By Peter Wu
One recent memorable trip to a less-travelled corner of the world took me and my wife Freda across Southern Italy, from Naples to the Amalfi Coast and the “Heel of the Italian Boot.”
We got to our destinations on the west coast by shuttle, taxi and ferry. Then we drove to the east coast.
Yes, you heard me right. We drove. What’s it like to drive in Italy?
I think any person with a sane mind wouldn’t want to drive in an Italian city. The streets are narrow and can crisscross one another in an instant.
Driving from Naples down to the Amalfi Coast could be fatal in another way. The road winds tightly around the cliffs, with a single lane each way. In sections where the road is wider by just an extra yard or so, a car would park there! Why? There is not enough parking spaces all the time! Our taxi driver had to call ahead to secure a parking spot at the garage at Positano.
Once out of the city and away from the cliffs, however, driving in Europe can be pleasant (I drove in Portugal too). Traffic is normally light. With modern technology and Google map, we are in business. Italian drivers move fast. Some of them like to show off by driving 120 km/h in a 50 km/h zone. Except for speeding, however, they follow the rules. I didn’t feel threatened behind the wheel.
The changing weather can pose a risk, though. We drove through a rainstorm that was so intense that we couldn’t see the road and had to follow a truck for safety.
Here are the highlights of our sojourn.
From Naples, we visited Pompeii, Sorrento, Positano, and Amalfi on the west coast. Then we drove to Aberobello, Locorotondo, Ostuni, Polignano and Matera on the east coast.
Our bed-and-breakfast in Naples is on the top floor of this crimson building. A part of the movie Marriage Italian Style, starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, was filmed on the second-floor balcony.
The building is an example of historical architecture, as are most structures in Naples. Unlike the rest of Europe, Italy sustained minimum bombing in the Second World War and the government decided to keep almost everything as is. On the plus side, this has made Italy the No. 1 tourist destination in the world. The negative side is that city planning and revitalization are close to impossible.
Naples, by the way, is the place of origin for the pizza.
Pompeii was quite a thriving city before disaster struck on Aug. 24 in the year 70 AD. The nearby Vesuvius volcano erupted, spewing out massive amounts of super-heated gases, ash, molten rock and other debris that buried Pompeii. Centuries later, the site was found and excavated. It is still possible to see that the streets were in an orderly grid, with a main square for market and government offices. There is an amphitheatre just outside the city limit where gladiators competed. Yes, many of them died in their locked sleeping cells when the volcano erupted.
As with many Italian relics showcasing the former glory of the Roman Empire, the restoration work at Pompeii is never ending. The photograph above is a presentation of what the fresco looked like before and after the eruption. Mount Vesuvius still dominates the skyline of the west coast today, as can be seen from the photograph below.
The Amalfi Coast consists of Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi, and Salerno. Our driver advised us to skip the last stop as we won’t be able to cover them all in one day.
The cover photo at the top of this article features Sorrento seen from a high vista point that was well worth the trip. The city itself is quite touristy. We walked around to appreciate how the Italians are so creative to make use of every inch of the vertical space of the rugged coastal terrain. It is quite common for architecture students from North America to visit Italy as a kind of pilgrimage in their chosen field.
If you have limited time, Positano is a must to see as it represents the Amalfi Coast. There are 200,000 people working here to serve the tourists. It is so expensive and so crowded with tourists year round that few locals would care to live here.
Walking down from where we parked the car to the black sandy beach, every turn was extremely pleasing to the eyes.
Italian designs are at their best in Positano. Just look at this window display:
Capri Island is still the place to be for the rich and famous. At the pier, there is a fleet of bright-coloured convertible taxis soliciting business – they are quite expensive but look like lots of fun. On one shopping street, all the Guccis, Pradas, and LVs are waiting for customers too.
Most of all, Capri Island is famous for the Blue Grotto. Operatic boatmen would take tourists out to the caves along the coast. In the sun, the sea water inside the cave would be in azure colour. And the boatmen would sing just for you in the beautiful setting.
We weren’t so lucky the day we were there. The Blue Grotto was not accessible because of high tide and swells.
Driving to the East Coast
One of the items on my bucket list was to drive in Italy, so I picked a place where I thought it would be easier to get to by car. Well, lucky guess. I picked the City of Bari to visit (it looked good on Google map). And I picked this B and B which seemed close enough to Bari and we could also enjoy staying in the countryside.
Turns out I was quite wrong with my choice of destination but really so blessed and rewarded for picking this B and B. We never went to Bari, but with the advice of our host, Domenic, we filled our east coast trip with astounding finds.
With all the travel shows, maybe you have seen this on TV or in magazine. We didn’t.
On the whole, this part of Italy is much poorer than the rich industrialized states in the north and the west coast. It’s been poorer for the past 1,500 years. This is what makes the area so culturally different and refreshing.
These huts are called trulli; each one is a trullo.
The hut is short because (a) southern Italians are much shorter, and (b) they were poorer. The roofs are made from slate tiles scattered everywhere in the field. Therefore, the poor people could build a house almost for free.
Seems like most Italian townships are built on top of a hill. This is one of them. The inner city is basically painted white. And there is no litter. Amazing! Feels like a movie set.
Another hilltop township. At first, we were a bit disappointed with Domenic’s recommendation but then we saw a steady flow of people going through an archway. We followed them – and loved what we saw! Again, every turn was surprise.
We came across an art gallery with free admission.
Let me tell you that after three months in Europe visiting so many museums and churches, seeing all the paintings and sculptures about religion and the royals, this one was definitely a breath of fresh air.
Still have no idea why such an amazing collection of contemporary art could be found here.
The beach is quite underused even with the balmy weather that day. Once the tourists become aware of this, however, the relaxing atmosphere will be destroyed.
This is definitely worth seeing again. I think this region is getting noticed.
There is a restaurant built inside a cave on the other side. It is super expensive, the food is lousy, and we couldn’t get a reservation. Go figure.
The seaside houses are built on every last inch of the solid rock.
Matera – our last stop
On way back to Naples Airport, we stopped by Matera where Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was filmed.
Matera was evacuated in 1952 due to the extremely poor conditions. Now, people are moving in to showcase the cave dwellings. Matera was named European Culture Capital 2019: Just like a Cinderella story!