The Highs And Lows Of A Trip To The Amalfi Coast

My family and I spent four days in the Amalfi coast last summer. Although the area is breathtakingly beautiful and filled with amazing sights, there were also some harrowing experiences while there.
Amalfi coast
Amalfi Coast

On entering the city of Amalfi by ferry boat, I was struck by the beautiful aqua waters and jutting cliffs that edged over the sea.  Birds chirped overhead and the waves lapped at the docks.  My family and I quickly gathered our bags before departing the boat eager to see what adventures awaited us.  Almost immediately, we were besieged by locals sticking pamphlets in our faces for various tours and experiences.  

After finally making it to the street, my husband typed the address of the hotel into his phone to guide our walk.  We had decided to take the walk as opposed to hailing a taxi because we wanted to enjoy the surroundings or so we thought.  We quickly discovered that our hotel was way up a twisting, winding cliff with a two-way road that had no sidewalk or even an edge or shoulder.

Quickly, I found myself clinging desperately, my back up against the jagged cliffs to avoid being hit by a car.  Not only was there barely any room for two cars to pass each other in either direction, but the drivers gave new meaning to the term crazy drivers. Let's just say driving cautiously in these conditions was not part of the Italian way.  After what seemed like an hour walk, which in reality was probably fifteen minutes, we arrived at the Hotel Luna Convento.  

A former monastery that had been transformed into a beautiful hotel and whose halls and rooms movie stars and famous writers of the twenties had at one time graced.  Taking in the beautiful towering structure before us, we found a small alcove leading to two elevators.  We had been told before our arrival, that this was the way to enter the lobby which was five levels above the street. The elevators looked very small to me, but I thought how bad could they be?  

As the narrow doors opened, I soon found out. For starters, there was no way, my husband, my son, myself, and our three suitcases were all going to fit into one elevator.  Already sweating profusely from the strenuous uphill walk underneath the ninety degrees, blaring sun, I could feel my heart beating faster and drops of perspiration rolling down my forehead. You see, I am severely claustrophobic.  

My husband knew instantly that this wasn't going to go well.  He instructed my teenage son to ride with me and one of the suitcases, while he waited for the other elevator. I felt like I was stepping into a coffin. The doors creaked as they closed, and I thought to myself, there must have been a staircase?  For me, even with heavy luggage that would have been a better option.  

As the elevator slowly ascended, I started crying because of overwhelming anxiety. What if this thing got stuck?  I started pounding on the metal doors screaming to get me out of there. Meantime, my poor thirteen-year-old was trying to be the adult and soothe me assuring me it wouldn't be long before we got to the lobby.  

After what felt like we had traveled up fifty floors instead of five, the doors finally opened.  At this point, I was in full-blown hysterics, and apparently, my wails had attracted the staff of the hotel lobby to be at the elevator doors as they opened and I literally tumbled out.  

Immediately, two gentlemen started speaking to me trying aimlessly to calm me. Their English was broken, but there was no mistaking the concern on their faces. Instead of calming down, I only got angry. Yelling, and flailing my arms that I needed space, I caught out of the corner of my eye a wide-open balcony overlooking the Mediterranean and made a beeline for it.  Sucking in huge gulps of air as I wiped the tears from my face, I could barely appreciate the breathtaking beauty before me.  

The way I was taking deep breaths, you would have thought I had been buried alive as opposed to being in a tiny elevator for three minutes. As the hotel workers struggled with how to respond, the second elevator opened, and rushing out was my disheveled looking husband with a look of utter worry etched all over his face. His forehead was crinkled and as he rushed to me asking if I was ok. I wasn't sure if he wanted to hug me or hit me.

After making sure I was ok and exchanging a knowing glance with my son, who at least knew enough to stay quiet, he let me know that he and everyone else waiting below for the elevators could hear me pounding and screaming within my elevator. He patiently tried to explain to the desk staff how bad my claustrophobia was, and apologized profusely. Meantime, I was grumpy and not having any of it.  

After being checked in and given the layout of the hotel, one of the men took us to our room.  Although the elevators to get up another three levels were much bigger,  I chose to take the staircase up.  This man tried so hard to get me to smile, showing us the beautiful large room, that was spacious and airy with a sprawling verandah overlooking the incredible sea and cliffs below.  The view was simply breathtaking.  As my husband and son enjoyed the outdoors and took it all in, I sat on the end of the bed still trying to regain my composure.  We decided it would be a good idea to relax the rest of the day at the hotel pool before heading to dinner in nearby Ravello.  

We had to cross the same narrow road we journeyed up in order to get to the pool and unfortunately the hotel was situated directly on a curve making it feel like playing Frogger to get across.  We took a rock carved staircase down to the pool which was literally carved into the side of the cliff. It was cooler over here because the pool was actually sitting above the sea below. There was even a place where you could jump off the rugged rocks into the warm waters below and a group of men was doing just that.  I knew instantly my son and husband would be partaking in that activity while I enjoyed the comforts of a safe lounger.  After a somewhat leisurely afternoon, it was time to get ready for dinner and see Ravello.  

It seemed like the best way to make it to nearby Ravello was by bus and our tour books told us it would only be a twenty-minute ride or so. What we didn't know, was just how crowded the buses would be during the summer months, and that keeping to a schedule really wasn't high on the list in Italy.  When we arrived at the bus pick up, there must have been over a hundred people waiting.  We knew from the bus schedule we looked up online that the bus to Ravello only came every hour.  

Bus after the bus arrived for other destinations, but Ravello seemed to never come and the crowd hadn't thinned as much as I thought. Finally, we saw a bus pull in that said Ravello. Immediately, the crowd started to push towards the bus.  No line, just pushing and shoving. There was no way we weren't getting on this bus or we would miss our dinner reservation. It started to get ugly and loud, very loud. The locals were shouting at each other and starting to push harder.  

I grabbed my son to me and hoped my husband was right behind us. The man in front of us with a small child began arguing with an older woman about pushing his child and that they had been there first, which soon brought the angry bus driver down the bus steps.  As that group eventually boarded the bus and my son and I was being jostled I realized I had let go of him and he was now on the bus steps being crushed against the wall of the bus.  

I come from a long line of Italians so I can scream and yell with the best of them and at this moment, I wished I had listened more to my grandmother when I was growing up and she wanted to teach me Italian. The commotion came to a halt as I screamed louder than anyone that my son was being crushed in the bus and to stop acting like a bunch of wild animals. As the locals looked at me as if to say who the hell does this American thinks she is, although I think they were truly stunned by my outrage, the bus driver interceded.  

However, he started yelling at me, that this was his bus and to stop it. I was not to be intimidated, certainly not when my child's safety was at risk.  I screamed at him that if he had any control over HIS bus, he would have people form an orderly line instead of having a group turn into a mob.  After more shouting's between us in different languages, my son and I was finally on the bus with me yelling and cursing on the way to our seats.  

Eventually, my husband made it on, although truthfully I was afraid he might get left behind.  In the belligerent crowd, he lost his expensive Sunglasses Hut glasses, which must have been knocked from his head.  Amalfi was not really proving to be all that I had read in books and magazines.  

Ravello thankfully turned out to be much calmer and more relaxed than what I had witnessed so far along the Amalfi coast.  Without much time before our dinner reservation, we took a quick walk around the town passing by some small museums and a church that had a band playing on its steps.  We briefly stopped to take in the music which was calming.  Dinner was delicious and a warm, portly Italian woman, who was the owner made sure to make her hellos at every table.  

The next day we ventured to Positano and wisely chose to take a ferry.  We had all decided we had enough of the Italian bus system.  At least the boats were large and ran frequently.  Positano was everything and more than we expected. As we approached its shores, the buildings set in the cliffs on various levels looked just like all of the postcards and paintings you have ever seen.  

It was just stunning. It was crowded, but the people were warm and friendly and as we made our way up twisting stairways we stopped at wine shops, and cafes, and dress and jewelry shops galore. I bought a beautiful blue floral sundress that fits like it was made just for me. I was finally happy along the Amalfi coast. This is what I had dreamed of. My husband and son were relieved to have me laughing and "oohing" and "ahhing" again.  I only wished we had more time to spend here but we had dinner reservations set for seven. 

The restaurant was so far up the cliffs that the only way to get there was to take a shuttle the restaurant sent down the cliff to pick up patrons. Right on time, the small bus retrieved us and a few others from the designated spot. Driving yourself was not a recommended way to arrive there and I could quickly see why.  You certainly had to know your way around these narrow, sharp, steep curves that and there were no railings along the side. I could only imagine what it would be like in the dark.  

Upon arriving at the restaurant, a warm host greeted us and took us down a few steps to a covered terrace where our table awaited.  We had incredible views of the terrain far below and we were awestruck.  The food proved to be phenomenal.  It was all served family-style and every time we thought there could be no more, more came out.  Every morsel was better than the last.  As we made our way back down the hills when dinner was over, I knew we would all sleep well tonight.

On our last day in Amalfi, we had chosen to book a boat tour of the island of Capri. We picked a tour our hotel recommended as it gave us the opportunity to swim in the green grottos and to take a small boat into the famous Blue Grotto. We were instructed to be at the dock no later than eight forty-five. Because this was our last day along the Amalfi coast and our only chance to visit Capri, we made sure to be there by eight-thirty. Keep in mind that another thing we learned in Italy, is that even in touristy areas their signs are not clear and are sometimes in the wrong places.  

Looking up and down the dock, we didn't see any boats nor did we see any signs with the tour name or even the island name.  By eight forty-five, we were getting antsy and nervous.  My husband ran to a booth for information and was told we were on the wrong dock and to head to the dock that was of course furthest from where we were.  

Now running, we arrive at the other dock to be told this isn't where the tour leaves from.  We decide to call the tour company directly.  In broken English, the tour operator attempted to tell us where we should be, but it was to no avail.  We weren't able to figure it out and the boat left without us.  I'm angry again at this particular area of Italy for their lack of direction, promptness, signs, or just being helpful.  My son is practically crying because he knows this was our only chance to do Capri with this tour company.  

After much agonizing, we finally decided to take the regular ferry over to Capri and hopefully get on some sort of tour there.  The problem was no other tour guaranteed to get into the Blue Grotto. Upon arrival, we were once again inundated with people thrusting pamphlets in our faces and trying to sell tours.  Some were trying to convince us we would get into the blue grotto, even though the pamphlets clearly stated that there were no guarantees and most likely attempts would be futile.  

I was curious why this was so difficult.  As we approached a hut saying, "Official Tourism Office", a man approached us from the doorway asking if we were looking for a tour that included going into the Blue Grotto.  Assuming he worked for the tourism office we engaged in conversation with him and told him what we were looking to do. He told us it would cost us three hundred dollars, which was actually cheaper than the tour we missed, and that he just needed to grab his boat.  

He then called a teenage boy over, probably around the age of seventeen or eighteen, and instructed us that this young man would help us board the boat he was going to get.  Mind you all of this information is coming to us in half Italian, half English.  

At this point, I'm starting to wonder why the boat isn't with all of the other boats docked and am pondering how good of an idea this really is.  Does this man even work for the tourism office?  My husband and I exchange worrisome glances, as we follow the teenager to some half-hidden small dock.  My husband tries to ask him for a business card, but he either doesn't understand us or pretends he doesn't.  

Soon enough, the man is back with what I will call, a small boat.  Not exactly what I was expecting.  Before we can back out of what is starting to look like a very bad idea, we are on board and sailing away from the dock and safety.  Our "tour guide" was relatively quiet only pointing out the main sights as we sailed, but leaving out the backstory of each that I had hoped for.  While I was taking in the sights, I was also keeping track of the route and how close we were to other boats should we suddenly be attacked, robbed, thrown overboard, and left for dead.  

When we got to the green grotto, Marco, as we at this point knew our guide's name, told us if we wanted to we could get out and swim in the green waters and jump off the rocky cliffs. Eagerly, my son couldn't dive in fast enough with my husband quickly following. I was relieved to see our teenage companion, who we learned was Marco's son, also got out to swim. I felt better knowing Marco couldn't suddenly take off with me since I had decided to stay dry on the boat.  Next on our tour were the Faraglioni rock formations jutting high into the sky from the sea. Marco briefly told us the urban legend of the sirens made famous In Homer's, "The Odyssey."  

Next, we were on our way past the white grotto and the natural arch, past a lighthouse, until we were upon the entrance area of the Blue Grotto. I knew this was it by the number of small rowboats waiting anxiously with curious tourists to get in. You see in Italy, there really aren't any lines per se. You kind of just force your way in regardless of where you are and this was no different. Marco spoke Italian to one of the men on the rather old looking rowboat. He then turned to us and told us to pay this older man thirty dollars and to get on his rowboat, that he would take us into the grotto while Marco and his son waited for us.  

Remember my claustrophobia? Yea, that was about to come into play again.  In order for the rowboat to fit into the extremely narrow opening, we were told to lie down with our arms placed alongside one another. My husband laid down first, followed by me resting my head against his chest, and then my son on top of me. We were like a stack of dominoes that had been knocked over.  

My son was told to keep his arms crossed tightly across his chest.  I decided it was best to close my eyes.  We were told not to move, to barely breathe, and definitely not to lift our heads up.  Not exactly soothing.  This man who I didn't know at all, and looked like he enjoyed his liquor a little too much, had my life and the life of my family in his hands.  What had possessed me to do this? I was normally a cautious person.  

When we approached the opening, the gruff man grabbed a metal chain that was attached to the top of the cave opening. I knew it was time to close my eyes. As he pulled us through, the boat swung back and forth and water splashed over our faces. All the while this crazy man was singing some Italian song and all I could think was that this was how we were going to die and were my parents even going to get our bodies to bury? All of a sudden, the boat was still, and my husband told me to open my eyes. We were inside and the blue light was just stunning. Piercing really.  

As were rowed around the inside of the grotto, with my still furiously beating heart, I was awed, both by the beauty of the grotto and the fact that I had made it in one piece.  Our time was short though, and we were getting behind other boats to head back out. To me it seemed that in the five minutes we were inside the tide had risen and the opening to get back out was smaller.  

The exit kept getting closed up by splashing waves and I started to panic again trying to figure out if we could jump out of the boat and swim to the other side.  Before I could think about it too much, we were told not to move, and again we were whisked through the tiny opening and we were back amongst the eagerly waiting boats. I had actually done it. We thanked our rowboat guide for not killing us and got back onto Marco's boat.  Marco seemed to smirk at me a lot. I think he was amused by my distrust of the entire situation.  

Our boat tour was just about done and Marco asked if we were looking for a lunch recommendation after our busy morning.  He told us he could take us to a wonderful restaurant along the water. We agreed, although truthfully, we were now going away from all of the other boats and people and to a part of the island, we hadn't been to yet. I was starting to wonder if this was when we would be killed after all? Fortunately, though we soon saw a restaurant on a dock come into view.  

As we disembarked, we thanked him and my husband tipped him really for carrying through with his promise but also for not killing us. We had a delicious meal of grilled fresh fish with sides and laughed as we swore never to tell my parents how we took a tour with a complete stranger. My husband also chose to wait until now to tell me he was expecting me to jump in and tell him we were crazy for doing this but he kept waiting until we boarded the boat and I never interceded. Meantime, I was waiting for him to pull the plug.  We were happy to be alive and well, not to mention well-fed and we got to see the beautiful island of Capri for less money than the original tour we had signed up for.  

Although I have very mixed feelings about our trip to the Amalfi Coast, I also know it is something I will certainly never forget.  There is no doubt the scenery is stunning, but the lifestyle and people leave something to be desired.  I hope I never see an elevator as small as the one at our hotel again and think I'll be sticking to Marriotts here in the U.S.A. 

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