The Amalfi Coast is a bit of a misnomer. There certainly is a town called Amalfi but there is not much coast to speak of; the mountains meet the sea with little to show in between them. Humans and their houses cling precariously to the cliff faces and occasionally, if the mountains are generous, provide the odd gorge to allow for more opportunities to build houses and hotels a little further back from the Gulf of Salerno.
Apart from a desire to live on the side of mountains, the other striking feature of ‘Amalfians’ appears to be their need to consume lemon products at a rate well beyond that of other cultures: Lemon Slushies in the morning, Lemon Sorbet after siesta and Lemoncello long into the evenings. This lifestyle requires inordinate amounts of lemons and lemon groves and the only place for the Amalfians to grow them is on cliff faces. Where they haven’t sited quaint villages, there are lemon groves cascading down the mountains until the mountains can no longer hold soil and straighten out for the long fall to the sea. The lemon groves themselves are not a recent idea either. Stone terraces clinging to the sides of the mountains, appearing to have been built by Roman engineers, provide the necessary practical support for the many lemon trees.
I was never able to discover an Amalfi native working in his lemon grove. I presumed it was a seasonal thing and while I was there, he must have been drinking last season’s lemoncello and awaiting next season’s harvest to bear its valuable bitter fruits. The absent labourer’s workplace was so steep that I could only imagine that during the harvesting season, he would have worked with a rope tied around his waist. Otherwise, the local newspaper would have led with something like the following front page story… “Another local lemon picker falls off cliff to death – onlookers claim he wasn’t wearing his cliff-belt!”
There are no Workplace Health and Safety Officers working on the Amalfi Coast. If so the entire lemon industry, second only in importance to tourism, would collapse due to the inherent dangers of its work- places. Too many lemon pickers, with baskets full of ripe fruit, have presumably been toppling off terraces for generations and falling, screaming to their death over the massive cliffs down to an unforgiving sea. Their predicament must just be too thorny a problem for the local Citrus Administration Office.
The other thing that the Workplace Health and Safety folk should close is the entire Amalfi road system. Local wisdom appears to accept it as necessary evil in order to bring tourists into see the houses clinging to cliff faces and the underpaid lemon pickers falling off cliffs. Given that there is no room for a road between the mountains and the sea, the road has been built on the very edge of the cliff. The resulting road is no wider than a one-way alley in a hill-town but somehow the Amalfians find room for parking on both sides of the road, the occasional double-park scenario and gigantic tour buses going both ways carrying precious cargoes of residents from American Retirement Villages. Other people with family cars or scooters just have to force their way on to this road space.
For me the Amalfi Coast road is the road to hell. Having a morbid fear of heights as well as bus-rides, traveling by public bus from Atrani to Positano was enough to force me to curl into a ball and sob uncontrollably. Throw into the mix a touch of vertigo and some clear memories of dreams where I was falling off these same familiar cliffs, this was not a place my analyst wanted me to be.
However even my worst fears didn’t prepare me for the gridlock that developed half way along this road around 9.30am one Wednesday morning. The timing is significant given that it meant that the giant space-age tour buses had time to collect their octogenarian passengers and hit the coast road in time to meet us on the local bus coming the other way. We met a fleet of these buses as we attempted to cross a bridge over a gorge that fell to the sea, unmeasurable metres below us. The coaches were coming out of the tunnel in the headland, turning left onto the bridge as we were half way across it. Given that the bridge engineer had never foreseen this scenario, there clearly wasn’t the room for us to pass with any ease so our bus had to stop. This now meant that we were stuck mid span on a pre-war Italian bridge, the view out the left window was to open space and then down into the abyss. The view out the right-hand window was into the slowly passing tour bus and the vacant, fear filled eyes of the pensioners who clearly knew their hour had come at last on this bridge too far in Italy.
If my situation wasn’t parlous enough, it took a turn for the worse when the next giant tour bus decided it would join us, even before his companion bus on this bridge over distant troubled waters had gotten across. It seemed there was a bus pecking order and my minor bus had no right to get off this bridge until the mighty tour buses escaped around it to the other side. My mind accepted that this was not a tenable situation…this bridge was destined to collapse under the weight of so many buses. I lived for twenty minutes with the vision of three bus-loads of tourists falling in slow motion through the air, whirling around each other in a descending dance, down to the sea at the bottom of the gorge. So, for what seemed like eternity, these three buses inched around each on the bridge, like nervous suitors concerned that one touch might make them lose all self control.
Whilst I survived the bridge of death by what could only be described as a miracle, the rest of the ride didn’t decrease my sense of continuous panic. For example, on the tightest curves of this twisting mountain goat track, the enlightened safety authorities had put up signs in English that read… “Give way to overtaking traffic!” (Presumably Italian drivers didn’t need this direction as they were the ones overtaking.) In the end I decided that someone back in the Traffic Safety Bureau had mistranslated the official instruction and that it should have read, “Give way to on-coming traffic”, because nobody in their right mind would overtake traffic on this road made up entirely of hair-pin bends…only demented individuals with a death wish, overtaking a bus on a blind bend, would assume that there wasn’t a bus coming the other way to squash them against the cliff face. However, these unimaginable incidents were almost continuously viewable out my window.
My favourite incident was the scooter rider who passed my bus on the cliff-face side, swerved out to pass the bus ahead on the cliff-edge side, only to meet a bus coming the other way; he simply slipped through the closing gap between the two buses and roared off, careless of the close escape he had just had from being a squashed scooter rider. A sense of complete invincibility must be a national trait of Italian scooter riders.
For a time I became very sympathetic for the plight of Amalfi Coast bus drivers. It seemed to be the sort of job that would necessitate a great deal of counseling to survive in – or at least a rewarding benefits package to compensate for the continual stress they were under on that crazy road. However the bus driver on my last ride on that highway to hell convinced me that they were just a different species of humanity and not deserving or requiring of too much sympathy. This particular bus driver was of a very social persuasion and kept taking and receiving mobile phone calls from his mother and his girlfriends. Given that the Amalfi Coast bus ride is surrounded by death traps, I expected the man behind the wheel to stay focused. For much of this time this guy’s left hand was totally devoted to his phone. The rest of his body was dedicated to things like blasting his horn to warn on coming drivers of their approaching doom, checking the mirrors on the side of the road that assisted him look around the cliff bends and actually driving the bus. His brain must have been one busy place.
I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on my last bus-driver…I lived to tell the tale.
I don’t always associate nightmares with catching the train from Naples to Sorrento on the Vesuviana line…but I should. This is the line that takes you to Pompei so you can expect a million enthusiastic archaeologists cramming the train, desperate to see the Lazarus town awoken from its death after 2000 years of uneasy sleep under Mt Vesuvius. The Italian government have not spent a lot of money on the railway carriages and they are certainly not designed to hold large traveling bags as well as too many tourists; on the morning ride in question, we were packed in like sardines, crouched protectively over our bags in the open space near the doors, worried that pick pockets would investigate the pockets of our bags, steal our passports and leave us stranded in Italy for the rest of our miserable lives. Every time this all-stations train would stop, the doors would open and more desperate travellers would cram into any spaces left over.
I was assuming that life couldn’t get any worse this particular travelling morning when the canary in the coal mine started wailing. Among those crammed into this space was a couple with their toddler and it was this toddler who decided the situation was unbearable for him and he started to scream with that scream that says “if you lot don’t do something, I am going to make you feel so uncomfortable that you would prefer to be a sardine”…at least sardines are dead and well-oiled when packed in their tin can.
As I was musing on my predicament (that I knew would take another 40 minutes to resolve), I wondered how my situation could get worse. Then I heard some strains of music wafting from the next carriage. When I realised that this merry Neapolitan tune was coming from a piano accordion, my spirits sank even further. That merry tune was a harbinger of the black plague that strikes out of nowhere on Italian trains and consumes all in its path…it was Charity Troll#27, the train riding piano accordion player, often accompanied by his side-kick, the trombone player. They were a tag team of misery. They were like torturers who pre-warned their victims from well down the castle dungeon hallway…you knew they were coming to eviscerate your nerve endings but there was nothing you could do, given that you were chained to the dungeon walls. Like the sardine, the dungeon prisoner had at last one advantage over my situation; although the prisoner knew he would be paying in physical and psychological pain, he at least knew that he didn’t have to suffer the indignity of having to actually pay money to his torturers for the ‘pleasure’.
This demon duo worked the line between Naples and Sorrento. They would torture each carriage in turn and when their mayhem was complete, they would jump off the train and catch one going back the other way. Their target were the tourists who were already conscience stricken for daring to ride their host country’s trains and over populate their city streets. The everyday commuting Italian wouldn’t even give the trolls a look and the trolls knew there was no point shaking their hat under their noses.
The inevitable moment arrived when the accordion player and the saxophonist with their little amp rushed along to our carriage and forced their way in through the maul at the doorway so they were in the standing room space in front of the doors. The screaming child was prescient as his howls kicked up a notch as the merry duo immediately burst into their catchy tune that triggered whatever neurone the passengers had that forced them like puppets to tap their feet and shake their heads to the happy sounds. The most macabre feature of this menacing pair’s performance was their smiling and nodding at all around them as if we were all old friends gathered to make merry and dance to their tune. I just wanted to kill them by inserting the trombone somewhere indelicate.
This was torture by too much sound. Using their amplifier, they were able to produce an amount of sound that was just above the level that is humanly bearable so most of the passengers were reduced to compliant states very quickly, hoping against hope that ‘Volare’ would stop as soon as possible.
After time had dragged on in this manner for what seemed like hours, the tune finished and before we could express our relief, the piano accordion player struck up again with a dance tune that none of us had the room to dance to. We were like an involuntary mosh-pit that got stuck in a train on the way to the disco. The saxophonist troll took his hat off and immediately started pushing through the crush, shoving his hat in our faces and demanding cash or else…the threat that they would keep playing hang over our heads and our lives would be meaningless pain for the rest of existence…we would be stuck in some twilight world of disco where we had lost the will both to live and to dance. His look and gesture as he thrust his hat under my nose expressed clearly his belief that we had been highly entertained and we must now pay for the pleasure. The packed train was their theatre, we had to pay for the performance.
I hoped my burning red eyes said, “Move the hat or I will strangle you to death on this very spot if only I could get my arms out of this crush.” He gave the hat another jiggle with a look that said, “You will pay!…or else!” Our face-off was broken by my life travelling partner throwing some euros into his hat and smiling her thanks for his charming entertainment. I turned my burning eyes on my over generous wife, only to be interrupted by the shuddering of the train as it pulled into the next station. The trolls jauntily bounced out of the train door and rushed like scampering dwarfs up to the next door of the carriage where they would start their persecution of new prisoners who had nowhere to escape to…out of control trolls who had learnt their torture techniques from their black-shirt fathers!