Amalfi Coast

The Road to Enchantment

1The August crowds have left the beaches and Italian children are getting ready for school. My sister and I decide to take a road trip somewhere in Italy from our respective homes in Rome. It doesn’t take long to settle on a destination we both love – the Costiera Amalfitana – 35 miles of staggeringly beautiful coastline meandering south from Naples.
 
Having covered Italy as the correspondent for LIFE Magazine for two decades, I’ve been up and down the peninsula many times. Yes, the Italian Alps are celestial, Portofino is glorious, the Greek temples in Sicily awe-inspiring, but nowhere has consistently seduced me with its eloquent charm like the Amalfi Coast. Ville in Italia finds us a house perched on the cliff just above the coast road in Praiano, one town west of Positano.

The only shortcoming I can report on our whimsical road trip is that it was too short. Next time we’ll try for June and make it two weeks. Che bella cosa!
A road, high, high above the blue sea
There is no better example of the genius of man merging with the bounty of nature to create a unique scene. Here, a dramatic cliffside overlooking the turquoise sea is rich with the colors and scents of a wildly beautiful natural landscape made more exquisite with cosmopolitan Arab-Mediterranean architecture and colorful majolica church domes built upon terraces above the sea. It’s an easy four-hour drive from Rome until you actually arrive on the coast road. John Steinbeck described it as “a road, high, high above the blue sea,
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that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side.” That’s still true; the mesmerizing views are so distracting it’s a wonder that more cars don’t collide.
 
Rather than be confined to a cramped hotel room, this time we decide to rent a villa for a week of maximum freedom and comfort, dreaming of that magnificent view right from our own terrace. Ville in Italia finds us a house perched on the cliff just above the coast road in Praiano, one town west of Positano. Almost there, we manage to take a wrong turn south of Naples and wind up on the opposite end of the coast, near Salerno. But that turns out to be truly serendipitous as we happily cruise along the entire coast road from town to town on a glorious afternoon with the top of our convertible down. Our stop at a cafe overlooking the sea in Maiori for an icy granita di caffe’ is one of those “it doesn’t get any better” moments.

The arrival: first some Limoncello, then a terrace with a view

Despite our late arrival, the gracious owners of the villa are there with the keys and welcoming gifts of fresh figs from their tree, a homemade pound cake for breakfast and a bottle of their own limoncello. The house is picture perfect. Flooded with natural light, cool, clean lines, blue and white tiles reflecting the sun, and a drop-dead vista from the terrace. There’s another sea-view terrace off the master bedroom private enough for nude sunbathing. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a living area all on slightly different levels with the world at our feet.
 
Another perk that comes with this lovely house, essential for explorers of the Amalfi Coast, is a parking spot. We ditch the car and walk down a gently sloping zigzag pedestrian path to the coast road. From there, a much steeper road leads to the beach where we watch the sun set, as excited as children to be here. After dinner at Il Pirata at a waterfront table (spaghetti alle vongole and pezzogna all’acqua pazza, a luscious local white fish poached in water with cherry tomatoes and herbs, with a bottle of the crisp local white wine) the road home begins to look dauntingly perpendicular. I have a plan. Giggling like schoolgirls, we duck into one of the luxury hotels built down the precipice and take the elevator to the main entrance up on the coast road. But the main gate is locked for the night, so it’s all the way down again and up — the hard way this time. After an hour’s uphill hike we reach home resolving never to leave the car again.

Discovering beaches and restaurants, and the wonderful feeling of being an insider

Sunday promises brilliant sunshine, so we are off to our local beach again, Marina di Praia, predictably crowded today since all the townspeople are here too. In a relatively tiny cove beach, three restaurants and a beach club renting sun beds and umbrellas vie for space.Amalfi Coast I enjoy the people watching, and we both feel like insiders in this dramatic natural cove rather than on a platform hotel beach peopled with other foreign guests. The sea is crystal clear and exhilarating. I float out and feast on the gorgeous scenery with my eyes.
 
For lunch we choose the most casual looking of the three restaurants on the beach, curiously named Bar Mare Petit Restaurant, since we have already booked for dinner at the much-touted Armandino next door. My tubetti e totani, tubular-shaped pasta with octopus and herbs, is simply superb. In fact, the entire meal outdoes what we will later eat at Armandino. We can’t wait to come back.
Time for a little exploring on Monday. We’ve heard there is a boat leaving from Marina di Praia for a more expansive beach about ten minutes away called Gavitella. The round-trip boat ride is free if you eat at the only restaurant there. That sounds fine to us, but when we arrive, we find we also have complimentary sun beds and an umbrella, plus a choice corner table on the restaurant’s terrace.
 
Gavitella has a wider beach than Praiano, mostly populated with families, and private niches along the rocks with comfortable lounge chairs and umbrellas. After some sun and a few swims in the stunningly clear sea, we’re ready for some fresh fish and the fine view of Positano built up the mountain facing us. That evening we walk to the Bar del Sole, high above Gavitella, for a gin and tonic aperitif while watching a ravishing sunset over Positano. 
Tubetti e totaniDinner is a delicious chicken salad put together at home which I find so relaxing I turn in early.
 
The next morning the light streams in and I’m rewarded with a glimpse of the sunrise. From our terrace the sea is like a mirror and that serenity will sustain me for a long time. Later, during a long, leisurely shower, I love watching the boats go by through the small, open window high in the stall.
See the coast from the sea, but enjoy the flavors of the sea on land. The Grotta dello Smeraldo and Scialatelli allo Scoglio: two sublime experiences
I remember on my first visit to the Costiera Amalftana in the 1980’s a local aristocrat told me “the coast must be seen from the sea,” so we book a boat tour (maximum eight people) for the next day along the coastline. As we reach the dock the sun is burning off early morning cloudiness, which probably discouraged fellow explorers. A traditional yellow fishing boat is waiting outfitted with soft mattresses for sunbathing, large beach towels and a cooler of cold soft drinks and beer. As it happens we are the only two passengers.
 
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After a swing by Positano, arguably the most radiant of the coastal towns, we head toward the Fjord di Furore, the only fjord in Italy. The boat enters right into the inlet under the bridge above on the coast road where the Italian diving championships are held every September. A few scattered houses built between the dramatically steep cliffs look like a Scandinavian crèche scene.
 
Next we cruise to the Grotta dello Smeraldo (Emerald Grotto), every bit as breathtaking as Capri’s Grotta Azzurra, and the boatman lets us off for a little tour on the grotto boats. It takes very little imagination to visualize the rock formations our guide points out, from Mussolini to Abraham Lincoln, and it thrills us when he slips his oar across the water to make thousands of emerald drops appear everywhere. To experience the most extraordinary play of light, he tells us the best time to visit the grotto is between 11 and 2 when the sun is high.
 
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As we pass ancient towns, I pick out the exquisite Byzantine architectural features and count the Saracen towers built along the coast a thousand years ago to look out for marauding pirates. We stop for a swim at the Arco Naturale, a natural rock arch where the water is deep emerald and clear straight to the bottom six meters down. Naturally, local boatmen know the best spots to stop.
 
On the way back to Praiano, I can’t resist another swim inside the globe-shaped Grotto del Pallone. At the Bar Mare Petit Restaurant, our welcoming waiter tells us “Mamma” has made sciallatielli allo scoglio (rough-cut, handmade pasta with a piquant sauce of mixed shellfish) today, which I can only describe as sublime. Afterwards he offers colorful liqueurs made by the family from fresh melon, wild strawberries and, of course, the famed Amalfi lemons. That evening, we follow what is becoming a pilgrimage to Bar del Sole to watch the sunset with a pizza at Trattoria San Gennaro, terraced above the eponymous majolica-domed church.

Amalfi, Positano and Ravello: where even a rainy day is magical

One day of a sojourn to the Amalfi Coast needs to be reserved for shopping and visiting art galleries in Positano. Our day there is made perfect by a light lunch at the elegant Hotel Sirenuse. On the legendary luxury inn’s terrace, you are surrounded by Positano and the sea, within one of the truly splendid scenes on the planet.
Of course, even Paradise needs the rain, but this is one seaside location where cloudy weather and a few showers won’t dampen the experience. There is so much to do and see nearby that choosing is the problem.
 
Amalfi’s astonishing cathedral and cloister, its steep Casbah-like streets leading to centuries-old working paper mills, is only ten minutes away. The archeological treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum, even the incredibly well preserved temples of Paestum to the south, are an easy day-trip from the coast. Since we’ve been there, done that – more than once – we think about a jaunt to the isle jewel, Capri, only thirty minutes from Positano by hovercraft on our rainy day. But there is a very different vibe on Capri – more cosmopolitan, elegant and sophisticated than the laid-back atmosphere on the coast – and this short vacation is all about relaxing and recharging.
 
Consequently, our rainy day plans involve visiting Ravello, five kilometers above Amalfi, where the gardens and vistas are incomparable.
Costiera Amalfitana, Veduta da Ravello We visit Villa Rufolo, the garden that inspired Richard Wagner’s garden of Klingsor in “Parsifal” and whose amazing views of the cliffs over the sea certainly make this the most spectacular venue for a three-month annual music festival in the world. After a drink at one of the fabulous hotels along the Belvedere on Via San Giovanni del Toro (still catching those vistas) we visit Villa Cimbrone, where romantic era sculpture groups accentuate the rare beauty of the panorama. Just west of Ravello, from the town of Scala, some of the most memorable hiking trails ever imagined cross the cliffs plunging toward the sea.
 
Before we leave the coast, a stop at the remarkable San Pietro Hotel bar outside Positano for our aperitif is de riguer. Its enchanting terrace affords the best view of Positano, especially when the sun is setting behind it. Afterwards, I’ve booked us a table on the edge of the terrace at my favorite trattoria on the coast, La Brace, nearby in Praiano where the dazzling lights of Positano compete with the stars in the night sky. Not only is the fish and traditional Amalfitana fare consistently exceptional, but the gracious owner/host, Giovanni, treats first-time guests as well as his celebrity habitués.
 
The only shortcoming I can report on our whimsical road trip is that it was too short. Next time we’ll try for June and make it two weeks. Che bella cosa!