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HOLIDAYS: TICKET TO DISASTER; Take a ride to ruins in shadow of the volcano.

I MUST be the only one on the bus who doesn't know at least the driver and about 10 other people.

I am not the most obvious of tourists but I guess my bag gives me away.

That and my horrible attempts at Italian.

But the locals are friendly and greet everyone, including me, with a hearty Buongiorno when they get on or off.

We have passed hundreds of delightful coastal towns, perched on rocky ledges or wedged in ravines that fall straight down to the sea. I could happily have stopped in any of these towns,

But, no, I am heading for Atrani on the Amalfi coast and I am suddenly conscious that I will miss my stop if I don't pay attention.

I start down the aisle towards the driver, hitting everyone with my bag as we sway around hairpin bends without slowing down, passing ridiculously close to the edge or to other vehicles.

Before I can even open my mouth to say where I want to go, the driver tells me "la prossima, la prossima" (the next stop).

We screech to a halt and I am thankful still to be alive as I get off and wave goodbye to the other passengers.

The old woman stepping off in front of me motions to follow her and leads me through the town of Atrani.

I don't even know how to pronounce the name of the place where I am staying but she doesn't even ask and we meander past whitewashed houses along narrow streets right to the door of my hotel.

I wonder if she is in cahoots with the hotel manager or if there aren't many places for foreigners to stay - but she deposits me there and departs with a quick wave.

Better-known and much-visited Amalfi is only a five-minute walk along the coast but where I am staying in Atrani is quieter, quainter and far more delightful.

I wander back through the quiet streets to a small piazza encircled by buildings. There are nice cafAs with tables outside and I am the only customer, so the friendly waiter chatters away while he prepares a panini and gives me free glasses of mineral water.

I am starting to realise that the southern Italians are a friendly bunch. After lunch, and a wander along the seashore watching fishermen off the beach to Amalfi, I spend most of the afternoon drinking coffee with museum guards.

Atrani is really an extension of Amalfi, which is one kilometre away.

Amalfi was founded in the 9th century, and is credited with introducing paper, coffee and carpets to Italy thanks to its Oriental connections. In the 11th century, it was at its peak, with naval power to rival Pisa and Genova.

This coastline is now famous throughout Italy and has become a destination for more wealthy tourists, although it can cater for all budgets if you do your research properly.

Most of the coastline contains a hybrid of Arab and Norman architecture.

The town of Positano, famous in the north, has more Moorish influences but in Amalfi the Duomo Sant' Andrea is a fine example set at the top of a sweeping flight of stairs, and dating from the 1 0th century.

The piazza below is popular for wedding photographs. If you spend any length of time here on Saturdays or Sundays, the brides and grooms roll through like clockwork.

The couples pose in the square with an assorted entourage of video and still camera crews, limousine drivers and security men who stare down curious passers-by, especially those who produce their own cameras.

The Chiostro del Paradiso next to the church was built in the 13 th century in Arabic style to house the tombs of noted citizens.

Take it on good authority, the guards here are very friendly!

There are also two paper mills still in operation in Amalfi, a paper museum, a selection of fine restaurants and beach-side walkways.

Many paths and stairways criss cross the hillsides above the coast and link the mountainside villages.

On good advice from the Atrani cafA, I headed on one to Ravello. The path circles through the soaring mountains and past deep ravines to the town, overlooking the seaside above Amalfi, which looks like an aqua-coloured jewel below.

Further north along the coast is the famous city of Pompeii, a must for any visit to this part of Italy.

This ancient city was destroyed, and thus ironically preserved, by the erupting Mount Vesuvius, which stands ominously above it as if in permanent reminder of its role in the life and death of the town.

A few hours should be devoted to Pompeii and it's a good idea to buy a guide from one of the pesky sellers out-side, or you can wander rather hopelessly in the maze of streets.

This in itself is not a waste of time and, if you stay alert, you can discern which was the market street, which boasted more well-to-do houses and which were u sed for bakeries.

Much has survived here, including mosaics that are almost perfectly intact, offering depictions of daily life in a Roman town. There are also statues, urns and even bodies, although most relics have been moved to the museum in Naples.

But the best way to experience the Amalfi coast is to find your own patch of beach or a quiet little town, like Atrani.

You can wile away the hours with leisurely meals, watch the fishermen bring in their catches and take time to meet the locals.

After a few days of this, I caught a bus back to the Salerno train station. This time, I did know at least 10 people on board, I managed to avoid clubbing anyone with my pack and even offered a fairly Italian-sounding Buongiorno.

SundayMercury@mrn.co.uk

OTHER THINGS TO DO

The three Greek temples of Paestum are among the best-preserved Greek monuments in the world. Paestum was founded in the 6th century BC by Greek settlers, is on the bus route from Salerno and on the Napoli-Salerno train line.

The Isle of Capri is touristy, but its natural habitation is delightful including lush vegetation and hideaway caves. The towns are a mixture of narrow lanes and Greek, Roman and Stone Age artefacts. Ferries, hydrofoils and helicopter flights take you here from Napoli and Sorrento.

It is possible to visit the craters on Mount Vesuvius, and buses run from Pompeii four times daily.

HOW TO GET THERE

Trains run from Rome to Naples or Sorrento. From here a bus services the coast and the timetable is regular and surprisingly punctual. The closest international airport is Napoli, which has domestic flights and links to most major European destinations.

WHEN TO GO

The summer months from June through August are very busy and touristy. Come a little out of season and get good weather with cheaper accommodation.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotels, private rooms and other pensiones are also available for varying prices to suit, each budget. It may be difficult to find accommodation in the busy summer months. Visit website www.amalficoastweb.com.

CAPTION(S):

It's one of the most visited areas of Italy but the Amalfi coast still hides surprises and authentic local flavour for those willing to seek it out. Backpacker JOANNE ANE finds taking the bus is just the ticket.' STUNNING: the unspoilt town of Atrani, bottom left, lies along the Amalfi coast close to the ruins of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jun 11, 2006
Words:1247
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