Postcards from the Amalfi Coast
Since COVID has me "stuck" in New Hampshire, three of my last four posts have been about the Granite State. As much as I love my home area, this is a travel blog and I thought it was high time to bust out and reflect on another part of the world that is near and dear to my heart.
Come with me as I share some of my favorite photos and musings from Part 1 of my honeymoon with Alyse. The time? May 2009. The place? La Costiera Amalfitana, a rugged stretch of shoreline whose vistas are the stuff of fantasies and daydreams.
Of course a honeymoon could be magical in Hoboken if you're with the person you love. When you bring that person to some of the most stunning locations in Italy, the magic becomes something otherworldly. I'm profoundly grateful to have had this opportunity, scenes from which I'll remember until the day I die.
Getting to the Amalfi Coast from New Hampshire was a complex and time-consuming process. From our wedding venue in Laconia, NH, these are the steps we took to get there:
Drive to White Plains, NY (~5 hours)
Private car ride to JFK Airport - thanks Ed! (~1 hour)
Flight from JFK to Dublin (5-6 hours)
Layover in Dublin (~2 hours)
Flight from Dublin to Rome (~3 hours)
Train from Rome Airport to Central Rome (~45 mins)
High-speed train from Rome to Naples (~1.5 hours)
Pre-arranged van ride from Naples to Nocelle - grazie Francesco! (~1 hour)
Traverse copious stone steps on foot with excessively large bags to B&B (15 mins)
Needless to say it was well worth it, but all told it had been almost 24 hours, and we desperately needed a shower and change of clothes.
Side note: my lack of proper clothing would be a theme of our 2.5 weeks in Italy. I had read repeatedly about not dressing too "American", that is, t-shirt, cargo shorts, and sneakers - what I wear pretty much every warm day. Rather, to bring comfortable clothing for touring - t-shirt, cargo shorts, and sneakers - what I wear pretty much every warm day. You can see my conundrum!
I therefore brought a mixture of stylish (my definition is anything that wasn't at least 60% off at Kohl's) button-downs and a variety of other items that wouldn't have Italians snickering at my American-ness. Of course, schlepping a suitcase large enough to stow away Pavarotti himself might have given locals a clue.
I had simultaneously brought too many clothes and not enough. To prove this, please enjoy a picture of me handwashing socks in a Rome hotel room sink, as I had somehow run out midway through the trip. Anyway, back to the story...
Those familiar with international travel will understand the peculiar mix of exhaustion and exhilaration one has upon arrival in a foreign land. It was in this bewilderingly dissonant state that we checked into Casa Cuccaro, a B&B whose fabulous location pushed my brain - my very being - to its limits of comprehension.
Part of a pedestrian-only village whose buildings were sprinkled astride a cliff as if by God Himself, we soared 1,500 feet above the sea while standing soldier still. The scenes before my eyes were impossible, right? Was I really here, part of this devastatingly magnificent setting? All the colors were exaggerated - outlandish brushstrokes of an eccentric watercolorist. Bougainvillea glowed magenta. Bursts of plump lemons gleamed in the afternoon sunlight.
Cliffside breezes infused the place with subtly floral scents, steeped with freshness and life; the glorious promise of new days ahead. Then there was the blue. Photos do no justice to the dazzling Mediterranean. It was just water, but somehow it was so much more. The only reaction possible was an incredulous, reverential silence.
These scenes weren't just before us, but somehow deep within us. This soul-stirring beauty is possible, a higher power seemed to say. It won't always be so obvious, but it does exist. It's worth striving for, and you'll know it when you see it.
Our first full day began with a breakfast on our lodging's deserted terrace with sweeping 180 degree views. We then proceeded down 1,700 steps toward the center of Positano, stopping countless times for photos along the winding stone way.
Positano itself is as spectacular as the travel posters suggest, tourist throngs notwithstanding. Being here in late May rather than July or August allowed us to avoid the worst of it and still have a bit of elbow room. Dwellings of white, coral, and ochre scaled the hillsides, seemingly stacked atop one another as if cartoon characters jostling for the very best view.
The town's few roads were perilously narrow by American standards, and to make matters more alarming were shared by gaggles of window-shopping pedestrians, hotshot moped riders, and boxy minibuses. At first it was disconcerting, but then I got used to the devil-may-care chaos, in the streets and elsewhere. The Italians handle bedlam extremely well - thrive on it, even. This took some getting used to, especially for someone who loves order and structure like myself. Public spaces - a triangle of stone pavers here, a teensy piazza there - became spontaneous venues to chat, reminisce, or enjoy a cappuccino with an acquaintance. Social life is Italy is second-to-none.
People-watching in these parts was extraordinary. Pale, middle age couples from England and Germany rubbed shoulders with chic native Italians. Here, the comeliness of the landscape extends right into the populace: from the young man who makes a plain white T and ripped jeans look stylish to the 45-year old mother in a saffron-hued sundress. She looks 15 years younger, healthy in body and spirit. Her bold, smiling brown eyes allow a glimpse within when she happens to meet your gaze. They possessed a breezy, effortless elegance despite - perhaps because of - the chaos that surrounded them.
Alyse and I ambled through Positano, feasting on fresh seafood and pasta for lunch, shopping for keepsakes, and just basking in the coastal elegance. We held hands. Views swept us away constantly, as did the realization that we were married and in this impossibly lovely land. At evening's end, we somehow had to make it back to our elevated B&B. Rather than climbing the 1,700 steps again in the dark, we discovered that one of the minibus routes would bring us all the way back up!
"Montay-payr-TOOZO!" The bald, gruff-voiced driver announced our first destination as we tentatively stepped on board. As we hurtled out of the village in a fog of diesel fumes, I squinted skyward. The road was absurdly steep and contorted, appearing and disappearing from view as it twisted spaghetti-like through the crumpled mountains. The journey ahead looked farcical, something dreamed up by Dr. Seuss. I was both terrified and totally thrilled.
As if looking out my window at thousand-foot drop-offs wasn't harrowing enough, I quickly noticed that the road was too narrow for two cars to pass abreast. Baldy downshifted the straining bus, honking wildly around blind corners. Occasionally we met a downward vehicle head-on. Both drivers leaned hard on the brakes, and the uphill vehicle had to back up the mountain, sometimes 100 feet or more, until there was a section of road where two vehicles could pass.
This was a local bus for cliffside residents to commute to town and bring back the catch of the day or perhaps a bottle of potent limoncello (that is, if they didn't produce it in their own garden). Hearing animated conversations in Italian put a smile on my face, even if I didn't understand them. We were immersed in authentic day-to-day coastal life. At one point, the driver abruptly stopped the bus, just to shout staccato pleasantries to a paesano out the window. Molto italiano.
When we made it past Montepertuso all the way back to Nocelle, I finally loosened my sweaty vise grip on the metal seat handle. Peculiarly though, I somehow didn't want the ride to be over either. For the next few days we took the bus several more times, each journey more spellbinding than the previous. Perhaps the best way to describe this "commute", though, doesn't use a single word. A triangular sign I glimpsed on the side of the mountain curves simply contained a lone, stark exclamation point. Couldn't have said it better myself.
Over the following days we decided to day trip to the Amalfi Coast's namesake town via - gasp - full-sized bus (side note: the fact that every one of these buses had dents and scars down their sides was not reassuring).
Amalfi was slightly larger and more historically significant than Positano. It had even been a maritime power and independent republic for several centuries prior to 1100. This city of 5,000 (probably 50,000+ in the summer) had a longer seaside promenade on which we strolled like carefree guests of benevolent royalty. When the promenade ended, we just kept on walking, right into the next town, called Atrani.
Less well-known than Positano or Amalfi, this compact little seaside spot was another source of dozens of photo ops - and a delightful lunch accompanied by live music.
After a pleasant couple hours here, it was time for a day trip-within-a-day trip, up into the mountains again to Ravello. This hilltop hamlet was simply magical, causing doubts to well up again that this was reality. We were surrounded by an aura of such perfection that words cannot adequately convey. I imagine some folks' fantasies of heaven even fall short of the consummate Villa Rufolo.
If I was here but it was overcast, 55 degrees and crowded, I still would have loved it. This, however, was the pinnacle of my life to that point. The 75 degree sun rays warmed my skin and my soul. Virtually no one was around to impede views fit for a sultan. Fragrant floral arrays exploded around us. The moment's soundtrack was the sweet warble of birds and light sea breezes. I'll never forget it.
Years ago, back in New Hampshire - which now felt a galaxy away - I had clipped a photo from a travel brochure of two ancient-looking domed towers, staring out over the azure depths. It was something I looked at longingly on my bulletin board, aspired to visit before I died. Moments later, we came upon the very scene I'd waited years to step into. It was the equivalent of Michael Jordan's biggest fan watching him hit a game-winning jump shot live after seeing it countless times on TV. A pure, gooseflesh-inducing thrill.
The town itself wasn't too shabby either. Or, rather, it was, but in that graceful, peeling paint-is-charming sort of Italian way that has no US equivalent. A peeling house here looks derelict and/or shabby; chances are a guy named Al or Chuck and his crew will come by to paint it post haste. Why, then, are cracked, crumbling or faded buildings in Italy so doggone stylish? There's something in the Italian air, I tell ya!
Before we departed the halcyon environs of the Amalfi Coast a few days later, the skies began to threaten. Of course being Italy, the landscapes looked just as provocative in grey. The sea morphed from royal blue to a turbid teal. A cloak of ominous, smoke-colored cotton surged over the mountains, but before it soaked us we snatched a few more photos.
Neither sunshine nor honeymoons last forever, which we'd be reminded of with all the force of of a bullet train later in the year. But for now, we were still ensconced in once-in-a-lifetime landscapes, and more importantly, each other's loving embrace.
The next day we packed up our suitcases - enough baggage for approximately three months on the Oregon Trail - and were off to Rome and Sicily for Legs 2 and 3 of the adventure. Nothing could compare to the scenic riches of the Amalfi Coast though - or so we thought...