Positano, on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Arguably the most stunning place on this planet!
A harrowing bus ride
Our first taste of Positano was the bus ride there. We travelled from Sorrento in a large bus through a narrow, precarious, lane etched into the cliff face. The lane was barely wide enough to fit a small Fiat, yet somehow the bus drivers managed to squeeze two of these big buses past each other, travelling in opposite directions. It was only in retrospect that we realised how essential to our safety the bus’s silly horn with its high pitched tooting sound really was, alerting other traffic to the bus’s imminence. Translation – get out of the way, or else! We were advised to sit on the right hand side of the bus for a stunning view of the Amalfi Coast and the sheer 1000-foot drop down into the ocean. I tried valiantly to shift the bus back to the centre of the road by moving my body weight away from the deadly drop. But to no avail. Definitely not a trip for the faint-hearted!
The bus dropped us halfway up the hill, and the rest of the journey we relied on our trusty legs! Imagine climbing these steep alleys up, up, up to our accommodation with 5 large bags in the 32 degree heat (okay, maybe that fourth pair of shoes, the fan, and the mini-bar fridge should have stayed at home, but we never claimed to be light travellers!). We discovered later that we weren’t the only ones who were panting with exhaustion after a steep climb. Unless you hire a Vespa, hiking through narrow, cobbled, steep alleys is inevitable, being the only way to access anything at all in Positano – the bathroom, the beach, a phone, a gelato, an internet café, or the lovely lemon-coloured church in the central square.
The accommodation, however, was worth every step! Beautiful, magical, peaceful. Surrounded by a leafy, three-tiered garden, overlooking Positano, with our own vineyard and herb garden. Just imagine the delight at finding fresh basil, rosemary, grapes and mint growing right outside the door!
Thankfully we had decided to make Positano the highlight of our trip, with seven full days of exploring and relaxing stretching luxuriously ahead of us like a golden, shimmering carpet of sand. Speaking of sand, Italy’s coast-line is practically void of any – which definitely made me appreciate the beaches back home in Australia. Europeans have NO idea what a beach is supposed to be made of! As any true Aussie will tell you, an essential ingredient to any beach is the sand. The whiter, the finer, the silkier the granules – the better. Sand making its way into every crevice of your body, scrunching scratchily between your toes or sifting like castor sugar through your fingers. Unfortunately, most of the Italian beaches we visited were brown, pebbled affairs – and that was only the sunbathers! Those dark-skinned Italians were unfazed by the huge rocks protruding into their backsides, more intent on soaking up the sun and smothering their (often overweight) children with their blend of Italian sun-tan oil and love.
Perilous bus routes and the Emerald Grottoes
The buses to the top of the mountain (and our accommodation) left every hour.. except of course during siesta time. One memorable 35 degree centigrade day we desperately wanted to catch the last bus of the day to avoid the steep climb. But my fellow traveller insisted we try a new lemon granita – frozen real lemon with water and sugar, he claimed! What a unique combination!!
The bus driver told him that he was not permitted to eat on the bus. Being the non-Italians that we were, we obeyed. The driver also assured us that the bus would sit at the bus stop for a while before leaving, giving my partner enough time to eat his granita outside. I hopped on the crowded vehicle (everything is crowded in Italy) to find us some seats. After he bought the icy concoction, we heard the familiar “toot toot toot” and realised to our dismay that the bus was starting. I sat there buckled over in helpless laughter as my travel partner aimed for the new world record in sculling lemon granita…
The Isle of Capri is a lovely day trip from Positano, although you must beware of wind warnings, which may prevent you from sailing out to the most famous attraction, the Blue Grotto! The wind was up, and we couldn’t decide whether to risk the overpriced ticket to take the bus, ferry and boat. In retrospect, I felt a little sorry for the man selling the ferry tickets – he was the victim of our indecision, as we bought and returned and then bought and returned and then bought the tickets again. Oh well, at least we provided him with some entertainment for the afternoon. He can tell his family about the crazy Australians who could not make up their minds about a simple ferry ride.
Unfortunately, we chose wrongly. After paying the exorbitant fare and spending half the afternoon travelling to the island we were told that no boats were sailing out to the Blue Grotto due to – you guessed it – unpredictable weather. I tried to argue that we had predicted the weather so it didn’t really classify as ‘unpredictable‘. The Italian ticketing official yammered back furiously in Italian, giving me my very own personal wind warning!
Thankfully the gorgeous Emerald Grottoes are accessible via a 40 minute boat trip from Positano. The underground caves, lit up by a shimmering sunlight made emerald by the water and dotted with hundreds of stalactites, are magical despite not being as famous as their ‘blue’ cousins. Swimming among the caves in the temperate sea was a refreshing, magical end to our time in Positano.
Farewells, but Florence beckons
By the end of the week, every inch of us was reluctant to leave…except our calf muscles – which were looking forward to a well-earned rest. On our last day in Positano, we woke up bright and early only to be greeted by a not-so-bright sky! Raindrops spilled out of the low, overhanging clouds, successfully reflecting our feelings about leaving the beautiful oasis that is Positano. The droplets fell heavily onto our grape vines, and although the natives and the gardens may have appreciated it, we and our ever-growing luggage pile (including 7 huge bags and 2 paintings) definitely did not! One of my travel partner’s primary travel rules was no travelling with wet clothes or luggage. As they are very fond of saying in this country, “Al lore” (meaning “well”, “so” or “what can you do?” and accompanied by the requisite Italian hand gestures of course!).
So we waited. And waited. Finally, after 2 hours of drinking tea and counting the rain drops, the freak storm passed, and we were on our way. The precarious bus trip yet again, the painfully slow Circumvesuviana (which, according to my reliable sources – otherwise known as the Lonely Planet – is called that because it circumvents the Mount Vesuvius and its active volcano!) and then lugging our packs onto the relative comfort of the Euro star. By this stage we are feeling very empathetic with the pack horses, camels, donkeys and all other living things who make their living carrying heavy loads on their backs. We have subsequently made many donations to the RSPCA and other animal funds!
Look out Florence, here we come. Florence is LOVELY! The fact that the streets were flat may have had something to do with it. We wandered about the cobblestones, staring in awe at the Duomo, stumbling across an excellent second hand bookshop, and a delicious gelato place. What a sight for sore stomachs! For once I adopted the role of tour guide and showed my travelling partner around the Pitti Palace and the beautiful Boboli gardens. The Ponte Vecchio was packed with both tourists and jewellery. Some things never change.
Driving in Italy – a modern legend to remember
And now, for a valuable tip to all those contemplating hiring a car in Italy: Don’t! We planned to drive when it was still daylight. But we started out at dusk, and just then the rain resumed. We were driving on the right side of the road. Neither of us knew the dimensions of the snazzy little car we were driving. The sun was in our eyes (Don’t ask how it can be raining and sunny at the same time!). We were on the Autostrada and there was no exit for a long, long time. We had to conform to the 100 kmph speed limit. We were driving defensively. We had to read minds and guess when cars intended to change lanes – the other drivers were obviously not aware that their cars had an indicator light. I bet there is no such word as “indicator” in the Italian language! In summary, these were of the scariest, most nerve-racking experiences of our lives. By the time we pulled into the convent where we planned to stay for the next 3 nights, our palms were sweaty, our hair was standing on end, and we were ready to collapse.
We had taken 3 hours to drive on what should have been a 1 hour journey. But at least we were safe. The people who ran the place had all gone to bed. After throwing stones at their window to catch their attention, we were reluctantly shown to our rooms. We were too tired to notice that the place looked haunted! In the morning, we became slightly concerned at how old and dilapidated the building was. It was a converted 14th Century convent. Luckily, though, it had received a complete refurbishment…in 1783! Well, at least there was hot water – as long as you
were strong enough to turn the taps, and determined enough to fight with the antique shower hose. I had many a battle with that hose, and often came out second best as my fine collection of bruises can testify.
One final tip. Learn the language. At least a little. It makes even the dullest conversations more exciting, and broadens you considerably. We took a short course before our trip and had immense fun practising on the natives, most of whom could speak English nearly as well as we could. The Italian language is magnificent, its prettiness topped perhaps only by the hues of the Tuscan countryside. Ah, but that’s another story.