Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast in Italy: What to do and to bear in mind

A view of Positano on the Amalfi Coast in Italy at dusk. A visit offers spectacular views, but it’s a tourist hotspot than can get very crowded.
PHOTO: Unsplash

Crayon-coloured houses cling to cliffsides that emerge from clear Mediterranean waters. Roads corkscrew along a mesmerising coastline, connecting villages and towns that were once only accessible on foot. The scent of lemons fills the air, accompanied by a whiff of suntan lotion.

Once in Italy, getting to the Amalfi Coast is straightforward enough. Visitors usually arrive via Naples, the European country’s third largest city, after a detour to nearby Pompeii.

In AD79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the prosperous Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under thick layers of volcanic ash. Spellbound sightseers gawp uneasily at the petrified people while exploring the public buildings surrounding the forum, the amphitheatre and gymnasium, the city brothel and Temple of Apollo.

Visit before January 2023 and you’ll be able to discover just how saucy the citizens of Pompeii were, at the Art and Sensuality in the Houses of Pompeii exhibition.

What to look forward to

From Pompeii (or Naples) take the train to Sorrento, which is sometimes referred to, rather unfairly, as little more than a transit hub (Gateway to the Amalfi Coast sounds better).

The town is small enough to see on foot and reasonably flat - not a phrase used to describe many places in these parts. It has at least a dozen inviting coves and bays for sun worshippers to choose from, not to mention a medley of top-notch hotels and highly rated seafood restaurants - Sorrento still has its own fishing fleet.

The shoulder seasons (April-June; September-late October) are the best times to experience the Amalfi Coast. Temperatures in this part of southern Italy won’t be as fierce as in July and August, making it a good time to lace up your hiking boots and head for the hills.

The Path of the Gods is one of many ancient trails that criss-cross the Lattari Mountains. The 8km donkey track dates from the 10th century and offers vertiginous views of the World Heritage-designated coastline

If you decide to hire a car for further forays, start by setting the sat-nav for Positano. Actually, you don’t need to - there’s only one road - an impossibly scenic ribbon of tarmac that hugs the spectacular shoreline for 50 twisting kilometres.

If you prefer to let someone else do the driving, hop on a bus. It’s about an hour from Sorrento to picturesque Positano. Public ferries take longer, but you can’t beat those Mediterranean-meets-mountains panoramas.

Wedged on a ledge, glitzy Positano is home to art galleries, chic boutiques and bespoke sandal stores tucked away on hilly lanes overlooked by churches and houses that spill down to the sea.

Until the early 1950s, Positano was a modest fishing village. American author John Steinbeck was concerned that writing about the “dream place” would change it forever: “If I tell, it will be crowded with tourists and they will ruin it … and there’s your lovely place gone to hell”.

An hour along the coast lies Amalfi. A maritime power to rival Genoa and Venice in the 10th century, the small seaside town boasts a medieval Roman Catholic cathedral and a series of decent beaches.

Steinbeck wasn’t the only celebrity smitten by the beguiling beauty of the region. Renowned for its garden and dramatic views, mountaintop Ravello has long been a magnet for the rich and famous.

Winston Churchill dropped by, as did Humphrey Bogart and Graham Greene. DH Lawrence, penned parts of controversial classic Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) while staying at the prestigious Villa Cimbrone.

Modern-day celebs - especially American ones - can’t keep away from the Amalfi Coast either. Leonardo di Caprio has been spotted, as have Jennifer Aniston, Michael Jordan and Meghan Markle, to name but a few.

What to bear in mind

Heading to the Amalfi Coast either side of the high season is definitely a good way to avoid the crowded beaches and gridlocked roads. Avoiding industrial action is another matter.

Strikes by air traffic controllers and budget airline workers in June led to disruption across Italy as hundreds of flights were cancelled with thousands of passengers affected. More aviation-based walkouts are expected.

Sorrento’s excellent transport connections make it popular with day trippers but it’s also a cruise-ship port, which means the streets and cafes are packed at certain times of day.

In fact, most Amalfi Coast resorts suffer from peak-season congestion so copy the celebs and take to the water. You don’t need your own yacht, though - the aforementioned public ferry will do just fine.

If you fancy a dip in the Med, be sure to scan the sea carefully before taking the plunge. Blooms of jellyfish can be a pain in the summer months (and wherever they sting), exacerbated in recent years by overfishing, warmer seas and pollution.

The beaches themselves aren’t great either. The majority are small, gritty and many are private with entrance fees of around €25 (S$114) a day.

Frequently described as the most beautiful place in Europe, Positano has also been rated the continent’s most expensive summer destination. As the saying goes: “If you think the cliffs are steep, wait until you see the prices.”

Steinbeck’s dream place hasn’t quite “gone to hell” but being too gorgeous for its own good means affordable accommodation is in short supply. Online tales of tourists planning summer trips only to find Positano already 98 per cent booked by March are not unusual.

Hiring a car offers freedom and flexibility but the narrow two-lane coastal road is often choked with traffic. In many places, parking costs €35 for eight hours - if you’re lucky enough to find a space.

The railway line doesn’t extend beyond Sorrento but travelling by public bus means you can enjoy the views - assuming you remember to sit on the correct side and are able to find somewhere to sit.

Getting a seat is easier said than done as it’s standing room only in high season. And don’t forget, these are Italian drivers - if you don’t succumb to motion sickness, the sharp bends will probably send you flying.

The ugly side of Pompeii

Vandalism and looting of ancient artefacts by tourists, or gangs who sell to private collectors, has long been a problem at Pompeii. Security guards have caught a number of people attempting to smuggle parts of statues and chunks chiselled from frescoes but budget cuts mean there are now fewer staff on duty at the ruined Roman city .

According to legend, Pompeii’s destruction was a punishment from the gods, which gave rise to the idea of a curse. Some guilty thieves return their ill-gotten gains claiming they brought nothing but bad luck.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.