If you’ve ever visited Italy, you probably know that superlatives and contradictions go hand-in-hand when trying to describe it: spectacular and chaotic, colorful and confusing, inspiring and sometimes frustrating. Your memories might include Vespa scooters darting through snarled traffic, or drinking deliciously strong coffee in tiny cups with handles you can’t get a finger through at sidewalk cafes. You may have taken buses up deliriously switchbacking mountain roads or wandered among the ruins of an ancient civilization. Italy is steeped in tradition while also embracing the vanguard of modernity.
Like California, Italy’s distinct differences between its ‘north’ and ‘south’ can often make it feel like two very different nations to visitors. You’d be forgiven for wondering how they ever decided to join up in the first place. In fact, it’s useful to remember that Italy as a single entity has only been in existence since 1861, the same year America went to war with itself. In a strictly technical sense, the Italian Republic is actually younger than the United States of America.
I recently spent some time in Sicily and Italy’s Campania region south of Naples where the differences between between that part of the country and the north are more than skin deep. While in the Sicilian mountain town of Mirto, I had lunch with a woman who had spent many years in the north of the country near Milan. She reinforced something I’d heard in Rome from a translator friend: Campanians and Sicilians speak with a different dialect that is essentially unintelligible to most Italian speakers. A simple demonstration using a statement rendered in both dialects convinced me that the two are indeed separate languages.
This part of Italy is deep Mediterranean (again, technically speaking, it’s the Tyrrhenian Sea here…)—with a mild climate that provides a long growing season. Here it was, the last week in October and the kitchen garden of the hotel where I had lunch in the town of Positano on the Amalfi Coast had four-foot tall vines still flush with tomatoes, eggplants and peppers—the kind of summer garden crops that are mostly finished back in temperate America.
The Amalfi Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is on the southern side of the Sorrentine peninsula just south of Naples. The peninsula itself juts like a thumb westward into the Tyrrhenian Sea bordered by the Gulf of Naples to the north and the Gulf of Salerno to the south. The city of Sorrento, on the northwest edge of the peninsula occupies the same latitude as Denver, Colorado (Denver is actually a degree south of Sorrento…), and its climate couldn’t be more different. Once again I was reminded that climate is a lot more than just proximity to the equator.
Historically, the Amalfi Coast has enjoyed some occasional doses of independence thanks to its impossibly rugged and mountainous terrain where, if you want a patch of level ground, well, good luck finding one. Fact is, this side of the peninsula is anything but level and therein lies its charm. Picturesque towns cling dramatically to cliffs and bluffs overlooking the sea. It must give insurance companies the willies. But, oh, those views and that climate!
Indeed, from a visitor’s standpoint, Amalfi’s relative inaccessibility has another very distinct advantage—less pollution from vehicle exhaust and subsequently less noise. Don’t get me wrong. There are cars, trucks, buses and scooters in Amalfi, but their numbers are far fewer there than on the northern side of the peninsula. Most visitors to Amalfi seem to arrive by boat, and while those large vessels are hardly zero-emissions, their impact on air quality is at least less visible. Also, the mountains of the peninsula provide a barrier to the smog on the northern side and, as a result, the haze one sees hanging over the Bay of Naples is barely visible here.
Amalfi’s remote and rugged location has also kept local population numbers relatively low. This side of the peninsula has only about 25% of the population that the Sorrento side has and many of the service workers here leave for the winter as things close down. Come March, though, things begin to stir again and Amalfi springs to life. For my money, that would be the time to visit and beat the crowds, such as they are. There’s not a lot to do, but, on the Amalfi Coast, that’s exactly the point.