Amalfi Coast See And Do
Amalfi, the town that gives the coastline its name, lies about halfway between Sorrento and Salerno. Its name is derived from that of the nymph, Amalfi, loved by Hercules—legend has it that he buried her in the world's most beautiful spot after she died. Though it's entirely given up to tourism today, this was once a proud maritime republic, founded in the ninth century, which rivaled Genoa, Pisa, and Venice in stature and power. The bustling, café-lined port is served by hydrofoils to and from Salerno, Positano, and Capri, while the bus terminus on the quay offers road connections to Salerno, Ravello, Positano, and Sorrento. Buses to the latter two towns also pass by the upper entrance to the Grotta dello Smeraldo, a famous cave with 33-foot deep, crystal-clear waters that shimmer with emerald-green light thanks to an underground crevice. From the harbor area, pass under the Porta Marinara gate into Piazza del Duomo, pictured, Amalfi's open-air living room, which is dominated by the magnificent Duomo di Sant'Andrea. It's well worth scaling the steps to see the cathedral's splendid bronze door, cast in Constantinople in the 11th century, and its 13th-century Romanesque-Arabian cloisters, the aptly named Chiostro del Paradiso. You should also try to get away from the touristy main street into the narrow pedestrian streets above, which offer a glimpse of the town's unusual, Moorish-influenced vernacular architecture, with its whitewashed houses linked by arches and vaults—some of them so long that they turn certain lanes into tunnels.
The corniche road, Amalfi Drive, provides one of the world's hairiest and most scenic motoring experiences—veering vertiginously around the jagged edge of the Lattari Mountains, twisting and tunneling and hairpin-bending, providing vista after stunning vista of gorges, bridges, cliffs plunging vertically into the glassy Tyrrhenian Sea, and sudden improbable villages tucked picturesquely into the landscape. Of course, the designated driver will miss the scenery, being too busy concentrating on the white knuckles: John Steinbeck, who used to come here in the 1950s, claimed the Amalfi Drive was "carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side." From the east, the route begins in Salerno, a working port city with a Norman Duomo. Beyond the town of Vietri sul Mare, famous for its colorful ceramicware, the road skirts the imposing bulk of Monte dell'Avvocata, passing Cetara, a salty fishing town that represents the Amalfi Coast at its least touristy. After the low-key resorts of Maiori and Minori comes the historic town of Amalfi, the coast's unofficial capital. Worthwhile stops between Amalfi and Positano include the Vallone di Furore, pictured, a rare Mediterranean fjord, whose steep rock walls shelter an enclave of fishermen's houses and their tiny harbor; and Praiano, a pretty, low-key alternative to the glitz of Positano. West of Positano, the road enters its most spectacular stretch: The nine-mile Nastro Azzurro, which clings to the side of the cliffs as it climbs to Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi: From there, it's a steep descent down into Sorrento on the other side of the peninsula.
It comes across as a salty, rough-and-ready kind of place, but back in the day, Atrani was the Beverly Hills to Amalfi's Los Angeles, where rich merchants built their mansions. That all came to an end when the Pisans sacked the town in 1187; but its sudden fall from grace had the effect of preserving intact many architectural features that have been lost elsewhere, and today Atrani is a fascinating place to wander whitewashed backstreets that suddenly become long souklike tunnels, or climb steps that duck under arches and squeeze between houses (you can see why perspective-defying artist M. C. Escher was inspired by the town, which recurs several times in his work). Modest but genuine attractions include a small family-oriented beach, a graceful ancient church (San Salvatore de Birecto) where the doges of Amalfi were traditionally sworn in, and, around halfway up the main street, a great local seafood trattoria, A' Paranza.—Lee Marshall
The Amalfi Coast is so rocky that there's little space for beaches. A magnificent exception is the Baia di Ieranto, a scenic hiccup in the coast just before its westernmost point, Punta Campanella. Accessible only by foot from the village of Nerano (in 40 minutes) or by boat from Marina di Cantone, the deserted beach here is as far as you can get from the Positano flimflam. Today, the whole bay is a nature reserve administered by the Italian heritage conservation society FAI. Entrance is free; guided tours can be arranged by calling (39-335-841-0253). There are no facilities, but bars and alimentary (grocery stores) in either of the departure points can provide picnic fare.—Lee Marshall
Keen to avoid the sort of day-trip tourism that tests the patience of Capri's inhabitants in high season, the majority lobby of Amalfi Coast hoteliers has long resisted the kind of fast hydrofoil service that would open the place up to easy jaunts from Sorrento and Naples. As a result, there are just two morning-only sea connections between Naples and the Amalfi Coast resorts—only one of which calls in at Sorrento. Services to Capri are more frequent, run by Lucibello and Alicost—and it's a marvellously scenic route, passing by the Li Galli islets, which once belonged to Rudolf Nureyev, and the dramatic rockscapes of the Baia di Ieranto and Punta Campanella. Lucibello, which operates out of a booth down on the beach in Positano, is also the best bet for those wanting to hire a boat with or without skipper or to arrange an excursion to one of the secluded coves that dot the coast. Several hotels also have their own boats and yachts for hire—the pick of the crop is the vintage Riva Aquarama speedboat owned by Antonio and Carla Sersale of Le Sirenuse.—Lee Marshall
If you can find somewhere to ditch your car (no easy task) as you maneuver the tortuous coast road between Positano and Amalfi, scramble down the stone steps to another timeless world in Marina di Furore. Located at the sea end of Italy's only fjord, the beautifully restored village is a cliff-hugging cluster of houses painted sunny colors and daubed with works by local artists. There's a tiny beach, a sprinkling of brightly painted boats pulled up on the strand, and a grandly named Ecomuseo housed in an old paper mill, which pays homage to such local wonders as painted houses (naturally), the extraordinary flora of the gorge, and onetime residents Anna Magnani and Roberto Rossellini—he shot his film Amore here before abandoning Magnani for Ingrid Bergman. Note that opening times are erratic.—Lee Marshall
Clinging improbably to the near-vertical coast about halfway between Amalfi and Sorrento, Positano is the best-known resort of the Costiera Amalfitana. Achingly picturesque, with its tumble of pastel-hued houses ranged in stepped ranks like spectators in an amphitheater, the town specializes in promenaders' activities—shopping, eating, sipping, boat-hopping, and, especially, people-watching. The gray shingle beach is fine for a quick dip, but most serious sun-worshippers take one of the regular boats to and from a series of smaller coves along the coast. If you're driving, be warned that the whole town has a painfully slow one-way system that can take the best part of an hour to negotiate: Best advice, if you don't have the benefit of a hotel parking lot, is to leave the car at the first space you find (not an easy task in high season) and walk—or hop on one of the regular buses.
Perched high above the hustle and bustle of the seaside, peaceful Ravello has always been the gentleman scholar of the Amalfi Coast. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the town had a thriving mercantile community, but with the end of Amalfi's maritime supremacy, the town went into rapid decline, turning it into a crumbling, atmospheric medieval Pompeii. Rediscovered by 19th-century Grand Tourists, Ravello was adopted by artists, musicians, and writers. Wagner turned the romantic gardens of Villa Rufolo into the magic garden of Klingsor, the setting for Act II of his opera Parsifal, and D. H. Lawrence wrote parts of Lady Chatterley's Lover here. Later, Gore Vidal adopted Ravello as his home. Buses from Amalfi climb the hairpin bends of the narrow Dragone Valley and deposit their cargo just outside the underpass that leads into Ravello's main square. Founded in the 11th century, the Duomo contains two exquisite 13th-century pulpits, one with delightful mosaics of Jonah and the Whale. Nearby Villa Rufolo is a historical pastiche, artfully assembled from the surviving fragments of the original medieval structure by a Scottish nobleman who bought the place in 1851. It has magnificent views over the Bay of Maiori and Gulf of Salerno and heavenly gardens that host classical music concerts between April and October. The other must-see garden in Ravello is Villa Cimbrone, a 15-minute walk through the lanes of the old town, with its rose-flanked walks and Belvedere view, lined with classical statues. The main villa (now a hotel) was the love nest of Greta Garbo and conductor Leopold Stokowski in the 1930s.—Updated by Lee Marshall
5 Viale Richard Wagner
Tel: 39 089 858422
The cultural draw in an area celebrated for dolce vita pleasures like eating, drinking, and sun-lounging is Ravello's classical music, arts, and literature festival. It brings a slew of world-class performers to the gardens of Villa Rufolo in July and August. The festival aims to generate unique events rather than simply book class acts. A long-standing tradition of the festival is the Dawn Concert, its 5 am start timed to coincide with the dramatic sunrise over the sea below. Outside of the main festival period, the Ravello Concert Society organizes a worthwhile season of classical concerts and recitals in Villa Rufolo and other atmospheric locations.—Lee Marshall
Most visitors think of Amalfi as a seaside town—and it's true that the Republic's glory days in the early Middle Ages were founded on its maritime prowess. But to really understand the place, you need to run the souvenir-shop gauntlet of the main street, Via delle Cartiere, until you emerge in the quieter upper part of town. There, a series of abandoned paper mills bear witness to one of Amalfi's two "inland" trades—you can learn more about the history and technique of Amalfian paper-making at the Museo della Carta (24 Via delle Cartiere; www.museodellacarta.it). The other was the smelting of iron ore, which was brought from Elba or Puglia and carried up the valley by donkey convoy. Today, the Valle delle Ferriere, or "valley of the ironworks," is a protected nature reserve and an enchantingly cool, green spot even in the height of summer. Take a seat at one of the picnic tables surrounded by waterfalls and rock pools, rare species of orchid, and giant fern. A footpath leads to the hamlet of Pontone in around 90 minutes (www.valledelleferriere.com, Italian only). From here, a paved staircase provides an easy shortcut back down to Amalfi.