Long has it been a land of striking beauty, glamorous appeal and coveted real estate. This place has many faces, and has many stories to tell. There are accounts of exploding mountains, enchanting grottos and invading hordes. But, just as Mount Vesuvius looms in the background, so does the history of this coveted region. This is the Amalfi Coast.
Today I am in the Gulf of Naples, starting my day off with a hike up, what I am told is, one the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. The thick fog coming off the ocean adds to the ominous ambience. I feel like I was walking through plumes of smoke, hoping this sleeping giant wouldn’t wake up. It was a little eerie, but actually a really pleasant way to start off the day.
Mt. Vesuvius is the only volcano on the European mainland to erupt in the past century, most recently occurring in March of 1944, destroying several towns in its blast zone. It infamously erupted in 79 A.D., obliterating the nearby town of Pompeii. Today, more than 300,000 people live within Vesuvius’ striking range, making it an enduring part of life here. Reaching the summit of the volcano, I peer into the mouth of this beast. A steady waft of cloudy gas seeps between some of the rocks in the crater, and a slight hint of sulfur lingers in the air. This thing is still alive.
I make my way to the polar opposite of a smoldering, volcanic timebomb; a mellow beach community. Heading south from Mt. Vesuvius, we skirt along the coastline to the town of Sorrento. Jutting out into the Tyrrhenian Sea, this port city is situated on a huge peninsula. Its peculiar location has made it the object of desire to both tourists and military forces for centuries. Sorrento’s origins go back nearly 3000 years. It’s been invaded, and conquered, by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans and Spanish. Swarms of wealthy elite and wandering tourists have also poured in over the last two centuries. The town is a tangled mass of stacked streets, like a knotted root ball on a seaside ledge.
I set out on the town with my good friends, and fellow students, Brandon and Kevin. We wander through the bustle of Piazza Tasso on our way to a park that overlooks a harbor. The dark serenity of of an Italian night, in a town we have never been to, mutes us. We look out over the rolling black sea from up high, a cliff dropping off into the shadows just on the other side of the sculpted ledge we are leaning on. “It’s crazy isn’t it?” I asked Kevin. He just knods. You are able to see so much in a day here, “It’s like you need to reset your hard drive everyday you’re over here. Don’t overthink it, just enjoy it,” I tell him.
In an overtly cliche, but genuine Italian moment, we hear a Vespa buzzing up the cobblestone street behind us. I turn around to see a young couple cruise past our us on their scooter, their respective baby blue and pink helmets complimenting the soft yellow wall of the building as they drive by. It seemed like a sincere flash of Italian romance. We shuffled along the brightly lit, narrow streets of the market district back to our hotel. Tomorrow we set sail, and I hear it’s a bumpy ride.
Isle of Capri
Capri is an image of beauty, but it is also an island of contrast. The lavish live among the laborer, the rich next to the rural. A twenty minute ride takes us from Sorrento to the shores of Capri. We hop from one sea vessel to another, and begin our tour circumnavigating the entire island, checking out all the greatest hits along the way. The chalky cliffs, speckled with deep groves of trees, cut off to sheer drops into the sea. The recurrent tide has burrowed passages through towers of rock rising out of the ocean near the shoreline. Supreme yachts bob alongside modest fishing boats in the cape of Anacapri, on the south side of the island. The dichotomy of lifestyles found here is sharply played out in this scene. Luxurious villas and hotels dot the terrain, but as you explore the winding paths of Capri you will find humble plots of land. Vineyards, gardens, markets, small businesses and family restaurants still pumping real life into this high-fashion, high-traffic tourist town.
Back in Sorrento, I ate dinner at Da Emelia. A mostly locals place,with a divine reputation, it is hardly over ran by tourists, maybe because it takes a compass and calves of steel to walk the seemingly endless maze of streets to get there. It literally sits on the wharf, the waves lapping underneath the wooden planks of the patio section. The scent of fresh fish and salt water floats in the air. I watch a boat crew unload its haul into a van, some of the catch surely destined for Emelia’s kitchen only a few feet away. This is the real blood of any place, the nine-to-five folks, the people humping it while the others sun themselves like lazy iguanas on the beach all day.
Don’t get me wrong, I lounged around the coast all weekend, soaking up the sun, indulging in everything the place had to offer and not worrying about a damn thing, but I always try to find that part of town that never makes it into the tour book. The place that people with rough hands call “home,” and have done so for generations. The Amalfi Coast is without doubt one of the most stunning places I have ever been and I now understand the allure that it holds. One sweeping view across the the island and you understand why people have yearned to come here for centuries. It’s blissful. But, as some guy once said, “It takes all kinds.” As I sit on the patio of Emelias, looking up at the grand hotels on the clifftops, I know where I want to be – down on the docks, off the guide map.