Cliffs & Curves of the Amalfi Coast (2009)

Cliffs & Curves of the Amalfi Coast (2009)

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140 kms return, 3 days

Smugness comes naturally to Indian travellers. We know we have everything in our vast and varied landscape — from drop-dead gorgeous gorges and lofty peaks crowned by glaciers to pearly white sand beaches studded with exquisite temples and churches. So, when we board the bus at Sorrento, a couple of hours’ train ride from Naples, we don’t really fight for the window seat. Surely, much-touted Amalfi coast in the south of the Italian peninsula can’t be a patch on our very own Konkan and Karwar coasts.

Oh yes, it can be, and is. Little surprise that National Geographic should call this a once-in-a-lifetime drive and UNESCO should declare it a World Heritage Site. Only a few minutes out of Sorrento, and we’re already craning our necks to glimpse the shimmering Mediterranean through palm fronds sprouting out of crags.

Unlike Costa del Sol, the Spanish coastline that runs at sea-level all the way, here we keep climbing higher and higher until we seem to be cruising closer to the sky than the sea. We drive along a serpentine macadam wrapping itself around spectacular rockfaces that jut straight out of the sea.

The bus teeters gingerly on the verge of the towering bluff and you can just about glimpse the turquoise Mediterranean, frothing and crashing on the undulating and unyielding rocky corniche. We’re bound for Positano, almost midway between Sorrento and Amalfi. It is a picturesque little town, perched on a precipitous rock face and clothed in pastel-hued houses, all of which overlook a turquoise ocean.

Shimmering waters

At sunset, the horizon turns into an alchemist’s palette, dripping magical colours onto the shimmering waters below. The hills are verdant, setting off the blue of the sky as well as the sea. Unlike the Great Ocean Road in Australia, the Amalfi drive twists and coils serving up dramatic slices of plunging gorges and vertical cliffs.

The bus drops us off a few yards away from Holiday House Hilda. Daniela, Hilda’s cheerful daughter, shows us around our tastefully-decorated suite, complete with a fully-equipped kitchen, a patio and a balcony that hangs out into the sea, all for the cost of a room. We haven’t had a full meal (read Indian) in a fortnight now, and, at last, we can heat up the instant Indian meals we had carried all the way from home. But, is this what we came here for?

We plonk ourselves in the balcony, listening to the sound of surf crashing against the shore way below. All we want to do is to sprawl and unwind. A bottle of red wine completes our bliss as we gaze dreamily yonder, watching the sun dip into the waters. The next morning finds us sauntering towards the market. Positano is a sleepy village with a few ceramic shops that sell outrageously-priced tiles and other knick-knacks, a few clothing and jewellery stores and a handful of eateries. But, be prepared to puff your way up a very pleasant walk along some quaint homes and shops to reach the market. An equally steep descent brings you to a gorgeous but modest church, its dome studded with blue tiles. Alas, it is being renovated and sheathed in scaffolding. But, the floor sports a stunning mosaic pattern.

Virtually the entire village is perched on the slope overlooking the sea. Many houses have terraced gardens laden with ripe oranges and some have vineyards too. There is a general air of fecundity to the land that is reflected in phosphorescent purple and magenta bougainvillea blossoms that nod cheerily in the sea breeze.

Hilda and her daughters pamper us. They are so glad to have someone to talk to, for they have guests only for a few months in a year. We wonder how a haven of tranquillity such as this has not been sullied by tourist traffic yet. The entire region looks deserted. We must thank Rome, Florence and Venice for this favour!

Unhurried walk

After a couple of languorous days in Positano, we have to leave. We take the bus to Amalfi, but because the road has been blocked by a landslide, we’re dropped off in the middle of a road that looks as if it leads to paradise. The unhurried walk to the next village in an early morning drizzle through one of the most picturesque roads, heavy with the scent of ripening oranges, is the highlight of our travels through Italy.

Near the village of Praiano, there are steps going down to a mini-beach attached to a coral grotto carved by centuries of surf power. We go down one of these and peer into the luminous emerald waters there.

Amalfi, unfortunately, is touristy and crowded. Duomo di Sant’Andrea towers over Amalfi, its arched colonnades bespeaking a strong Moorish influence. The façade was redone in the 19th Century, but mercifully, it has left the original design intact. The steep steps leading up to the church are a pain, but once you do reach the top, you’re rewarded with a sweeping view of the bay and the hills.

(Published in The Hindu dated Mar 13, 2010)

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