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Trip Report Middle Aged Regular American Guy Review of the Amalfi Coast

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So, like me, you’re a middle-aged, regular American guy (MARAG), married about a quarter century or recently divorced with a new spesh met in the 11th hour just before the Match.com subscription lapsed. The kids are out of the house yet somehow you still have a few bucks left over after dropping $500 large on the college country clubs.

You watch American professional and college team sports, manage to jog through the medial knee pain two or three times a week, are lucky to break the century mark with a breakfast ball and 5 foot gimmees on the weekends and vote the straight Republican ticket when bothering to register. You eat mostly steak (medium well) and potatoes, drink diet soda or when out on the town, bottled American light beer. You’re always stumped by the literature, music, art or popular culture questions on Jeopardy. Your idea of a good Italian restaurant is the local house of pizza (actually a Greek place). You don’t cycle (spandex is a bad look), ski, smoke, drink coffee or wine, eat pasta or fish, wear flip flops, sandals, skinny designer jeans, tight linen shirts with the tails out, speedos, necklaces, bracelets or any jewelry save a wedding band and the 30 year old Timex Ironman with the malfunctioning indiglo light. Your wardrobe, faithfully picked out by the wife/spesh early December annually, is two parts Kohl’s (30% off plus $10 Kohl’s cash), one part LL Bean mail-order. Your summer casual footwear is either boat shoes-bear foot nouveau chic or New Balance cross-trainers with white ankle socks.

Most especially, you don’t watch any sport where the players routinely fake injuries and 90% of the games end 0-0 or 1-0.

In other words, you’re the polar opposite of the middle-aged regular southern European guy (MARSEG) and the professionally educated beautiful people (PEBP) from the American northeast, California and other major cities in the US and throughout the world that dominate the Amalfi summer scene and love all things Mediterranean (of course they don’t actually want to live and work there cuz they’d have to give up 80% of their income in taxes).

You never heard of the Amalfi Coast until this past winter when your wife/spesh, taking advantage of the precious clicker time she covets every Sunday morning before you roll out of bed, happen to pause on the local PBS channel just long enough to have her breath taken away by one of Rick Steves’ “Best of Italy” segments presented in full HD 1080p on the state-of-the-art 70 inch Samsung. Newly convinced that Costiera Amalfitana is the best place on earth for an empty nest, romantic, summer va-cay and having already googled everything there is to know about visiting the region, she asks permission to proceed with booking the trip (ex post facto of course). You offer the standard MARAG conditioned response, “I’ll go but you gotta plan it.”

Now you’ve stepped in it, stepped in it good. No problem. I’ve got you covered with:

MARAG’s Guide To Surviving Your Amalfi Coast Vacation.

Best time of year to go: May and September are the 2 months that offer the best most comfortable temperature to least amount of people ratio.

Duration of Stay: The optimum time period is 10-14 days, any less makes the travel time not worth it, any more and you and your wife/spesh will hate each other more than you already do.

General Destination: One week on the Amalfi Coast with the remainder in either Rome or Tuscany/Florence, whichever she chooses (one or the other, not both……keeping buses, trains, taxis and transfers to a minimum will dramatically increase the survivability quotient).

What to pack: Let her pack your stuff per usual……no need for formal wear. RAMAG casual as described above is fine. Temps in the summer are mid-sixties at night to low nineties for highs.…….pack a light jacket/pullover and a couple of long sleeve shirts for the occasional cooler evenings.

Cash and Debit/Credit Cards: Use a credit card/debit card where possible (inform the card holder company that you have an upcoming trip to Italy). You will need cash for purchases at the smaller shops/restaurants. In-country ATM’s are the most convenient and cost effective way to get cash (usually a $2-$3 transaction fee with no added points) as your bank at home will charge 80 to 100 basis points in money changing fees.

Flights: Fly non-stop to Rome from eastern US cities or Chicago. Do not book connecting flights in Europe. If you think domestic connections in the US are bad, try making the 2nd leg of your flight on quasi state-run airlines in Europe. At De Gaulle for instance, the Air France international gates are literally a mile from the domestic terminal (had to pull an OJ Simpson airport run last trip).

Ground Transportation:

A) Arrival and departure. Hail a cab to/from the airport/train station (negotiate a 15-25 euro fare). Take the high speed train to/from Rome/Naples (1 hour 10 minutes)…..book on-line at trenitalia.com (English version) to save money……to/from Naples/Almalfi Coast towns hire a private driver (80-120 euros depending on where you are going – see Tripadvisor for reviews). There is a local train to/from Naples/Sorrento (Circumvesuviana line) but it’s often crowded and takes over an hour to go about 18 miles as it stops 30 times. The Sita bus to/from Sorrento/Almalfi towns doesn’t stop as much as the local train but the hair-raising cliff-side turns are not for the feint of heart, those of us afraid of heights or people prone to motion sickness.

B) In-Town Transportation: Since you’ll be eating and drinking yourself into a package, suggest walking from your lodging to where ever you are going in town. If too tired, injured or out-of-shape to do that then the internal in-town bus is crowded at times in the summer but works.

Local Town Base: Stay in either Sorrento or Positano (Praiano is too small, Ravello too isolated, Amalfi too crowded, the farthest from the day trip stops and not as scenic as Positano). Sorrento, the most populous Amalfi Coast town (17,000 vs 4,000 in Positano), is closer to the day trip destinations of Pompeii, Vesuvius and the Isle of Capri, has a greater variety of restaurants and shops and a few pubs but no beach. Positano, built into a cliff above the Mediterranean, is more scenic and has plenty of shops and restaurants but not as many as Sorrento. There is a small town beach but no pubs (at least places RAMAG’s would classify as bars with people in them at night). The other factor to consider in choosing a base town is ease of getting around. Sorrento is flat so more easily walked. Positano is a vertical village requiring the constant negotiation of steps and/or incline walk-ways. There is an internal bus that will get you close to your lodging or destination but it can get crowded in the summer. If you are in decent shape and actually prefer walking albeit up and down steps and/or incline walkways, Positano would be the preference of most RAMAG’s wives/speshes (remember, they always get to pick) because it offers the best combination of location, scenery and things to do. If you really want to stay there but aren’t in the best of physical condition, find accommodations closer to sea level. For those with ambulatory issues or people who just let it get away from them in terms of physical conditioning, Sorrento would be a better choice.

Accommodations: Let her pick. “You get what you pay for” should be her guide. If you are looking for value then B & B’s and apartments booked on VRBO are the best bet. We stayed in a great villa half way up the cliff in Positano called Sasa with the panoramic Mediterranean views (took me 20 minutes longer than normal to get rolling in the morning due to my daily poetry writing) for $120 euros a night.

Language Barrier: Don’t embarrass yourself with feeble, Lt. Aldo Raine-like attempts at uttering Italian words/phrases including salutations. Most of the locals, especially those in the service industry, can get by just fine in English. Moreover, as an American you’re expected to display a certain level of arrogance that includes not speaking the language. Oblige your hosts.

Food: If you ask the professionally educated beautiful people (PEBP), Italian cuisine, especially the dishes served up by Amalfi Coast’ finest master chefs masquerading as regular local guys, is the best in the world……maybe so for the palates of the truly refined but to the taste buds of the MARAG, with the exception of the gelato, fruits, cakes and pastries, the food is nothing to right home about. Culinary relativity aside, it’s not just different, it’s simply not as good as your go to menu item at the local Olive Garden, much less your favorite $$$$ special occasion place back home. FYI, the standard local meal times are: 10A, 2P and 8P. Plan accordingly.

A) Review Sites: I know everyone utilizes on-line review sites these days, even RAMAG’s. They are especially useful in evaluating accommodations, transportation and things to do but a word of caution about their use in choosing Almalfi Coast restaurants.

Except for me, MARAG’s don’t write reviews on travel/restaurants web sites. The vast majority of comments you’re perusing are written by PEBP who love all things Mediterranean, especially the wine and food. You know the type. On the coast of Maine where I live they are the same people (none of whom are indigenous Mainahs) who frequent microbrew establishments and rave about the robust flavor of the Belgian dark, wheat, summer stock, blueberry-pumpkin, imperial stout that taste like the stuff you stepped in on your way to the ultimate Amalfi Coast vacation. For PEBP small portions of organic, locally harvested food, creatively plated and complimented with the house red/white rate a Zagat pièce de résistance. Al fresco with Mediterranean views are a must……Lemoncello and/or cappuccino are required after dinner drinks. If your wife/spesh picks a restaurant featuring the above then by all means go, otherwise, RAMAG’s should avoid the 5 star, up-market places like the plague unless you want to eat your 2nd and 3rd courses at a nearby cafe. As a general rule, stick with the less expensive, out of the way local restaurants (usually farther up the cliff). The food may be ordinary but at least you want walk away hungry.

B) Pizza: You may have heard that Pizza was first made in Naples, Italy. There seems to be some dispute about that but one thing that is not in question is that Pizza served up on the Amalfi Coast isn’t good. The middle is watery, crust soggy as a result, toppings sparse and has to be eaten with a knife and fork as the ingredients slide off if you attempt eat it by hand. …..suggest ordering pizza only if it’s the only non-fish item on the menu.

C) Steak: You know steak is not the hallmark menu offering when the waiter doesn’t bother asking how you want it cooked. I ordered it twice……tasted about the same as you’d get at Bonanza in the states, just less of it.

D) Seafood: Most MARAG’s don’t eat seafood and neither do I so I can’t comment. Being on the Mediterranean, all Amalfi restaurants offer a plethora of seafood dishes. Spesh had it a lot, remarking that the seafood tasted fishier than what you get in the states.

E) Pasta: The featured item on all Amalfi restaurant menus and pretty much what MARAG’s are forced to order due to the lack of quality beef, dislike of seafood and mediocre at best pizza. Pasta Bolognese is generally the safest bet but any pasta dish will do (spaghetti and meatballs would be preferred but never saw it on a menu). For the uninitiated MARAG, differentiating pasta is like comparing Chinese rice to Japanese rice. What’s the dif.? The local pasta tasted like the standard state side restaurant version to me and is hardly the basis for the best-food-in the-world title bestowed on the region by the PEBP.

F) Gelato/Deserts/Fruits: By far the best part of your Amalfi meal is dessert. The gelato is generally very good but no better than you can get in US PEBP cities…….ditto the desserts and indigenous fruits.

Alcoholic Beverages: Since MARAG’s don’t drink wine (the last vino that touched these lips was Boone’s Farm apple on the 8th grade graduation trip) I don’t know anything about the quality or lack thereof in respect to local wines……spesh said the wine was excellent……ditto Lemoncello. American beers are pretty much non-existent in Amalfi and many restaurants don’t offer beer on the menu. The Italian domestic, Peroni, is ok but has an aftertaste. If you are an American light beer drinker the best you can do generally is a light colored draft or Corona.

Best Bar in Positano: As mentioned previously, Positano doesn’t have pubs per se and except for one nightclub down on the beach filled with teenagers and twenty somethings, there is no nightlife other than restaurants. Best bet for an after/before dinner beer/drink (or morning pastry/coffee) is Bar Internazionale at the top of town where the main route to Sorrento intersects with the local interior road……small local watering hole….not as touristy as the places below……owner was wearing an U. of Arizona basketball t-shirt the night I was there..….as close to your neighborhood bar as you’re gonna find in Amalfi.

Tipping: Tipping is not expected for any services, that includes waiters, waitresses, porters and cab drivers. While MARAG’s may welcome the savings, there is a downside – poor service at restaurants. Because there is no financial incentive to be attentive to patrons, waiters/waitresses generally aren’t. Plus, since management has to pay higher wages to offset the no tipping culture, my impression is that there are fewer wait staff per table as compared to the states (at every Amalfi restaurant we had to ask for things including the check and generally waited 30-45 minutes after finishing our meal to exit).

Day Trips: Ok, so now you’re on the Amalfi Coast with your wife/spesh. There are no golf courses, pro sporting venues, beaches or horse tracks. What are you gonna do all day?

A) Beaches: There are small public beaches in both Positano and Amalfi (Sorrento doesn’t have a beach) but they are not like the US or the Caribbean versions – no waves, no sand, rocky and overcrowded…….not an option for MARAG’s.

B) Isle of Capri: Mandatory Amalfi Coast day trip. Book the first ferry of the day (least crowded) and avoid Sundays (most crowded). Once there take the trolley (across the street from the docks) up the hill (if there’s a line for the trolley hail a cab)…….take the bus or if too crowded grab a cab to Mt. Solaro where you’ll ride the chairlift to the top……spectacular Mediterranean views both on the way up/down and at the summit where there’s also a casual restaurant that serves snacks, drinks and gelato. From there do lunch in Anacapri (separate town from Capri where Mt. Solaro is located). After a bite to eat take the local bus to the nearby Blue Grotto, a tourist trap but a necessary part of this excursion. Rowboat captains beg for tips (the only service on Amalfi where a tip is expected) to take you for a 5 minute tour of this natural cavern where light refraction makes the water appear florescent blue. The rowers earn tips by singing volare……could be as much as an hour wait to get in. From the Blue Gratto catch the local bus back to Capri where the ferry docks are located……waiting for the boat, hang in one of the local cafés while the wife/spesh shops.

C) Pompeii/Mt Vesuvius:…..gonna have to tour one ruin so might as well make it the most visited one outside of Rome or Cairo (I hear Herculaneum, although much smaller, is better preserved and certainly less touristy), plus your friends will be impressed by your picture of the 1st century petrified dog. Take the train from Sorrento to the Pompeii stop. Spend the 12 Euros each for the guided tour (will be several vendors right outside the train stop). It’s informative and allows you to skip the line, just make sure you get in the group with other MARAG’s for the English language guide or you might be fumbling with your phone translation app. that you bought for the trip but have no idea how to use. After the morning tour have lunch at one of the local places near the park entrance and then sign up for the Mt. Vesuvius bus and tour (again there will be vendors for this trip near the train stop)…..it’s about a 20 minute trip to get there. At the base of the mountain you’ll take a hair-raising ride on a strange looking Mercedes ATV that seats 25 or so operated by unofficial looking (no uniform) Italian national park drivers who text and talk on the phone while negotiating hairpin turns on what can best be described as a road in complete disrepair..…about a 20 minute walk up the pathway from the drop off/pick-up point will get you to the summit (a walk not a hike but don’t lean on the rails that line the outer edge of the path as about every 7th post is dislodge).....spectacular views of the volcano, Mediterranean, Sorrento and Capri from the top.

D) Ravello: This quaint Amalfi Coast village is a popular PEBP destination wedding spot with its renaissance churches, beautiful views/scenery, upscale hotels, gardens, shops, restaurants, music venue and town square. A 17th century Newport, RI, it’s on the itinerary of every RAMAG’s wife/spesh. Take the ferry to the town of Amalfi from Positano/Sorrento (great views of the cliff villages from the Mediterranean without the nausea of the local bus). From Amalfi grab the local bus to Ravello. When back in the town of Amalfi (bottom of the cliff below Ravello) there are many shops and restaurants where you can eat/drink/sit around killing time while the wife/spesh extends the spending.

E) Walk of the Gods: A hiking trail above the Amalfi towns with spectacular views of the Mediterranean…..can be done in New Balance cross trainers but you’ll need to be in decent shape (probably gotta be able to walk 18 or jog a couple miles)…..not a difficult hike but there are some rocky parts and a mile of rough steps down to Praiano. Take the local bus from Positano to Nocelle (small village above Positano) and hike south along the trail 3 or 4 miles to Praiano. Ride the Sita bus from Praiano back to Positano. The hike/bus trip will take about 4 hours.

Conclusion: The best part of your Amalfi vacation is interacting with the local people (despite what you’ve heard, Italians, at least the ones we met, don’t hate Americans), the views, scenery, history and hopefully the person that made you go in the first place. More importantly, the fact that you agreed to go now gives you capital (literal and figurative) to spend at Saratoga in August, Scottsdale in March or the living room on Saturdays and Sundays this fall.

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