The reputation of the Amalfi Coast precedes any trip with visions of La Dolce Vita, the stupendous beauty of the coastline and a magical and simpler Italy as seen in “Il Postino”.
The Amalfi Coast is a 50-kilometer stretch of coastline along the southern edge of Italy’s Sorrentine Peninsula, in the Campania region. It’s a popular holiday destination, with sheer cliffs and a rugged shoreline dotted with small beaches and pastel-colored fishing villages. The coastal road between the port city of Salerno and clifftop Sorrento winds past grand villas, terraced vineyards and cliffside lemon groves.
Cited by by UNESCO as an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape, the Amalfi Coast is a beguiling combination of great beauty and gripping drama: coastal mountains plunge into the sea in a stunning vertical scene of precipitous crags, picturesque towns and lush forests.
The reputation of Amalfi is not without some truth but the truth of today’s Amalfi Coast is somewhat more complex. The complexity begins with the probability that you will access Amalfi by flying into Naples Airport. This exercise in chaos is owned by our old friends B.A.A. who are in turn owned by Ferrovival, the Spanish brick company. The previous year Naples had won the title of “Worst Airport in Europe” and from what I could see it was fighting hard to keep the title. Terminal 2 at Naples demonstrates BAA’s advanced sense of humour. It is a former cargo warehouse which has lost none of its ambience a mile from the airport to which the charter flight cattle are bussed. It has no luggage trolleys (either side!) and the “management response” when you mention this at the Information desk is to make a tannoy announcement which they have pre-printed in 12 languages that “there is a shortage of trolleys for operational reasons.” Indeed. Proudly wearing our “We saw Naples Airport and didn’t die” badges we went outside for our transfer. Here it got better, much better.
We had booked a cheap week at the end of season in October staying half board in a family run hotel, Hotel Santa Lucia, in the small town of Minori with transfers included. Tonight we were the only people going to this destination so we had a Lancia Thema and driver to ourselves and soon the mess of the airport was consigned to memory. We headed south in the fading light along the Autostrade del Sol before turning into the coast road at Vietri sul Mare (so called because it is the centre of the wonderful ceramics industry) and heading along the precipitous coast road which is the only land connection between the Amalfi towns. The coastline looked magical in the moonlight as we went from one picture postcard town to another until we arrived at Minori. However one of the reasons we were relaxed on arrival is we hadn’t driven. In the cold light of day The Amalfi Coast consists of towns which were built for defence in ravines and on mountain tops joined by a road which should never have been built driven on by people who should never drive!!
Yet what we are looking at today is the remnant of a powerful and vigorous maritime republic. In 1112 Amalfi founded an imposing hospital in Jerusalem, the “Sacra Infirma” which gave birth to the powerful Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem, later to become the Knights of Cyprus, then of Rhodes and now the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta
It was the first of the Italian maritime republics and was a powerful naval and trading power from the 8th to 12th Centuries. It was the home of Flavio Gioia, who invented the compass and gave navigators the famous “Tabula de Amphala”, the foundation stone of modern Maritime Law. The maritime commerce of Amalfi formed part of a triangle that involved Italy, the Arabian North Africa and the Byzantine Empire. Amalfi ships carried wood to the North African coastal Arabian cities and sold their cargoes for gold. The second leg of the triangle took them to Syrian-Palestinian coasts where they bought spices, gem stones, fine cloths and gold objects that they then sold all over Italy by sailing as far as Ravenna and from there up the Po as far as Pavia. Amalfi lost its independence in 1131 when it became part of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily but its prosperity and importance as a maritime power did not wane. It was the later effects of new sea-going activities by the powerful cities of Pisa and Genoa that put an end to Amalfi’s once unassailable position.
Today The Amalfi Coast, or Costiera Amalfitana in Italian, is a stretch of coastline on the southern side of the Sorrentine Peninsula of Italy (Province of Salerno), extending from Positano in the west to Vietri sul Mare in the east. The towns lying on the Amalfi Coast are Vietri sul Mare, Cetara, Maiori, Minori, Ravello, Scala, Atrani, Amalfi, Conca dei Marini, Praiano and Positano. Renowned for its rugged terrain, scenic beauty, picturesque towns and diversity, the Amalfi Coast is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Minori (The little town), our base for the week is a pleasant small Italian town with a nice park, beach and pier and many reminders of past riches. It is set in the deepest inlet of the Amalfi Coast, between Amalfi and Capo d’Orso (Bear’s Cape) with its twin town towns of Maiori (The big town), always joined by a common destiny, as underlined by their names. The Romans called them Reginna Minor and Reginna Maior after the two small rivers flowing in this bay, with their mouths divided by a small promontory. It is a good introduction to Italian town life with charming shops, cafes and restaurants. However, our favourite activity was to take a stroll by the park framing the lovely seafront and having an “espresso a banco” for 50 cents at the kiosk with the locals.
The first settlement of Minori was a Roman villa during the first imperial age, of which nowadays some of the ground floor remains, discovered in 1932 but buried by an inundation in 1954 and excavated again. This villa is very important, because it is the only one remaining of the numerous maritime villas originally built by wealthy Romans on the Amalfi Coast. The wealth of the owner can still be gauged from the scale of the villa as the whole household would decamp from Rome by Galley, sail down to their own pier and access the villa through a tunnel on the foreshore. The Roman Villa in Minori extended up to the seashore for more than 2500 sq.ms. and was overlooked by our hotel at the rear. Today there is mainly the basement remaining and you can visit rooms on the ground floor, among which are the thermal baths with a mosaic pavement and the courtyard with arcaded sides and a pool in the middle. The past riches of the town as a member of the Amalfi Republic are attested by the magnificent Basillica de Santa Trofimena. The Cafe Europa on the sea front does a busy trade with many locals taking away boxes of its wonderful pastries. There are photographs all over the walls showing the many famous people that had visited this bar and pastry shop. Some of these included the Pope, the movie actress Sharon Stone, many Italian sports stars, and Italian politicians to name just a few. Apparently the owner/chef, Antonio Riso, is a famous pastry chef in Italy, and well known for his creations.
The Hotel Santa Lucia is a charming family run hotel of about 35 rooms with mostly Italian expats staying who were visiting family and friends along the coast. There was a “proper” dining room doing hearty home made Italian fare served by the head waiter Antonio who wore a black waistcoat in the morning and a white waist coat (with cummerbund) in the evening. He was ably assisted by Giovanni who was generous in offering seconds and obviously believed in his product! The rooms were spotless and both they and the bathrooms were decorated with the charming ceramics for which the Amalfi Coast is famous. However the beds could be better with plywood bases. There is a nice lounge and café terrace and the ambience is friendly. The one downside is it is on the main road and traffic noise is intrusive when the air conditioning is not in use.
The local bus service which connects the Amalfi is run by a company called SITA and I can only assume that the “H” is silent. They are totally unreliable, overcrowded and disabled unfriendly and whatever they are focussed on it is not the customer. One day we had the surreal experience of trying to get a bus to Sorrento and after 3 of them had not arrived the Italians at the stop were so enraged they were ringing the local police. Oh, you can’t buy the tickets on the bus but at newsagents and if the bus doesn’t turn up you can’t get a refund. On the day in question we gave up on going to Sorrento and instead took a bus to the other end of the coast to Salerno. The journey along the Amalfi Drive is dramatic and the coast line jaw dropping but Salerno, whilst having no great negatives, didn’t impress. This is where the Allies invaded mainland Italy in 1943 and judging by the modern town you see today they did a comprehensive demolition job on Salerno. The other complication is that all buses on the Amalfi Coast route change in Amalfi but on a busy parking area on the seafront which is chaotic and disorganised to the point of being dangerous.
The eponymous capital of the Amalfi Coast was 15 minutes away by b us (when they came) and is a delightful and atmospheric town which lies at the mouth of the deep Valle dei Mulini ravine at the foot of Monte Cerreto and is surrounded by dramatic cliffs and and gorgeous scenery. The bus drops you at the harbour front and the town is constructed along a ravine back from the harbour and on the slopes on either side. In caverns burrowed into the cliff front you will find the Armouries of the Amalfi Republic. These impressive subterranean spaces are used today for exhibitions and in one of them you will find an impressive replica of the State Barge and an exhibition on the history of Amalfi. The Armouries hint at the scale and power of the Amalfi Republic. at its height this was a town of 70,000 souls which commanded a fleet of 120 warships.
The geography of Amalfi town is easy, there is one main street along the ravine and everything flows off that. Heading inland you soon come to a piazza with a fountain and a statue of St. Andrew. Overlooking this piazza is the Byzantine Duomo (the cathedral) and its cloister (Chiostro del Paradiso in Italian) which was built in the 13th. Century in the Arabian style and holds ancient sarcophagi, marble sculptures and mosaics. Contained in the Duomo are Saint Andrew’s relics which were brought from Constantinople to Amalfi by the Amalfitan Pietro, cardinal of Capua, in 1210 after the completion of the town’s cathedral. This is a contentious point amongst the Orthodox who regard the relics as looted by the rapacious 3rd Crusade which sacked Constantinople and installed Norman vassals as Emperors of Byzantium. The cathedral, dedicated to St. Andrew, contains a tomb in its crypt that it maintains still holds a portion of the remains of the body of the apostle. You can also see a golden reliquary which originally housed his skull and another one used to process the bones through Amalfi on holy days. Saint Andrew, called in the Orthodox tradition Protocletos, or the First-called, is a Christian Apostle and the younger brother of Saint Peter. He was crucified and originally interred at Patras in Greece. His followers put X after their name as a secret sign of their fealty, the first emoticon?
The cathedral is worth a visit up the many steps and often as not there will be a glamorous bride climbing the steps with you. There appears to be a parade of non stop society weddings taking place as the Duomo is a popular venue due to the association with the Apostle but more probably because it is highly photogenic. After viewing the wonders within and the beautiful cloisters stop at the wonderfully embellished traditional coffee shop and patisserie at the foot of the steps. Here, take a seat outside and order the wonderful frozen coffee, Café Frodo, whilst watching the world go by. You will never taste a more intense coffee flavour and the world will seem a better place.
Further along the coast you come to the picture postcard town and port of Positano, no longer a simple fishing village but still a place of considerable allure. When he was here in the 1950’s John Steinbeck observed “Positano bites deep”. It still does and it gathers you in as you walk down to the centre which is pedestrian because the streets are stepped as you go down through its narrow alleys which open into squares with fountains and churches before you arrive at the seafront. Here there are two superb seafood restaurants which have been here for ever and which are compulsory stops. Choose want you want for your second visit but today don’t think about it, go and have Fruitti dell Mare and a bottle of well chilled Corvo Siciliano in the Tres Sorreles (Three Sisters) restaurant or its neighbour on the water front. On a fine day watching the parade of fishing boats, ferries and yachts you may find yourself agreeing with Steinbeck! Life is too short and on a sunny day the time spent here is too precious to waste it on decision making! Steinbeck’s description of the town still holds good today:
“Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone. Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. I believe that whereas most house foundations are vertical, in Positano they are horizontal. The small curving bay of unbelievably blue and green water lips gently on a beach of small pebbles. There is only one narrow street and it does not come down to the water. Everything else is stairs, some of them as steep as ladders. You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or slide.”
John Steinbeck, Harper’s Bazaar, May 1953
Where we stayed in Minori we were only 3,000 steps away from Ravello which is perched on the hill top above but unless you have the DNA of a mountain goat you may decide to take the bus which winds up a steep corkscrew road to this enchanting town of stepped streets which has attracted people as diverse as Wagner, Garbo and Gore Vidal who lived here for many years. Ravello is one of the most attractive destinations on the Amalfi Coast. With a population of around 2,000, the settlement perches high above Amalfi, overlooking the Mediterranean. A renowned musical festival is held in Ravello every year, with classical music concerts taking place in gardens with breathtaking views, all through the summer months. The dreamlike setting of Ravello’s gardens inspired Wagner, and it’s fitting that today music is a major feature of the town. The Ravello Concert Society organises a long season of chamber music concerts (March-November), most of which are held against a backdrop of sky and sea in the panoramic gardens of Wagner’s inspiration for Parsifal, the Villa Rufolo. When Steinbeck saw this view from the Villa Rufolo he cried. Photos don’t do it justice, you have to be there. The other principal Ravello tourist attraction is the Villa Cimbrone with its breathtaking “Terrace of Eternity” where Leopold Stokowski and Greta Garbo romanced.
Both of these panoramic gardens are open to the public, and you can wander through the tropical plants and enjoy fabulous views of the coastline. Ravello also has an impressive cathedral, the venerable Byzantine Duomo, dedicated to San Pantaleone whose blood is a treasured relic. Ravello is not an easy town for those not fleet footed to get around due to the considerable number of steps but built on a hilltop for protection against corsairs it is still a place apart with incomparable costal vistas.
So far so wonderful but to see and appreciate the former maritime republic we need to see the Costiera Amalfitana from the only place which makes sense of it, the sea. The precarious switchback Amalfi Drive dates from the 1850’s, before that travel from town to town was by sea and some would suggest this is the only sensible and safe method today! Here off the coast braced by the salt air a wondrous vista unfolds of deep eroded ravines, villages tucked into the clefts for shelter and defence, Saracen watch towers and implausibly steep terraces groaning with the heavy lemon fruits of Amalfi which make the famous Limoncello. Here we can be in awe of the spectacular coast as we head towards Capri and the Isola Gallo Lungo, once the home of Rudolf Nuryevev but in antiquity these were the islands (Sirenum scopuli; three small rocky islands) where, according to the Greek poet Homer, Ulysses was enticed and held captive by the mystical song of the Sirens. Visitors will still be seduced by the Sirens and the Amalfi Coast today.
“You will come first of all to the Sirens, who are enchanters
of all mankind and whoever comes their way; and that man
who unsuspecting approaches them, and listens to the Sirens
singing, has no prospect of coming home and delighting
his wife and little children as they stand about him in greeting,
but the Sirens by the melody of their singing enchant him.”
Homer, (Odyssey XII, 39).
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