Amalfi Coast: Sorrento, Capri & Positano
With one of the most famous windy coastal roads on the planet, in which small colourful towns are precariously nestled on cliffs, the Amalfi coast is quite a contrast from the inland hustle and bustle of Rome. Needless to say after several days away from the coast, we were quite excited to dive back into the Mediterranean ocean.
We hit the road with a plan to visit Pompeii's ruins on our way to Sorrento. This was quite unrealistic and we were totally dreaming given the intense itinerary playing tourist in Rome the day before. Furthermore we got stuck on route in a highway gridlock, caused by a serious crash 400 meters ahead of us. As we watched the emergency helicopter circle then land directly on the highway, this was a good reminder to be extra attentive to the crazy Italian drivers. After almost two hours stranded, this forced us to skip Pompeii due to it's opening hours. Due to a mixup with timezones, the delay also meant we would arrive in Sorrento just in time to watch the football world cup final (Brigid thinks this was "extremely convenient"). Regardless, we just made it in time and parked up at the campground before heading directly to the local English pub to watch it.
While usually you would probably head to a local Italian sports bar to watch a football world cup while in the football-mad country, so far we had noticed very little coverage of it throughout Italy... needless to say it seems they were all a little bitter about not qualifying for the tournament. Therefore the English pub was actually a good spot to watch the final, with a large garden bar packed full of tourists, most of whom were cheering for Croatia given the old English-France "anyone but you" rivalry. Albeit to be honest you probably wouldn't notice or visit this pub unless there was sport on, as there are many better authentic Italian and local places.
After watching the enthralling six goal final, in which France claimed their second crown 4-2, we met up with our friends Sean, Gemma and Helen for dinner, followed by a wander around the old town streets and markets. A fun experience in it's own right, navigating through the myriad of narrow alleys filled with colour, lemon candy, lemon soap, limoncello, and several other lemon related products we didn't know existed. About the only thing that could compete with the highly concentrated smell of lemon was the overabundance of fresh leather. We really wish we had bought some handmade leather shoes and bags here as the quality and pricing was exceptional... another reminder that when travelling, if you see something you love, don't try and wait to see if you will find better or cheaper in the next town, as it's likely might not see that particular item again.
We then wandered further down towards Vallone dei Mulini di Sorrento, a stunning little gorge with old sawmill ruins at the bottom. Looking down, we then realised how high up the Sorrento town actually is, and what a unique geography it is built upon. Sean, having once again been here before, explained that the narrow road spiraling down the gorge is the main route to the ferry terminal. It's another one of those strange engineering feats that is unique to the rough coastline of Italy, with the steep winding road the only logical and possible route to connect the coast to the town itself at the time it was constructed. Even stranger, there are small horse stables built into the side of the rock wall underneath the inner side of the road... it's kind of hard to explain, but well worth a wander, even if you'll likely almost be hit several times by Italians who shouldn't have driving licenses.
We then finished up and headed back to Gary for a well earned sleep. Overall this evening was a perfect way to get our bearings of the town, as we would be criss-crossing all of these beautiful streets and medieval passages several times throughout our three days and four nights in Sorrento. The campground (Camping International Nube D'Argento S.R.L) really was excellent, and we would definitely recommend it if you're staying in Sorrento. It's right next to Marina Grande where we had some of the freshest seafood ever and only ten minutes walk to everything in the old town, including the main bus, train and ferry hubs. It also has views of the ocean, lots of shade and a swimming pool (although which is annoyingly only open from 10am to 6pm... and you have wear a swimming cap). Sorrento is also a great base for visiting other areas given that there are no campgrounds for campervans down the Almalfi coast itself given that campervans are banned from driving down the coast (more on this later).
Speaking of areas to visit, the first on our list was the beautiful island of Capri. During dinner we worked out the ferry timetables online, and all met at the Sorrento ferry terminal about 30 minutes before our scheduled 9.30am departure to buy tickets. This was a bit tight as by the time we bought the tickets we boarded about 5minutes before the boat departed. We chose the less regular and slower, albeit slightly cheaper, ferry. However this was still a pretty hefty €33 each return.
Our first impression of Capri was simply "chaos". There were people, tourists, buses, cars & boats EVERYWHERE. After a bit of a rigmarole buying tickets for the funicolare cable car (make sure to buy your tickets across the road here first before lining up for the cable car), we made it to the main village of Capri itself. Once again our step-in-tour-guide Sean had been here before for a family wedding, so naturally lead the way on a few spots to check out. After walking through the beautiful and ridiculously expensive shops, we grabbed a gelato and headed to the Gardens of Augustus (€1 entry), which high vantage point provided a beautiful panoramic view of the southern side of the island (where we would soon venture by boat). This was also a great spot to get out of the sun and have a quick pack lunch.
Next we stopped for a quick coffee. When we looked at the menu we saw the most expensive espresso shot we have ever seen: €6, yes SIX EUROS for a single shot... given all kiwis have at least some Scottish genes in them, we wouldn't pay that... so we all went for the iced espressos, which were €1 more (so yes €7!) but at least we felt like a bit more effort was going into it... there was a freezing process at least... nevertheless we just paid €7 for a coffee... wow.
We then grabbed some beers from a market, only €500 each ;) and headed back down the cable car to the main port to hire a boat for a few hours. This was once again Sean's plan and it really was a great idea. At €29 per person for three hours, it was cheaper than the large tour boats, and more importantly, as we were driving it, we could go where we want when we wanted.
We stopped into the white and green grottos, swimming where we could amongst the unique rock formulations and some of the most beautiful water you have ever seen (see video below).
There were unfortunately a lot of boats around, so it was a bit chaotic with wakes all over the place, which slightly detracted for the beauty of the area (it would be simply stunning if you had the place to yourself). Furthermore whilst Dan was driving he mistimed a wake from a massive "my boats bigger than your boat" Italian speedboat which went roaring past, leading to everyone (and everything) in the boat getting drenched... To further complicate things, the wind continued to pick up and our little 20 horsepower engine was struggling to cut through the waves. We checked out a few more more of the "hot spots" on our map, and then started the journey back to the other side of the island. This took about twice as long given the westerly had picked up even more, so we eventually arrived about 40minutes later than planned, and therefore had to pay for another hour (so from two to three hours total). However it was totally worth it and a great way to see and experience the island.
Needless to say we were all pretty exhausted and jumped aboard the well timed ferry just after 6pm. We then headed for a quick pizza on the way home, falling asleep with seconds of our heads hitting the pillows, all snuggled up within Gary.
Firstly, as we had missed Pompeii on the way in, we had pegged one day to head back and check out the famous ruins formed as a result of Mount Vesuvius erupting on August 24th in the year 79 AD. Furthermore, given the road from Naples to Sorrento was insane, and we would have to pack and unpack Gary, we decided to use the tourist train that runs during the high season. This was an insane €14 each return, and in hindsight definitely not our smartest move, given the regular "non-tourist" trains were much cheaper at around €4 return and not that much slower (although the tourist train did at least have aircon). Secondly, as you may have noticed, the title of this section is Herculaneum, and not Pompeii. This is because we had heard from a multitude of different people that Herculaneum is actually a much better site to visit than Pompeii (and Bidi had been to Pompeii before). We had heard it is much better preserved, smaller and has far less people (for now).
So why is it better preserved? We found out this was due to the fact that unlike Pompeii, which was mostly destroyed by the hot ash, rocks and gas spewing out of Vesuvius in it's direction due to the wind, Herculaneum didn't experience the ash storm, and therefore the structures were mostly unharmed. It was the pyroclastic flow hours later which rushed down the mountain, with the thermal energy and intense heat killing everyone in Herculaneum instantly. However unlike Pompeii, this left a lot organic materials (such as plants, food, wood, fabrics, etc), in quite remarkable condition. Overall, this resulted in a town, well preserved for several centuries below a protecting layer of solidified ash.
The result? Absolutely amazing (if not "petrifying" at the same time... excuse the pun). We spent over three hours here, reading every word of the well laid out and complimentary guide book - which was free and available in multiple languages (both of which are not common in Italy). We went into every building, room, nook and cranny we could find. Completely mind boggling. The houses of the rich, the local markets, baths, restaurants... some of which still had advertising for their products on the walls outside their shops... wow... check out just some of the photos below...
Overall this was one of the most archaeologically fascinating places we have ever visited and DEFINITELY worth your time. For only €7 each to get in, well worth your money! Based on Brigids assessment (having visited both Pompeii and Herculaneum), the later is definitely better. However if you have the time, do both!
We finished up the day with a swim at the only beach in Sorrento and saw Sean and Gemma also jumping in for a dip. After a quick catch up, we then wandered around marina at bottom of campsite and spotted some great spots for fresh seafood, so ventured back down there that evening. We can't remember the restaurant name... but there's lots down there and you probably can't go too wrong given you can see all the fishing vessels moored right there.
On our final full day we decided to take the bus to Positano, both to visit the beautiful town itself, and to do a mini scout of the road we would be driving on the next day.
It was quite tricky to get a bus as the timing and bus stop information was not correct in Google Maps, and furthermore once we did eventually find the correct stop, the buses were not picking up anyone as they were already full. We then had to walk another 15minutes to the first stop on the SITA bus route (right outside the train station), which also had a massive queue for the next bus (see the SITA bus timetable here). Eventually after almost an hour, we got one, and luckily grabbed a seat at the front right-hand side, which offered a beautiful panoramic view of the coastline (more on this later). It was also extremely fortunate given the twisting road meant eventually several kids got sick and vomited down the aisle... which then sloshed back and forward as the bus continued on... needless to say the photo below portrays the situation quite well... it stunk! Thank god we had seats near the front...
Once we arrived in Positano (after an hour of pinching our noses), we dived off the bus to suck in the sweet non-vomit-smelling air, and felt sorry for the families we had heard on board the bus trying to calm their kids by saying "Amalfi is only a few more minutes away", when in fact we knew the town was actually closer to another hours' drive... Feeling refreshed, we then headed down the massive staircase weaving in and out of the unique little village of Positano which was very similar in look and feel to Cinque Terre. The staircase can be tricky to find, so follow the street just down to the left of this tobacco shop and then follow the stairs down.
We then arrived at the beach, which was overcrowded with the usual expensive day beds. Feeling a bit peckish, and given all the restaurants were a) expensive and b) had bad reviews (so they were all textbook tourist traps), we simply grabbed a cheap Diavola pizza to share along the beachfront, and then continued to wander the alleyways and markets up the hills behind the beach. The mixture of architecture, overgrown vines and colourful markets, was very beautiful.
After checking out a few expensive stores (most of which were also filled with lemon and leather), we eventually grabbed a few beers and headed back to the beach for a swim to cool off from the intense heat. As we are never willing to pay the €20+ for beach chairs in Italy, we always have to settle for the "free" part of the beach, which is usually overcrowded. This was no exception... but what made it worse was that the beach itself really wasn't that great compared to some of the other hidden gems we have found in Europe. Another good reminder to treasure the less known locations, and not be a sheep when looking for relaxing beaches, as otherwise when you are crammed among a million other Europeans, it's not that relaxing at all.
Following an hour or so soaking up some sun and cooling off, it was time to head back. After the horror bus ride there, we decided we would ferry back... however it turned out all ferries from Positano to Sorrento were cancelled that day due to "weather", even though it was a crystal clear day with almost dead flat seas (perhaps the Italians just couldn't be bothered?). So we had to bus back... After a similar farcical experience trying to catch packed buses and having to wait (the reason they were so packed made even more sense now that the ferries were cancelled), you wouldn't believe what happened... Someone else vomited in this bus also... unbelievable. Eventually we made it back to Sorrento, but once again the process taking over two hours on a packed vomit smelling bus... lovely...
Amalfi Coast Drive
Following our scout of the coast road the previous day, we knew we would need to be up super early to avoid traffic and make our journey down the coast more enjoyable. We got up at 6.00am and were on the road at 6.30am (a practically unheard of time of day for us). This also meant we were less likely to run into any issues, as technically campervans aren't allowed down the coast (but as we heard this only applies to large RVs and given that Gary is just a van, we were ok).
With the sun rising and the water as flat as glass, the drive was simply stunning. One of the most, if not the most, beautiful drives we have ever done. Albeit, a still harrowing experience and intense game of chicken as the increasingly narrow roads somehow accommodate two lanes of oncoming traffic, including gigantic buses which frequently have to reverse to allow each other past - like some strange form of car dancing, it just doesn't look like it will ever work, but somehow it does, and the traffic continues to flow (even if pretty damn slowly). There were several moments where we were 1-2cm from other cars and walls, usually at the same time, and with such a small margin for error. Needless to say, several horns and expletives were exchanged throughout the drive.
Along the way we popped into Amalfi and tried to park but to be honest it didn't look that great given our recent experience of the beautiful Positano. Furthermore it was impossible to park in. So after a quick five minute look-around, and getting yelled at by some parking guards, we headed on. We then stopped in a cute little town called Minori, which was much more practical to park in and was actually full of locals, rather than tourists. We grabbed a quick coffee and sat on the beach before browsing some small markets.
As we continued down the coast, we started to notice an increase in the amount of oncoming traffic, which definitely justified our decision to hit the road early. As we negotiated the final few villages, we continued to be swept up in the beauty of this area. Almost in a trance, before we knew it we had arrived at the end of the coast road, just outside of Salerno. We then continued directly inland towards Bari to ensure we had plenty of time of make our ferry crossing to Croatia.
Onward to Bari
There is not much to say about Bari at all, other than it really is quite a hole. To allow some buffer time we had arrive about six hours before our ferry (where the boarding process started around three hours before). Therefore we used this time to get supplies and replace our empty CampingGaz bottle, which turned out to be a bit of a nightmare, and after visiting five stores, we eventually found a place and as usual in Italy, got completely ripped off (€30 instead of the €8-15 it should cost). Unfortunately it seemed the vendor knew the bottles were impossible to get in Croatia as well. We would recommend you swap your bottle before arriving in Bari in order to avoid the same issues we had.
Once arriving in Bari, the key thing is you need to check-in here, which is actually a few km down from where the boat leaves. You then park up in line, and await the boarding process, which is a bit farcical and takes forever. Make sure your van is loaded with snacks and drinks. We met some lovely dutch people with their RV and shared some beers before boarding. Gary's dutch number-plate is always a conversation starter with the dutch, who are always surprised when we reply in English, and then explain we are actually from New Zealand.
Overall the ferry itself was fun. We paid just under €300 for the van (under five meters), the two of us, and a cabin (with just a sink, but a shared bathroom available down the hall). The service on board was excellent, and we sat on the deck, drunk wine and watched a movie, before heading to bed for what was actually a great sleep. We awoke to a knock at the door, signalling it was time to get up. By the time we packed and headed upstairs, the boat was practically already docked in Dubrovnik. We kind of wish we had got up early to watch the ship approaching the coast. But you have probably already picked up the problem with that - "early" is not a thing we do very well, or often. We then headed down to Gary, drove off the boat, waited an hour or so in the customs line. Once we showed our NZ passports, the customs officers laughed, muttered something about "hobbits" and waved us immediately through. Just like that, we were in Croatia.
After almost three weeks in the country shaped like a boot, before we knew it, our time in Italy was over. And what a brilliant three weeks it was. Overall we were very pleased with our route and would recommend it to anyone looking to head down the country like we did. We would later be popping back into Venice briefly on our way back north near the end of the trip (as this saved us having to cross back and forth). But for now it was goobye Italy, goodbye Schengen region and HELLO BALKANS!
Bidi & Dan :)