Friday, November 4, 2011

Day 49: Naples, Amalfi Coast (Nov 4)

The second day in Naples was planned to be a tour of the Amalfi Coast. I read in one of the guide books that the best way to do this is just take the regular passenger bus from one end to the other for a couple of euros, no need to hire a guide. So my plan was to take the Circumvesuviana train from Naples to Sorrento (it’s a local train, not covered by my rail pass), take the bus from Sorrento through Positano and Amalfi to Salerno, and then take the regular train from Salerno back to Naples. (Think of it like a right triangle, go south from Naples to Sorrento, east from Sorrento to Salerno, then northwest back to Naples.) We ran into three problems. First, my dad got pickpocketed on the bus from the hotel to the train station, it had his driver’s license and 3 credit cards (his ATM and a 4th credit card were back in the hotel). With no internet (or even wifi), we couldn’t use Skype to call the US to cancel the cards. Second, the rumors we heard yesterday at the train station were true, there was a train strike on the Circumvesuviana so our options were to pay a cab to go to Sorrento (Pompeii is a stop along the way, by the way) or double our trip by taking the train to Salerno, the bus to Sorrento and back, and then the train from Salerno to Naples. The cab would have been quicker but much more expensive, the train was cheaper but meant a longer day. Since we had nothing else going on, we chose the double-train and double-bus. Our third problem popped up later.

The train station in Salerno is right next to the SITA bus station. You can buy a ticket for the SITA that’s good all day and it’s only 7.20 euros, it’s one of the best values on the trip. No matter if you go east from Sorrento or west from Salerno, you want the side of the bus that faces the ocean for the best view.

The train from Naples to Salerno was 30 minutes, but we had to wait 45 minutes for the bus. Then it took us about an hour to get from Salerno to Amalfi and the scenery is jaw-droppingly amazing along the route. The cliffs are so steep you wonder how people built roads and homes. The roads have switchbacks which the buses can just barely fit on, and if there are cars in the way then everyone stops and the cars have to back up to give the buses room. It’s an entertaining show. I recommend against renting a car here because you’re not used to the roads and because you want to enjoy the ride (plus the bus ticket is incredibly cheap to begin with). We got off in Amalfi to see the town and grab some lunch, we had about an hour. We also found a wifi hotspot in a hotel where my dad used my phone to Skype back to the US (where it was 5am) and cancel his stolen cards. In the 2-1/2 hours since he lost the cards, they used one to rack up over $1000 worth of charges while the other two were refused due to suspicious activity. I also was able to text my sister to call my mom and tell her not to use her cards. While we were in the hotel, I found a flyer that gave us our third problem of the day – due to a mudslide west of Amalfi, the road to Positano was closed, and the buses were running much more infrequently. We decided to continue on to Sorrento so we could see more of the coast, but that only lasted about 20 minutes before the bus turned inland, and with no stops before Sorrento, we were stuck on the bus that was just going through boring rural areas for another hour (90 minute trip). When we got to Sorrento, we found that we had to wait another 2-1/2 hours for the return bus, which meant that it was going to be dark by the time we got back to Amalfi and we’d miss seeing the coast during daylight. Oh well. So we got to see a bit of Sorrento, which has a neat little old town area with lots of shops selling limoncello, and a gelateria called Primavera with literally 100 flavors (and they had a photo of Pope John Paul II eating there). And having gelato is when my dad realized he left his iPod Shuffle on the bus before getting out at Sorrento, he left it on the seat.

Our options were to get to Amalfi at 5:30 and have a relatively early dinner there, leaving on the last bus at 8pm; or stay on the bus to Salerno and take the train back and have a late dinner in Naples. So we stayed in Amalfi. In retrospect, had we known what the ride to Sorrento was like, we would have stayed in Amalfi all day, taken the bus back to Salerno during the day and getting in at sunset, then take the train back to Naples for dinner. Still, 2-1/2 hours in the evening left us time to explore the main street and some of the shops and have a nice leisurely dinner. Took the last bus back to Salerno and the last train back to Naples, getting in around 10, so after we got back to the hotel I had my nightly work to do so we got some gelato and called it a night.

We saw nothing of Naples aside from the train station, the walk to the hotel, and the walk to the pizza place.

Here are the photos from the day.

Some advice I later gave to a friend who was looking at a cruise arrival in Naples for the day (7am arrival, 8pm departure) and wanting to see Pompeii and Amalfi. The Euroquest group (just to name one) has tours from Rome to Pompeii and Amalfi for $280 per person, but I say do it yourself because this saves you money and I think it's more fun because you're on your own traveling like locals, not in a tourist cocoon with fellow passengers. Here’s my suggestion for a DIY day trip:

Note that the trains leave ON TIME, if you're a minute late you've missed it (which happened to my dad and me in Milan, he learned the hard way). This gives you about 3-1/2 hours at Pompeii, which includes transfers to and from the train station, and 90 minutes in Amalfi.
  1. Take a cab, bus, or metro to the train station in Naples.
  2. Take the Circumvesuviana train from Naples to Pompeii and hire a cab to take you to the old town. You can take the 0739-0817 train to Pompeii, or if you miss that one the next one is 0811-0836 or 0839-0917. Click here for the schedule 
  3. Use the Rick Steves audio guide (free download as mp3 or it's better if you download his app, which has more controls over the chapters) and map to tour the old city. Go here and then at the bottom of the page you'll see the links to the mp3 and map. My dad and I spent about 2 hours and could have spent more, but our package deal also had a trip to Vesuvius which closed early.
  4. Take a cab back to the train station and take the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento.
  5. Find the SITA bus terminal near the train station, and buy a ticket. You want to take the bus to Amalfi. Here's the schedule and the website.
  6. Take note of the times of arrival at Amalfi and return back to Sorrento. That will tell you how much time you can spend in the town of Amalfi. Figure the bus will be about 90 minutes each way.
  7. On the bus, you want to sit on the side that's facing the water, so on the right side from Sorrento to Amalfi and the left side going back.
  8. Back at Sorrento, take a Circumvesuviana back to Naples, then back to your ship. I'd plan on taking the 1725-1832, that gives you some leeway in case you're running late, so your backup would be 1756-1847 or 1822-1927 at the absolute latest (depending on exactly when you need to be on board the ship). Click here for the schedule
Here's the Circumvesuviana site, you want the routes between Napoli and Sorrento.

Here's a rough itinerary, but make sure the bus and train lines are all running ahead of time (like no train strikes or damaged roads, both of which happened to me).
  • Train to Pompeii: dep 0739, arr 0817 [or] 0811-0836 
  • Train to Sorrento: dep 1147, arr 1217 [or] 1217-1247
  • Bus to Amalfi: dep 1230, arr 1400 [or] 1300-1440
  • Bus to Sorrento: dep 1530, arr 1710 [or] 1600-1740
  • Train to Naples: dep 1725, arr 1832 [or] 1756-1847
It’s a long day but most of it will be on the train or bus so it shouldn’t be physically tiring.

(Originally posted 5/13/14 at 8:44pm, Houston; itinerary at bottom added 9/23/16 at 12:51am, Houston)

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