Known as The Amalfi Drive (formally Strada Statale 163) the coast road along the shoreline from Sorrento to Amalfi (and on to Salerno) is one of the most poular drives in Italy. Originally built by the Romans, it is one of the most photographed coastal routes in the world, seen in countless films like Under the Tuscan Sun and the Humphrey Bogart classic Beat the Devil (1957) featuring a young Gina Lollobrigida. Gamers may recognize it as a setting for fictional tracks in Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo 4 games. UNESCO actually named the Amalfi Coast an outstanding example of Mediterranean landscape and gave it a place on the World Heritage List.
Carved out of the side of the coastal cliffs for the greater part of its route, the road gives vertiginous views down to the Tyrrhenian Sea and to the towering cliffs above. It passes through Positano, the village of the rich and famous where fabulous villas accessible only on foot from above, by helicopter from the air, or by yacht from the sea, are built into the sides of the mountain, making it a major tourist attraction.
We originally took the guided tour by coach as this seemed the easiest way to experience the drive, and we were right, but we enjoyed the trip so much that we took the local bus a few days later and enjoyed it even more.
We decided against stopping off at Positano however, having been warned against this by a fellow hotel guest who had been left standing for hours as the buses returning from Amalfi were all full when it reached Positano so no chance of getting on one. Amalfi filled the day however, and we managed to fit in a trip to Ravello as well.
I have no argument with those who say that the 50 Kilometre Amalfi Coast drive is probably the world’s most beautiful and thrilling, piece of tarmac-ed sightseeing in Europe. If you can ignore the hairpin bends, the crazy Italian driving, the narrowness of the road that means your vehicle could possibly plunge into the churning sea below, the views are spectacular. The road is built at a very steep angle, zigzagging backwards and forwards and from the window of your vehicle you can see craggy rocks thrusting through the foamy waters below.
Despite the heavy traffic, all fighting for space on hairpin bends, the Amalfi Drive is a fascinating trip with every corner revealing an even more stunning view protected by Unesco. Pastel-coloured villages are terraced into the mountainside, medieval watchtowers guard the coast, and here and there huge colourful ceramic urns In yellow, blue, green and red, announce a “ceramic factory”. Among the green slopes of the cliffs are scented lemon groves and a profusion of pink and white oleanders, and enticing restaurants locate on precipitous corners daring you to stop for a coffee. This white-knuckle ride is one of Italy’s greatest wonders but it is not for the faint of heart. It is 80 kl of narrow, S-curve roadway strung halfway up a cliff with the waves crashing below.
At the end of the Drive you have Amalfi, tiny, expensive but one of the easier towns of those strung along the coast to walk around. It rises gently up the hillside from the waterfront rather than clinging vertically to it like some of the other coastal towns, like Positano for instance. Hard to believe that this very touristy town had a glorious history as a maritime republic on a par with the better known Pisa, Venice and Genoa.
Nevertheless, Amalfi was a trade bridge between the Byzantine and western worlds for centuries with a population exceeding 70,000 (today, less than 5,000). Unfortunately, there are very few historical buildings of note as most of the old city, and its inhabitants, slid into the sea during the 1343 earthquake.