Driving in Italy is like hunting in Tipperary – understanding what’s going on is optional but boldness and nerve are essential. Right of way is a state of mind, and overtaking on a blind bend seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

To further complicate matters, there are swarms of scooters everywhere you go, inevitably piloted by self-possessed young men with girls clinging to their waists.

The Fiat 500 we hired in Naples was clearly accustomed to living dangerously and bore the scars to prove it.

We took comfort in the fact that if we were to give it a few more scratches and knocks (we did) no one was likely to notice.

Southern Italy’s Sorrentine peninsula, and the famous Amalfi Coast in particular, had been on my bucket list for years.

In August of last year, the Clancy family took advantage of a brief ceasefire in the war on COVID-19 and booked ourselves a week’s holiday at the Agriturismo Fattoria Terranova Resort near Sorrento.

The Clancy family enjoying dinner at L'Antica Trattoria in Sorrento.

Escape to the country

We left the chaotic, but good-natured city of Naples behind and drove south with Mount Vesuvius a brooding presence to the east. After half an hour we turned west for the Sorrentine peninsula, and the road dived under the Lattari Mountains through a tunnel that felt like it might never come to an end.

When we finally emerged, it was as if we had entered a different country, with the craggy, verdant mountains looming over us on one side and spectacular views across the Bay of Naples on the other. We began to climb into the hills at the western end of the peninsula, snaking our way around one hairpin bend after another to the agriturismo.

The tropical gardens of the Villa Rufolo, Ravello.

An agriturismo, as the name suggests, is an independently owned farm developed as a holiday resort. Even the larger and more professionally run agriturismi, such as the Fattoria Terranova Resort, have a pleasant air of informality.

The farm, tumbling picturesquely down to the sea in a series of olive-clad terraces, had a swimming pool that overlooked the bay and a full and noisy cast of chickens and goats to entertain the children.

More importantly, it had a first-class restaurant where we could sit under a canopy of intertwined vines, sipping Falanghina and sampling delicious local produce while basking in the kind of warm, attentive service that Italians do better than anyone.

For all the undoubted excellence of their cuisine, the Italians do not appear to fully understand breakfast, just as the Irish do not understand the need for a bidet in every bathroom. The breakfast waitresses at the Fattoria Terranova could not have been friendlier but every day our request for a pot of tea and a jug of fresh milk baffled them afresh.

How they would have reacted had we asked for black and white pudding, rashers, sausages, baked beans and two fried eggs I can only imagine. Alternatively fuelled with cold meats and little sugary pastries, we set out each morning to explore the region.

Off the beaten track

The Amalfi Drive has to be one of the most picturesque roads in the world. It snakes along the south coast of the peninsula all the way to Salerno, with the mountains rearing above the road on one side, and a sheer drop to the dazzling blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea on the other.

There is a chain of colourful little towns clinging to the precipitous slopes along the route – Positano, Praiano, Amalfi, Vietri sul Mare, each one more enchanting than the last. They were also, alas, very busy, with parking in the coastal towns almost unobtainable after the early morning. Getting just a little off the beaten track makes a big difference, however.

The hilltop town of Ravello, though listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, felt almost abandoned after the bustle of the coast. In the heart of the town is the Villa Rufolo, the historic home of the powerful Rufolo family, with its famous tropical gardens that overlook the sea hundreds of feet below.

On another day we took the winding road up to Nocelle, a hamlet perched high on the cliffs above Positano, and negotiated the 1,900 steps back down to the coast, while lizards scurried across our path and giant yellow butterflies flitted through the balmy, pine-scented air. Walking down 1,900 steps is more arduous than it sounds – I had aches the next day in muscles I didn’t know I possessed.

The 1,900 steps from Nocelle to Positano.

After wandering through the cool, narrow streets of Positano, we were lucky enough to meet a bus heading back up to Nocelle. That bus ride turned out to be the kind of high-octane travel experience other tourists seek from extreme rock climbing or white water rafting on the Zambezi. It hurtled around a succession of hairpin bends like Sandra Bullock was driving it and deposited us, breathless and shaking, right by our car in a remarkably short period of time. Next time we’ll just walk back up the 1,900 steps.

A visit to the Grotta dello Smeraldo (Emerald Cave), near Praiano, was another highlight, particularly for my wife.

The Grotto dello Smeraldo.

The cave is partly inundated by the sea, and owes its name to a submerged fissure that allows blue-green light to flood in from below the waterline.

A personable young man called Roberto took us around the cave in his boat, and talked us through the process of its formation and the history.

The Isle of Capri, famed in song and story, was something of a disappointment. One arrives on the island by boat from Sorrento, alights at the harbour on the north coast and then proceeds uphill to Capri’s old town on a funicular railway. All this may sound perfectly charming but in reality our journey was reminiscent of the evacuation of Dunkirk.

The Piazza Tasso in Sorrento.

Hundreds of us were herded onto a huge ferry, dumped on the chaotic marina, and then queued ill-temperedly for our short, sweaty funicular ride to the town, which was pretty but overcrowded and expensive. Aurore and the children spent the afternoon swimming in the warm sea off the Marina Piccola, where the sirens of Greek legend once tried to lure Odysseus onto the rocks. Perhaps they wanted to overcharge him shamelessly for beer and snacks.

Sorrento, on the other hand, quickly became one of my favourite places with its handsome piazzas, bustling streets lined with lemon trees, quirky little shops, wonderful restaurants, and the Marina Grande hidden away at the foot of the cliffs.

The whole of fashionable Italy appears to descend on the Amalfi Coast in August to see and be seen, so it is probably better to go out of season. Always carry some cash – a surprising amount of outlets still deal in cash only. Nerves of steel are a help if you plan to do your own driving. And don’t take the bus from Positano to Nocelle.

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