Cruising the Amalfi coast

I must have been tired, because I slept well into the morning. By the time I surfaced from my tent Anton has all packed and ready to leave. He had decided to catch the train to Napoli today and spend a few days there before taking his flight back to Munich. This first thing I wanted to do was check out Sorrento, so I left my things in the tent, grabbed my camera and rode off on my bike to explore. Sorrento is a busy tourist town, with lots of narrow alleys and one way streets full of souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels and cafés. I tried to make my way down to the waterfront, but quickly realised most of the fancy hotels occupy that precious real estate. Eventually I found a road down the the port, where the ferries operate. This was a narrow winding, cobbled road. Once there I saw a number piers for the larger ferries, and plenty of smaller private boats that you could take out for diving or whatever. The place was busy with tourists, mostly foreign, but I found a spot at a little café to enjoy some breakfast while I watched the boats come in.

After breakfast I climbed back up the hill, and took a right turn following the road. A little way along, I came to what appeared to be a private courtyard, but was actually a (comparatively) quiet little piazza. I ordered my first granita for the day (melone) and sat down to take in the view. I stayed for a while after finishing my granita, then weaved my way through the village streets again and back up the hill to the campsite. I packed my things to go, but before heading off I took a quick dip in the pool. It was very refreshing. After the swim, I bungee’d my shorts to the back of the bike (so they would dry out) and set off down the coast.

The journey took me around the coast of the Sorrento peninsula, through some lovely views of the water with a backdrop of hills. The traffic was pretty steady with a narrow windy road, but everyone gave me space which made me feel very safe. The only thing that startled me was a bus honking his horn to warn us all as he came around a blind corner. They do this a lot, since the road in places is too narrow for cars to pass in either direction, they give a little toot of the horn to let you know they are coming. Despite the cars, the buses and the scooters buzzing past, it was still a nice ride and the best way to take it in.

The first real climb of the day took me to a restaurant called Mira Capri, with outdoor tables position perfectly to survey the beautiful view of the Capri island just over the water. I stopped here for a light lunch, and found myself dozing off in the chair sitting under the shade of umbrellas with a gentle breeze. I could quite easily have dozed there lazily all day, but thought I should really keep going. I ordered an espresso, to give me a bit of an energy kick before setting off. While I sat there another couple, clad in lycra, riding road bikes arrived, something that unexpectedly had not been a common sight thus far. I said a quick “Ciao” before moving on.

The road undulated through the hills following the coast, looking down from rugged cliffs to the water crashing on the rocks below. Every now and then I would pass a hotel or villa clutching to the edge of the cliff face for unparalleled views over the water. Some had lifts and stairs down to their own private section of the beach front, adorned with an array of brightly coloured chairs and umbrellas. On other side, orchards of lemon trees and grape vines were etched into the hill side. Suddenly as I was descending a hill I felt a snap and my rear brake lever went dead. The cable had snapped. Luckily I still had my front brake, but not having a spare I would have to take it easy and nurse the bike now until I could find a bike shop. Something told me in this part of the world, that would be rare. Not long after, the cyclists I had seen at Mira Capri came past. I showed him my brake lever and asked him if there was a bike shop in Positano. I have no idea if he understood what I meant but directed me to the village turn off.

The goal for the day was Positano, a mere 35km from where I started in Sorrento. I planned to arrive in the mid afternoon, relax by the beach for a while, and then make my way to the campsite La Tranquilità, 5km east. Positano is a lovely picturesque village, with it’s narrow windy streets and buildings covered in flowers, but it seems that every tourist also knows this, so they make it their holiday destination. With hardly a square metre not covered by people (I could hear lots of American, Australian and Asian accents) it wasn’t really a place to relax. I decided to find the tourist information centre and ask for directions for the campsite. I started following the signs to the beach, which led me further and further downhill. Soon the road disappeared and I found myself negotiating steps through the souvenir shops, with my loaded bike, still surrounded by people on either side. I heard a few comments as I passed, with many who just stopped and stared. A man and his son from Korea stopped to ask me about my cycling journey, and were amazed to hear about it. Struggling, I finally made it down the steps to the beach that was buzzing with people moving around the cafes, on the beach, in the water, and at the pier for the ferries. I wandered around for a little while taking it in, then ordered a gelato to enjoy for moment to defer the inevitable march back up the stairs. After studying the map for sometime, I wandered off in the general direction of the tourist information. When I found it, I told the girl I had two questions please: First, where is the nearest camping ground? Second, is there a way to get back to the top of town without taking the stairs? She told me the nearest camping was Sorrento (where I had just spent the night) and there was no camping on the Amalfi coast. Then told me the only way to get back up, even with a bicycle, was back up the stairs. I was a little forlorn. Lonely Planet had let me down again it seems, I now had to lug my 40kg bike back up all those stairs and there was clearly no bikes (let alone bike shops in Positano!). Coming out of the office, I remember seeing little porter buggies on the beach that would take people’s luggage as they arrived at the port. Surely, they had a way to get back up to town, so I went investigating. I found this little tunnel, that went under the road, the popped out the other side and climbed, quite sharply through a series of switchbacks to the top. Haha! No stairs 🙂

Porter's tunnel in Positano

Porter’s tunnel in Positano

Once I had escaped Positano, I continued along the coastal road, looking for any sign of the illusive La Tranquilità or any other indication of camping. A few kilometres up the road I came to a sign for an info point. I stopped, but only to find out that it didn’t exist anymore, and the girl at the drinks stand agreed there was no camping that she was aware of. Bummer. I thought I would keep going until I found a nice little village, then find a hotel for the night. I continued along the road, the breathtaking scenery washing over me, and occasionally pausing to snap a picture. Just before the town of Amalfi, I came across a little stall on the side of the road selling granita limone. I pulled over to see an old man and woman who called out to me. As I came over the woman called out “Granita?” to which I replied enthusiastically “Granita!” It was truly the best I have ever tasted. I sat there for a while under the shade of their makeshift awning, and tried to make small talk with the old man. I wonder if you can call it “small talk” when it is a series of key words, gestures and smiles? At any rate, we muddled through happily. After finishing the granita with a couple of their fresh apricots I said “Ciao!” and went on my way.

Amalfi itself is also a lovely place, but like Positano it was hideously overcrowded. It was like disneyland without the cartoon characters. I stopped long enough to get a sense of the place, let it soak in and then pushed on. With all these undulating hills I was riding the front brake pretty hard. If it gave way too, it could have serious consequences. Then, out of nowhere this little shop appeared on the side of the road. I spotted the word “Bici” and thought it is worth a try. I showed the guy the broken cable, and he went through his box of spares pulling out something that might be suitable. I tried threading it through a section of outer cable, and it worked so it was worth a shot for 1 Euro. There was no place on the side of the road, or inside the little shop to make the repair, so I carried on until I found a place to stop.

The bike shop!

The bike shop!

Eventually I came to the charming little village of Minori. Much quieter, I had a good feeling about the place so decided to stop. I went past a restaurant with a big screen in the courtyard playing the Italy/Uruguay match. It was packed with people wearing the national kit, kids with faces painted. It was a real event. It was early in the game, and while I had no chance of getting a seat, I ordered a drink and watched on for a while. Rolling down to the water front in search of a tourist information office, I spotted a sign La Campanile – a camp site and picnic ground. Excellent. The signed pointed me away from the beach and through the town. I followed the series of signs all the way out of the town, up a long and winding hill. Finally I came to a sign that seemed to be pointing me up some stairs. I thought that is weird. Then a bus came along, and stopped so I asked about the campsite. Yep. It was up those stairs. OK. I could see about 20 stairs so started pushing the bike one at a time. I rounded the corner and the stairs went on further. I thought there must be another way. Then I saw a sign with a phone number so I gave them a call. There were 200 steps to the campsite and no other way in. Hm. Ain’t nobody got time for that! I tried to explain I had a bicycle, and they said they would come and meet me. After a quick chat, it was clear I had no choice but to roll back down the hill into town and find a hotel. However, I wasn’t keen to do that with only a front brake, so I got the tools out replaced the brake cable before setting off back into town to find a place for the night.

Afternoon in Pompeii and sunset over Sorrento

I had a lazy start to the morning, taking advantage of the breakfast hall at the campsite. Every morning they would play pop music videos during breakfast and I had forgotten how terrible that can be. I don’t think I’lll ever get that awful “World Cup” song out of my head now, you know “show the world where you’re from, show the world that we are one…” gah! After breakfast I headed back to the info point, where the girl helped me to work out what trains would take my bike as I headed to Sorrento today. It seemed that the train form Rome to Napoli would be no problem with rolling the bike on, but the small regional train that ran from Napoli to Sorrento would require me to bag it up again.

I packed my things and headed back down the bike path into the city. I was now familiar well familiar with this route into the city, particularly the little tricks like knowing when to take that unsigned turn and when not to follow that section of the path to avoid being confronted by a flight of stairs or being launched into the Rome traffic. As I said before, it all kind of works, but not quite. I had to find a spot to get off the path, and up to one of the bridges to cross the river. The path is quite low, near the water, bordered by tall walls on either side up to the road level. Consulting my map, I needed to get off about here and head to the station. I came to the bridge and there was no ramp, only a long flight of stairs with a very narrow metal ramp for wheeling a bike. No chance with a full loaded touring bike, so I kept going. I passed 4 more bridges before I came across a suitable ramp that I could ride up. Even then it was covered in cobble stones.

The ramp popped me out near the Circus Maximus, where I was the day before, which was great because I got to check it out sans Rolling Stones. However, there was still an aftermath of the event, with crowd barriers that had been removed from the road, but dumped in the bike path, that I had to negotiate. Before long, I abandoned the bike path altogether and headed into the traffic. If you are confident, riding in Rome traffic is actually not that bad. In fact drivers here still seem much better than drivers I encounter in Australia with regard to bikes. Perhaps it’s because there are so many scooters (if not bikes) that the drivers are constantly aware. Also the fact that they driver smaller cars helps a lot, since bikes can be invisible from the lofty heights of a Toorak tractor driver’s seat.

Making way way through the crowd at the station, I purchased my ticket from an automated ticket machine, including an additional ticket for my bike. Simples! Check the boards I had about 20 minutes to kill, so it was gelato time! When the train came, I made my way up the platform to find a spot for my bike and the conductor. It happened to be right up the other end! When I got there, far from “rolling on” the bike, I had to haul it up four big steps, but with the help of the conductor we got there in the end. He then told me, regrettably, that I need to walk the length of the platform (again) to validate my ticket at the machine. Wah.

Once I was aboard it was a smooth ride all the way to Napoli, with some spectacular views of the surround hills and towns. I was glad to avoid Napoli, the city. I had heard that even by Rome or Torino standards it was a  scary place to ride a bike. The way things worked out, I only needed to see the inside of the station. I’m sure it’s not all bad but on this occasion I was glad to pass it by. I bought my ticket from the ticket office and asked about my bici. The guy didn’t seem to care at all, so I took that as permission and wheeled it through the gate. Then I got to the platform entry, but there was no lift or ramp, just more stairs. I had to carefully nudge the 40kg bike step, by step, fingers gripping the brakes to avoid losing control. Once on the platform I met another Aussie family, from Brisbane with 4 kids under 10! It looked like they were still having fun, but the nerves were getting a bit frayed. They were going to Pompeii for a night, then spending a few days relaxing on the Amalfi coast.

On the train to Sorrento, I stood and held my bike as there was no luggage area to place it in. This seemed to work fine as I was not obstructing people getting in and out. After a while, four Americans got on the train, and one of them, wearing a name tag Jack, asked me about my bike. We got chatting and he told me they were here on a tour visiting Pompeii and a few other places. I told him I probably wouldn’t make it to Pompeii as I was heading to Sorrento, but he was adamant I see it. “It is amazing” he said. He had convinced me, and knowing my schedule was dictated by nothing other than what I felt like doing, I got off with them at the next stop and walked up to the entrance of Pompeii Scavi.

After some preamble of locking my bike, putting my panniers in the luggage storage, grabbing an audio guide I jumped right into the complex. Wow. Pompeii is amazing, and it is huge. I thought I might spend an hour there, but you could easily spend two days. Apparently the area is 14 hectares, a real a city with so much complete detail. If I was impressed by the ruins in Rome, this was an order of magnitude more impressive. So much has been preserved, since it hasn’t been subjected to wrecking and rebuilding of subsequent empires or pillaging for creation of new temples. There are complete mosaics, Roman baths, theatres, Roman style ‘fast food’ outlets, even rude murals on the walls of the brothel. More than any other place I have seen, you get a true sense of what life was really like for these people. And I met a real life archaeologist, a team in fact, but I was too star-struck to speak to them, so I just took a few sneaky pictures. I wish I had more time, but I had to rush and get my bags before they closed at 7PM.

From Pompeii, I jumped back on the train and travelled the rest of the way to Sorrento. Negotiating the gates at the station was a challenge as I managed somehow to get my bike caught between the barriers, until one of the station staff came to rescue me. I’m increasingly getting the impression that Italy is not that bike friendly 🙂 I didn’t stay in town long, but headed up the hill toward the camp at Nube??? After checking in, I made my way down to the terrace over looking the beach to pitch my tent. There was another cyclist there cooking noodles for dinner. His name was Anton (or Antonio in Italian) from Munich, another really nice guy, who was riding his bike for 3 weeks, while contemplating his future. He had worked for a big bank for 35 years, and now with a recent merger his work life was terrible. I could relate to that somewhat. It caused me to reflect on where my own career might lead me once this cycling adventure was over. It had been an intention of mine to use this time to work some of that out in my mind, but I have found myself so caught up in the moment of every day adventure, I’ve hardly given it a thought, but there is still more than a month to go before I face the real world again.

After setting up my tent, I made my way to the restaurant and sat at a table outside to admire the sunset over dinner. Tomorrow will be an easy day, cruising around the Sorrento peninsula and the famous Amalfi coast. It’s going to be great!