Our Italian Adventure: Road trip from Puglia to Amalfi
PART 43: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.
We live in Puglia in the Summer and then back again in the winter following the 90/180 guidelines.
Step 1: Having a car in Puglia is essential. We use it for errands and to visit incredible places and towns around Lecce. To keep in budget, we are renting a used car for the months we are living in Puglia.
In February, our local Puglian friends suggested we take a more extended road trip to Amalfi from Lecce, Puglia. At first, we hesitated because of having other things on our plate, but our local friends insisted that March would be an ideal time before the tourists start arriving in April. Plus, our car was older and we weren’t sure about such a long drive.
Step 2: The how
Reliable vehicle. It is a five-hour drive from our place in Puglia to the town of Amalfi, and part of the draw of this coast is the harrowing drive on its rocky cliffs. Our used car has been reliable until now, but sometimes it just wants to stay in 3rd gear. Not a big deal on flat roads, but it could be an issue on the Amalfi coast. So to be sure, we rented a new car for our 4-day road trip.
Where to say. To save money, we initially intended to stay outside the immediate Amalfi coast area, following the recommendation of a local friend. He recommended a hotel that was a good deal in the past; I made a reservation, but the prices were higher than I expected.
The next day our friend contacted me with second thoughts. "Rather than staying in Cava dei Tirreni, where I first recommended, I now think it is better to stay on the Amalfi coast, perhaps in Amalfi. That way, you are in the middle of everything. And since it is the off-season, the price should be low." He was 100% correct. We found a great Airbnb in the middle of Amalfi for less than the hotel we had located outside the area.
Parking. "There is no parking in Amalfi, so you must think of this before you go!" our Puglian mother hens urged us. Through our AirBnB host, we eventually found parking for 30 euros a night; not cheap, but a necessary step.
When to go. Our local Puglian friends keep telling us to avoid the summer tourist months if we go to the Amalfi coast. "You will sit on the road and never move!" one said. "They restrict driving according to your license plate!" said another. "Go now or wait until next winter or spring!" said a 3rd. So following local advice, we took the plunge and went.
Step 3: The what
Our five-hour drive went quickly; once we arrived in the area, few cars were on the Amalfi coast road.
Google maps directed us to Amalfi, but we bypassed the town since we needed help to get to our parking structure. The only road we could find into the town was full of pedestrians, with the cathedral to the right and the fountain to the left. "We can't bring our car in there," my partner said as we pulled aside and rechecked Google Maps. "Plus, it says 'ZTL' zone; we will get fined!"
So we called our Airbnb host, who told us yes, that is the way in and to not worry about the fine; the garage would take care of it. So we pulled the car into the main piazza and inched our way through the pedestrians to the upper town, where the garages were located. Everybody was staring at us as if we were doing something wrong, but later our host confirmed that pedestrians and cars share the same road into the heart of the town.
That was our first introduction to Amalfi.
But once we parked, settled, and explored, we found a beautiful but highly touristy city. It is not a town I would want to stay in all day, but it would make an excellent base.
As stated above, our friends warned us about the traffic on the Amalfi coast during the summer months, so going in March was a great decision. The weather was already warming up, the sun was out, and we were the ONLY car on the coastal road in some areas! Driving along the coast, viewing the beautiful towns and panoramas was a highlight of our trip.
The next day we parked along the coast some distance from Positano and walked down to the town; this was rewarding since we could pause, explore, enjoy the views, and discover hidden paths.
What I am going to say below is only our experience, so let me preface these comments with that fact.
I found Positano more beautiful from a distance than from inside the city. Positano looks like a dream from the coastal road, nestled up the hillside on the sea. But once inside the town, I found it highly touristy, full of shops of items that I would never want to buy. We walked up and down the streets, wondering if we were missing something. We went to see the cathedral and then explored smaller streets; we passed shop after shop, selling a lot of ceramics, overpriced clothing, and cheesy artwork.
We walked down to the beach; it was not warm enough to swim or sunbathe, but the water was beautiful.
I know people who come to Positano for extended periods. They may love lying on the beach all day or staying in a pool; others may use it as a base.
But for me, after two or three hours of exploring Positano, I was done. Grateful but done.
We wanted to go to Ravello from Amalfi, and I was trying to figure out parking. "What do you think if we hiked there?" my partner asked. I got my Google Maps, and we calculated how doable it was. We were able to find a path that didn't take us on a busy road.
About 10 minutes after we started, we passed some donkeys being led up the path, carrying supplies. We then bumped into a kind man, Gino, who worked at our garage. We told him where we were headed, and he suggested we go to the left rather than the right. "You will see a beautiful waterfall, pass an interesting organic restaurant run by farmers, and see incredible views." That was enough for us.
This hike ended up being the highlight of our trip, and we resolved that our next Amalfi coast trip would be more hike-centered.
As we made our way up the path to the first town, Portone, we passed a small cafe where the proprietor invited us in. "Would you like some freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice from my orchard?" he asked. A minute later, we sat at a table with ripening lemons hanging over our heads and a view of the sea to our left. Before I left, I told him this was a moment I would never forget. He thanked me and stuffed two huge lemons in my hand.
We wandered through Villa Rufolo, which is impressive and well-known, and then walked further on to Villa Cimbrone, which I liked even better! The views from Ravello were terrific and were well worth the effort. I will remember the scene of school kids playing soccer in the town piazza, in front of views that words fail to capture.
I think next time we go, we will make Ravello our base.
Step 4: The experience
The drive along the Amalfi coast off-season is fantastic, the panoramas are incredible, and the atmosphere is magical. Our favorite experiences included hiking to Ravello and seeing Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone.
Exploring the Amalfi coast on foot was very fulfilling, and next time we go, we will hike the "path of the gods."
The not so good
Tourist towns: The tourist towns of Amalfi and Positano are great for a short visit, strolling through the town, going to the beach, or even using them as a base to see other things. But they are very touristy, so I was done with them after a few hours.
Restaurants: These were probably isolated experiences, but we went to three restaurants in two days in the Amalfi area. At all three, we were overcharged. They were small amounts, but it kept happening.
At the first one where we ate dinner, in Amalfi, we were charged for two coffees we did not order; we noticed it after we left. We figured it was an oversight and let it go. At the second, in Ravello, we were charged 36 euros for two lasagnas; when I inquired, the waitress said, "We gave you bigger slices." I didn't believe it, but I didn't make a fuss. At the third, in Positano, we were determined not to let it happen again. We checked the prices and ordered two pizzas. When the bill came, the price was higher than on the menu, so we pointed it out to the waiter. "Oh, they didn't update the price on my phone!" he explained. No, we didn't believe that one either.
I don't know how common this is, but we started buying food at supermarkets to avoid wondering if we were being taken advantage of.
Insights: Being a savvy traveler is just part of the learning experience, and we are grateful. The Amalfi coast is impressive, and we will return. Next time we will plan more hikes and be more aware of navigating tourist areas and restaurants.
My book is now out: "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy." Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Stories-Puglia-Californians-Southern-Italy/dp/1913680649.
And also, on Amazon Italy: https://www.amazon.it/gp/product/1913680649/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0.
More next time.