Southern sojourn

Southern sojourn
Mount Vesuvius looms in the background of Pompeii, a flourishing city embalmed in volcanic ash after Vesuvius erupted in AD79.

ITALY - I bite into a slice of dazzling yellow citron from an Italian roadside fruit stall on the Amalfi Coast. The citron perfectly resembles an overgrown lemon to me, and tastes tangy.

But it is also a little sweet and spongy, unexpectedly, and it is cut from a citrus fruit the eye-popping size of a pomelo.

My street snack is the less-relished citron and it carries a sensation of southern Italy, where life is like a fantastical lemon - zesty, with an extravagant appeal, and sometimes deliciously oddball.

That is clear in my six days on the road to the south, where I take a cliffhanger drive on the Isle of Capri, a celebrity hangout with a counterpoint of green, sequestered enclaves.

In less-explored Alberobello, I wander on streets of white, whimsical, conical trulli houses that look ideal for Italian hobbits, though real people live in these ancient abodes.

And Pompeii is a time capsule writ large, with a flourishing city and its people poignantly embalmed in volcanic ash the moment Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD (see facing page).

Our Trafalgar luxury coach trundles through such places that reveal the several faces of the south - sophistication, seclusion and wild beauty.

I think these southern attributes are best seen in the romantic Amalfi Coast and its string of Mediterranean towns.

We drive along this Unesco-listed coast on a stretch of the 80km-long Amalfi Drive (Strada Statale 163). Originally fashioned by the Romans, the curving road is built into cliffs or suspended heartthumpingly on mountainsides.

In a 1953 article for Harper's Bazaar magazine, the novelist John Steinbeck described the drive: "We hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing."

The road wraps around mountains that roll into the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea and it is a place that evokes myths. Homer writes that mermaids - the Sirens - lured Ulysses and his sailors with their enchanted singing.

Less ominously, citrus orchards dot the coast. We stop at a scenic spot and drink orange juice freshly squeezed by a vendor.

His cart is shaped like a colossal lemon, while limoncello liqueur is peddled everywhere in the south in fancy bottles. The limoni is king of fruits in these sun-kissed regions.

We linger in Positano, pearl of the Amalfi Coast. Positano, once a mercantile rival of Venice, is a layered confection of houses in sun-bleached pastels set on cliffs.

From the top of the town, we walk down streets and steps lined with little hotels and boutiques, and head to the dark-pebbled Marina Grande beach below.

It is winter, so the popular beach is uncrowded and I can find a seat in a cafe later to look at the sea.

On another point of the coast, the Isle of Capri, which we reach by ferry, has a stretch of road that condenses the thrills of the Amalfi Drive. Between its towns of glitzy Capri and verdant Anacapri is a "Mamma Mia" road, as our travel director Giacomo Giamboi dubs it.

At the curviest corners of the uphill road, our vans seem to dip over the low guard rails so that for a couple of seconds, I am staring vertically down at the beautiful Capri-blue sea far below.

My experiences at either end of this wily road are very sedate, however. Capri appealed to Roman emperors with one powerful visitor being Caesar Augustus (63 BC-14 AD).

Today, the rich and famous still descend on Capri. But we do not encounter Bill Gates, Mariah Carey or football stars - it is a celebrity-free winter.

Nevertheless, their photos pepper some establishments and I feel immersed in a movie set or a quaint version of Rodeo Drive, as I walk in alleys dotted with Miu Miu and Ferragamo boutiques, chic art galleries and hotels.

Other alleys I wander into have a more rustic appeal. In a tiny shop, a friendly elderly resident starts a conversation with me about fresh fish and shellfish, and I smile in incomprehension.

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