Several towns line the Amalfi coast of Italy including Positano, Amalfi, and Naples.

Walk of the Gods: Exploring Amalfi, Positano, and Naples

Positano is a stunning town on the coast just south of Naples. It's gravity defying in a Walt Disney kind of way -- a raggle-taggle jumble of skinny little houses heaped on one another's shoulders. Steep steps form a narrow alley between the houses, passing beneath the concrete floors of the homes above, while mysterious side streets end abruptly at private front doors. It's a crazy architectural delight, or an architectural disaster, depending on how much chaos you enjoy.

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Positano: Beautiful and Gravity-Defying

I gave up counting at number 356, with two thirds of the relentlessly steep stone steps still ahead of me. A cunningly timed pause to admire the glorious view let me catch my breath without anybody spotting what an exhausted wimp I was. I was hiking Italy's self-proclaimed Walk of the Gods, but if I remember rightly half those debauched Roman deities had wings, or at least winged heels, not clunky hiking books and a rucksack. After snapping some photos I cracked on again, following a picturesque path that winds through the cliff-hugging town of Positano, from the beach below to the towering cliff tops above. I paused for breath yet again. Thank goodness I was only doing the downhill walk.

Positano makes a beautiful end to the four-hour hike along the cliffs from the unassuming village of Bomerano, where my tour group had taken over a family-run hotel. One evening the two brothers who run the hotel invited us into the kitchen for a cooking lesson. First Gianni showed us how to make fettuccine vongole, shaping his own pasta in a machine and frying heaps of clams and muscles in an industrial sized pan. Then his brother Nicola had us making pizzas, after swirling the bases around on his finger and flinging them over our heads to be dexterously caught by Gianni.

During the days we dashed around on the local buses, making three-point turns to navigate the hairpin bends on the road down to the coast. The nearest town is Amalfi, another cliff-hugging delight where tourism is the staple industry. It was chilly and raining as I explored the town, slipping on wet cobblestones and dodging clashing umbrellas in the narrow streets.

Amalfi: A Town for Tourists

The town is full of souvenir shops, art galleries, cafes and lemon shops that literally sell anything to do with Amalfi's main produce. They're big on lemons in Amalfi, and the lemons are big in return. One whopper the size of a football was the centrepiece in a display of fancy bottles of lemoncella liqueur, lemon soaps and lemon candles.

After three hours of exploring, I was completely baffled. Where do the locals shop? There wasn't a supermarket or a sensible clothing shop in sight. Are Amalfians so rich that they always dine on fine delicatessen delights and dress in designer fashions?

The picturesque towns on the Amalfi coast feel a fraction fake, as if they've been designed purely to woo the tourists.

Several towns line the Amalfi coast of Italy including Positano, Amalfi, and Naples.
Right at the top of Amalfi, after another calf-stretching climb to enjoy a superb view of the harbour, we finally meet a genuine inhabitant. Yet he feels even more fake that his fairytale surroundings. He's an Elvis Presley look-alike, with a quiff, a gold medallion and a furry chest peeking out of a shimmering shirt clinched in with a too-tight belt.

He's leaning on his balcony as we stop on the terrace below, and he slicks back his hair before shouting a greeting. We giggle a greeting back, more convinced than ever that we've wandered into a movie set.

Naples: I Loved It Instantly

A day later I'm in Naples, a thoroughly working class city made attractive by a heavy dose of art and culture. I love it instantly.

Naples isn't the seething mass of crime and grime that its reputation threatens. My guidebook warns that violent crime is rare, while theft is common. Unless you're in the Mafia, in which case the opposite is true.

I gratefully breathe in the traffic fumes, the aroma of food, the noise and the bustle of the Via Toledo. There are real people here, real shops, real life, and it's a fabulous contrast to those chintzy towns where all you can buy is lemons and postcards.

Naples has grown up in the shadow of Vesuvius, and the volcano seems to influence its attitude. Its inhabitants take pride in living in the shadow of danger, and boast that they're as hot and volatile as Vesuvius itself.

I stroll through a market selling dead fish, live crabs, scrumptious looking pastries and cheap clothes. It's an eclectic collection, but eclectic is the perfect adjective for Naples. There are huge open squares with glorious art galleries, museums and churches surrounding them. There are people shouting instead of talking, and pavements made too narrow for the crowds by impromptu market stalls laid out on the ground.

One of the most impressive buildings turns out to be a modern shopping centre, with beautiful mosaic floors under a dazzling crystal roof. A two-minute walk away the narrow streets are filled with tiny grocery shops run by immigrants, with washing strung out overhead and heaps of uncollected rubbish.

I buy a slice of pizza, and sit in a square listening to a rabble of rowdy protesters marching closer. I'm delighted that pizza served in its traditional home of Naples is made with a base that has some bite. Not some paper-thin version where the slice disintegrates in your fingers.

My pizza is folded around pale strips of something I can't identify, until I take a bite. French fries. It's the ultimate take-away: pizza and fries in one handy package.

I laugh at the practicality of it all -- Naples truly is a no-nonsense kind of city.

If You Go

Getting around:
Public transport is cheap and plentiful. It's a little daunting to hire a car and risk the Italians' erratic driving as well as cliff-hanger coastal roads, but that's the most flexible option.

What to see:
Naples for its magnificent buildings, lively atmosphere and fabulous food. The quaint coastal towns of Amalfi and Positano for beautiful scenery and enchanting architecture. Vesuvius and Pompeii, for a stark but fascinating reminder of what Mother Nature can do when she gets upset.

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Lesley Stones is a former Brit who is now proudly South African. She started her career by reviewing rock bands for a national UK music paper, then worked for various newspapers before spending four fun-filled years in Cairo, where she ended up editing a technology magazine. Lesley was the Information Technology Editor for a daily business newspaper for 12 years before quitting to go freelance, specialising in travel & leisure writing and being opinionated about life in general. Her absolute passions are travel, theatre, the cinema, wining and dining.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 23, 2016

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