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Amalfi Coast: La Dolce Vita

Dec 1, 2011
2011 / December 2011

A warm breeze whirls around me, drenched with the scent of sea salt and sweet citrus blossoms. Not surprising, given that among the many things it’s celebrated for, the Amalfi Coast is renowned for its lemon groves. Stretching just over 43 miles south of Naples around the Sorrento Peninsula, its small fishing villages and charming towns are strung together along a sliver of stunning coastline that appears from the water to be magically suspended on steep terraces, caught between the shimmering blue-green sea and the azure sky.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997 for its natural beauty and rich cultural landscape, the Amalfi Coast is often included on travelers’ bucket lists as a must-do drive. Though exploring by car is arguably a fabulous way to experience the coastline, it’s not the only option. On this trip, rather than deal with daring local motorists, nervous tourists in rental cars and the ubiquitous tour buses that crowd the steep and twisting roads, I’ve chosen to brave the ancient Greek sirens said to hold dominion over the local waters and travel instead by boat, occasionally utilizing the comfortable coastal bus system for inland destinations.

Drivers often begin their road journey in the city of Salerno at the southeastern tip of the route, but I prefer to start at the opposite end in Sorrento. From Naples, it’s a short jump to catch
a slow ferry or fast hydrofoil here. The hydrofoil can make the trip in 30 minutes, but the ferry follows the shore more closely and is better suited to relaxing and enjoying the scenery.

Arriving in Sorrento at the colorful harbor of Marina Grande with its host of fishing boats bobbing gently in their slips, it’s an easy walk to the town’s historic sites and cluster of shops. A window display catches my attention; ducking beneath a bright awning into the cool expanse of a small store, I’m faced with shelves lined with sparkling bottles of limoncello, the rich, golden liqueur within suggesting captive sunshine.

Once Sorrento’s lemony offerings have been fully explored, there’s more to enjoy. Visited in the past by Casanova (yes, the real one), today’s Sorrento has a well-earned reputation as a resort town. At its heart is Piazza Tasso, carefully watched over by a statue of the city’s own son, Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso. A stroll through the nearby streets leads past the 15th-century Sedile Dominova with its frescoed exterior walls and on to the ancient Duomo. Inside the shadowed interior are elaborately adorned choir stalls and a massive, carved marble throne reserved for archbishops.

To the east of the town center, through a fragrant citrus orchard, is the Museo Correale di Terranova, a treasure trove of Neapolitan paintings, majolicas from the 17th century, porcelain, glass and handcrafted inlaid furniture. Assembled with the help of his brother by Antonio Correale, the Count of Terranova, this private collection is housed in a villa with lovely gardens and views of the coastline.

Reboarding the ferry, I continue on to Positano. Breathtaking layers of terraced buildings cling to the cliff side, their rainbow hues faded and softened by centuries of sun. The town is known for its shopping; local craftspeople can fashion a pair of custom sandals for you while you enjoy a cool drink at one of a multitude of small cafés and bars near the harbor or explore the rocky beaches dominated by a pair of watchtowers.

The setting for the film Il Postino and featured prominently in scenes from Under the Tuscan Sun, Positano has an Old World, movie-set quality. There’s a famous line in Il Postino, offered by the character Mario, who says, “Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it; it belongs to those who need it.” The same might be said for this small city by the sea, its loveliness having no doubt offered sustenance to generations of weary souls.

East of Positano, the fishing village of Praiano balances on the ledges of Monte Sant’Angelo. Along the way to the town of Amalfi, the ferry passes the access point for the Grotta dello Smeraldo, or Emerald Grotto. It can be reached this way or from the road by a lift that was built to accommodate visitors driving the coast. The green, otherworldly waters of the grotto can be toured in the company of guides in small rowboats.

Once a vital, sixth-century maritime center that was as much a player as the port cities of Venice and Genoa, the present-day town of Amalfi is characterized by charming medieval architecture, sunny café terraces and its legacy of handmade paper artisans. Amalfatians who learned their skills from Arab craftsmen made this an important European location for the manufacture of high-quality paper. A tour of the Museo della Carta offers a glimpse into the fascinating art and history of this craft.

Moorish influence can also be detected in the architecture of the grand, court-like arches and columns of the Cloister of Paradise. Nearby is the town’s Duomo di Sant’Andrea, an 11th-century creation with a lavish late-Baroque interior, a gold caisson ceiling adorned with the work of painter Andrea d’Aste, and bronze and marble sculptures of saints.

I wander in the bright Mediterranean garden at the cloister before boarding the Amalfi bus to access some of the picturesque towns further inland. On the way to Ravello, the two small neighboring towns of Minori and Maiori are worth a pause. While Maiori lays claim to the peninsula’s most expansive beaches, Minori offers the ruins of an ancient Roman villa. Though centuries old, the ruins remain resplendent with frescoes and intricate tile work.

Perhaps the Amalfi Coast’s most-loved inland town, Ravello is a wonderful destination for a long hike. An assortment of worn footpaths begins here and winds through the surrounding countryside.

Over the years, Ravello’s beauty and relaxed ambience have proven irresistible to a number of artists, musicians and writers. Among its temporary residents have been Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, M.C. Escher, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence, who composed sections of Lady Chatterley’s Lover while here. Strolling the terraced, landscaped 19th-century gardens at Villa Rufolo, it’s easy to see how this place captured the imagination of composer Richard Wagner. When he visited in 1880, he was immersed in work on Parsifal, and the villa’s landscape became his inspiration for the opera’s magical garden.

Not far away, the lush gardens and glorious views at Villa Cimbrone prompted Gore Vidal to proclaim the setting “the most beautiful in the world.” A trade center in the 13th century, Ravello’s privileged past is also evident in the splendid Duomo with its massive bronze door. Considered one of the most important of its kind in Italy, each of the door’s 54 panels is sculpted in intricate relief.

Last on my itinerary is the small town of Vietri sul Mare. Known for the ceramics produced here, this village overlooks the sea and the Bay of Salerno. In the background, Monte San Liberatore and Monte Falerio rest quietly, apparently content for the town to lean against them. Ceramics have been produced locally since the 1400s, and examples spanning the centuries since can be admired at the Museo della Ceramica, found in the gardens of the Villa Guarglia. It’s the colorful dome and bell tower of San Giovanni Battista, built in the 17th century and adorned in majolica, however, that are Vietri sul Mare’s best-known landmarks.

From here, the road winds on to the city of Salerno — either the beginning or the end of the coastal route, depending on where you launch your journey. Still determined to spend as much time as possible on the water, I choose the ferry return option, winding back around the coast to Sorrento and on to Naples. The views are every bit as stunning in this direction, and I interrupt the journey to dally just a little longer in Sorrento, enjoying a meal in a small café surrounded by blooming bougainvillea. When I’ve finished with my baked prawns, the waiter brings me a small, beautifully embellished ceramic glass filled with the lemony elixir that brings this place immediately to mind, regardless of where in the world I might be.

Lingering is all part of my strategy — I’ve learned that the key to making
the most of any stay on the Amalfi Coast is to capitulate to the spirit of la
dolce vita. This, of course, requires not moving with any more momentum than
is absolutely necessary. I’d hate to spill my limoncello.


The Sorrento Peninsula offers plenty of ways to pass the time. excursions to Pompeii and Vesuvius are easily made from Sorrento via the Circumvesuviana train (www.vesuviana.it/web), which takes about 30 minutes each way. Make a daytrip to Capri (www.capri.com) from multiple points on the Amalfi coast either by ferry or hydrofoil or with your own boat (www.capriboats.com). If the crowds in the town of Capri are overwhelming, go directly to the smaller village of Anacapri, less than two miles away. From here, take the chairlift up Monte Solaro to take in the magnificent views and then enjoy a small boat (rowboat, to be exact) excursion to the Grotta Azzurra, or Blue Grotto, a sea cavern filled with an ethereal blue light reflected through the water (not to be confused with the emerald grotto on the peninsula). If you’d rather just relax on the beach, there are plenty to choose from.

For a full-day trip, the island of Ischia can be reached via boat from several points in and around Naples. Hundreds of natural thermal springs are scattered across the island’s dramatic, volcanic landscape. Relax, hike, book a spa treatment or be like the locals and rent a scooter to explore the landscape along the narrow, twisting roads.

At the southeastern end of the winding Amalfi Drive (Strada Statale 163) lies the city of Salerno. It boasts numerous historically significant sites, including the Etruscan-Samnite necropolis on the city’s eastern edge; the Duomo di Salerno, a fabulous cathedral built upon the ruins of a Roman temple in 1076 (and said to house the tomb of St. Matthew); and the well-preserved historic city center surrounding the cathedral. In addition, there are dozens of museums and monuments, a lovely seaside promenade (the Lungomare Trieste) and the Castello di Arechi — an enormous castle soaring over the city, with exhibits and unparalleled views of the Gulf of Salerno below.

Info To Go

Two airports serve the Amalfi coast: Naples Vapodichino (NAP) and Salerno
(QSR). From either, taxis and comfortable buses service the Sorrento Peninsula.
From Naples, options include ferry and hydrofoil to Sorrento and beyond,
and the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento. By car, the 30-mile trip from
Naples can take a very long time; the same goes for the much shorter trip
from Salerno. If you’re not driving, you can navigate the peninsula easily
with a combination of ferry and SITA bus.


Old World charm meets high-tech comfort in this 11th-century palace on
a cliff above the sea; features include frescoed ceilings, extensive gardens,
a spa and a fitness center. Piazza San Giovanni del Toro 2, Ravello, tel
39 089 858 801, www.hotelcaruso.com $$$$

The historic 1880 family-run villa, perched on cliffs above the glittering
sea, includes citrus groves and fragrant gardens. S.S. Amalfitana 9, Amalfi,
tel 39 089 871 012, www.hotelsantacaterina.it $$$

This Relais & Chateaux property offers unbeatable views and service
at water’s edge, a full-service spa and gorgeous guestrooms and suites.
Via Laurito 2, Positano, tel 39 089 875 455, www.ilsanpietro.it $$$$


This Amalfi coast institution since 1930 has plenty of atmosphere indoors
and on the garden terrace, including a mandolin player. Reservations advised.
Via P.R. Giuliani
33, Sorrento, tel 39 081 807 1082, www.lanticatrattoria.com $$$

Enjoy elegance, exceptional service and chef Antonio Dipino’s artistic
rendition of local fare. Wednesday–Monday lunch and dinner; open Tuesdays
during August. Reservations mandatory. Via Matteo Camera 12, Amalfi, tel
39 089 871 029, www.ristorantelacaravella.it $$$$

With two Michelin stars, Rossellinis gets creative with seafood and local
fare. Best bet: Chef Pino Lavarra’s tasting menu. Reservations required.
Hotel Palazzo Sasso, Via San Giovanni del Toro 28, Ravello, tel 39 089
818 181, www.palazzosasso.com $$$


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FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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