As the sun sinks lower over the steep mountainside 3km up from the town of Amalfi, Italy, I shift my backpack forward, and a bubble of laughter escapes my lips. My friend and I just finished descending 300 steep steps to the hotel where we’d booked a room for the night, only to find it definitely, fully shut down. Now we have 300 steps back up to the roadside—and the nearly empty road—with our bags and no working phones.
“CIAO!” I yell, laughing fully this time.
Absolutely everything about this day has not gone according to plan—which has made it my favorite day so far on this two-week Italian trip.
Lost and delayed
First, there was the Catania, Sicily, airport, where we couldn’t figure out how to leave our rental car. No attendants, no instructions. Just our flight time approaching rapidly. And again, no phone. (Note to self for next trip: Pay the extra $10 to turn on international service!)
Thankfully, a kind stranger passed by and pointed to a box where we should drop the car key, about five feet from where we stood. (He was also kind enough to not roll his eyes, raise an eyebrow, or make other totally warranted comments about dumb tourists.) We dropped the key, and then wandered the perimeter of the walled and wired parking lot, unable to locate the exit. Just as we were starting to ration out the remainder of the cannoli—it had been at least 12 hours since the last—a freezing blast of wind hurried us along.
Oh, did I mention it was below 32F? Ever since we’d visited Erice, a castle on the top of a mountain, we’d had fierce wind and cold—very un-Sicily like weather.
By the time our plane landed in Naples, we were a few hours behind schedule. The tourist information booth advised on a bus to Salerno, from where we would take another bus to Amalfi. But by the time the bus was 30 minutes late, we caught a horn-obsessed taxi to the Naples train station. Cars and people packed into chaotic, lively streets, and we were most certainly no longer in laid-back Sicily.
Delayed and freezing
We disembarked the train in Salerno and I couldn’t stop laughing—because not only was it sunny, it was somehow snowing, too. In southern Italy, where the averages are usually 45-55F in January.
As the wet, windy snow smacked us across the face, I asked a fruit vendor when and where the bus to Amalfi departed.
“No, no,” he said. “It’s not running today because of the snow.”
“Va bene,” I said. “All right.” Except it was definitely not.
Freezing and kinda screwed
We ducked into a café and I had my third espresso for the day. While divine inspiration continued to elude me, we loitered outside the café.
Three burly, bearded men approached us at the corner, cigarettes hanging from their lips.
“Are you lost?” the burliest one asked, in perfect English.
I smiled widely and sent up a “grazie!” because here was divine intervention in the flesh—the travel angel.
If you’ve traveled extensively, you know what I’m talking about—a stranger who helps you find your bus, or hotel, or a secret spot to eat with no motivation other than helping a foreigner who is clearly hopelessly lost and clueless.
Now just delayed again
Over the next ten minutes, the trio found where we could buy tickets, when the next bus would arrive (not canceled after all!), and directed us to the exact bus spot, finding us again even after we thought (wrongly) we were on the right path.
The bus ride to Amalfi unwound like a dream—switchbacks tucked in tight U-shapes into the cliffside, the ocean a sheer drop to the left. The sun haloed clouds and outlined castles on outcrops. I overused “Wow.”
From the town of Amalfi, we caught a bus to our hotel-keeper meet-up point on a road 3km up the mountainside from the town. While no one was waiting as promised, we saw the sign for our hotel and remembered the 300-steps-down description. So down we went through the lemon and orange tree groves, tucked into narrow winding terraces.
Which is what we’re walking back up now. And why even though it’s getting dark and there seems to be absolutely no one else on this mountainside and we still have 200-some steps to go back up, the scenery is so lovely that I really don’t mind at all.
“CIAO!” I yell again, figuring if we can find a person with a phone, we can at least call the hotel keeper.
“HELLO!” I switch to English in the completely unrealistic chance anyone who is listening doesn’t realize I am not actually Italian and do, in fact, need assistance.
Unhelped but also fine minus a little huffing and puffing, we arrive back at the top of the stairs and start walking back down the road as the sun sets.
Just as I’m ready to flag down a passing car, we spot a roadside market and ask to use their phone to call the hotel number. A man answers, and we work out a deal with him after explanations pass on both sides. He takes us back into Amalfi, from where we catch the 8th transport of the day to Praiano, just 6.3 miles west on the peninsula.
We hop off the bus and thankfully our hotel for the next night is open and has space, so we settle in. The hotel owner points us to the two open restaurant options, where I inhale the most amazing spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and red wine on our red-and-white checkered tablecloth, set across the room from a wood-burning pizza oven.
Outside the window, a stiff wind sways a tall tree’s neon-lit branches, and I find that I can’t stop smiling.
Nearly everything went wrong today, and yet, I’ve never felt so light.