The Amalfi Coast draws scores of international visitors for a reason: it's drop dead gorgeous. We based ourselves in Sorrento so we could easily take day trips along the coast and inland to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius.
Since we had to pass right through anyway, we couldn't resist venturing out of the train station to try some authentic pizza napoletana, which was on our must-eat list for Italy. Fortunately, there was a venerable pie joint within a 15 minute walk from Napoli Centrale. L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele was an institution long before Ms. Roberts dined there in Eat, Pray, Love, although the movie propelled it to even greater worldwide fame.
First we had to find the place. During our time in Rome, I grew accustomed to using offline Google maps to navigate around. It served us well there, but for some reason I couldn't pick up a satellite in Naples. Some sort of mafia scam or anti-government observation measure perhaps? In any case, we had to pull out our old-fashioned paper map.
Contrary to what some travelers say about Naples, the place wasn't at all ominous. Granted we were there in the daytime, but the locals we encountered were incredibly friendly. The streets were definitely crazy busy and the population more ethnically diverse. The area around the train station did have a certain amount of grit, so it probably warrants caution after dark.
Any time we stood on a corner looking confused, someone stopped to help us. They'd rattle off lightning-fast Italian instructions accompanied by wild hand gestures. We were grateful for the gestures; otherwise we would have stayed lost. Their kindness was a welcome surprise. It would have been uncomfortable to be lost for too long in the searing midday heat.
By the time we arrived at the restaurant, it was getting close to 1:00 pm, and the lineup was long. We took a number and settled in for the 40 minute wait. But the authentic food experience was totally worth it.
There are only two pizza varieties on the menu - that's what I call specialization. Our margheritas were perfectly crisp on edges and slightly doughy in the middle, as anticipated. The mozzarella and sauce were beautifully fresh and tasty. The meal was incredibly cheap considering the size of the pies; just 17 euros for three pizzas and two litres of water. And really we should have shared, since none of us could finish.
A beautiful base: Luxury hostel in Sorrento
Although the Ulisse Deluxe was billed as a hostel, it felt like a three or even four-star hotel. Our spotless private triple room was huge. It had marble floors, three comfy twin beds, powerful AC and a spacious tiled shower.
There is a 24 hour reception desk staffed by at least two professional team members at all times. They greeted us cheerfully each time we returned. The concierge was very helpful in booking our day trips, including pickup right at the hotel.
The breakfast was a nice spread, including fruit , pastries, scrambled eggs, cereals, yogurt and cold meats and cheeses. Plus made-to-order cappuccinos. We didn't get a chance to use the pool during our stay, but it looked enticing. They have room service too, and a cooking school! Definitely not your typical hostel.
Sorrento had the feel of a laid back beach town. There were hoardes of people around, but everyone was in good mood vacation mode. There were lemon and orange trees everywhere, brimming with ripe citrus. The town is perched on a cliff, so there were stunning views from many seaside vantage points.
Many of the narrow downtown streets and alleys are pedestrian-only, at least from a practical perspective. Even the main shopping street is closed to cars each evening. All the better for the nightly passegiata (evening walk) ritual. There were tons of shops selling lemon-based products and other Italian foodie delights too: pastas, olive oils, vinegars, etc. I should have stocked up more while we were there.
Cruising the coast
This was one of our favourite days in Italy: our 'Amalfi Coast by Boat'' day trip. Seeing the dramatic coastline from the water is one of the best ways to appreciate the stunning views -- highly recommended!
Setting out along the coast, we gawked at the steep sheer cliffs. We saw towns and hotels built impossibly into vertical walls and perched right on the edges of clifftops. There were occasional glimpses of traffic crawling along the Amalfi coast highway, across stone bridges supported by huge arches. I was glad we had chosen boat transport over bus for this excursion. The sea breezes were such a welcome change from the heat onshore.
The captain was amazingly adept at steering, bringing us close to the shoreline to take a good look at caves, swimming holes and a huge sheltered fisherman's grotto. Every so often we saw a cove with a cluster of hotels and beach umbrellas crowded around a tiny bit of beach.
Some of the clifftop hotels had loooooong switchbacking staircases down to the water. Others had --believe it or not -- elevators going from clifftop level down to the waterfront. For those staying at elevated hotels without elevators, it must be a killer climb back up to the room at the end of a beach day. Best not forget anything on one end or the other!
It took about two hours to get to Amalfi town, where we had a few hours to explore on our own. The imposing Cathedral of St Andrew with an ornate facade dominated the main square. Inside, a garden of Moorish arches contained displays of ancient carved sarcophagi. We gazed in awe at dramatic painted frescoes from floor to ceiling in St. Andrew's crypt, where his remains are kept under the altar. The main sanctuary had a soaring arched roof, crystal chandeliers and huge dark oil paintings.
We poked around the shops of Amalfi and found a place for lunch up some stairs in a small side corridor. I made the mistake of ordering way too much food. I thought the three-course menu with pasta, fish and salad would be small portions; it wasn't. It was all tasty, but I had to leave a lot on my plate; hopefully not too much of a faux pas (or I suppose I should say passo falso.
We got back on the boat for a 45 minute ride back to Positano. Beach umbrellas lined the seafront and waiters doted on glamourous-looking diners. We dipped our feet into the water for quick refresh and then tried to find a shady bar or patio for some drinks. It turned out the restaurants wouldn't let us sit without ordering food, even though their spaces were half empty. That attitude gave me a poor first impression of the place, and I'm afraid it never redeemed itself.
We walked around for a while, ducking into shops where we had no intention of buying anything, just for the air conditioning. I noticed prices were much higher than in Rome and Sorrento, maybe not surprising given the jet-setting profile of the crowd.
Overall I found Positano too exclusive for my taste. It certainly didn't seem like a relaxing spot to vacation -- much too crowded and built up for that. For me, Positano was best enjoyed from a distance, like a haughty supermodel. Beautiful to look at, but not all that friendly. I realize it's not fair to judge the place based on a couple of hours spent in a small area. Still, I was more than ready to leave by the time we hopped back on the boat for the return trip.
The superstar views were just as good on the way back, and it was a treat to savour them a second time. Next time I visit the Amalfi Coast (and there must be a next time!), I'd love to explore some of the smaller towns and villages. And maybe even stay at one of those places with a beach-to-clifftop elevator.
Getting to Sorrento
Unless you're brave enough to rent a car in southern Italy, you'll probably want to arrive in Amalfi via Naples, the main transportation hub for the region.
The most affordable option between Naples and Sorrento is the aging Circumvesuviana train line. It's also the easiest connection if you arrive in Naples by train and want to continue to Sorrento the same day. Just walk through a tunnel to get to the Circumvesuviana platform. The rickety old train is quite an experience though!
If you're visiting in the summer and not a fan of sweating profusely, you might prefer one of these other options:
Ferry: Probably the nicest way to travel when the weather is hot, since it's fast, cool and scenic. If arriving in Naples by train, transfer to the dock by taxi or tram and buy tickets for the next boat. If arriving by air, catch a shuttle bus to the ferry terminal; there are a few different ferry companies. Note departures are less frequent outside of the peak summer season.
Bus: This will be the easiest route if you arrive in Naples by air. From the airport, you can take a Cuerreri bus all the way to Sorrento.