About five years ago we planned a trip to the Amalfi coast. Technically we planned it six years ago. When figuring out where to go on our 2009 trip, we thought we would be really clever if we split up the research. What that meant was that I would go ahead and look into a Northern trip (Rome/Piedmont/Cinque Terre) and The Husband would research a Southern destination (Rome/Amalfi Coast/Pompeii.) Can you see the problem here? Italy being so wonderful, we both fell in love with our separate itineraries and no one wanted to give theirs up. The only solution? We would have to agree to go again the following year. I told you, we have a problem.
The great news about this itinerary is that you can do it all by train. You can catch a high-speed train from Rome to Naples and be there in just over an hour. From there you can spend a few days in Naples, which we have yet to have the time to do, or you can catch the Circumvesuviana, a local train which will take you to Sorrento in about an hour.
The Amalfi Coast is so breathtaking, we went again the following year. We found Sorrento, which is larger than the other towns on the coast and can feel at times touristy, was nevertheless a great base of operations. From there we took day trips to Pompeii, Amalfi, Ravello, Positano, and Capri. Pompeii is a short distance on the Circuvesuviana and the other towns can be reached by car or boat, although I recommend the latter if the waters cooperate.
The roads are winding if you drive yourself and cabs are expensive. But the ferry ride is lovely and you get the added benefit of being able to view the towns from the water, which is how they look their best.
h/t to Kissy Dugan who recommended our hotel in Sorrento, the Grand Hotel Ambasciatori. In addition to being a fantastic location – it was walking distance to the train, ferries and the rest of the town – it was also beautiful, like one of the old grand hotels of Europe you’ve always dreamed of staying at.
The grounds were lovely, too, with a pool, an outdoor café and a dock at beach level where you could swim and sit in the sun and drink a Fiano or some other crisp, white, local wine. And if you get a room with a view you can see Vesuvius from your balcony.
Our hotel being on the edge of Sorrento, we walked the 1 km into Sant’Agnello one night just to get away from the crowds. We had drinks at a hotel on a cliff overlooking the water before finding a small, local place to have dinner, where we shared our table with a cat.
O Canonico 1898 was probably our favorite place for dinner in Sorrento. It’s right on the square so your instincts want to tell you to stay away, but we enjoyed a ’99 Taurasi along with an appetizer of potatoes, calamari and balsamic that was outstanding. Also, our waiter was a great deal of fun pretending that our card was declined and I got to joke back in Italian with him so now I can be turned down for comedy writing jobs in two languages.
The ancient Roman town that was destroyed when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD is a quick ½ hour train ride from Sorrento. I recommend a guide if you don’t want to walk around several football fields worth of dust and ash wondering just what you’re looking at. We had a great (albeit expensive) guide who got us into places that most of the public couldn’t get into. Totally worth it if your husband is an ancient history freak and studied Latin like mine.
Here’s a good place to talk about traveling snafus and rolling with them. When we headed out of Pompeii and went to catch our train we were told there was uno sciopero, a strike. We were also told the strike would be over at 2:00. That’s not an uncommon occurrence in Italy, neither the striking, nor the pre-arranging of when it’s over. We had an hour or so to wait and that wasn’t factoring in either a. the train having to first originate in Naples at 2 or b. all of the other people who would be waiting to get on this same train at all of the other stops.
No one likes to throw good money after bad, but sometimes you have to know when spending money is saving you money. What do I mean by that? We spent a hundred dollars on cab ride back to our hotel. A hundred dollars is a lot of money. But had we not done that we would have spent the majority of our afternoon sitting in a train station and trying to fight our way onto a train, instead of enjoying our vacation that we were already spending our hard earned money on. Sometimes you are delayed and there is nothing you can do about it. But if you can do something about it, by all means, do! Don’t be noble or stoic. Will you care on your death bed that you saved that hundred bucks? Expenses like this that come up while traveling can be hard to swallow, but I have never once looked back and thought about how the bill got paid. It got paid, just like you always pay your bills. What I do remember is the experience. And our experience was great. We had this crazy cab driver who seemed like he was about 80, which was also the speed he drove even on a bridge, in the opposite lane, with traffic coming at us. The drive from Pompeii to Sorrento was gorgeous: we saw a part of that country that we never got to view from the train. And despite having negotiated a flat rate for the trip, the driver insisted on stopping along the way so he could take our picture at these various vistas. He then proceeded to tell us that he had 8 sons, (my Italian being what it was I couldn’t figure out if he had 4 sets of twins or 2 sets of quadruplets, both seeming equally impossible) and then try to sell us books and photos that he pulled out of every compartment in his van. (We bought a great book on Pompeii and he threw in the photo for free.)
At around 2:30 I noticed the time and realized we would just be getting on the train now if we were lucky. Instead, we were back in Sorrento, enjoying a delicious lunch, having already been back to the hotel and washed the 2,000 year old dust off of us. We were eating at a wine bar called The Garden where we had shopped the year before. The bottom floor is the wine bar and also sells honeys and oils and other foodstuff while the café is above. We always love the service there and the food was great. I had a pacheri with porcini, scampi and fresh herbs and my husband had what he refers to as “the best” Pizza Napoli with fresh capers.
By the way, this is a great place to save that hundred bucks. Don’t go to Capri. Capri is like Rodeo Drive meets Coney Island. The ferry pulls into a crappy little port area with a bunch of cafes and tourist shops that all look alike. We then walked up to the Capri Town which is where the Rodeo Drive comes in. A street filled with expensive stores, most of which you can shop at in America. The walk up, while steep, is beautiful and full of photo opportunities and I did have a very good lunch once I got there. But as I said here, if you have the choice between one or the other, I much prefer Ischia. I’ve heard the other parts of the island are better, but I don’t know how much time you’ll have for those if you’re day tripping.
Also, if you’re going specifically for the Blue Grotto, know this is scheduled like a military operation. My husband, being someone who reads and does research knew this. Unfortunately our traveling companions did not. To get to the Blue Grotto you have to take a boat. And then you have to get on a smaller one to row inside the cave, hence the grotto. This means that the water around the island has to be calm enough to navigate and the boats can only go into the grotto at certain times, because of the tides. My husband tried to explain this to our companions who didn’t want to go to the grotto right away because it wasn’t sunny. When they deemed it sunny enough and we went back, the boats were no longer running because the seas were too rough and we couldn’t go later because of the tides. Do your homework, kids.
Positano is the town you see on all of the brochures, the one that rises out of the sea with all of the houses stacked one on top of each other, and it’s the one you see at the top of this post. It’s home to the expensive Le Sirenuse hotel, boutique shops and many stands selling limoncello and lemons as big as your fist.
Ravello overlooks the actual town of Amalfi and can be reached by a bus from there, but of course, there was a strike that day and we had to take a cab instead.
There are stunning views from the town, as well as from Villa Cimbrone which dates back to the 11th century. Now a hotel and restaurant, the villa and gardens overlook the sea and are open to the public during the day.
Afterward, we had a wonderful locally grown lunch with an equally wonderful view at another restaurant also called The Garden. It must be a thing there. Fresh mozzarella from Salerno and cherry tomatoes and Basil from a local garden, a gnocchi pesto, and prawns with mint which I wouldn’t have thought to do in a million years but was great! Also 4 glasses of Greco di Tufo.