AMALFI – Italy’s Gem

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. 

Centreville, Amalfi

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.

The Duomo

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. 

How Many G & T’s could that Lemon serve?

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). 

Biggest Lemon Sorbet I’ve ever 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! 

Ravello

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. 

Ideal spot for lunch in Ravello
Interesting items for sale in Ravello- Wine and Drugs. I hope it doesn’t mean what it says!

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.

The Amalfi Drive

White Houses Clinging to the Rocky Hillside

Known as The Amalfi Drive (formally Strada Statale 163) the coast road along the shoreline from Sorrento to Amalfi (and on to Salerno) is one of the most poular drives in Italy.  Originally built by the Romans, it is one of the most photographed coastal routes in the world, seen in countless films like Under the Tuscan Sun and the Humphrey Bogart classic Beat the Devil (1957) featuring a young Gina Lollobrigida. Gamers may recognize it as a setting for fictional tracks in Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo 4 games.  UNESCO actually named the Amalfi Coast an outstanding example of Mediterranean landscape and gave it a place on the World Heritage List.

So far down the boats are hardly recognisable

Carved out of the side of the coastal cliffs for the greater part of its route, the road gives vertiginous views down to the Tyrrhenian Sea and to the towering cliffs above. It passes through Positano, the village of the rich and famous where fabulous villas accessible only on foot from above, by helicopter from the air, or by yacht from the sea, are built into the sides of the mountain, making it a major tourist attraction.

We originally took the guided tour by coach as this seemed the easiest way to experience the drive, and we were right, but we enjoyed the trip so much that we took the local bus a few days later and enjoyed it even more.  

Positano

 We decided against stopping off at Positano however, having been warned against this by a fellow hotel guest who had been left standing for hours as the buses returning from Amalfi were all full when it reached Positano so no chance of getting on one.  Amalfi filled the day however, and we managed to fit in a trip to Ravello as well.

I have no argument with those who say that the 50 Kilometre Amalfi Coast drive is probably the world’s most beautiful and thrilling, piece of tarmac-ed sightseeing in Europe.  If you can ignore the hairpin bends, the crazy Italian driving, the narrowness of the road that means your vehicle could possibly plunge into the churning sea below, the views are spectacular.  The road is built at a very steep angle, zigzagging backwards and forwards and from the window of your vehicle you can see craggy rocks thrusting through the foamy waters below.

One of many Medieval Watchtowers on the Amalfi Drive

Despite the heavy traffic, all fighting for space on hairpin bends, the Amalfi Drive is a fascinating trip with every corner revealing an even more stunning view protected by Unesco.  Pastel-coloured villages are terraced into the mountainside, medieval watchtowers guard the coast, and here and there huge colourful ceramic urns In yellow, blue, green and red, announce a “ceramic factory”.  Among the green slopes of the cliffs are scented lemon groves and a profusion of pink and white oleanders, and enticing restaurants locate on precipitous corners daring you to stop for a coffee. This white-knuckle ride is one of Italy’s greatest wonders but it is not for the faint of heart. It is 80 kl of narrow, S-curve roadway strung halfway up a cliff with the waves crashing below.

At the end of the Drive you have Amalfi, tiny, expensive but one of the easier towns of those strung along the coast to walk around.  It rises gently up the hillside from the waterfront rather than clinging vertically to it like some of the other coastal towns, like Positano for instance.  Hard to believe that this very touristy town had a glorious history as a maritime republic on a par with the better known Pisa, Venice and Genoa. 

Nevertheless, 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 as most of the old city, and its inhabitants, slid into the sea during the 1343 earthquake.