05 June 2016

The Amalfi Coast, May 13-16: Gorgeous scenery, wonderful food, horrendous transportation

In many ways, the Amalfi Coast was the best part of our 26-day trip to Europe in April and May. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful. Our hotel in the town of Praiano was comfortable and accommodating. We had fantastic fish and seafood. We 'discovered' a couple of Italian white wines that we really liked a lot.

But as a counterpoint to how wonderful it was, transportation was a terrible hassle. We'd heard how treacherous the roads are on the Amalfi Coast, so we decided not to have a car. I don't regret that decision one bit. It would have been unbearably stressful trying to drive there. It was bad enough riding the buses. I have to admire the bus drivers. They somehow managed to get around the hairpin turns and through some of the narrowest roadways you could possible imagine. 

On Day 2 of our stay in Praiano, we had perhaps the most unique experience of our trip to Italy. We decided to take a hike up into the cliffs above our town. The path we took climbed up 2000 steps to a convent. Then a trail continued toward the next town where we planned to catch a bus into Positano. 

It was a lot like hiking around Cinque Terra. Some parts of the trail were better than Cinque Terra. But some parts were a lot more strenuous. Overall, we liked this hike better than Cinque Terra because the views were more dramatic. 
Goats on the hillside above Positano

At one part of the hike, we were way up high on the cliff. We heard bells ringing, and pretty soon a whole herd of goats came into view. The goat herder was calling out and whistling, and two dogs kept the goats sort of in formation. The goats were climbing all over the cliffs munching on the vegetation. One part of the herd came down to the trail and we found ourselves walking right among them. The photo doesn't do justice to how steep the cliff was and how close we were to the goats. It was a memorable experience.

We did eventually arrive in the next village and took a bus to Positano. We shopped for a while, but then it started to rain so we caught another bus back to our hotel.

One of the reasons we chose to stay in Praiano was because it's centrally located. But the practical implication is that no matter where you want to go, you have to take the bus, the generally over-crowded, usually smelly, often late bus. On Day 3, we wanted to see Pompeii. That meant that we had to take the Sitabus to Sorrento and then the Circumvesuviana local train. So it was 2 hours of hellish travel there and 2 hours back, for 3 hours of touring the ruins. 

Still, it was worth it. The ruins were amazing. We decided not to hire a guide. We had notes about the main things we wanted to see. But when we entered the ruins, we asked for a map and received an extraordinarily helpful guidebook to go along with it. So we could take our time looking at the things that most interested us. We did have a few periods of light rain. But we didn't even bother to put up our umbrellas (which we had carried with us). 

On Day 4, the weather improved. It was still cooler than normal, and there were periods of cloudy skies that looked threatening. But no rain, and when the sun was out, it was quite pleasant.

After breakfast we took the bus to Ravello and the town of Amalfi. Ravello is a hill town that's known for its concert series every summer. Linda had read that they have concerts in the park every day. But they must not have started yet because we heard none. Still it was a pretty and quaint town to visit. 
The Duomo in Amalfi

Amalfi was bigger and more touristy. We strolled thru the town and just looked around. The local duomo is famous for its large brass doors which were made in Constantinople in the 11th Century. It also was the only town during our whole stay in this part of Italy that was actually on the beach. I thought it was ironic that all this time we had beautiful views of the sea but always from the cliffs high above the surf.

Hotel: We stayed at the Hotel Margherita in Praiano, another recommendation by my brother-in-law who stayed there a year ago. We had a wonderful stay. The rooms are comfortable and reasonably priced. When we arrived, we got a room with a small terrace beside a lemon grove. But after our first two nights, we were offered an upgrade to a room with a balcony and a view of the sea. Nice! The staff was outstanding. They were very knowledgeable and helpful with advice on how to best get around. The hotel is located high up on the hill above the main part of town. We walked up and down during our stay. But there is a local bus that you can take as well. The hotel has a rooftop open-air restaurant. It was not open during our stay because of the weather (cool and rainy). But one morning we took our coffee up there to enjoy the view. 

Restaurants: 
Day 1 - Dinner at La Strada, which was wonderful. We shared a starter of grilled octopus. Then Linda had sea bass with lemon leaves and fennel. I had sea bass with a potato crust. Both were very good, but hers was better. We were served a delicious local white wine made from Greco grapes. (The DOC designation is Greco di Tufo.) Definitely one to look up and try to buy in the U.S.

Day 2 - Dinner at La Dolce Vista (The Sweet View). It was a family-run restaurant in a nice hotel. To start, we had the night special of ravioli stuffed with a local provolo cheese (similar to ricotta) and mushrooms and topped with a fresh tomato sauce. Excellent! Linda's entree was seared tuna with greens (rucola) and fresh tomatoes. I had sea bass with lemons. It was excellent (but not as unique as Linda's sea bass last night.) We did have dessert, a pear and ricotta mound that was light and refreshing. And it was a sweet view, though the weather prevented us from dining on the terrace overlooking the bay.

Gennaro is the chef/owner of Vivaro
Day 3 - Dinner at Vivaro Wine Bar. It was sort like performance art. The chef/owner is a one-man show. He does everything from seating the customers to cooking to serving to busing the dishes. When you dine there, it's a fixed price menu. You have a choice of either fish or meat, red wine or white. He does the rest. It was great art, and a very good dinner. We both choose fish. There was an amuse bouche. Then the first course was spaghetti with shellfish - clams, mussels, and shrimp. It was a large serving. Frankly, because we weren't sure about the program, for a while we thought it was the main entree. So by the time we'd finished it, we were starting to get full. But then came a whole entree. We each got a pan roasted whole fish. Linda's was sea bream and mine was a local fish that I don't remember. They were very good, and there was a small salad on the plate with the fish. Dessert was two different kinds of ricotta tart. And for wine, we had a bottle of an excellent local white (another one that I'm going to seek out here.) Before the evening was over, a group of itinerant musicians came in and played a few songs, and then passed the hat. It was a very enjoyable evening. 

Day 4 - Dinner at Kasai. This was my favorite meal of the whole trip. I've written a separate blog post about it. Click here to read it.

Click here to view my photo album from the Amalfi Coast, including our trip to Pompeii. 

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