The Amalfi Coast Drive

'Michael, make me an offer I can’t refuse.' I couldn’t resist saying in what I thought was my best Italian accent to Michael Rizzo, owner of Campania Car Rentals. Michael obviously had heard that dialogue enough number of times and came swiftly to the point. 'You cannot afford that 1951 Alfa Romeo convertible, even for a day. However, I do have a 2010 Peugeot that suits your budget. It’s fast enough for the drive.' Seeing my hopeful look, he further added 'And no, it’s not a convertible.' 

It was a beautiful May afternoon in Praiano, a small town located between Amalfi and Positano, the Amalfi Coast’s poster towns. I was alternating between admiring the stunning seascape and ogling at a red Alfa Romeo convertible while occasionally paying attention to Michael.

We were sitting in Bar del Sole, Praiano's favourite cafe. Located on the Amalfi Highway and overlooking the stately Church of San Gennaro, Bar del Sole is the main point of reference in Praiano. One doesn't say, 'Let's meet at Bar del Sole'. One simply states the intention to meet and expresses a time conducive to the concerned parties. And the parties will meet up at Bar del Sole. Unless one states in no unequivocal terms that the meeting should happen at the cafe at Onda Verde Hotel. Or at the Il Pirata restaurant down at the beach. So, when Michael said that he would do the necessary car rental paperwork over a coffee at 5, we had no doubts about where to land up. When you are in a village with a population of 2000 or so, you quickly get to know the local favourites.

The paperwork is completed after many queries - CDW - means if I bang into another car, crash into the rocky mountain face or decide to dive into the sea while still in the car, irrespective of the damage, all I needed to pay is 100 euros.  Valentina, the leather-clad, chain-smoking assistant of Michael handed over the keys to me.  She smiled sweetly and pointed at the little cross dangling from the key chain. 'That cross is to make sure you don't fall into the Mediterranean while admiring the beauty of our coast.' I didn't know whether she was joking or just stating a fact. But actually she had nailed the subject.

Yes. The Amalfi Coast in Southern Italy is considered to be one of the world’s most spectacular coastlines. And yes, it is considered to be one of the most hair-raising drives too. Stretching some 40 odd km from Sorrento to Salerno, this famed road winds through red-roofed villages clinging precariously to steep mountainsides with the Mediterranean beckoning seductively below. An omnipresent lemon-scented breeze removes all last vestiges of doubt about whether it's easier to hop on a coach and join other gawking tourists or think of oneself as a modern-day adventurer and salivate at the prospect of tackling hairpin bends behind the wheel of a 1951 red Alfa Romeo convertible. Fine. A 2010 Peugeot hatchback.

But the point had been made. I think.

We walked to the tiny parking lot where a magician had parked 15 cars in a space meant for 10. Michael seeing me wring my hands in a very un-alpha male manner, quickly asked for the magician who doubled as a waiter at the Bar del Sole. Times are tough after all. After a few deft turns, my blue Peugeot miraculously found itself on the road. I got behind the wheel and suddenly my long-cherished dream suddenly became all too real. I drove straight up to our home stay near Piazza Moresa. Correction. I drove half way. I found parking near the Praiano Municipal Hall. Blue lines for tourists. Yellow for residents. Parking spaces in these towns are like the perfect partner whom one knows is out there somewhere. But it’s a bit unlikely that you will find one the moment you step outside your front door. I devoted a good part of the evening to studying the details of the drive ahead.   

I woke up to a bleak sky overcast with clouds. I pondered for a brief moment whether it was an omen. But as I walked down to the car, the ever-present lemon-scented breeze whispered encouragingly in my ears. I could barely restrain myself from breaking into a jig.

The easiest part of driving down the Amalfi Coast was the directions. There is one highway - the famous SS163, or the road of 1000 bends. You just keep travelling on it, either towards Salerno or Sorrento. The villages/towns that are located high above in the mountains are also well signposted. You basically go off the SS163, snake up into the mountains, down a quick espresso, gape at the views, explore the town/village, and then drive down till you get back to the SS163. The most difficult part was, of course, the driving.

As I hit the highway, the Italian RJ chirped merrily that everything's fine with the world. Or words to that effect. She sounded so positive that she couldn’t have been talking about broken hearts or crumbling economies. On my right, a steep drop down a rocky mountain face was the deep rolling Tyrrhenian Sea, whitecaps skittering across the waves. On my left were mountains with what could be only described as luxuriant Mediterranean foliage, lemon orchards, pretty houses stacked on top of one another and the occasional shepherd defying the laws of gravity with typical Italian impudence. I rolled the windows down and tried to sing along with whatever caught my fancy. There was hardly any traffic. The tourist season was just about stirring from its long winter slumber. Come summer, the narrow road ensures traffic jams are as common as a Fellini film at a film fest. 

I quickly got used to the driving quirks of the locals. The sight of a hairpin bend means a sharp toot of the horn and sudden acceleration was in order. The prospect that a slight misjudgment might make one or two cars fly off the road and down the precipitous drop apparently doesn’t occur to the driver/s. As yet another car blasted past within air kissing distance at a bend, I started noticing the strategically placed ‘corner’ mirrors at every bend. As I approached the next bend, I kept my eyes peeled for the corner mirror. An act that revealed a massive tourist bus thundering around the corner. Forget air kisses, I mentally prepared myself for a messy coupling. With nothing to lose, I slammed on the brakes and let out one piercing blast of the horn. The bus driver saw the whites of my eyes and decided to test his brakes too. And somehow we managed to find space in that tight corner. Imagine a 6ft6 bouncer and Woody Allen inside a trial room trying on new clothes without touching each other. The bus driver shouted encouragingly as I gingerly moved inch by inch past the bus angling the car in ways I thought was not possible. I almost heard my guardian angel weep with relief as I turned the corner without scratching the car or bruising my ego.    

As I drove on merrily with newfound confidence, narrowly missing sharp corners and young daredevils with their squealing amores wrapped around them on Vespas, I came to a theory about how the highway must have been visualized. When King Ferdinand II gave the order to build the SS163, the team of engineers (all brilliant, I am sure) must have been led by somebody who had an immense love for spaghetti. Maybe in his family of 20, during hard times, whenever spaghetti was made, only a few got to eat it. Others just devoured it with their eyes. Or, maybe he had a doting mom who made the tastiest spaghetti in Italy. Anyway, when he got the brief, the first thing he must have done was to discuss matters over a long lunch where the main course was, surprise, surprise, spaghetti. As they discussed at length the vexing problems created by the invention of motor vehicles and how people for centuries had traversed this region easily by foot, donkeys and boats, the Chief Engineer noticed a strand of spaghetti lying on top of a map of the Amalfi Coast. The strand stretched from Salerno to Sorrento connecting all the places in between. And voila! The Strada Statale 163 was conceived. Everybody shook hands joyously, thumped each other on their backs (though I suspect this was more to do with the fact that a couple of them might have been choking on the excellent mozzarella) and went back to their lunch.
All this is, of course, absolute conjecture. 

This is more or less; the template of attractions of almost every town on the route, from heavyweights like Amalfi, Positano and Ravello to little gems like Praiano and Scala. Ancient churches standing aloof on rocky outcrops. Abandoned moss-covered mills that hint broadly of more affluent times. Magnificent Roman villas. Unassuming museums documenting centuries-old traditions of the coast, ranging from papermaking to ceramics. Atmospheric hotels with vine-covered Michelin-star restaurants. Bustling seafront family-run eateries serving the freshest of seafood. Octopus salad, anyone? Quirky wine and cheese bars deep inside cobbled alleys. Colourful gelato and the region’s famed lemon-based liqueur, limoncello stands. Peaceful piazzas (town squares). Grand duomos (cathedrals). Hiking trails that showcase breathtaking views of the Amalfi coastline. And tying everything together neatly is the Nastro Azzurro (Blue Ribbon) or the SS163.

The best way to explore this gorgeous stretch of coastline is to win the lottery, buy one of the houses dotting the coast and settle here forever. Failing that, you could also come for a couple of weeks and drive around the area. And while you are driving around, you shouldn’t be in any hurry to get anywhere. Only then you will be able to appreciate the beauty of Costiera Amalfitana.

And ideally do the drive in a red 1951 Alfa Romeo convertible.