Driving The Amalfi Coast Highway

Posted on
Mar 2, 2015
23

The Amalfi Coast.

 

That miserable and storied month of February now over, I am acutely aware of how anxious and unhappy I was throughout. This didn’t occur to me while it was happening; only after the trapeze artist is safely on the ground again do you realize you were holding your breath the entire time.

And you realize how much worse it could have been. If only you could reach back in time and tell yourself: everything will be okay. I am not there yet – as I told a friend last night, I still don’t know what will happen to my book, and so I can’t yet say, “It was all for the best.”

It reminded me of Italy, of a story that Rand has been begging me to tell since not long after it happened.

One view from along the Amalfi Coast Highway.

 

We rented a car to drive along the Amalfi Coast Highway – a femme fatale of a road, beautiful, untrustworthy, absurdly dangerous. The rental car agency had only one automatic in their fleet – by Italian standards, it was a lumbering beast of a vehicle. When I first saw it I could scarcely believe it.

“It’s huge,” I whispered to Rand. It dwarfed every other vehicle in the lot.

“It’s all they have,” he said.

We’d just landed in Naples, and were going to drive to my grandfather’s village that night. My husband would, over the next few days, maneuver that four-wheeled Behemoth through the chaos of Southern Italian highways and a labyrinth of narrow village roads. White-knuckled, I would grip whatever was in easy reach – the seat cushion beneath me, the door handle, the dashboard – and did my best not to choke on my anxiety.

Driving in Italy is like mastering a complicated language. Outsiders try for years, but are barely proficient. But if you are born into it, there is nothing else.

The rules are not what you think they are. I remember riding in a car with my cousin a decade and a half ago, during a hedonistic summer spent gallivanting around Italy, trying to outrun the grief of my grandparents’ death. I noted that in Italy, the red “STOP” signs were printed in English.

“Yes,” my cousin said. “But they’re broken.”

“Broken?” I asked.

He nodded, then proceeded to drive directly through one without so much as slowing down.

“See?” he said. “They don’t work.”

He has been in America for a decade now, and I’m sure if I told him about that incident, he would marvel at his own hubris. He said after so many years in the U.S., he doubted he’d be able to drive in his home country as easily as he once did. The bravado has faded; he is no longer fluent in Italian roadways.

Rand knew all of this. He’d heard our stories, he’d driven in Italy before. He is one of the best drivers I know: attentive, competent, calm. Even he was not ready for Amalfi’s highway.

The highway, as seen from below. It is build like a shelf into the Amalfi cliffs.

 

The road began innocuously enough. Gentle curves along a rocky cliff. But as it gets progressively more lovely it also gets progressively more terrifying and unsafe. It’s as though the civic engineers designing it, if indeed there were any, got distracted by the view and decided they no longer were bound by the laws of physics.

Incidentally, this is a good mindset to have when driving on it.

Along the coast, the road becomes increasingly narrow, until it is as scarcely as wide as an alleyway in the states. Motorists, undeterred by this, or possibly just asleep at the wheel, zipped down it in both directions. Some of the vehicles – scooters, Smart cars, even the occasional ancient Fiat – seemed perfectly suited to the sharp turns and exiguous lanes.

Notice the width of the lanes – the car in front of us is a Mini.

 

But because this is happening in a country whose unofficial motto is “Non me ne frega un cazzo,” (loosely, “I don’t give a fuck.”) there are dozens of massive tour buses, too.

This was oncoming traffic. Notice the amount of clearance the bus has left us.

 

And there we were, foreigners in an almost-comically large vehicle, trying navigate roads that seemed to mimic the flight path of a drunken moth. Rand hugged the edge of his lane as best he could, our side mirror so close to the jagged mountainside that I eventually had to fold it inward lest we lose it. But when no one was coming we, and all the other drivers in both directions, would inch closer to the center – away from the rock wall that flanked us on one side, and the precipitous edge of the road on the other.

This meant that when we did encounter on-coming traffic, we were headed directly for it, and it for us. This often happened around blind corners, so that there was little time to react. Rand perfected the act of turning the wheel just so while slowing down and simultaneously cursing. I began to whisper the prayers that my grandmother would recite each evening.

“Ave maria, piena di grazia, il signore è con te …” 

It was less a return to the Catholicism I had strayed from years ago, and more something with which occupy my larynx other than screaming.

“It’s  like a video game,” Rand would later say to me, “but one with horrible consequences.”

It was inevitable that we got into an accident. The fickle mistress of fate can only be tempted so many times before she strikes. Even then she retains her sense of humor: our accident did not happen on that beautiful hellish road. It happened in a parking lot. After Rand had been driving expertly for hours, after we were within shouting distance of our hotel, we made a wrong turn.

And dearest, forgive me, but it must be said: I told you not to. Had we continued on the road we were on, we’d have arrived at our hotel. But we turned. Into a parking lot.

There, for a moment, my American Andretti let his guard down. There, as he backed up, he hit a car. I should note that it was illegally parked. But this was Italy – such a statement is both redundant and irrelevant: all cars are parked illegally, and none are.

And besides, I still blame the highway.

I sat, shaking. Unable to think and, I realized, unable to hear, at least momentarily. Rand got out of the car, assessed the damage, and started to leave a note.

He got as far as “ciao”, before realizing he didn’t know Italian.

“Um,” he said, handing the paper to me, “Can you write the note?”

I stared at it. “Ciao.”

I didn’t cross it out. It was a solid beginning.

“Ciao, abbiamo battuto la machina …”

My Italian is not perfect under the best of circumstances. Under the pressure of that moment, my fluency became as garbled as the fender we’d bumped into. The word I wanted was “sbattuto” – we hit your car. Instead I wrote battuto – we beat your car.

Never mind. When we were contacted, days later, the owner of the vehicle questioned my sanity but not my grammar. He noted that we were the first people in the history of Italy to have ever left a note. The price of our integrity came out to 600 Euros. Even through the email, I could hear him incredulously laughing.

The memory of this still smarts a little.

But this was later. After we left the note, we still had to get to our hotel. It was cruelly close – we could walk the distance in a matter of minutes. The drive took us seconds. When we arrived, a charming head valet would take Rand’s keys and ask us how our drive was.

I have forgotten his name. But his face, his voice, his actions, these would become indelible. Still rattled, I told him everything that happened. Together, we surveyed the damage. The side of our rental car had been gouged. A cruel dent stretching from the front door to the back. I winced.

He told us not to worry.

The hotel would turn out to be one of the most beautiful I’d ever been in. Our view of the water was unspeakably lovely. But the accident hung over us like a fog that would not lift. Everything would be okay. But we didn’t know that yet.

The view from our hotel room.

 

“I feel like this highway is a character in our vacation,” Rand would later say. “It’s the villain.”

The next day, we walked into town (we were talking no chances), and upon our return, we saw what appeared to be our rental car in the parking lot of the hotel. But nearly all evidence of the accident had been erased. Rand walked up, touched the doors, his brow knitted in puzzlement.

The head valet approached, explaining that he buffed it out as best he could, and apologizing for being unable to fix the damage entirely.

Rand replied by hugging him.

He tipped him too, of course. But I suspected that he got plenty of tips. His reaction to Rand’s hug (he reciprocated, and laughed, and slapped my husband on the back), suggested that he did not get many of those.

The fog lifted a little.

Our remaining days in Italy would be wonderful and chaotic. I remain both grateful for them and in no rush to return. At the end of the trip, we drove back to Naples to drop off our rental car. We handed over the keys, and the attendant at the agency said he just needed to check the car for damage.

I braced myself, trying to figure out what story absolved us from guilt. There wasn’t one. It wouldn’t matter.

In the end, he would only ask me this: Had we scratched the passenger side mirror during our drive?

The mirror? The mirror?

I stared at him blankly and replied that we were honestly unaware of any damage to the mirror. He nodded, explained that it was minor and we would not be charged for it. Other than that, the car was fine.

And we left.

“What happened?” Rand asked.

“He didn’t find any damage,” I said.

We held our laughter until we were out of the parking lot. We might have held it until we were out of the country. It felt like we didn’t exhale until we landed in Germany. Only then did we shake our heads and wince at the cost of our mistakes. Only then were we able to marvel at what we’d gotten away with.

Leave a Comment

  • The damages that others don’t see are greater than the ones they do. A fascinating story, well told!

    • Chinh Dao

      I don’t know if you are deep, or you are really deep.

      • Everywhereist

        He’s pretty damn deep. 🙂

  • Yikes I’d be a nervous wreck! Great photos 🙂

  • Kristina

    Great Post!
    I remember discovering that the kids had decided to draw on the ceiling of one rental car with coloring pencils.
    That was fun.

  • robin

    funny! but what kind of car was it? did i miss that? you said it was huge but we never got to see! I was there in september and can vouch for the scary roads. i think my heart stopped several times.

  • Thank G-d for hinged side view mirrors on rental cars in England and Ireland. Your tale of driving the Amalfi coast reminds me of our white knuckled experience driving the Ring of Kerry in Ireland—-except, being Americans, we also had to remember to stay on the correct side of the one and a half lane wide road. In addition to the rock cliffs on one side, there were also the ancient stone walls, diabolically covered with vegetation, up against the road’s edge on the other side—or as on the Amalfi coast, a drop to the sea. Like many “uncomfortable” experiences, it also produced grist for a blog post. One person who left a comment said that when he and his wife did the same drive, they re-named the handle over the passenger side—-the “oh shit” handle. I’m sure you can relate.

  • Stelian Mezin

    I’m glad that nothing tragic has happened to you on that treacherous road. Well, you’ve lost 600 euros and few days of life (assuming that the claim that stress shortens life is correct), but is a small price compared to what could happen, and, images you’ve taken are really beautiful.
    Btw, you think Italians are reckless drivers? Omg, you should come to Serbia where recklessness takes on a new dimension. We even have an “event”, popular among young people, called “Srpski rulet” (Serbian roulette): driving in a counter direction at high speed, or from the side street go out to the main road through a red light. You can imagine how it often ends…

  • Lovely post, but I think you need to spend more time in the north of Italy in order to get the whole story. Signs are not “broken” there. I promise 😉

    • Federico, I’ve driven extensively in the North. Those narrow little roads leading into Bellagio, the Vigo de Fasso that narrows in the mountains to one lane and yet enormous buses bear down on you and crazy motorcyclists drive between traffic. On our way down the Stelvio, i had to careen into a chalet driveway so my husband could throw up in front of a crowd happily eating lunch on the balcony. Ha, ha!

      Crazy! But we’ll never forget it. That’s for sure.

  • I laughed out loud while reading your post; this could have been our story.

    On a grand tour of Italy, we decided upon leaving Lake Como to drive the Stelvio Pass on our way to the Dolomites. It is a crazy mountain pass that car show Top Gear labelled one of the Top 5 drives in the world. I’m sure the only thing that beats it is the washed out Himalayan truck roads. We laughed and cursed and felt every hair on our bodies quiver on our skin.

    Upon arriving in Bolzano the locals looked at us incredulously when we told them about our adventure. “You drove the Stelvio? I’d never do that.”

    In the planning phases we had decided that we’d rent scooters for the Amalfi Coast. But by the time we made our way south, the ferry sounded like a fine idea.

    Here’s a tip for those who are planning a trip to Italy. The Cinque Terre is a rustic Amalfi Coast full of Italians on vacation in August. And here’s the treat: it’s a hiking trail between the 5 towns. No car required!

  • Meg B

    “only after the trapeze artist is safely on the ground again do you realize you were holding your breath the entire time”

    Truer words were never spoken. February sucked balls for me, too. I am sorry it sucked for you. I am glad it is over and we can move on to March which better be good or I will shank it.

    Loved this story. I actually found myself holding my breath a bit as I read it. When your book is published (WHEN not IF) I look forward to reading even more brilliantly written stories.

  • Renee

    This makes me laugh and remember when I was a kid and my dad had the bright idea to rent a big conversion van (hey it was the 70s) for our road trip vacation so us kids wouldn’t fight in the backseat. Besides that plan not working at all since we always fought anyway, he also proceeded to drive into a parking garage, ignoring all signs telling him of the low height and then crushing the ceiling of the van after slamming into one of the huge cement beams.

    We spent the rest of the vacation with trash bags taped to the top of the van and it, of course, proceeded to rain the entire way back. Oh and my mom made my dad take the van back to the rental office. Oddly enough, it was the last time we rented a van for vacation.

    We couldn’t buff that out so I would call that a silver lining for y’all!

  • Beautiful photos, it looks so stunning and magical. I’ve always wanted to go to the Amalfi Coast but I would be terrified of driving there!
    How funny that your rental company didn’t pick up on the dent and instead asked about a mirror scratch!

    I went to Italy last September and my friend hired a car (I wanted no part of the driving!) and we were given a huge tank of an automatic, which was terrifying because it was so huge and secondly because he had never driven an automatic car before and here he was having to drive something so unfamiliar in a country where driving is so unlike how it is in the UK. Road signs and rules seem non-existent and as polite Brits, it was scary.

    The hire car we had was covered in small scratches and dents, as were most of the cars on the road! I’d love to go back to Italy but I’m not sure I could handle driving.

  • I LOVE the Amalfi coast. My husband proposed to me there and we took a drive along that scary highway after the proposal! It is absolutely gorgeous. We always talk about going back there to rent a house for 6 months when we retire 🙂

  • Shelle de Beque

    My sister and I took the easy way out of driving the Amalfi Coast. We hired a handsome Italian driver to take us to our hotel in Positano. He had perfect manners, wore a perfect suit and spoke not so perfect English. He was on his cell phone for most of the trip, talking to his girlfriend. We were in the back seat alternately swooning at his Italian sweet talk and gripping the seats in fear.

  • I am going to the Amalfi coast next year and was thinking it would be a Grace Kelly moment like in To Catch a Thief. I might take the ferry there from Naples instead.

  • What a comical story!! Just got back from the Amalfi coast and I cant believe the accident was in the parking lot and not on the road… life is funny like that! So lucky that you got away with it haha

    (Edited to remove link)

  • I loved this post! I see why you consider it one of your best; I think so too. I felt like you were describing our (hubby and my) visit to the Amalfi coast. While riding on one of those enormous tour buses to Ravello, I recorded a driver in a Fiat, going the opposite way, shaking his prayerfully clasped hands and mouthing a prayer as we passed within a hairsbreadth of him. Much of our tour, I couldn’t look out of the bus’ windows for fear of having a panic attack. Regarding the driving, I recorded over 10 minutes of cars approaching a roundabout in Sorrento from five different directions because I couldn’t discern what traffic rules, if any, they were following. No one crashed into anything but all of the cars I saw bore grievous scrapes and dings.

  • Lajla LeBlanc

    I read this to my husband particularly because for your declaration of Italy’s unofficial motto. Brilliant and true. We were in Praiano for 5 weeks and I watched my husband become “one of them” behind the wheel. Scary. He’s better now, grazie. 🙂

  • Kelsey!

    Haha! My road trip along the Almafi Coast ended with a big “BARF” out the window with roughly 20 onlookers. There is nothing more connective than staring strangers deep in the eyes while throwing up. Life highlight, no doubt.

  • Great photos, thanks! Amalfi Cost Highway is one of the most beautiful roads in Italy. Of course, sometimes it could be overloaded (in summer time). Also, some people claim it dangerous to drive. Nevertheless, it is still worth driving.

  • D Sladek

    Love your story! We also did the drive in early September. My son drove and did a great job. He kept telling me to chill, but by the time we had driven a couple of miles (which took 30 minutes), he was the one who was yelling at everyone for not obeying the rules. We scratched the side of the rental car and used some of my son’s hair balm to cover it up….and it worked!

More from The Blog

On Instagram @theeverywhereist

  • It's hard for me to even begin to describe Rand's Uncle Doig. During the war, Rand's grandmother Ruth and her father were trying to flee Europe. They got stuck in England, where her Jewish-Austrian father was mistaken for a German, and thus an enemy combatant. He was sent to a POW camp and Ruth was adopted by an English family - Doig's family. (She and her father would be reunited after the war.) Now in his 90s, Doig remains a keeper of family lore, a hopeless romantic, and a wonderful flirt.
  • "Jeff Goldblum? I haven't heard that name in years."
  • Video games are riveting. And confusing.
  • Green tea latte and 70 degrees at 7am. We're reached peak southern California, friends.
  • So awkward that the two loves of my life would meet like this. #jeffgoldblum
  • These are a few of my favorite things.
  • The torrential rains gave way to ... slightly less rain? Alas.
  • I don't even know how to describe how lovely this place is. #edinburghcastle #edinburgh #scotland
  • Aaaand then the sun came out and everything was beautiful. #scotland #edinburgh
  • Scotland, I'd really love to explore, but I'm getting the feeling you want me to stay in and do some work today.

All Over The Place

Buy my book and I promise I'll never ask you for anything again.

BE AWESOME. BUY IT.