After six days in Florence, I was feeling quite knackered and well and truly ready to settle into quieter pastures where I could just chill the hell out and escape the crowds. By now, I had been traveling for eight weeks throughout Europe and despite travelling solo, I always had a friend or somebody to hang out with. However, by the time I got to Florence; for the first time in a year and half, I felt alone and in need of company still. The combination of travel burnout and an overcrowded city really wore me down and I felt like I had buried myself deep into a dark hole.
I had very loose plans to make it down to the Amalfi Coast as part of my overall Italy trip, but now I was feeling clueless on what to do and where to go. I considered a multitude of options such as heading as far south as Sicily to explore the volcanos or escape north east into the mountainous terrain in the Dolomites. I wasn’t too interested in making any major decisions so I let the fact that I had three friends travelling to the Amalfi Coast guide my decide for me.
As per usual, I was searching for accommodation a day prior to leaving and the prices were fairly steep for anything around Positano which is where my friends Kath and Liz were staying. I started scouring AirBnB for places in Sorrento which on the map looked fairly close to the town of Amalfi and put in a few enquiries. This is when Jo, my other friend said that I should come to Atrani which is where she was staying. My initial thought was where the hell is Atrani? But being the organised person that Jo is, she already sent me a link to a hostel called A’Scalinatella which seemed reasonable at €20 a night so I decided that was half my work done already and just needed to get there.
Hanging on for dear life.
After a four hour train ride from Florence, cruising through the the scenic landscape of Tuscany and Mt Vesuvius in Naples, the train pulled into Salerno. From there it was an hour bus ride just to travel a short twenty kilometres. At first I had a thought to myself thinking it would take so long because of the casual Italian attitude, but as soon as we were on our way, the road morphed into a rally driver’s dream- narrow, with enough hairpin turns to cause the most hardened traveller to reach for the spew bag.
In most places, the road that hugged the cliff lines were only narrow enough only to accommodate a small Alfa Romero, so the bus would intermittently come to a screeching halt to allow traffic through. When we weren’t getting thrown around I’d lean against the window and stare over the precipice across ancient watch towers and out the Mediterranean Ocean. The views are just insanely spectacular. Scattered in between these jagged clifftops at the sea level were secluded beaches, accessible by boat or by a path, from the mansions above. I was told that this is old money here and the homes have been in the families for generations and none of the families were in a hurry to sell anytime soon.
I didn’t give the bus drivers enough credit for the job that they did. Despite the craziness of the journey, our driver managed to drive with pinpoint precision. He’d squeeze out every inch of road possible and at time’s we’d graze the ferns that clung to the cliff walls whilst avoiding to drag the side of the bus along the mountainside. After an hour, I finally arrived in one piece to Atrani and in a mad rush, I grabbed my bags and got off the bus before the bus sped off again.
From the top of the overpass, I stared at the town and still had no idea what I was doing here in Atrani and if I’d enjoy it. I could see the town’s rooftops, a few alleyways and a walkway that led up to the rocky mountain backdrop. Walking down the stairs to the pizza level, the town presented itself as small, quaint looking and with plenty of old Italian charm with flower and herb pots scattered throughout the village which made me feel instantly welcomed and right at home.
Within a few hours of being here, I came to the conclusion that Atrani was the perfect location, and I was surprised that a small and quiet village could be perfectly situated a one minute walk to the beach and a meagre ten minute walk to the popular and neighbouring town of Amalfi and a short bus ride to the hilltop town of Ravello. There were almost no tourists and everybody was speaking in Italian- a stark contrast to my experience Florence.
Life around the piazza.
Life here is very easy and extremely likeable. Unlike most of the main towns like Positano, there aren’t the thousands of steps or tourists to tackle; walking from one end of town to the other will only take a matter of minutes. Each time as I’d stroll down to the piazza, I’d wave and greet the neighbours with a “ciao!” as they sat casually by the doorway to their home, greeting all those passing by.
Each morning, I’d poke my head into the fishmonger, say hello and check out the catch of the day. One day there would be fresh octopus the size of a grapefruits and the following day, it would be mackerel- still firm and fresh, smelling like the ocean as though they were caught a few hours prior. It’s a shame there was no kitchen in the hostel that I could cook in.
The main area, or centre of commerce and social outings in Atrani is around the piazza. If you required anything, you would get it from one of the few stores that border it: a couple of bars, restaurants and convenience store. In the evenings, the place would come alive with street performers and everybody out and about enjoying themselves. Even the kids would be out till late with their parents and had greater staying power than myself.
When it got too hot, the beach was the place to be. Only a stone’s throw away from the main piazza, it’s not the largest beach in the area but there was never any difficulties finding room. Most of the beach front real estate is taken up by sun lounges for rent, but everybody seemed content, opting for whatever space they could find either on the concreted areas by the rocks or close to the paddle boats by a small freshwater stream that would trickle its way from the mountain behind the town and all the way down to the beach.
After the lunch period, I’d be rushing down to the deli to order a mortadella sandwich from the old shop keeper before everybody would shut up shop for siesta. Despite our interactions being limited to finger pointing at the log of mortadella and queso indicating what ingredients I’d want, there always seemed to be a genuine and friendly smile acknowledgement, with each visit.
In the late afternoons I’d enjoy an Aperol spritzer or two at bar Birecto by the piazza. With only one visit under my belt, Luigi the barman remembered who I was and with every drink there would be a an endless supply for complimentary nuts and olives. Everything there all worked on a trust system and when you were ready to go, you’d go to the bar and tell them what was consumed and paid according to that – It’s all friendly and casual here.
The beach was also the place where I was introduced to one of my favourite things to eat in Italy called a Cuoppo, by a local chap from Naples called Vincenzo. Vincenzo is a keen photographer and we met a temple in Bagan, Burma a few months back. He happened to be nearby and was on holidays before starting a new posting in Naples the following month, so we decided to meet up at the beach.
After a while, the topic of conversation turned to food and somehow he managed to convince the local restaurant, whilst still closed to rustle up a cuoppo; a paper cone filled with fried pieces of whatever seafood was fresh on the day. For me, it summed up what I liked about the area- the greatest pleasures in life are always simple and don’t need to cost the earth.
I’m pretty glad to have Jo recommend Atrani to me. Unlike the popular towns of Positano and Amalfi, it was the authentic small town experience that I was in search for without having to sell my first born to pay for it. If I ever felt bored, there was never a shortage of things to do nearby. Staying in a town like Atrani was like having the perfect space to relax and unwind in a region that is packed full of tourists most times during the year. Despite spending only four nights in Atrani, it had saved Italy from being a bit of a letdown for me. I decided afterwards that I’d spend less time in Rome and find some smaller places to explore and spend the remainder of the time in Italy.
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