Iconic images emerge from Italy’s Amalfi Coast, one of the world’s most breathtaking regions. Jumbles of cube-shaped houses in peach, pink, yellow, rust and rose seem to tumble down cliff sides in quaint small towns like Positano, Ravello and Amalfi. The crystal-clear sea appears so blue, you debate if it’s turquoise or sapphire. Flowers, palms and citrus groves are so lush, you wonder if you’ve found the Garden of Eden. Beloved by Roman emperors, this fabled corner south of Naples in Campania — where the legendary Sirens in The Odyssey lured seamen to their deaths with songs of unearthly beauty — became part of the Grand Tour in the 19th century after centuries as a sleepy fishing region. Artists, writers, composers, dancers and intellectuals flocked here in search of inspiration, as plaques attest. Richard Wagner found Ravello’s Villa Rufolo gardens so magical, he set the sorcerer’s garden in his opera Parsifal here. D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Henrik Ibsen wrote part of A Doll’s House here. Gore Vidal, who lived in Ravello, called the view from its Villa Cimbrone “the most beautiful view in the world.” Summer means hordes of day-trippers, so you need a few days to soak up its special magic; a daytrip will break your heart. Know there is one direction here: up. Streets composed of stairways called scalinatelle abound, and paths are steep. Wear comfortable walking shoes, and try to take a bus up and walk down when you can. If you want to drive the Amalfi Drive (Statale 163), about 30 miles from Positano to Vietri sul Mare, a ceramic tile center, don’t. Leave it to the professionals. The narrow coastal road abounds with hairpin curves, sheer drops and speedily approaching buses or trucks requiring cars to back up. You’ll be too distracted by self-preservation to enjoy the views. Admire this civil engineering feat carved from the Lattari Mountains as a passenger, instead. While some towns lie both on the coast and farther up, Ravello is strictly up, perched more than 1,000 feet above the Bay of Salerno. From the lush geometric-shaped gardens, 14th-century tower and Moorish-style cloister of the Villa Rufolo, the view is simply jaw-dropping. Legend says it’s where Satan tempted Christ with the world. As I browsed its gardens, the sounds of construction disturbed my reverie. But my annoyance turned to awe, hearing workers were erecting an orchestra platform cantilevered over the sea for summer’s Ravello Music Festival, where classical music — Wagner, Chopin — and ballet performances take place with that glorious view as a backdrop. Ravello’s Villa Cimbrone, a 12th-century villa with lovely gardens redone in 1905, where Greta Garbo and lover Leopold Stokowski retreated in the 1930s, is famed for its Belvedere of Infinity, a long stone parapet adorned by classical-style busts, offering an unusually expansive view of the Bay of Salerno. Besides this luxury hotel, three grand hotels in palatial villas with superb views, antiques and Vietri ceramic tiles all stand on the same road in Ravello: Hotel Palumbo, Hotel Belmond Caruso and Palazzo Avino, where Ingrid Bergman and Robert Rossellini stayed in the 1950s. It’s hard to believe Amalfi, four miles southwest of Ravello, served as Italy’s first maritime republic in the 11th and 12th centuries, trading with Tunis, Algiers and İstanbul. But the Arab legacy lives on in its covered souk-like alleys; its ninth-century cathedral with an unusual striped façade, Arab-Sicilian-style cloister and vividly tiled tower; and its papermaking history. Hear how the locals learned papermaking from the Arabs and watch a demonstration at Museo della Carta, in a 15th-century paper mill in Valley of the Mills. This month in Amalfi, an annual historic regatta stages faux ship battles between Italy’s old maritime republics of Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi, with participants clad in jewel-bedecked costumes.
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From Naples, Italy, visitors can easily reach the two best-preserved cities in the classical world, Pompeii and Herculaneum, destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in the year 79. Just ride the Circumvesuviana train line, next to bored-looking commuters going to the modern towns of Ercolano and Pompei. It’s startling to see a train stop marked Pompeii-Villa dei Misteri, named for the spectacular frescoes in the House of Mysteries depicting initiation into the cult of Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of wine and debauchery, in vivid Pompeiian reds. Herculaneum, closer to Naples (only eight miles away), is smaller and more compact but better preserved: The eruption covered it with mud, not volcanic ash, so even wood beams and furnishings survived. Experience “virtual” recreations of the town pre- and post-eruption, and even a simulated eruption complete with shaking floors, at its MAV Museum (Museo Archeologica Virtuale). Pompeii was once a resort town of 10,000–20,000 people, filled with aristocratic villas, baths, brothels and the oldest surviving Roman amphitheater. You’ll find hotels and restaurants in both towns near the archaeological sites. The finest ruins of both towns now reside in Naples’ Museo Archeologico Nazionale, but seeing both the museum and the sites themselves provides a fuller experience.