Burgess Does the Twist, Italian Style

Winding up the Amalfi Coast is a race against whatever you had for lunch.

By Steve Burgess 22 Jun 2012 |

Steve Burgess writes about culture every other Friday for The Tyee. He is in Italy until his vast Tyee-provided wealth runs dry.

The Amalfi Coast highway is like a mobster's girlfriend -- it's gorgeous, it's kinky, and it doesn't work. Twisting and bending along the coastline from Sorrento to Amalfi and up to Ravello, the road is as dysfunctional as it is beautiful. I would appreciate that beauty a little more were I not desperately trying to keep my footing in the aisle of a large bus as it swings around corners like a square-dancing hippo. My wrists hurt and my arms are numb. Thank goodness the nausea takes my mind off all that. Good thing Amalfi is a beautiful town because getting there is about to cost me my lunch.

Tour buses, being somewhat larger than donkeys, are not well suited to this perilously narrow strip of southern Italian asphalt. Yet they fill the coast highway regardless. When two buses meet everything stops and the repositioning begins, with one or the other or both backing and sidling and squeezing past like sumo wrestlers on a train car. Usually they find a way but it isn't always that simple. Sometimes things just don't fit. Lengthy standoffs are common.

I wouldn't mind one right about now. This bus ride was bad enough when I was just trying to stay upright, wedged in just behind the driver, the last passenger to board. But then I started to get queasy. I've never been good on midway rides and this one is as bad as the Octopus. It could be worse -- one false turn by our intrepid driver and it would be the Hellevator. The cliffs fall away precipitously and it's a long way down to the Mediterranean. But the guy behind the wheel does this drive all the time. He's not nervous. He's cool. So cool he's talking on his cell phone as we lurch around hairpin turns. I struggle to obtain the reassurance that his show of confidence ought to inspire, and try not to think about Italian cruise ship captains. Better to concentrate on the nausea.

The bus pulls over suddenly, and a couple in the front row gets out. I'm just wondering where they might be going on such a narrow stretch of road when I see they aren't going anywhere -- the woman is throwing up in the ditch. So I'm not alone. Even better, she's Italian. I'm fitting right in.

A thousand steps

At postcard-perfect Positano a load of tourists disembark and I get a front row seat for the rest of the trip to Amalfi. It helps. Things are hopping there -- it's the day of the annual regatta. Positano may be more famous but Amalfi is my favourite Amalfi Coast town with its wide open waterfront, jetty, and large cathedral. It even has a grocery store that sells something other than gelato, limoncello, or T-shirts, which is rare for an Italian tourist town. I climb the main stroll, past the shops, and follow it as it curls around past the police station to an apparent dead end. But there's a staircase there. I have lunch in my satchel -- two big wedges of pizza rustica, which is more torte than pizza -- and I start up the steps. Two Germans coming the other way inform me that this stairway goes up 1,000 steps to a little town called Pogerola. A beautiful, solitary climb with a cafe waiting at the top -- the perfect antidote for Amalfi Coast congestion.

Alas, I can't escape it forever. My bus back to Sorrento goes barely a few metres before it is stopped cold by a line of traffic headed in for the regatta. The line of parked cars on the narrow road doesn't help. Grudgingly our driver backs up -- a line of cars backing up behind him -- to let the oncoming traffic through. Then forward again, only to find that a new line of cars has formed a new impassable clot. This time our driver will not make the same mistake. He stays put. On a bend in the road high above a traffic cop overlooks the scene and throws his arms in the air. Soon there are police and people in orange vests rushing in to negotiate the impasse, all while motorbikes scoot through and around unperturbed. It's half an hour before a deal is negotiated. We are forced to back up yet again but this time traffic is held, and we get through. Success! We are soon swinging madly around the endless curves heading to Sorrento.

And then I started feeling sick.  [Tyee]

Read more: Travel

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