Go Italy: Yvonne Gordonfinds that the Italian coastal region is everything it’s cracked up to be, with its stunning scenery, beautiful architecture – and nerve-wracking drives
MY FIRST VIEW of the Amalfi Coast is from high up in the hills. We have travelled from Naples over a mountain pass and come out near the town of Ravello, and the view down to the sea is hypnotic.
The water is a study in beautiful Mediterranean turquoises; the mountains reaching right down to the edge to meet it. Towns, villages and houses cling to sides of ravines. Gardens are terraced into impossibly steep hillsides, with bursts of yellow from the many lemon groves dotted around the hills and the air filled with a sweet lemony scent.
I have heard that Ravello is magical and I find it to be one of the most peaceful and enchanting places I have ever visited, and it is no surprise that it has provided inspiration for many artists and musicians. High up in the hills, it has spectacular views down over the sea but is beautifully quiet and serene, with stunning architecture, lots of gardens and trees and no traffic.
The small central piazza has an 11th century duomo surrounded by tall trees. From the railings on one side, there are spectacular views over the hillside terraces beyond and to the houses stretching far up into the ravine. The air is full of chat and laughter and my companion swoons at the smell of Italian coffee coming from the piazza cafes.
The best sea views from Ravello are from the gardens at Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo. The latter, which dates back to the 13th century, has beautiful gardens full of exotic flowers and is said to have inspired Wagner’s opera Parsifal.
We imagine we can hear the sounds of an orchestra warming up for a night performance during the four-month long music festival which takes place in the villa, for which Ravello is world famous.
Later that night as we dine on an outdoor terrace, we watch the lines of waves silently coming and going on the shore far below, and seabirds rising and falling on the warm breeze. We examine the indentations of the coastline, each with houses built right to the edge of precipices and ravines.
We marvel at the overhanging rooms and the terraced gardens and lemon groves eked out of the inhospitable inclines. A church bell echoes through the valley as we retire for the night.
The next day, it is a hair-raising drive down through some steep gorges to Amalfi, the narrow road twisting and turning through the hills before it reaches the coast. We have no idea how our driver anticipates that there is nothing coming in the opposite direction before he tears around each hairpin bend, merely gesturing his foot towards the brakes.
It turns out there are well positioned mirrors high up on each bend. The frequency of bends prevents any great speed but still, nerves jangle. Apparently if you learn to drive here, you can drive anywhere in the world. We pass through the smaller village of Atrani, before reaching Amalfi itself.
Amalfi is a vibrant, bustling town, again built into a steep ravine, which widens as it meets the sea. Centred around a harbour, it was once an important maritime republic. Tourist buses and boats come and go from the harbour, where there are plenty of cafes – great for people-watching.
The harbour front is thronged with visitors getting on and off buses – sophisticated-looking European couples, Italian, French and German, interspersed with a few groups of Americans and Australians. The Amalfi coast is popular for couples and also for the middle-aged – and it’s also a regular venue for Irish weddings.
WITHIN THE TOWNpiazza, one of the main features is the large ornate Duomo di Amalfi, a cathedral which dates back to the 9th century, its ornate façade set at the top of a steep flight of steps. We go one street behind the main street on each side and discover a hidden network of narrow alleyways and steps leading to the houses. The locals use these laneways to get around, and it’s easy to get away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds.
From Amalfi harbour, it’s possible to rent a boat or go on an organised trip, both well recommended to offer a great perspective from the sea. Day trips go as far as the island of Capri, some 50km along the coast, but there is plenty to see and do along the coastline nearer Amalfi.
From the sea, there are great views of the houses and villas along the coast, many with swimming pools built into cliff sides, and it’s possible to stop at hidden coves and beaches along the way.
One of the gems of the coast is the beautiful Grotta dello Smeraldo – the Emerald Grotto – five kilometres west of Amalfi. The waters in the grotto have an intense green colour caused by light filtered by the rocks. There plenty of interesting rocks, stalactites, stalagmites and limestone columns in the cave, which was discovered by a fisherman in the 1930s.
We travel by road to Positano, along the famous coastal road which twists and turns along the cliffs, a highway halfway between the sea and the sky. Making its way through tunnels in the rock and along thin bridges over narrow gorges, the road clings to the edges of the steep rock like an erratic string of spaghetti. A few miles along, we can see Positano in the distance, but it appears and disappears from sight as we round each curve.
Far below, we look down at the swimming pools carved into the cliffs, the little boats moored in rocky coves and the luxury villas with their terraced gardens and panoramic views. Some villas are so close to the edge, it is a wonder how they don’t fall into the sea below.
ONCE WE REACHPositano, we walk from the main road down the smaller roads descending into the valley to the sea. There is an endless series of narrow roads and alleys on different levels and each packed with multicoloured houses and terraces all so close as to nearly be set on top of each other and with endless sets of stairs in between.
As we near the bottom, shops and boutiques become more colourful and the atmosphere more vibrant. There is lemon everywhere, and the lemon delicia cake from the bakery is the best I have ever had.
Along the small pebbled beach at the bottom are plenty of fishing boats, and behind these there are some cafes and restaurants. From here, we can see the limestone islands of La Galli. This tiny archipelago of three islets was considered home of the enchanting Sirens, made famous by Homer in The Odyssey. These mythical figures apparently attracted seafarers with their chants, causing them to wreck their ships.
We leave Positano as the sun sets, arriving back in Amalfi just in time to see dusk descend on the harbour, when the scene transforms into a magical, romantic setting of twinkling lights along the now dark blue coast.
It is a shame to leave but before we drift into sleep, we are already planning a return trip.
Where to stay and where to eat along the Amalfi Coast
Where to stay
Hotel Santa Caterina. SS Amalfitana 9, Amalfi, 00-39-089-871012, hotelsantacaterina.it. One of Amalfi’s most luxurious hotels, the Santa Caterina is set in an elegant 19th-century villa which has been extended. It is right on the coastal cliff drive with spectacular sea views and there are terraces leading down to sea level. Doubles from €405.
Grand Hotel Convento di Amalfi. Via Annunziatella 46, Amalfi, 00-39-089-8736711, ghconventodiamalfi.com. This unique hotel is in a 12th century monastery high up on a cliff, with amazing views down over the village and the sea. It is full of character – features include a 13th-century cloister – and it has a beautiful outdoor swimming pool. Doubles from €352.
Hotel La Bussola. Lungomare dei Cavalieri 16, Amalfi, 00-39-089-871533, labussolahotel.it. This is a comfortable hotel in a former pasta factory right at Amalfi harbour. There are lovely sea views and it is within level walking distance to the harbour and piazza. Doubles from €130.
Villa Cimbrone. Via S Chiara 26, Ravello, 00-39-089-857459, villacimbrone.com. This beautiful villa is one of Ravello’s most special places to stay. The 19-roomed residence dates back to the 12 century it boasts magnificent gardens with unrivalled and panoramic sea views. Doubles from €410.
Hotel Caruso. Piazza San Giovanni del Toro 2, Ravello, 00-39-089-858801, hotelcaruso.com. This former 11th-century Ravello palace has great views and lovely gardens. Its proudest feature is a superb infinity pool looking down to the sea below. Doubles from €620.
Le Sirenuse. Via C Colombo, 30, Positano, 00-39-089-875066, sirenuse.it. This world-famous hotel in Positano is full of charm and style. Most rooms have sea views, the palatial sitting rooms are decorated with antiques and old master paintings, and the glamorous pool terrace has a stunning panoroma. Doubles from €500.
Where to eat
Taverna degli Apostoli. Supportico S Andrea 6, Amalfi, 00-39-089-872991. Right beside Amalfi’s Duomo, this is an atmospheric taverna serving tasty traditional food at reasonable prices, with plenty of art and sculptures crammed into the nooks and crannies.
Lido Azzurro. Lungomare dei Cavalieri 5, Amalfi, 00-39-089-871384. Set on Amalfi harbour and with a great wooden balcony on the sea, this is a great setting for seafood and a tasty traditional Italian meal.
Cumpa Cosimo. Via Roma, Ravello, 00-39-089-857156. An informal taverna in Ravello serving delicious pasta and desserts at reasonable prices and run by an Italian mama who keeps everyone in order.
Le Tre Sorelle. Via Marina 5, Positano, 00-39-089-811922. This is a lovely restaurant right at the beach in Positano and great for absorbing the evening atmosphere.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Naples.