By Gretchen McKay

Amazing Amalfi Coast

Categories : Travel

POSITANO, Italy — Here’s what you expect on a visit to the Campania region in southern Italy. Fresh pasta that’s literally to die for. Equally delicious red wine that, no matter how much you drink of it, never gives you a headache. Scenery so gorgeous along the dizzying, winding Amalfi Coast that you have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming.

But endless trekking up sets of steps that start just a few yards from the sea and keep climbing, flight after exhausting flight, some 1,200 feet up the mountain? Even after stuffing yourself silly with ungodly quantities of pizza Margherita and gelato, who’s looking to exercise on vacation?

In this magical cliffside village high above the Tyrrhenian Sea, though, negotiating scalinatelle is as much a part of the experience as shopping for hand-painted ceramics and leather sandals, or lingering over dessert with tiny glasses of limoncello, the region’s signature (and highly alcoholic) lemon liqueur. Besides, your calves eventually stop aching, once they get used to the daily workout.

While my husband was new to Italy, I’d been there as a college student. That visit, part of a summer backpacking trip across Europe following a semester abroad in Germany, had focused on more famous cities farther north: Pisa, Florence and Rome. Tiny Positano, until the 1950s a quiet fishing village, lacked the medieval churches and important museums 20-somethings seek out on a Grand Tour.

Watching the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” five years ago, though, I was captivated by the town’s Moorish-style, pastel-colored houses, which cling to the rocks high above the Mediterranean. Was there a more beautiful or romantic spot on Earth?

Positano’s high season runs from April through the end of September. But the weather was still lovely when we went in mid-October, when the crowds had disappeared and rates at hotels and other rentals dropped dramatically. Through Boston-based Parker Villas, we booked a villa just a few yards from Chiesa Nuova, a Baroque-style church that sits at the top of town. The Spaggia Grande, or main beach, would be hundreds of steps downhill, along with Positano’s busy central Piazza dei Mulini. But who’s complaining: Our terrace overlooked the Li Galli islands, mythologized as the home of the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey.

Arriving late on a drizzly Saturday following a 90-minute drive from Naples airport, we didn’t have the time (or energy) to do much initial exploring. Luckily, we didn’t need much of either to find our first of many good meals — gnocchi and pizza Margherita at Saraceno D’Oro, a family-run trattoria within walking distance of our flat. Sixteen exhausting hours of travel immediately melted away. It’s here we also enjoyed our first taste of limoncello, made locally with the grapefruit-sized lemons that grow, along with olive and fig trees, on countless terraces on the Amalfi Coast.

Nestled on a small curving bay, Positano’s pebbly beach draws thousands of sunbathers in summer. In October, the artists who paint vibrant landscapes on the esplanade bordering some of the town’s toniest restaurants are a main attraction. That and its many boutiques and ceramics stores. Our first full day in town, though, we succumbed like native Positanesi to il dolce far niente, or the sweet art of doing nothing.

After cups of latte and cheese-and-ham “toast” in Bar-Pasticceria La Zagara’s lemon-tree garden, we simply wandered the town’s picturesque streets and walkways, peeking inside the centuries-old Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta, whose green-and-yellow majolica dome dominates the landscape, and admiring the handmade jewelry and pencil etchings hanging for sale in a covered walkway across from Palazzo Murat, an 18th-century palace-turned-luxury-hotel just steps from the beach.

Later, over tall glasses of Birra Peroni at Bar Internazionale at the top of town, we watched with dropped jaws as polizia directed a never-ending stream of giant buses, scooters, cars and peloton bicyclists along the narrow roadway leading in and out of the city center. (When a tour bus comes along, everyone has to pull off to the side and stop on the shoulder.) Dinner next door at Trattoria Grottino Azzurro, a favorite local hangout, introduced us to ravioli con zucca (pumpkin) and Bresaola rucola e Parmigiano (dried beef with baby rocket and parmesan). All in all, a pretty good day.

Rested, we were now ready to explore the rest of the Amalfi Coast in our teeny Lancia Musa rental. Our first day trip was to Amalfi, where we toured Museo della Carta, a 15th-century paper mill, and the historic Duomo, or cathedral, that dominates its main square and is said to house St. Andrew’s bones. We also experienced some Italian kitsch at Grotta Dello Smeraldo, a tourist trap in Conca dei Marini. While its emerald-green water was impressive, the five-minute boat ride — the high point of which was a Nativity scene lying 2 meters under the water — was not. (Looky, looky, Americano, sang our handsome gondolier, Marco. It’s a miracle!) Oh, well. At least he was good natured about it.

We also visited the tiny fishing town of Cetera, although because it was a Monday much of town was boarded up. We consoled ourselves with a cappuccino at Bar Miramare overlooking the beach, before heading to the docks to watch fishermen clean and repair their nets.

My husband probably would have been content to spend the week drinking wine and sampling the regional food of the coastline: fresh buffalo mozzarella, lemons, zucchini, fish, olive oil and sauce made with San Marzano plum tomatoes. But who knew when we’d be back? Other excursions, then, included a daylong visit to the ancient city of Pompeii, buried under ash and pumice when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. We also spent a day exploring the island of Capri, a scenic 75-minute boat ride from Positano.

Friends had warned us against spending money on one of Capri’s biggest tourist attractions, the Grotta Azzurra, known the world round for its magnificent blue water. Yet we were still curious to see what made this posh Italian resort for the rich and famous attract more than 1 million visitors each year.

If Positano is defined by staircases and Amalfi by its history, Capri is largely about waiting: For the funicular railway that carries day-trippers some 450 feet above the harbor to Capri Town. For the municipal bus that shuttles them from the town’s center to Anacapri, the island’s second city. For the rickety seggiovia, or chairlift, that climbs almost 2,000 feet from Piazza Vittoria to the peak of Monte Solaro, the highest point on Capri. (Actually, that precarious 12-minute ride in the sky was worth waiting for. The views are stunning.) And then for the overcrowded boat that sped us back to Positano.

Had we found Capri as captivating as our guidebook made it out to be, maybe we wouldn’t have minded standing in line. But mostly, its shops off the Piazzetta were too expensive, its scenery no prettier than the rest of the Amalfi Coast.

We had a much better time exploring the “lost” village of Nocelle, high in the crags of the Lattari Mountains some 1,500 feet above Positano. Not realizing the local bus would take us clear to the top, we disembarked halfway up when everyone else got off in Montepertuso — then watched in despair as the bus continued chugging up the mountain. What the heck. At least we could walk along a road instead of up stairs. Forty-five sweaty minutes later, we were standing in Nocelle’s doll-sized piazza, drinking in its panoramic views. Then, after recharging the batteries with a slice of Torte Caprese at Ristorante Santa Croce, we headed back down a steep stairway of 1,700 steps through olive and lemon groves.

Having walked for five-plus hours, we rewarded ourselves by splurging on a drink at the glamorous Le Sirenuse, ranked by Travel and Leisure as the 21st-best hotel in Europe. The 28 euros (about $35) we paid for two signature Bellinis was worth every penny; the view of the sun setting over Positano from its terrace was pure magic.

Almost as heavenly was the pizza napoletana marinara served at Sant’Andrea Restaurant and Pizzeria at the foot of the Duomo’s steps in Amalfi. We liked it so much, in fact, we returned there for lunch on the last day of vacation before heading up into the clouds to Ravello, host to one of Italy’s most famous music festivals. Along with two important Romanesque churches, this picturesque village 1,150 feet above the sea is home to the 13th-century Villa Rufolo, a group of buildings in Arabesque style with flower-bedded terraces overlooking the Bay of Salerno.

In the weeks since leaving Italy, I have spent many hours pining for Positano. Luckily, I can feed my addiction via a Webcam (www.campaniameteo.it/webcampositano.asp) that captures, in real time, a view of town from the balcony of Le Sirenuse. Granted, I’m usually sipping a cup of cafeteria coffee while I’m drinking it in instead of a fancy cocktail, but the magic is still there.

As John Steinbeck so famously wrote when he lived there in the 1950s, “Positano bites deep.”

If you go: Amalfi Coast

Getting there: As with most major tourist destinations in Europe, the best time to find cheap airline tickets to Italy is during the late fall or winter months. Any number of airlines offer flights to Naples, a good jumping off point for exploring the Amalfi Coast. Most, though, will require a change of planes in Rome. Preferring a direct flight from New York’s JFK, we took a chance on a relatively new airline, EuroFly USA (euroflyusa.com; 1-800-459-0581). As message boards predicted, our flight was delayed for more than an hour both ways, and the flight home was especially brutal, thanks to a double whammy of broken seats and busted TV controls. (The only thing we could watch during the eight-hour trip was “Kung Fu Panda” in Italian.) But we couldn’t beat the round-trip price: $884 per person. From Naples, it was just a 1 1/2-hour drive to Positano.

Where to stay: There are hundreds of hotels, bed & breakfasts and apartments in southern Italy with rates that fit every budget. We chose to rent a luxury villa in Positano with a stunning view of the Golfo di Salerno from Boston-based Parker Villas, the largest Italian villa rental company in the United States (parkervillas.com; 1-800-280-2811). It was pricey ($2,200/week), but it was our 25th anniversary. Our friendly travel adviser, Maria Scheri, also helped us book a car at a discounted rate ($470/week) through Auto Europe of Portland, Maine (autoeurope.com; 1-800-223-5555), so we could experience firsthand the famed (and harrowing) drive along the Amalfi Coast. If you’d rather avoid a heart attack, local buses are cheap and plentiful.

Information: italiantourism.com.