Ahhh-malfi Coast

Monday, April 04, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

California's Pacific Coast Highway and Nova Scotia's Cabot Trail are two of our favorite drives.  We just discovered that both are included in National Geographic's list of Drives of a Lifetime:  500 of the World's Most Spectacular Trips.  Today we found another on the list in Italy's Costiera Amalfitana.
 Widely regarded as one of the most beautiful parts of Italy, the Amalfi Coast, stretching from the Gulf of Naples to Salerno, provides a wealth of scenic vistas.  A marvel of engineering, the road is carved into the face of cliffs overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, which is always in view, often as far as 500 feet below.   Climbing past headlands and dipping to fishing villages, this famously winding and narrow road was built for beauty as well as function. 

The cliffside retaining walls and guardrails are stunning stone walls of the type that landscapers love to incorporate in big-budget projects.  Even the seaside face of the guardrails was not ignored, carrying the same design.

Nor was safety neglected.  When we first entered the road, Ken commented on the lack of rock slide warning signs, though massive rocky seacliffs lined the highway.  On closer observation, we realized that the signs were not needed because all the roadside cliffs were covered with massive steel mesh and cabling systems, reaching hundreds of feet up.  They have been there long enough for plant life to worm its way through the mesh seeking the sun, giving the cliffs a more natural appearance and camouflaging this necessary precaution.  (Click on the photo to the left to enlarge it and see this marvel.)

A small peninsula near the ankle on the front of Italy's boot, the Amalfi Coast is dotted with picturesque seaside villages with villas and hotels hugging the steep cliffs.  The pastel houses and clear turquoise sea paint an enchanting picture.  But these views come with a price.
The town of Amalfi
Construction of the highway was begun in 1815, at a time when today's level and type of traffic had not been conceived.  As a result, the road is not only winding due to its terrain, it is often very narrow, sometimes less than two full lanes.  Since it is so beautiful, tourists flock there in both tour buses and rental cars.  With no road shoulder and the cliff often overhanging the road, large tour buses cannot execute the hairpin turns without using the opposite lane.  As they approach such an obstacle, these undaunted bus drivers honk their horns in warning to oncoming drivers. 
Further complicating the driving on this harrowing road are the aggressive driving style of many Italians and the tendency of both locals and visitors to park along the highway.  Fortunately, Ken had two weeks of Italian driving behind him before we ventured to this stretch and handled it beautifully, though both his arms and legs were tired from all the shifting and turning.
Positano in the haze
Even in early April, traffic on the Amalfi highway was quite thick.  The road cannot handle the load in summer when tourist season peaks.  During the high season, locals are allowed to drive on the highway only every other day: even-numbered license plates on even dates, odd on odd.
Concerned about trying to pack too much into a couple of days, we almost skipped this seaside adventure, thinking we'd put it on our itinerary "next time."  We're so glad we changed our minds, but we're still holding out for a next time in this little slice of paradise.

Amalfi Coast Stats
Shifts from first to second gear:  1,472
Shifts from second to first:  989
# of times passed on curves by Italian drivers:  64
Narrow misses:  60
# of times passed on curves by motorcycles:  93
Narrow misses:  93
Square feet of steel mesh:  296,673,145
Parked cars blocking or partially blocking lane:  749
Wildflowers blooming on cliff faces:  161,968
Lemon trees in villages:  7,081
Oohs:  54
Ahhs:  61