Travel: A beer? That'll be pounds 300: Simon Calder was invited out for a drink - to Ravello, on Italy's Amalfi coast. It was a long trip, but he decided to go for it

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The Independent Travel
THE BOTTLE of Peroni was priced at pounds 1.36, about the same as in my local pizzeria, but this one had cost me pounds 300 - less 11p.

A friend had called from Italy: come and have a beer in Ravello. Before the pips went, I learnt that the nearest airport was Naples; then, in the hackneyed screen tradition, I heard only 'and then you . . . .' It was Friday afternoon in central London, and the flight left at 6pm.

At a minute after 5pm I was still stationary at Victoria, wondering when the Gatwick train might aspire to the 'Express' in its title. I checked my wallet and discovered that after buying the rail ticket I had about 30p left.

I have sometimes arrived at airports spectacularly late (in Istanbul, they heroically stopped the aircraft to let me on), but never so thoroughly unprepared. Time evaporates if you find yourself at an airport with 25 minutes to go before your flight leaves, with no ticket and no cash - just an inert collection of plastic cards. Gatwick must have a dozen bureaux de change, but all the ones I tried were closed. T minus 20 minutes. Then I struck a cash machine, which took a painfully long time to render me solvent.

Time was being squandered in what seemed an increasingly reckless fashion, but miraculously the ticket counter had no queue. Given the airlines' solemn warnings about check-in times, it was instructive to find out how quickly, in fact, the process can be undertaken.

With all the credibility I could muster, I explained that I had to catch the flight that left for Naples in 17 minutes' time. I expected a cartoon- like reaction ('You want to travel when?'), but the staff rose to the challenge. One called the gate, another battered the computer keyboard, while a third dealt with the credit card. At T minus 12 minutes, I was handed a ticket.

The next obstacle was clearing security and passport control. Gatwick is promoting its 'Fast Track' service, designed to speed business-class passengers through formalities, but for an ultra-fast track, just turn up with no ticket 17 minutes before departure. One of the ticket staff threw off his jacket and led me on a yomp through the airport, carving up queues and cajoling grumpy security men into giving me priority.

It is also instructive to discover how large airport terminals are these days, and how reliably Murphy's law functions to ensure the flight leaves from the most distant gate. A final sprint and I lunged aboard, thinking, 'OK, I'm here, close the door and we can go.'

At T plus 15 minutes, the last Neapolitan passenger stumbled aboard clutching a bright yellow duty-free bag. These seemed to be carried by every passenger except me.

The man next to me, an Italian now living in Guildford, struck up a conversation. Where was I going? Ravello. Where exactly was that? I didn't know. We borrowed another passenger's map of Italy, which failed to answer the question. But a spirited debate ensued in rows 18 to 23 inclusive. Someone assured me it was near Salerno - a pounds 75 cab ride from Naples airport, well beyond my modest resources. The man from Guildford painstakingly wrote out a letter in Italian explaining the purpose of my journey, from airport to station to Salerno and eventually Ravello. I was to show this to anyone I met.

Naples airport was stifling. Rows 18 to 23 inclusive bid me Buon viaggio as I sped off, unencumbered by luggage, to find the airport bus. First, though, I had to find some money.

Italy's third airport has only one currency exchange facility: a machine that converts foreign notes to Italian lire. Unfortunately, it had not been trained to recognise the new-style pounds 10 notes; it was expecting to see Florence Nightingale, not W G Grace, on the crisp new tenners the Gatwick cash machine had dispensed.

From the shadows, the Guildfordian emerged as a saviour. He ushered me towards the airport bus. Somehow he convinced the driver that my pounds 10 note was worth 22,000 lire, and that he should take the 3,000-lire fare and give me 19,000 change. Suddenly I was solvent.

At the city's Central Station, I spoke enough Italian to ask for a ticket to Salerno, price 5,000 lire. The computerised timetable knew enough English to tell me that the next departure was at 10.52pm. The computer failed to reveal that this train was an express with couchettes only. I walked farther along platform six in search of seats, then panicked and hopped on as it was about to depart.

The journey lasted 38 minutes. As soon as it started, a fellow passenger realised I had no bed to go to, and grassed on me to the ticket staff. They clearly cherish moments like this; for almost every second I was pursued for my entire stock of lire. I tried to explain that I would make no fuss, and just stand in the corridor for the next 37-and-a-half minutes. The collectors, with the weight of numbers and the Ferrovie dello Stato rule book behind them, demanded 15,000 lire (almost pounds 7) as a supplement. My defence was hardly watertight: I had been grievously misled by a computer. The bottom line, however, was that I did not have enough negotiable currency to pay the supplement. Mobile bureaucracy was confounded, and I was ejected at Salerno station, accompanied by a torrent of ticket inspectors' abuse but with my cash intact. Furthermore, Salerno youth hostel was (a) still open and (b) just within my budget. I slept the sleep of those who have eluded both Italian State Railways and financial catastrophe.

You cannot change money on a Saturday morning in Salerno. It took some time to establish this, and even longer to find the road to Ravello and start hitching. Four swift lifts hurried me along the Amalfi coast. For 20 twisted miles, a thread of highway laces itself between a placid sea and a mountain range that teeters somewhere between majesty and oppression. The depth of the blue is matched by the heavy greens and stark greys of these ancient volcanoes.

In any fold of coast pinching more than a scrap of flat land, a village has sprung up. Each has precisely the degree of comfortable decrepitude to satisfy a visitor's expectations. Tourism has tainted the coast in places, but Ravello stands aloof, asserting its grandeur and extravagance. Ravello is one of those delicious Italian place names that you can make a meal of: rrrra-VEL-lo. The driver who plucked me from the seafront and whisked me up 500 vertical metres in five minutes enjoyed the word and the drive. The road to the top is implausibly steep and twisted, because it is trying to do the near-impossible, hurling visitors to the top of a pinnacle.

Presumably some ancient dare led to the establishment of a city in so preposterous a position. At its prime, Ravello had a population of 30,000. Now this has shrunk to 2,000, but it still has its own cathedral and bishop. More important, it has the most perfect setting for a drink with a view.

The Villa Cimbrone is a fey mansion in meticulous gardens. The confection was created by an English nobleman, who devised a scheme to draw the visitor unerringly to the edge of the world. A flimsy barrier separates you from the void. The duke understood the need for an alcohol-assisted appreciation of the coastline. He built a precarious balcony, jutting out from the sheer cliff-face, apparently suspended more by optimism than by the laws of physics.

I ordered a Peroni, sat back, drank in the view, and did the sums:

British Airways return flight from Gatwick to Naples: pounds 289; bus from airport to Naples station: pounds 1.36; train from Naples to Salerno: pounds 2.27; overnight at Salerno youth hostel: pounds 5.90; Peroni Nastro Azurro (33cl): pounds 1.36. Total: pounds 299.89.

Three hundred pounds (less 11p) for a beer seemed outrageous. The solution was obvious: have another one, and almost halve the cost per glass. By now, the spectacle made the spending seem a real bargain. Another one, and the unit cost was almost down to pounds 100, or 30p a millilitre. But my credit card had now swerved past its legal limit. My friend - to her credit - paid for the beers.

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