The Italian Job
World-class road trips don’t have to cover great distances. This Italian drive along Italy’s fabled Amalfi Coast is just 50 miles long but regularly ranks as one of Europe’s best. There are no motorways involved here – instead the route curls and climbs along a magnificent stretch of coastline, linking together a string of historical towns huddled in the cliffs. Flanked by lemon groves, it gets called “the road of 1,000 bends”. And by beginning in the port city of Salerno and finishing in the bay town of Sorrento, you’ll also have the chance to spend time in two larger Italian settlements.
Often overshadowed by Naples further along the coast, Salerno gives an authentic taste of city life on the Campania coast. The two most obvious attractions are its long seafront promenade and its lively centro storico (old town), where along Via de’ Mercanti you’ll find a great range of gift stores and old bakeries. Pasticceria Pantaleone, famed for its pastries, is one of the best. There’s also an enormous duomo (cathedral), built in 1076. If you fancy a cultural side-trip however, the ancient ruins of Paestum are an hour’s drive to the south. Starting the road trip from Salerno, Vietri sul Mare sits just six miles to the west.
Vietri sul Mare
Known as the prima perla, or “first pearl”, of the Amalfi Coast, Vietri sul Mare is a gateway to the cliffs and villages that have made the region so renowned. The town itself is perched prettily on the Tyrrhenian Sea and is well known for its pottery and ceramics – purchase some at the 165-year-old Ceramica Pinto. Fittingly, many of Vietri’s older buildings are themselves decorated in ceramic tiles, the cupola of St John the Baptist Church being a fine example. Moving on, Ravello is a 45-minute drive along the coast.
Reached after a winding drive above the Gulf of Salerno, the mountaintop village of Ravello grants a wide coastal panorama – Gore Vidal called it the most beautiful view in the world. Among the mood-rich lanes, domes and gardens you’ll also find some superb hotels and restaurants. Try the centuries-old Villa Cimbrone, where the Il Flauto del Pan restaurant has been awarded a Michelin star. There are some quality cookery schools (Mamma Agata has a strong reputation) while the remains of Villa Rufolo are a draw for history fans. The road snakes on for 50 minutes, passing Amalfi itself, before reaching Positano.
The joy of a car-hire adventure along the Amalfi coastline is that if you want the full experience, there are no short cuts. You travel the cliff road from end to end, as visitors here have done since the mid-19th century. Positano, hill-draped above a beach, is another highlight of the route. Don’t miss grand buildings such as Palazzo Murat, the 19th-century residence of Napoleon’s brother-in-law, or the chance to book a sea-view table at Rossellinis. Sorrento, the final stop on the itinerary, is a 35-minute drive across the peninsula.
A classy resort town that once attracted the likes of Nietzsche and Wagner, Sorrento looks out across the Bay of Naples towards Mount Vesuvius. Regular ferries make it well placed for a visit out to the island of Capri, while the town itself is a bright and energetic place. Wander to the main square of Piazza Tasso, where you can order a cappuccino at Bar Ercolano and watch life go by, then head out of town for a meal at Relais Blu, one of the hotel-restaurants visited by Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in the BBC’s The Trip To Italy.