calling us home. We started a conversation with them. They were thrilled to hear about our long trek and asked us where our next destination was, and we replied Naples.
In their heavy Quebecois accent, they explained their dislike of Naples and had opted for a motorcycle drive along the Amalfi coast. The woman mentioned how frightening it was to sit behind her boyfriend on the bike, swerving left and right, dipping sideways towards the road, feeling like she was going to fall over and be fated to a life of roadkill.
The name, Amalfi coast, rang a bell, but at that time I did not know much about it. When we got to Naples, we understood what the couple had meant. Our Airbnb was in the Rione Sanità neighborhood. The city appeared as a deteriorating Italy. Normally, when we visited other tourist destinations in Italy, the streets looked romantic – cobble-stoned and narrow walkways, beautifully preserved old buildings, cute boutiques, and fancy restaurants. In Napoli, it felt like real life, and not some image of Italy curated for tourists. It appeared as though no one had bothered to make the city look attractive, and everyone just lived their lives.
Yet, there were moments in the early morning light which made me feel an intimate connection to Napoli. When we would walk down the narrow pathway from our Airbnb apartment to the main street there would be early risers loitering and chatting away while smoking cigarettes. The bakeries and coffee shops would open their doors, and the warming dough mixed with ground coffee beans would waft into our noses. Clothes hanging off the clotheslines swayed from the light breeze. The faded colours of the apartment buildings glowed under the hot sunlight. In those moments I felt like I was really in Italy. (Of course, Italy is a vast country, and no part of it is more real than others). However, even when we saw piles of overflowing garbage gathered in different parts of the street, the craziness of traffic, and the decaying conditions of buildings, there was a beauty in its modest existence.
We talked to our Airbnb hosts in Naples about the Amalfi coast. They were a young couple in their mid 30’s and lovers of American grunge and 90’s music. Any talk about Naples turned into a patriotic speech about how it was Napolitanos against the world. They explained that the culture of people in Napoli is distinct in comparison to other Italians, which is how we’ve heard Sicilians feel as well. They suggested we rent a car and drive along the Amalfi Coast. It was our second year anniversary, and that night we drank copious amounts of wine and champagne, and celebrated with our hosts, learning about Italians, Napolitanos, and the wonders of the Amalfi coast.
The Amalfi coast is like a jarring and thundering beautiful goddess beckoning travellers. Many have captured its beauty – its tall cliffs, azure blue waters, and the sunlit radiant colourful towns. Our rented car was a green 2001 Renault. Driving out of Naples was chaotic, cantankerous, and treacherous. The streets were messy with scooters carrying multiple passengers dangling off, accustomed to the fear of a road accident. Our car dodged vehicles left and right like we were in some slow dramatic get-away scene.
Amalfi is at the coast of southern Italy, by the Tyrrhenian Sea, near Naples. The drive was about one and a half hours to the area. We passed by the famous Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, the ancient city which was inflamed by Vesuvius’ volcanic eruption and buried under volcanic ash.
In Amalfi, multitudes of pastel coloured houses sit on the steep cliff face which are dressed in vibrant green trees. Below you can see the blue waters seducing you into its naked and hidden depths. Many yachts roam around this coast, parking in the sea nearby, owners sunbathing and enjoying the view of the cliffs. Ferries travel along the sea transporting passengers from one town to another. From the top of the cliff, looking over the edge, the boats looked like they were suspended in the air, hovering over the clear still water. The coastal drive is incredibly scenic and spell-binding.
The car was a standard and much to Chris’s dismay, I didn’t know how to drive a standard. Chris hadn’t driven standard in a long time, so most of the drive consisted of him re-learning specific maneuverings of the car. We had stalled a few times going up a hill, even small ones. Cars waited impatiently behind us, driving passed our car when they got a chance as Chris figured his way around the vehicle. The road at the edge of the cliff is narrow and meandering. Certain parts of it only have a single lane yet allowing for two-way traffic, and in other parts of the road there are two lanes.
The road on the cliff was crowded with vehicles fighting for a chance to catch the picturesque view under some perfect lighting for breathtaking photographs. Frequent nervous thoughts visited our minds when it was uncertain whether our car was going to fit next to oncoming vehicles. We danced and swerved among the traffic, hiding behind large tour buses, or leading an ordered line of cars. Chris was agitated and anxious, but he delivered some heroic driving sequences.
The buses were behemoths on that small and narrow roadway. They stood at around three and a half metres, and were as wide as the road. Their large and heavy behinds would suddenly turn sharply, surprising drivers behind them. We were antsy to pass them if we got a chance. Once in a while they would stop at the side of a road where a pathway allowed for impressive views of the cliffs, releasing tourists from the vehicle’s stomach. In those cases we sighed in relief at being able to pass them. Most of the time the road runs along the side of the cliff facing the sea, and other times you are driving in single lanes in between buildings through a town. We saw many small Italian cars swiftly driving through the roads confident in their practiced fashion.
Each town we visited looked like paintings with a gloss of neat varnish. They were small squares of perfection, their hearts beating like idyllic fairytales. The town of Positano was an unshakeable and unquenchable revelling beauty. The domed churches in the town stood stall overlooking the sea. In the brilliant sun, the coast below Positano twinkled, lit up with energy. The warming corners of the town stood with heads held high, gleaming like lighthouses guiding guests into their abode. It was the kind of place we wanted to stay awhile in, soaking up the beauty, because one day was not enough. I was tempted to live by the coast in all seasons, watching the beauty change. In the winter’s darkest torment when no tourists visited, shops closed early, and the sea ravaged the coastline. Or, when Spring embarks on its new beginnings, and the local flowers bloom, enticing people to return to the water and the small beaches of fine and grainy sand.
We also stopped off in Sorrento where the old narrow streets were busy with window-shoppers. The restaurants stretched out the legs of their patio seating, stores opened up stalls on walking paths, local markets laid out their produce, and tourists swarmed the walkways. Quickly changing into our bathing suits we stepped into the cordoned off beach area to take a swim. The shallow clear blue-green waters were incredibly inviting and warmed our bodies. I felt like we were swimming in liquid glass, moveable and shifting.
Since we had limited time, we dried off, walked around the town a bit more and grabbed some gelato. In the streets of Italy you will see a beautifully-packaged product in a sleek transparent design. It’s Limoncello, a lemon liqueur which is apparently popular in Italy. The team behind the product seem to be aggressively marketing this beverage in most tourist areas. It is very sweet but would be an interesting addition to cocktails.
Hopping back into the car we drove along the coast. Capri, the small island where many famous rich people go on vacation, was just across from the water, west of Sorrento. One day we would like to visit Capri. However, I think we got a pretty awesome sneak peak by visiting the towns on the coast of Amalfi.
Sitting cozy in that car while Chris dealt with the brunt of dodging cars, I stared at the magical view, ecstatic that I could witness something so spectacular in my lifetime. Only the steam coming out of Chris’s ears shattered the reverie. During the tortuous drive throughout the day Chris’s scowling face was a comical release as I tried taking pictures of the view behind him. He was frustrated. To him it felt like he was standing at the precipice of death, where a right turn might lead to a car crash because the turn was so narrow and dramatic. In addition to the persistent danger we were anxious of being honked off the road. It was not a smooth ride, rather nerve-wracking with frequent stalling and uncertain driving. A round of applause for Chris for getting us to the coast and back to Naples safely. And not one scratch on the car!
Visiting Amalfi was one of our favourite highlights in Italy. Driving back into the maniacal traffic of Naples during sunset, our eyes were sleepy and our bodies tired from the long drive. We returned the car, and walked back to the Airbnb, holding each other, eager for our next adventure.
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