Find Bliss in Rome and the Amalfi Coast

by Sharon McDonnell

Aug 10, 2016

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.

View of the Faraglioni Rocks in Capri

View of the Faraglioni Rocks in Capri © LTORMA | DREAMSTIME.COM

Don’t let the island of Capri’s glamorous jetsetter reputation and wall-to-wall designer boutiques in Capri Town (where Pucci began in 1950 with a shop) fool you. Wander from La Piazzetta, the main seeand- be-seen square, reached by funicular from Marina Grande, and in a few minutes you’ll be alone, walking rustic paths with views to die for, gaping at bougainvillea- and jasmine-choked villas. Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, vacationed here — hence the name of the beautiful public Gardens of Augustus, which offer splendid views of the Faraglioni, three 350-foot limestone pinnacles in the sea. Nearby, the Certosa di San Giacomo, a 14th-century monastery with magnificent gardens, hosts outdoor summer concerts, and Via Krupp, a winding, steep, seacoast path, tempts visitors. Emperor Tiberius so loved Capri, he ruled Rome for 10 years from here, refusing to move back, even when dying. The Villa Jovis, his ruined cliff-top home, is only one of the dozen villas he built on the island. Capri’s Blue Grotto, where the water inside a cave emits a surreal, luminous blue caused by sunlight reflecting through an opening, also served as a Roman temple. Another don’t-miss sight: Villa San Michele, a late-19th-century villa built by a Swedish doctor and collector of ancient art, featuring Roman-style courtyards, marble paths and a pergola path to a parapet where an Egyptian sphinx muses over the Bay of Naples. Located in Anacapri Town, it may be reached either by walking 921 steps on the Scala Fenicia from Marina Grande or via a scenic two-mile bus ride from Capri Town. From Anacapri, take a 40-minute walk downhill to Philosophical Park, where quotes from thinkers like Aristotle and Einstein adorn more than 60 ceramic panels along lush paths. A 12-minute chairlift from Anacapri reaches Capri’s highest peak, Mount Solaro. Mull over John Steinbeck’s comment on the vertical town of Positano as you stroll its seacoast Lower Town, Upper Town and middle town: “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” Admire the rainbow-colored houses clinging to hillsides behind you at Spiaggia Grande, the main beach, or the less crowded Spiaggia del Fornillo, a Blue Flag beach with whiter sand between two medieval towers. Two renowned hotels reside here: Le Sirenuse, a former 18th-century palace, and Il San Pietro, both with postcard views. In total contrast to the rural and small-town charms of the Amalfi Coast, Rome’s monumental scale befits its status as one-time capital of an empire that stretched from North Africa, Britain and the Balkans to Mesopotamia. Major sights range from the uplifting to the bloodthirsty — from Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and other Italian masters in the Vatican Museums to the Colosseum, where gladiators, early Christians and animals fought to their deaths after its opening in the year 80.

The Roman Forum as seen from Palatine Hill

The Roman Forum as seen from Palatine Hill © DMITRY VARTANIAN | DREAMSTIME.COM

For a majestic overview, stand on one of the seven hills the city was built on. The grassy Palatine Hill, the Roman emperors’ official home, contains remnants of the founding of Rome in 753 B.C. and overlooks the Forum, an ancient marketplace. Be sure to find renowned fountains, like the Trevi, a Baroque-style, 18th-century masterpiece of Neptune and sea creatures where Anita Ekberg cavorted in La Dolce Vita; or the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the center of Piazza Navona, a lovely square with cafés, flower-bedecked balconies and sidewalk artists. Romantic poetry fans should not miss the Spanish Steps, a famous beauty spot whose neighborhood drew many expatriate English writers, and the nearby Keats- Shelley House museum, where Keats died and Shelley, Byron and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning left mementoes. Find a peaceful spot to escape frenetic Rome at the Villa Borghese, a park of pine forest and gardens, where a 17thcentury villa houses impressive paintings by Titian, Caravaggio and Raphael and Bernini sculptures in its gallery.

Amalfi Coast Info to Go

Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, called Fiumicino, lies 22 miles southwest of the city, a half-hour to downtown Rome’s Termini station by the Leonardo Express train. Trains connect Rome to Salerno (two hours), and SITA buses connect Salerno to Amalfi (75 minutes) and Positano (two hours). Ferries also connect Salerno to Amalfi (35 minutes) and Positano (70 minutes), April to October. Non-stop Frecciarossa trains connect Rome with Naples (70 minutes). The Circumvesuviana train goes from Naples to Sorrento, and SITA buses connect Sorrento to Amalfi with stops at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Express SITA buses also connect Naples to Amalfi. Ferries and hydrofoils go to Capri from Naples and Sorrento year-round and from Positano, Amalfi and Salerno in summer.


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