Amalfi Fly Drive – part 1

Arguments start in April. The bone of contention is the same every year: on our summer jaunt to the continent do we (a) go by ferry and take the car? (b) fly in and hire a car? or (b) shun driving and, instead, use whatever public transport we find? In the event, we’ve done all three and enjoyed ourselves. The first course of action is not really an option, time-wise, if you intend holidaying in southern Europe, not to mention the problems of judgment and visibility when you’re driving a vehicle whose controls are on the kerb side of the road. Public transport can be infrequent and often downright unreliable –nothing worse than, after enjoying the meal of your life in some country auberge or trattoria, having to trudge six miles back to your hotel.
Which is why, this year, we found ourselves making the acquaintance of Hertz’s man in Napoli and taking charge of a spanking new metallic silver Fiat Punto Grande – de luxe trim, a few more bhp and impressive climate control differentiate this beauty from the base beast. The formalities were minimal and I couldn’t wait to heave the luggage into the boot and zip down the autostrade that leads to the super-scenic Costiera d’Amalfi. Which is why I was soon in breach of Rule 1 of Hiring Strange Cars in an Alien Land; this being ‘Take a few minutes to familiarise yourself with the controls before you set off’. “I wonder where the light switch is?” I ventured, as we plunged into the tunnel near Castellammare di Stabia. This earned me a withering look from my passenger, Daughter One, and an admonitory fanfare from oncoming vehicles. Once out of the gloom, I reached into the glovebox for the handbook, parked up and had a good read.
A pasta junkie, I was anxious to make a pilgrimage en route to the small town of Gragnano where the main street was, in 1820, constructed along the sun’s axis to facilitate the drying of pasta during daylight hours. Alas the Via Roma was closed to traffic so we decided to press on and lunch at a roadside trattoria. Such places rarely disappoint in Italy; we were soon tucking into huge bowls of clams and mussels, with fresh bread to mop up the delicious sauce. With some regret I limited myself to a single glass of local wine.
Even if you haven’t been there I’m sure you will have seen pictures of Positano. A long and winding road snaking down from the highway. Houses, hotels and elegant shops, in harmonious shades of wash ranging from palest pink to deepest tawny, digging their heels into the precipitous cliffs and for a centerpiece, what’s probably the world’s most photographed church after the Vatican, slap-bang in the middle of the beach.
To a newcomer, the strand comes as a shock. We are not talking Wexford or Connemara gold here; Positano’s is composed of black volcanic stones, ground into pea-sized pebbles by time and the sea. There is a bonus, though. The grit acts as a natural defoliant. A week of beach hugging and a couple of swims a day, you’ll come home with skin like silk.
We were staying at the Poseidon, built as a family home some fifty years ago. Truly elegant, in an understated kind of way, it was my daughter’s best possible introduction to the charm, civility and friendliness of Italy. The comfortable room, to our delight, had a sea view. Sipping a pre-prandial Campari and soda, we watched the yachts glide homewards in the fading light. We dined in the hotel and were glad we did so. The service was courteous and correct and the chef, clearly, something of a star. I hope they can hang onto him for my next visit. The cucina was regional Italian, the presentation, in the modern idiom, and sharply focussed. We enjoyed the wines, a Greco di Tufo and a red from acclaimed local producer Marisa Cuomo, ordered in conjunction with the sommelier, who clearly knew his business. Donna Monica, the hotel’s owner, joined us on the terrace after dinner for a coffee and a grappa. Legend has it that the bar at the Poseidon is the Amalfi coast’s best venue for celebrity spotting but on this night most were elsewhere, clearly overawed by the debut in town of Denzel Washington and his extended family, twenty of them, all clad in white, presumably so no one could accuse them of the neo-celebs’ crime of travelling incognito.
The beauty of being a petrol head on holiday is that you are able to reach those places other tourists cannot, at least not without extreme ingenuity or strong legs and lungs, reach. These include the spectacular chef’s shop at Piano di Sorrento – yes they will sell to the public; the gaggle of restaurants in the upwardly immobile (heaven next stop) village of Monterpertuso; the spectacular fjord at Furore and the Costiera’s best cake maker, Salvatori De Riso, who has a cafe in Minori that’s a mecca for even savoury-toothed tigers like me.
Ravello is a tranquil, cultural oasis in the hills above Amalfi, normally a three-quarter hour drive from Positano. Alas, we had unwisely chosen to travel on a Sunday. Ravello has musical connections – the Villa Rufolo was said to be the inspiration for the second act setting of Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’. Events follow thick and fast, at least one per day during the summer months. Many of them are free and it would be far from unusual, while dining, to be entertained by a pick-up quartet of world class string players. Don’t come expecting an Italian version of Glyndebourne or Wexford Opera Fortnight, though; a classical knees-up, it’s not. Ravello is a peaceful sanctuary and attracting those who like to walk, read and listen to other people’s arias not the kind who enjoy belting out ‘O Sole Mio’ inison after the second bottle. Not for nothing was our serene, comfortable and friendly hotel, the Villa Maria, designated a ‘hotel da silenzia’, one where tranquility is put on a pedestal. The view from the dining terrace here, over the hill to Montone, is truly to die for.
Ravello’s other charm, for me, is that it contains one of my favourite restaurants in all the world. Cumpa Cosimo, modestly entitled ‘Pizzeria and Trattoria’ was founded by Cosimo Bottone. His daughter Netta subsequently carried on the family tradition. There is a photograph of her on the wall taken some years ago. She bears a striking resemblance to Ann Bancroft in ‘Mrs.Robinson’ guise. Through anno domini and eating her own pasta Netta is now cuddly rather than seductive but her impish nature remains and she sweeps through the dining room pausing to pinch the cheek of any male she believes needs feeding up. I was soon put in possession of a boatload of marinated anchovies, followed by the pasta di casa, a selection of seven, each with a different sauce, ranging through home made improvised shapes, to spaghettini, to ravioli, gnocchi and lasagne. I followed this with coniglio cacciatore, a whole rabbit braised with wine and tomatoes. I was able to trade some for a sample of Daughter One’s scallopini without feeling any sense of loss. For dessert, I cleansed my palate with a home made lemon sorbet, served in the shell of a plangently aromatic sfusato lemon, for which the Amalfi region is renowned. Wine, grappa and espressi, by now staples of the trip, bulked out the bill to a bargain e88 for two – “Give me 80 and I’ll throw in a free grappa”, said Netta.
We ate not another thing for the rest of the day.
Evening was spent in the square, people watching. The menfolk clustered outside the bars and debated as to whether Juventus would end up in Serie B or whether strokes would be pulled and ‘the old lady’ granted a reprieve; their wives came out dressed in their finery to stand and gossip while the children amused themselves by playing tag games.
Amalfi is about as far from Ravello in temperament as it’s possible to be. In late July the beach was ‘pure umbrellas’ as my daughter put it. The town was heaving and the tourist shops were doing a roaring trade. It’s a workaday town too, so there are smart boutiques, delis hanging whole hams, bric-a-brac emporia and ironmongers selling pasta machines and espresso pots, all of which add to the fascination. We stayed half a mile out of town at the Hotel Santa Caterina, cheek-by-jowl with a Jordanian prince and his private army and, so ‘twas rumoured, Romano Prodi and family. Denzel moored his yacht out in the bay, declining to join us.
I have stayed in some fine hotels but this one took the grand prize. Not least for the refinement and utterly sybarytic comfort of our suite, where I finally proved to my own satisfaction that you really shouldn’t absent-mindedly toss bubble bath into a jacuzzi! Up on the sun-baked terrace my daughter mused “I wonder if there is anywhere to swim?” “Look down” I said, pointing out the bar, pool and swimming platform 300 feet below. “You can go, I don’t fancy the climb back up.” The discovery of an elevator overruled my objections.
That night, we legged it into Amalfi for a return visit to the Trattoria della Duca, a haunt of locals, where the clams are fresh, the pizza crisp and the chat, though we couldn’t understand a word, flowing. Antonio, the proprietor, had ordained that we were to eat char-grilled vegetables and fish and as he weighs in at around 19 stone we were not disposed to argue. In the event, we were glad we took his recommendation, especially the succulent whole sea bream .
We were on the road early next day and relished the relatively traffic-free swoop up the coast and along the Sorrento peninsula towards Naples. We had grown fond of the Fiat and handed back the keys reluctantly. I think next year we’ll take a fortnight and keep going, as far as Italy’s ‘big toe’ by which time we’ll be farther south than the northernmost tip of Africa. Something to look forward to.