My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick
Before plunging into the urban jungle of Naples, here are some pictures of two more stops on my South Italy swing: the Isle of Capri, and the ancient Greek and Roman ruins of Paestum.
I was primed to hate Capri, with its reputation as a jet-set resort. But, like so many before me, I totally fell for its charms. (It didn’t hurt that the weather was glorious.) Everything operates on an unhurried island logic that’s lost on outsiders, but somehow just works. It’s all very endearing.
To reach the island, rather than being herded onto the overcrowded ferry, I signed up for an all-day excursion on a 10-person private boat. Once you factor in all of the transportation costs, it was only about $25 more than going it alone — and well worth it, considering how much easier it made my visit. It even included a trip through the “Cave of Love,” in the iconic Frangiolini Rocks.
Leaving Capri —and the Amalfi Coast — behind, my last stop before Naples was Paestum. In antiquity, Paestum was first a Greek town, then a Roman one. And today it has three of the best-preserved Greek temples outside of Greece. Ancient sites sometimes leave me cold, but these temples are impressive.
Unlike the more famous ruins at Pompeii (which I also visited on this trip) — surrounded by urban sprawl, congested with cruise passengers, and still wincing in the shadow of a smoldering Vesuvius — Paestum sits alone in a tranquil field. It’s dignified. Pensive. And very, very old.
Some towns are relegated to perennial “day trip” status — visitors always just zip in and zip out, rarely spending the night. On this trip, I made a point to spend a couple of nights in the town of Amalfi, the namesake of the famous Amalfi Coast and a fine little town in its own right. And sure enough, it’s an entirely different (and more appealing) place after all of the side-trippers have gone home. Below are some pictures showing this famous, yet underrated, town…after hours.
Amalfi’s main square — at the foot of its cathedral steps — is a pure delight, particularly in the twilight.
After all of the day-trippers have retreated to Sorrento and Naples, the town’s pulse slows. The most venerable pastry shop in town, Andrea Pansa, is a favorite sundown hangout.
Having a whole day in Amalfi gave me the chance to explore. Mid-day, when the town was jammed, I hiked across the hills to the next town over, tranquil Altrani — an undiscovered gem that most tourists only get an enticing, fleeting glimpse of from the bus up to Ravello.
I’ve stayed in probably hundreds of hotels in Europe. But my Amalfi hotel room may have been the smallest I’ve ever seen (pictured here full size). To get between the bed and the postage-stamp bathroom, I had to shimmy around the desk (which was effectively just a big shelf…there’s no way you could fit a chair in front of it). But you know what? It was a great stay: comfortable bed, strong Wi-Fi, and a huge window that let in the sounds of neighborhood Amalfi…until I wanted to shut them out.
In Italian churches, you see a lot of “please cover your shoulders and knees” signs. But I’ve never seen one quite as weirdly moralistic (or as passive-aggressive) as this one, at Amalfi’s cathedral. For God’s sake, have some dignity!
“It’s not the size of the road, it’s how people use it,” my driver said, as he gingerly nudged his minibus between a delivery truck and a double-parked scooter. Slamming on the brakes as another minibus zipped around him and cut him off, he winked, “It helps to have more than two eyes.”
I’m comfortable driving just about anywhere in Europe. But Italy’s Amalfi Coast is where I draw the line. Big buses, little minivans, scooters, and pedestrians all simultaneously stake their claim on a two-lane road, often taking far more than their share out of the middle. Side-view mirrors brush within milimeters of each other, honking horns and furiously gesticulating arms assert right-of-way, and pedestrians scurry for their lives along tiny shoulders.
I joined a minibus tour and let a local expert to do the driving, sparing myself some stress — and, most likely, accidents. Sitting in the back seat of the minibus, the passing traffic was fascinating rather than terrifying. I periodically locked eyes with confident bus drivers, reckless motorino pilots, and terrified tourists wishing they’d passed on the rental car.
While someone else negotiates the hairpin turns, I get to focus on the jaw-dropping scenery. Jagged limestone peaks plunge directly into the deep blue and green waters of the Bay of Salerno. Somehow people have figured out a way to settle this mountain-slashed terrain — filling every available gully with a cantilevered gaggle of colorful houses. Mixed in are the villas of the rich and famous, who have been drawn here since ancient Roman times. It seems that every hotel we pass is named Bellevue, Belvedere, or Bellavista. And the views are beautiful indeed.
In the Amalfi Coast equivalent of a lemonade stand, entrepreneurial locals set up shop at each wide shoulder, selling products made from the local specialty, handpicked lemons. At one particularly scenic spot, just past Positano, a weathered old man stood next to his rickety cart piled high with fresh citrus. The local authorities let him set up shop here, and in return, he keeps this stretch of road litter-free. Popping fruits in and out of his hand-cranked press, he squeezed me a blend of orange, lemon, and clementine juice…delicious.
Positano is draped over a series of terraces that stairstep down to the sea. Like a natural amphitheater, the town faces its majolica-tiled church dome and its pebbly beach. And even though it’s only April, people are already catching some sun.
Amalfi, the coastline’s namesake, was a big deal a thousand years ago. Along with Venice, Pisa, and Genoa, it was one of Italy’s Maritime Republics — independent, business-minded city-states that were more powerful (and more wealthy) than many entire kingdoms. But a tsunami wiped out Amalfi in 1343, and it became a forgotten backwater. Strolling Amalfi today, it feels the most like a real, living city of anyplace along the Amalfi Coast. The main square is one of those wonderful piazzas that has great feng shui — it encourages lingering. A long staircase (sort of a mini-Spanish Steps) leads up to the front door of a thousand-year-old cathedral. Those stairs are the town’s meeting point — a picturesque and convivial suntrap.
High above it all, minuscule Ravello is the Amalfi Coast’s version of a hill town. It clings to a cliff so steep that the adjacent town (across a big gorge) is named “Scala” — literally, “Stairs.” Understandably, Ravello is prime territory for grand villas, and two of them — each with sprawling seaview gardens — bookend the lazy, nearly traffic-free town center. And yet, for all its glamor, Ravello’s core feels pleasantly low-key, even humble. Teens hang out on the church steps, while across the square, a row of perfectly positioned umbrella pines thoughtfully provide a canopy of shade for the bellavista benches.
Some of the most scenic stops are blink-and-you’ll-miss them towns whose names nobody knows. I was particularly intrigued by little Fiordo, the aptly named “Fjord.” A tiny fishing hamlet tucked at the apex of a deep inlet, hemmed in by cliffs on nearly all sides, it’s been turned into a vacation resort. “But only in summer,” my driver explained. “May, June, July, August. The only months where it actually gets any sun.”
All in all, driving along the Amalfi Coast — with someone else behind the wheel — is a day very well spent.
The last two nights, I’ve had starkly different dinners in the town of Amalfi. Each one cost about €25. One of them I’ll remember for years. The other I’d already forgotten while I was still eating it.
Travelers have choices, and the best options are rarely the easiest ones. And this is never so true as when you’re restaurant-hunting. After a few days in Italy, I feel like I’ve seen the same menu dozens of times. Pasta with clams. Seafood risotto. Lasagna. Spaghetti Bolognese. Because this is the Amalfi Coast, they often throw some lemon in there somewhere. Only the restaurant’s name changes.
Last night, moments after arriving in town, I went looking for restaurants. On a relaxed little neighborhood piazza just a few steps from the main drag, I zeroed in on a promising-looking place. I grabbed a table, ordered a pasta, salad, and dessert, and — while the food was pretty good — the experience barely made an impact.
Tonight I got more ambitious. I had asked a local guide, who leads food tours in a neighboring town, where she eats when she’s in Amalfi. Her answer: Taverna degli Apostoli, tucked around the side of the cathedral’s grand staircase. And sure enough, it was the best meal of the trip so far. Here’s the play-by-play.
Service: Last night, I sat outside, a few feet from where the owner was trying to drum up business. His running banter with random passersby was comically desperate. “Hey! Where you from? You want a good meal? Very cheap ’cause we’re not on the main square. Come on! I promise you like it!” Entertaining as it was to watch him set his hook in a family of four from Vancouver, then expertly reel them inside, it distracted — and detracted — from my dining experience. Tonight at Apostoli, my soundtrack was mellow jazz rather than aggressive sales pitches, and the service was astute and warm. When I asked if the broccolini was particularly bitter, she gracefully acknowledged it was, and nudged me toward something else. When the table in front of me opened up, she suggested I scoot up for a better view.
Interior: Last night, it was the predicable red-and-white-checker-tablecloth-with-melting-candles atmosphere. You couldn’t tell if you were in Italy, or in Little Italy. Tonight at Apostoli, I peeked inside. It was a former art gallery, they explained, and they chose to keep that decor intact in the cozy upstairs dining room. And, while my experience outside was perfect for a hazy late-April evening near the sea, I could imagine very happily lingering over a meal inside, too.
Menu: Last night, it was a list of completely predictable standards. Tonight at Apostoli, the menu was thoughtful, intriguing, even educational…to borrow a trendy phrase, it felt curated. Things like pasta with anchovies and walnuts. (I didn’t have the guts to order that one, but now I wish I had.) I had the sense that these were all dishes I’d never heard of before, even though people here have no doubt been eating them for centuries. I couldn’t choose…and, I imagine, I couldn’t choose wrong.
Food: For me, the most important part of any dining experience is the food itself. Last night, the pasta was actually quite good: noodles that were clearly handmade, with stewed tomatoes, melt-in-your-mouth roasted eggplant, and gooey mozzarella. But the “mixed salad” consisted of greens on the verge of wilting, flavorless tomatoes, and a few kernels of corn from a can. I sprinkled more and more salt and balsamico onto the salad trying to tease out some flavor. I failed. Oh, and there were about five tasteless olives. At one point the owner peered into my salad bowl and said, “You’d better eat those olives! I paid for them!” Finally, the desert (delizia di limone, a lemony sponge cake) tasted store-bought. Tonight at Apostoli, the salad was a revelation: ripe cherry tomatoes, shaved fennel, hand-torn basil, and — that extra-mile finishing touch that distinguishes a great chef from a merely competent one — a few little flecks of raw garlic to pull everything together and make the flavors pop. The pasta was hand-cut ziti with a sauce I’d never heard of, genovese neopolitana: slow-simmered onions and celery, giving each bite a savory, rich, caramelized sweetness.
Decision: Apostoli, in a walk. You can guess which restaurant is going in the next edition of the Rick Steves’ Italy guidebook.
What’s to be learned form this? First, if you care about food, expect more from your meals. Don’t settle for the same old trattoria on the same old piazza. Seek out that special place that dares to upend the clichés. A very fine line separates restaurants that deeply care about food from restaurants that care primarily about making money. Fine-tune your radar to detect that difference.
And finally, don’t get stuck in the TripAdvisor rut. I find that restaurant ratings on TripAdvisor skew heavily toward crowd-pleasing tourist traps. Last night’s restaurant ranked in the mid-twenties on TripAdvisor; Apostoli is buried about 10 places lower. Based on my personal experience the last two nights, you can follow the herd — or you can challenge yourself to find something better.