The Southern Tyrrhenian coast: Part 1 Costiera Amalfitana from Sorrento to Salerno

Published on:  | Last updated: 11 March 2018

Coast road between Amalfi and Salerno - Salerno is in the distance

Coast road between Amalfi and Salerno - Salerno is in the distance

This section of the route takes you from Sorrento on the Golfo di Napoli to the port city of Salerno on the Golfo di Salerno. It follows the very scenic road along the Costiera Amalfitana (Amalfi coast) taking in Positano and Amalfi along the way.

At a glance

Distance

76kms

Difficulty/​Terrain

Moderately challenging. There are a number of climbs on the route, but none of them are long or steep: the biggest climb involves an altitude gain of 380 metres over 11 kilometres.

Traffic

The road is off-limits during the day to trucks, and larger buses are banned, as are campervans and caravans. Many tourists take the local buses, but it is still a popular scenic road, and in places it gets narrow. It's best to start early to avoid the rush. Things get a lot easier after Amalfi.

Surface

Tarmac roads in good condition.

Map and altitude profile

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Distances
Sorrento - Positano 33 kms
Positano - Amalfi 16 kms
Amalfi - Salerno 26 kms

John Steinbeck wrote a description of the coast road:

“ Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side. And on this road, the buses, the trucks, the motor scooters and the assorted livestock. We didn’t see much of the road. In the back seat my wife and I lay clutched in each other’s arms, weeping hyster­ically, while in the front seat Signor Bassano gestured with both hands … And below us, and it seemed sometimes under us, a thousand feet below lay the blue Tyrrhenian licking its lips for us. ”

(From Positano by John Steinbeck originally published by Harper's Bazaar in May 1953 and downloadable from the website of the Albergo Le Sirenuse where Steinbeck stayed during his visit).

The good news is that you'll see very few buses (most large tour buses are banned from the road) and no trucks (they can only use the road at night). I saw a couple of donkeys in Positano, but sadly no other livestock. The motorino scooter or moped is still very much the preferred way to get around.

The modern road is now a little wider than a couple of cars but there are some of the original tunnels that can make things a little tricky - as well as places where the road is lined with cars parked on any available roadside where you can fit a parking space.

The views of course are still as dramatic as when Steinbeck passed this way.

This area is known for its lemons and along the road you'll see lemon groves on terraces carved out of the cliff face. It is worth taking a moment to think about the amount of work as gener­a­tions of local people, with picks and shovels, built these terraces. The terraces go all the way down to the sea, using it seems every square metre of land. Lemons are every­where with road side sellers selling from the back of the three-wheeler Ape trucks, and in ceramic roadside markers. And then of course there's limon­cello — a drink to be treated with respect as it is very easy (a friend told me) to drink too much and end up with an evil hangover next morning.

Leaving Sorrento

Sorrento is the largest town on this stretch of coast and the gives its name to the penisola sorrentina. From Sorrento you take the SP7 climbing to Massa Lubrense. The hotels soon give way to olive groves as you climb. After Massa Lubrense you continue on the SP7 with another climb —the longest of this section— to Termini.

There are bars in both Massa Lubrense and Termini. In Termini there's the Bar de Simone on the main piazza with its views over Capri. The next village on the route is Sant'Agata Sui Due Golfi (Saint Agatha on the Two Gulfs) which owes its name to the fact that it overlooks both the Golfo di Napoli and the Golfo di Sorrento, and there are points along the road where if you look one way there's the Sorrento, Capri and Monte Vesuvio and in the other direction the Golfo di Salerno.

After Sant'Agata the SP7 comes out onto the SS145 (the Nastro Verde - 'green ribbon') which then in turn joins the SS163 Nastro Azzurro ('blue ribbon'). In case you're wondering, no the Peroni beer isn't named after the road, but this didn't stop me having a celeb­ratory Nastro Azzurro at the end of the day.

The SS163 was built in the first half of the nineteenth century. The road has of course been widened since then, but there are still some tunnels along the way that give you an idea of the width of the original road.

Road signs near Praiano on the Costiera Amalfitana

Road signs near Praiano on the Costiera Amalfitana

Coping with the traffic

The local author­ities have taken a number of steps to deal with the problems of congestion, and thank­fully many tourists also take the local SITA buses. But there are still many tourists who opt for private transfers. Generally riding the road isn't too much of a problem as there's not a huge amount of traffic, and it's the sort of road that drivers treat with respect. But there are points where the road narrows, and, as is often the case on roads where its difficult to overtake, cars often come in bunches.

My tips for staying safe and sane on this road:

  • start early - the main rush seemed to be after about ten in the morning
  • be prepared pull over. If you're faced with a tricky situation, or simply feeling unnerved by traffic behind you, then pull over, take a minute to enjoy the view and then continue on your way once the traffic has cleared.

Positano

Next stop after Sant'Agata Sui Due Golfi is Positano. The SS163 goes around the centre of the town, but you can take the main street (the Viale Pasitea) through the centre (note that this is one-way —north-south). Look out for the presepe (nativity scene) just after the tunnel on your way into town.

This is how Steinbeck describes Positano:

“ Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. I believe that whereas most house found­a­tions are vertical, in Positano they are horizontal. The small curving bay of unbelievably blue and green water laps gently on a beach of small pebbles. There is only one narrow street and it does not come down to the water. Everything else is stairs, some of them as steep as ladders. You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or slide. ”

He's not exagger­ating about the one narrow street and the steps (although I didn't see any that were as steep as ladder). Something to consider when you book a place to stay. Its a memorable ride down the main street with the rooftops of the village and the bay below you. Look out for the roadside presepe (nativity scene) part way down. Note that this road is one-way. Be sure also not to follow the Tutte Le Direzioni sign at the top as this is designed to divert traffic around the centre of the village.

Costiera Amalfitana: the Via Nastro Azzurro between Sorrento and Positano

Costiera Amalfitana: the Via Nastro Azzurro between Sorrento and Positano

Steinbeck goes on to say:

“ Nearly always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano, your impulse is to conceal it. You think, “If I tell, it will be crowded with tourists and they will ruin it, turn it into a honky-tonk and then the local people will get touristy and there’s your lovely place gone to hell”. There isn’t the slightest chance of this in Positano. In the first place there is no room. There are about two thousand inhab­itants in Positano and there is room for about five hundred visitors, no more. The cliffs are all taken. Except for the half ruinous houses very high up, all space is utilized. And the Positanese invariably refuse to sell. ”

He sure got that wrong. Somehow they did find the space: the population of Positano is about double what it was when Steinbeck was there and I have no idea how many tourist beds there are. Positano is about as touristy as it gets. I have to say that I did a mini-celeb­ration when I got to the Bar del Sole in Praiano (the next village along the coast): a normal local Italian bar, with coffee at a normal price, and people talking about last night's calcio (soccer) match rather than arguing about which order to 'do' Pompei and Capri.

But before you get too nostalgic it's worth remem­bering that, according to Steinbeck, during the 1860s and 1870s thousands of people left the village and its population fell from 8,000 to 2,000 (he says that in the 1950s there were over five thousand people living in New York City who had been born in Positano – double the population in Positano at the time). The population of Positano is now almost twice what it was when Steinbeck visited, and the village is no longer dying — which has got to be mainly thanks to tourism.

Conca dei Marini and the Grotta dello Smeraldo

Along the coast between Praiano and Conca dei Marini is the Grotta dello Smeraldo (Emerald Cave) . Discovered by a fisherman in 1932, it's a huge chamber with its ceiling 24 metres from the sea level. It gets its name from the colour of the light filtered through the undersea entrance to the chamber. There's a lift from the road that takes you down to the entrance and then you go by rowing boat into the grotta itself. I have to say that reviews on TripAdviser are mixed. Don't confuse it with the Grotta Azzurra on Capri.

Look out for the Piccadilly ceramics shop/​workshop. There's also a little bar nearby with great views over the marina.

From Conca dei Marini there's a short climb and then it's downhill into Amalfi. There are a couple of narrow tunnels on the way, but they are fairly short and shouldn't present any problems.

Fiat Cinquecento near Amalfi

Fiat Cinquecento near Amalfi

Amalfi and beyond

Amalfi was once an independent city state and rival to the other maritime republics of Venezia, Pisa, and Genova, until it came under the control of the Normans. It was sacked by the Pisans in 1123 and its decline was confirmed by a devast­ating tsunami in 1343. Amalfi is well worth a visit for its centro storico and the duomo (cathedral).

Amalfi: the facade of the duomo (cathedral) showing a mosaic with Christ surrounded by angels.

Amalfi: the facade of the duomo (cathedral). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Most of the tourist traffic seemed to stop at Amalfi (or turns off to take the road to Ravello. This means that the road to from here to Salerno is a lot quieter. To my mind, it was every bit as scenic. The road takes you through the less well known resorts of Minori and Maiori and to Vietri. The last signi­ficant climb (180 metres altitude gain) takes you to the Capo d'Orso. Just before the Capo is the Badia Santa Maria de Olearia a complex of three small frescoed churches built into the cliff face. Sadly it's only open on Wednesday after­noons and Saturday and Sunday mornings. For more inform­ation (in Italian) and opening hours go to: santamariadeolearia.com .

I stopped for lunch at Pane E Coccos' in Cetara — a smashing little seaside village that's all to easy to miss.

After Cetara it's on to Vietri Sul Mare and to Salerno itself. At Salerno the road joins the SS18 which descends on a huge ramp down to the port. From the port you continue along the lungomare (sea-front) into Salerno itself.

Decorated ceramic tiles: Cetara Bar Moderno

Decorated ceramic tiles: Cetara Bar Moderno

Salerno

Salerno is the largest town along the route (and provincial capital). It's relaxed and unpre­ten­tious and a nice place to stop for the night. It is basically a modern Italian port city and not really a tourist destin­ation. You may find that a bit of a relief after the Sorrento peninsula.

Salerno has a small but charming centro storico with some impressive medieval aqueducts. (Note though that if you arrive in mid-afternoon you many find everything shut up and appar­ently deserted — it comes to life again in the early evening).

Its arche­olo­gical museum gets good reviews; its star exhibit is a bronze head of Apollo.

If you have the time and energy you might want to visit the Castello di Arechi which overlooks the town. According to Lonely Planet you can get there by taking the number 19 bus from the Piazza XXIV Maggio. According to LP it offers spectacular views over the town and its golfo.

The castle is a good symbol of the complicated history of this region, it was first a Byzantine for, then became the base for an independent Longobardo (Lombard) princip­ality before it was taken over by the Normans who were in turn succeeded by the Aragonese.

Salerno was home to Europe's first medical school (founded in the 9th century), there's a newly revamped Museo Virtuale.

The beaches south of the town were also and also the scene of the main allied landing in Italy in September 1943. A critical first step in the liber­ation of the continent it has been overshadowed by the Normandy landings that took place in June 1944.

Options

I had originally planned to do a loop through Ravello and then take the road that heads inland to the Valico di Chiunzi before returning to the coast at Maiori. A side trip to Ravello is well worth consid­ering if you have the time and the energy.

More information

Places to stay

I stayed at and would recommend the Pensione Casa Guadagno in Positano, and the Locanda Costa d'Amalfi near Amalfi

Hotels and B&Bs

Find and book places to stay with Booking.com

Booking.com pages for places on this section of the route:

About these links

If you use these links to book accom­mod­ation Booking.com will pay me a small part of their commission. This helps support the costs of producing this site.

I use Booking.com to find and book places to stay when there are no campsites in the area. The large majority of hotels and many hostels are now on ‘Booking’. I like it because it means that I can get almost-instant confirm­ation. The rating system is also a reliable guide to the quality of the accom­mod­ation.

I’ve never had a problem finding places to keep my bike —even if it’s a cupboard or store room. I always use the ‘special requests’ field on the booking form to tell the hotel that I’m travelling with a bike, which gives them the oppor­tunity to let me know if there’s a problem.

Many properties offer free cancel­lation but it’s a good idea to check the condi­tions as these vary from property to property.

Hostels

A map of hostels on this section of the route - click on the icon for website and contact details:

  Map:  hostels-map-amalfi-coastshow map in overlay    |  hostels-map-amalfi-coast  show map in new window   

Campsites

There are a couple of campsites within reach (but note - not easy reach) of this section of the route: the Villaggio Nettuno near Termini, and the Beata Solitudo at Agerola above Conca dei Marini.

  Map of campsites along the route:  FT-STC-campsites-mapshow map in overlay    |    FT-STC-campsites-mapshow map in new window   

Transport and services

There is a train station at Sorrento (on the Circumvesuviana line however, so far as I know, you can't take bikes on the trains to Sorrento. There are train stations at Vietri sul Mare and Salerno which are served by trenitalia regional trains which are the best option if you are travelling with a bike (unless it's in a bag).

There is ferry service operated by Grimaldi Lines from Salerno to Palermo (and on from there to Tunis).

Services

Sorrento Bike offer bike hire services from their base in Sorrento.

Absolutely unsoli­cited and unsponsored endorsement: I can't write this without mentioning the guy in Zero Store on Corso Garibaldi who rescued my tour after I had given my MacBook Air a nervous breakdown (this guide is dedicated to him). Top tip #1: don't leave a laptop recharging inside a neoprene sleeve in a hot tent. Top tip #2: if you do, you need to reset the PRAM.

Resources

The Amalfi Coast has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site (see: unescoamalficoast.it)

General tourist information

Lemon groves on the cliffs of the Costiera Amalfitana near Maiori

Lemon groves on the cliffs of the Costiera Amalfitana near Maiori

Articles in this series


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