Amalfi, tiny and expensive is one of the easier coastal towns to walk around as it rises gently up the hillside from the waterfront rather than clinging vertically to it, like Positano for instance.
It is hard to believe that this very small town had a glorious history as a maritime republic on a par with Venice and Genoa, but Amalfi was a trade bridge between the Byzantine and western worlds for centuries with a population exceeding 70,000 (today, less than 5,000). Unfortunately, there are very few historical buildings of note to see as most of the old city, and its inhabitants, slid into the sea during the 1343 earthquake.
There is a delightful promenade along the waterfront and a marina full of colorful boats but the focal point of the historic center is the Piazza del Duomo with its striking cathedral dedicated to St. Andrew. There are sixty steps leading up to the Byzantine-style church with its Moorish-influenced arches and decoration and inside the church is a forest of columns and Arabesque arches and the hidden Cloister of Paradise, dating to 1266. The Piazza is lined with bars, cafes, gelaterias, artisan and tourist shops, and is a perfect place for people watching – if you can bag a table. It seems to be permanently busy. Don’t forget the water if you decide to walk up the steps, those 65 can feel like 100 when the sun is out.
Famous for the manufactire pf paper, the Paper Museum (Museo della Carta) is well worth a visit to see how the products were made by hand. There are still some family-owned paper mills that carry on the tradition of hand-made paper which can be bought in some of the high-end shops – good, if expensive buys, for that special present for someone who still likes to write letters.
However, the primary product of the area is lemons, enormous in size, picked fresh to make limoncello liqueur and to be used in local dishes. Lemon ice-cream features a lot in restaurants and gelaterias, the one by the town gate serving quite the biggest lemon sorbet I have every seen (or eaten).
If you don’t spend too much time over lunch or coffee, there will still be time to visit hilltop Ravello, full of historic, artistic, monumental and architectural treasures – another expensive town but exquisite in its layout, and its 13th century Villa Rufolo which has breathtaking views from gardens overlooking the sea. Famous names you’ll hear mentioned a lot in Ravello are Richard Wagner who was inspired by the Villa to compose some verses of the Parsifal, Boccaccio who stayed here while writing the Decameron, D. H. Lawrence who supposedly got inspiration for Lady Chatterley’s Lover while holidaying in the town and Gore Vidal who came for a visit and stayed for 30 years!
Shopping is rather special in Ravello too, as there are many craft and high-end fashion stops where you will find one-off garments – at a price, of course. Even the ice-cream advertises as ‘gourmet’ gelato though what that is I have no idea.
Restaurants bars and bistros abound, but walk around the interesting narrow backstreets of cobble-stones, peering in at dark interiors, looking over dry-stone walls fronting overgrown gardens and vegetable plots, if you want to see what this hill-top village is really like. Ravello is a great starting point for walks in the surrounding Lattari mountains along ancient paths.
Amalfi’s trading importance may have declined but its maritime importance continues, as you can hop ferries and hydrofoils to Capri, Salerno, and Positano. For me, the best way to view Amalfi is from the sea and the best way to do that is to take a boat trip around the bay, either in one of the 45-minute trips or by hiring a boat to take you to hidden coves to enjoy some private sun and surf. You will see the homes of Gina Llolabrigida, Sofia Loren, George Clooney (before he moved to Como I presume) and other famous names, smaller than you’d imagine because of their position built into the rocks. In the above slide show of scenes from the sea, the blue and white house set ino the hillside is that of Sofia Loren.