So many things don’t live up to expectations that I feel almost thrown when an experience goes ahead and exceeds them. I felt that way about the Amalfi Coast – something so famous, so revered, so notoriously over-touristed couldn’t possibly be that good, could it?
I think I actually would have been suitably disappointed if I had visited at any other time. Wall-to-wall tourists and places where you need to book your dinners months in advance if you even want to think about eating at a good restaurant are so not for me; I had been traumatized by proxy through stories of ridiculous traffic jams, packed boats and buses, and restaurants serving plates of mediocre pasta at staggering prices.
And then the pandemic happened, and the tourists evaporated, and in late June we booked a fairly spontaneous long weekend trip to the Amalfi Coast. It was idyllic. The place is gorgeous – and I mean seriously, drop-dead gorgeous in that way that feels like you’ve wandered into a film or someone’s dream. The first thing we did after arriving (other than wolfing down an insalata caprese at the first bar we wandered past) was walk the four kilometres between the towns of Minori and Amalfi, which is apparently normally ill-advised due to traffic and tourists who’ve never driven in Italy trying to pilot a rental car down one of the country’s most notoriously narrow and curvy stretches of road, but worked out quite nicely for us if you don’t consider the buckets of sweat lost over those few kilometres. The scene around each corner is more beautiful than the one before it, and walking was the only way that would let me stop and take a million pictures every ten steps.
The next morning, we rented a scooter and wove our way down the curvy and hair-raisingly narrow road to Positano, where we explored and took another million pictures and sweated more and then wandered into a random restaurant with a picturesque terrace and ate an excellent lunch (no reservations months in advance, no sticker shock after being presented with the bill). After lunch we explored the coast in the opposite direction, down to Cetara, famous for its anchovies. We adore anchovies; it felt like an appropriate pilgrimage to make. We bought jars of salt-packed anchovy fillets and little bottles of colatura (fermented anchovy liquid; it’s better than it sounds), and then sat sipping beers at one of those authentically grimy small-town fisherman bars while Italian top-forty radio clashed with hymns projected by screechy loudspeaker from the nearby church. We ate intensely sour lemon granita from an extremely sketchy roadside truck on the way back to the hotel. It was perfect.
I realize that the whole weekend was so good because we had the place to ourselves, so to speak – I think I heard maybe two or three couples speaking a language other than Italian, and even the Italian was local, regionally-accented Italian; there were no tourists on the Amalfi Coast, a situation which I’m sure has never happened before and will likely never happen again. And I realize that this is a bittersweet, awkward, thorny thing to enjoy, because a pandemic has created this situation and now a lot of people and businesses are seriously suffering – but spinning a bad situation into something good, I’m glad I got the chance to see such a beautiful part of Italy in a more calm, authentic state.