Surprisingly when our alarm went off at 6:30 this morning, neither of us wanted to budge from our highway free-camp! Our tent had become a cozy, warm little den; a thick carpet of pine needles beneath us provided some extra cushion to our bed and a droning tunnel fan's constant white noise had soothed us into a deep, restful sleep. Somehow we groggily roused ourselves and reluctantly packed up our warm little haven.
After heaving our bikes over the protective guardrail surrounding our camp we re-assembled and re-attached our panniers on the shoulder of the road. When the bikes were mostly ready to go, we took out our cook-set and made hash browns to fuel our hilly ride towards the Amalfi coast. We hadn't ridden more than 200 meters when we saw, to our amusement, several signs for nearby campsites. Ah, well. We were happy with our free, comfortable, post-tunnel oasis.
A steep 100+ meter climb took us from Sorrento into Positano. After the picturesque Positano most of our ride was filled with speeding downhills and slow, gradual uphills. The sun shone brightly and it was difficult not to stop around every bend to snap photos of the splendor. It was staggeringly beautiful; green mountains, sheer drop-offs, terracotta homes clinging to the rock faces, purple morning glories and fuchsia bougainvillea blooming everywhere, and of course, the sparkling azure sea.
Early in the morning we passed several colorful roadside food stands. We stopped at one to admire the beautifully displayed garlands of chili peppers and olives, all kinds of fruits and vegetables, and most importantly: LEMONS. I knew this area was famous for lemons, but now I know why! At one of the markets we bought plums, persimmons, and a GIANT lemon from a friendly old woman. She weighed our fruit on an ancient brass scale and handed us our large bag of goodies for the low price of 3 euro. Then she threw in a few perfectly good but not-so-pretty persimmons and another lemon for free!
As we were about to leave the woman stopped us with a shy smile and asked if we'd like to try her homemade limoncello. We immediately agreed and she poured a very small shot into a tiny plastic cup. It looked like ink from a neon yellow highlighter and it was intensely "lemony", surprisingly sugary, and very alcoholic. We opted not to buy any but thanked her and continued on.
Our goal for the rest of the day was to find a nice place to sip a cappuccino, leisurely work on journals (me), do some programming (tyler), and enjoy the view of shimmering blue water (both of us!). About five kilometers before Amalfi, we found a lovely cafe overlooking the sea and wheeled our bikes to the side of the road next to it. Tyler hauled out our "electronics backpack" (it holds our laptops, portable battery, loads of cables, adapters, the webcam our spare memory cards etc) and we plugged in, making ourselves at home on the beautiful patio. I ordered two cappuccinos and we settled in for a relaxing afternoon.
Two hours later we were finished and I went to the counter to pay for what had turned into a tab of five very small cappuccinos. Normally, one cappuccino costs between 0.80 and 1.50; I was prepared to pay with my five euro bill and change. As I stood there waiting to be rung up, our server and his boss had a rapid-fire conversation in Italian and then announced that I owed them 15! My immediate reaction—a face contorted into looks of shock, disgust, loathing, and severe doubt, led our server to change the price to an only marginally more reasonable 12.50.
This marks the first time we've been treated with a flagrant swindling callousness usually reserved for the most obnoxious of tourists. We definitely learned our lesson (ask the price before ordering, or better yet, ask to see a menu!) and will be more wary in the future.
Leaving our cafe with a bit of griping, we decided it was time to start looking for a spot to camp. We asked around for a campsite and were directed to a hotel just up the road, devoid of any signs indicating they took campers. When the man working at the front desk proposed a tiny concrete patio to sleep on, down several flights of steep stairs for the low, low price of 35, we declined and carried on, simultaneously overcome by the Amalfi coast's ocean side splendor and miffed about its exorbitant costs.
Coasting into the town of Amalfi, we eyed the roadside for any piece of flat, hidden ground. We were unsuccessful. When we arrived in town we stopped to wander around, enjoying the bustling town's tourist shops and quaintness. Unfortunately it was quickly becoming apparent that stealth camping was going to be difficult. Before we decided to leave, Tyler ran down the beach saying he had an idea. He came back a few minutes later with a huge grin on his face and informed me that he'd asked a restaurant owner if we could camp (in Italian!) on their beach and the man had agreed!
We wheeled over, but by the time we arrived the owner had come up with a concern. He didn't mind if we camped on the beach, but the coast guard might; we'd have to go ask. Once again I waited with the bikes while Tyler went across the street to the coast guard's office. After much hemming and hawing, they finally told him no.
On the way back towards the main road we ran into a very friendly couple from Madison, Wisconsin! After a few minutes chatting with John and Linda, we bid them farewell as the skies began to slowly darken. We'd almost reached the road leaving town (which we intended to follow to a campsite 20 kilometers away in Salermo) when we stopped because just in front of us was another cycle touring couple who were poring over a map. Even though we needed to get going, Tyler suggested we introduce ourselves. I am sure we will be thanking ourselves for that decision for the rest of our lives!
There are sometimes moments life which can be so serendipitous that they never fail to inspire you when you think back on them. This was one of them. Over the course of six months on the road if we had stayed just one more day anywhere, we wouldn't have been there for this moment. We pushed our bikes over and met Melodie and Alex, a Parisian couple nearing the end of a month-long tour of Italy. The moment we introduced ourselves we were all laughing and talking about everything under the sun (but mostly cycle touring). Melodie and I hit it off in French while Tyler and Alex spoke non-stop in English.
Suddenly it didn't matter whether or not we found a place to sleep, or if we slept at all! We were safe in the company of good friends. Melodie told me about their dream to cycle the world in 2011 while Tyler answered an unending stream of questions from Alex about gear and planning. We didn't stop talking for nearly an hour! Eventually a policeman came over and told us to get out of the road. It was only when it really started to get dark that we brought up the subject of where to sleep. They didn't have a place either, so thanks to some changes we've made recently, we decided to throw our budget out the window for the night and join forces to get a hotel room together.
Alex and Tyler went to find accommodations, Melodie and I watched the bikes and continued our non-stop chatter. In no time they had secured a room at Albergo St. Andrea, a tiny four-room hotel just opposite Amalfi's duomo. There would be real beds, hot showers, huge fluffy towels, and most importantly, goofy, down-to-earth new friends and a whole evening to get acquainted. After locking our four bikes up for the night at a secured garage down the street, we took our few belongings and headed back to the hotel.
Once we reached the hotel there was just one small detail to iron out: our room had two beds but one of them was a twin. We hadn't given it a second thought while checking in, but now, looking at our sleeping options we could only laugh. The "twin" was much narrower than a normal twin and it would be tricky to sleep two people on it at all, much less comfortably.
We decided the easiest solution was to push the beds together. Hilarity ensued when Alex felt a small gap in the queen bed and discovered it was actually two tiny beds as well! With our three tiny beds scooted together, we took turns (as a couple) wandering around town, giving the other some time alone to relax and take showers before dinner.
The restaurant we chose was located just behind the illuminated cathedral and won out due to its indoor seating and the delicious scent wafting out from within. Though the place was packed, a couple left their table right as we were arriving so we were seated right away. The woman serving us was bizarrely stern as she took our orders and despite our best efforts, remained prickly throughout our meal. Nevertheless, we laughed more than we have in a long time and enjoyed our meals complete with wine, a pasta course, main course, vegetable, and dessert.
After dinner we walked back to our hotel, turned on the laptop and shared photos and stories from our various adventures. We were inspired by Melodie and Alex's slide show from a month-long backpacking trek in Madagascar the previous year. There were shots of lemurs climbing all over Melodie, the two of them riding a motorcycle through the rain forest, a playful beach side limbo competition, local children playing and a host of other fun activities (we didn't discuss it until later but as we watched Tyler and I were both thinking we'd like to do something similar someday).
We talked about their dream of cycling through Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Americas, and their ultimate goal of moving to Guadeloupe or Ile de la Reunion to open an international bar or hostel. We showed them our website, gear reviews, and gave them as much helpful knowledge as we could while answering their multitudes of questions about world touring. We all laughed about how Melodie and I get ravaged by mosquito swarms while Tyler and Alex remain relatively unscathed, and how she and I both drink water like crazy, while the men get by with so little. It was a very nice change of pace to have company for the night and it really felt like we'd been friends for years.
Before bed we all talked about going on adventures together. Tyler and I invited them to drive across Siberia with us sometime next year and they seemed excited about the possibility. We're not even sure that it will happen yet but one thing is certain: we will meet them again!