Sun-kissed tales from the Amalfi coast
A traveller reaches the edge of Italy’s Sorrentine Peninsula and falls in love with it’s quiet beauty.brunch Updated: Oct 08, 2016 19:28 IST
Midway into our planning for an Italy trip, I realise the plan is loaded in favour of art and architecture. Those fabulous Michelangelo sculptures and the early paintings of Leonardo da Vinci can’t be overlooked. The Vatican is a must. Even Venice, like Rome, is dotted with signs of a grand heritage and smells of a bygone era.
But what about a place to enjoy the sun and sundowners, unworried by history books? The Amalfi coast, I thought, may be an answer. “Cinque Terre is also fascinating,” a friend says. “But it involves trekking from one village to another,” I sigh from the comfort of a chaise lounge. So the Amalfi coast it is.
Melting into Sorrento
As the local Circumvesuviana train moves away from Naples (Napoli for the locals), the rows of apartment blocks and factories fade into a greener landscape. The hills often block the view and tunnels create sudden darkness. Two stations take us back to the ancient Roman civilisation: Ercolano Scavi and Pompeii Scavi. Behind the afternoon mist, the intimidating Mount Vesuvius, which buried these early habitats under its molten rocks and ashes, stands tall with a broken head.
The train halts at a small station – Piano di Sorrento: green hills, snapshots of the sea between colourful, small houses and winding roads that offer a toast of an Italian coast. We start pushing our luggage towards the door. The final stop is in five minutes.
You can expect good hotels in every Italian town. But my wife and I thought, let’s try to live like locals, so we booked a room at the top-rated B&B Villa Monica, atop a hill in Sorrento.
Our host, Pascal Grosso Albini, is a character, we soon discover. Armed with a dry wit and generous hospitality, he owns one of the town’s prettiest properties.
As he opens the balcony door for us, a vast stretch of the Campania region unfolds its quiet beauty. The gulf of Naples lies below, Napoli marking its presence from far away with a string of lights. We can spend endless hours sitting here.
Evening means the city will melt at Piazza Tasso, the heart of Sorrento. Crowd-watching while licking a gelato is fun. But why just watch strangers when they’d love to converse with us? People eagerly tell us about their choice of a good ristorante (restaurant) or where to buy the best limoncello, a digestif synonymous to this region. Invariably, all opinions differ.
We walk up to a snack bar that boasts a large variety of fries. The woman behind the counter asks gleefully, “You work with Accenture?” pointing to my jacket logo. “It is actually my wife’s jacket,” I say, unabashed. My better half starts giggling. Nevertheless, as the shopkeeper’s cousin also works in the same company, she takes extra care to prepare our fries but also gives tips about the Amalfi coast.
Men, buy your clothes elsewhere
The comfortable, local authority-run bus leaves from outside the station and takes a picturesque uphill road past lemon groves and colourful settlements for Amalfi, the largest town, from which the rugged coastline is named.
Driving a large bus in this hilly terrain requires guts. Roads are narrow, and often there are long traffic jams with two buses trying to make their way with barely three inches between them.
We get down at the entry point of Positano. It’s love at first sight: a small town of traditional buildings rolling down the hill to the beach far below. I grab a panini (sandwich) and start walking down one of the narrow alleys with steep stairs leading to the pebbly beach.
The town, once upon a time, was a refuge for artists and writers escaping communist Russia and Nazi Germany. The long walk through alleys squeezed between houses and backyards is fascinating. Locals greet us with warm smiles as we glimpse daily life. The Church of Santa Maria Assunta near the beach amazes with colourful, majolica tiles.
Most of the houses have rooftop domes, painted white in summer and black in winter. They provide old world-style insulation and a distinctive feature in this tourist-friendly place. I try to buy a leather jacket but after a hopeless 20-minute search, realize almost all shops in this town sell only women’s items.
The beach is near-empty. The Amalfi-bound ferry is yet to arrive. That gives us time for a photo shoot against the backdrop of a watchtower that was once used to keep off Turkish pirates.
The ferry starts on a bumpy note. The Gulf of Salerno is not in its best mood, thanks to rains and strong wind. Half an hour later, I climb the iron stairs to go to the upper deck. A breathtaking scene, with Amalfi town over limestone cliffs plunging to the sea, welcomes me.“This is divine,” murmurs a co-passenger.
The ferry is docked. The passengers almost rush out of the vessel. Some walk deep into this waterfront destination to see a more traditional Amalfi. There’s a paper museum, but we are interested in getting a feel of this sleepy town through its streets, restaurants and the layers of hills.
The return trip to Sorrento is one of the best road trips in Europe. The road moves along the coast with the Gulf of Salerno crushing on the cliffs below.
On the other side, hills go up to higher ridges. The scenic views make me rethink: instead of a bus it should have been a car, to stop at vantage points and absorb the glory of nature. “No point thinking, you can’t drive,” my wife quips.
Two days after we return to Delhi, I join a Maruti driving school.
From HT Brunch, August 7, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch