Along the heights of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, every inch is terraced, connected by steep stone stairways that tempt visitors with scintillating – but treacherous – views of the Mediterranean.
Along the heights of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, every inch is terraced, connected by steep stone stairways that tempt visitors with scintillating – but treacherous – views of the Mediterranean. Climbing through terraced lemon orchards, I’m hot and thirsty, fantasizing about freshly squeezed lemonade.
And then, like in a fairy tale, I come across a farmer’s daughter who seems to be waiting for a lost and desiccated American traveler. She welcomes me to her terrace to join her for a little slicing and pressing. Then, as if teaching me a very important life skill, she demonstrates how you cut your lemon in half, stab it with a knife, and then – picking up the fruit with one hand – wiggle the knife with the other and watch the juice fill your glass. She adds lots of sugar, mixes well, and hands me a glass of lemonade that I’ll never forget. While I drink, she asks me about my journey. It’s one of those times you travel for.
I’m staying in Sorrento, a town wedged on a ledge between the mountains and the sea. An hour south of wild and crazy Naples, Sorrento looks like its opposite: quiet and distinguished.
Boarding the first bus for the ride along the Amalfi Coast, I sit to the right prepared for the great coastal views and gearing up for one of Italy’s great thrill rides as we head towards Positano. The trip gives me respect for the engineers who built the road – and even more respect for the bus drivers who drive it. Maybe I’m just hyperventilating, but I’m struck by how the Mediterranean, 500 feet down, shimmers. Cantilevered garages, hotels and villas cling to vertical terrain. Exotic sandy coves tease from far below, out of reach.
Early the next morning, on the 30-minute ferry from Sorrento, I head to the enchanting island of Capri. I think of the rich and famous who have headed to the same island over the centuries.
Today, Capri is expensive and glitzy – and a world-class tourist trap. Landing on the island, I encounter a greedy line of white convertible taxis, eager to take me away. Zigzagging down the cliff with the roof down, I think despite its crowds and commercialism, Capri is still beautiful. The chalky white limestone cliffs spurt boldly out of shimmering blue and green waves. Strategically positioned gardens, villas and viewpoints offer breathtaking views of the Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi Coast and Mount Vesuvius.
To give my visit to Capri an extra dimension, I take a scenic boat trip around the island. It’s cheap and comes with a good narration. Riding the crashing waves, I work on my sunburn as we circle the island, marveling at a relentless parade of towering cliffs and hearing tales of celebrity-owned villas. There are also a few quirky sights: a solar-powered lighthouse, statues atop desolate rocks, and caves in the cliffs with legends dating back to the time of Emperor Tiberius.
The last stop is the highlight: the legendary Blue Grotto, with its otherworldly azure water. At the mouth of the cave, a company of jockey dinghies to pick up arriving tourists, who must disembark from their larger transports. The cave entrance hole is small, so only those small rowboats can get through. If the tide is too high or the chop too choppy, dinghies cannot enter and visitors are turned away. Nervous about the waves closing it in, I cautiously climb into my canoe and my cheeky rower makes his way to the small entrance. He knows enough English to explain to me (jokingly, I think) that if I don’t collapse under the gunwales, I’m going to crack my skull on the rock and, as I’ve already paid, that did not concern him. . Taking a moment to feel the rhythm of the swell and anticipating the moment the canoe will bottom out, he pulls hard and fast on the old chain, and we weave – like an upside-down birth – into the cave.
Inside, it takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the brilliant blue of the cave water (an effect caused by the sun reflecting off the limestone at the bottom). While my man picks me up singing a little “O Sole Mio”, I enjoy the iridescent magic of the moment.
Beaches, shops, Blue Grottoes and freshly squeezed lemonade – it all combines to explain why, for centuries, vacationers have chosen this corner of Italy to fulfill their Mediterranean travel dreams.
— This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.
Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.