Legend has it that Hercules once loved a beautiful nymph named Amalfi. When she died, the grieving hero sought out and buried his love in the most beautiful place in the world, and in her honour, gave that place her name.
The poignantly romantic story may only be legend, but there are few who would have disagreed with the ancient hero’s choice: Amalfi Coast, with its stark, cliffs and crystal clear waters, is the most beautiful coast in Italy.
Travelling Along the Amalfi Coast
Much of the peninsula’s charm comes from its rugged geography. The Monti Lattari, which form the peninsula’s backbone, is deeply scoured by gullies and spurs, creating a landscape of towering cliffs and deep bays, rugged canyons and precipitous gorges. The country was so difficult that before 1853, there was no road; the only means of land transport was the sure-footed donkey and historically, the people of the area were completely isolated from the rest of the Italian landmass except by water.
Even today, the harsh landscape can be a challenge. The most common way to arrive at the peninsula is by car or bus, travelling along the narrow, serpentine coastal road, which soars, plunges and winds precariously close to the edge of the seaside cliffs. The scenery is dramatic and breathtaking — and for those with a fear of height, occasionally terrifying. In some places, the road is so narrow, two vehicles can hardly pass and one has to back up and yield way to the other. For visitors without a head for heights, a more sedate — but equally scenic — way to travel is by boat; there is a regular summer service between Salerno, Amalfi, Positano and Capri.
The popularity of the Amalfi Coast with Italian vacationers, and the narrow roads and tiny streets of the towns means that at the height of the summer tourist season, the towns can become uncomfortably packed.
The best time to visit the Amalfi coast is during the shoulder season – May and June or September and the first half of October are usually the best times to go – but too far out of season, as facilities basically shut down between November and mid-March.
Most journeys begin in the ‘big city’ of the area, Sorrento. Of all the habitations along this coast, Sorrento is the closest to what a visitor might expect – home to museums chock-filled with the legacy of all the major civilizations (Greek, Roman, Byzantinian, Aragonese, etc) who have influenced the city’s history; home to the poet Torquato Tasso, who was born here in 1544; location of any number of major festivals and events in the cultural calendar; and of course, blessed with the great food, grand scenery and hair-raising traffic so characteristic of the ‘typical Italian city’.
Positano: The Trendy Hotspot of the Amalfi Coast
As a visitor moves further and further east, the habitations become steadily more picturesque – the town scenes give way to a series of tiny fishing villages and small towns, rugged cliffs and dramatic vistas.
Next to Sorrento, the trendiest, most popular town along the Amalfi Coast is Positano (picture right). Most first time visitors, even those who have seen the photographs of the town, are completely awed by their first glimpse of its white houses stacked improbably along the cliff-like walls of a gorge facing out towards the deep blue waters of the bay.
Positano has been a popular holiday destination since the sixties, when the first wave of Italian intellectuals and painters discovered its charming delights. Since then, it has become the playground of the rich and well heeled, with plenty of boutique shops and fancy restaurants to live up to expectations for a millionaire’s playground.
Despite its exclusive air today, Positano was once one of the most poverty-stricken towns along the coast. During the 1800’s, poverty in the area was so relentless that fully three quarters of the town’s population emigrated to the United States. Even today, Columbus Avenue in New York has more positanesi than Positano. In the past half century however, Positano’s fortunes, and that of the entire Amalfi Coast, have been steadily brightening, thanks to the welcome dollars brought in by the stream of eager holidaymakers.
There are plenty of restaurants scattered near the main beach, with most putting a fancy spin on the traditional, hearty peasant dishes of the area. At the nearby quay, you can negotiate a boat trip to explore the caves of the nearby Grotta Matera, or check out the remains of a Roman villa on the beach of a pretty cove named Marina di Crapolla. To really bring to life the ancient Roman legends however, you can ask for a trip to the three small islands now known as Li Galli, believed by the ancients to be the home of the Sirens, whose song so enthralled passing mariners that they went weak at the knees and allowed their ships to drift onto the rocks.
Further east along the coastal road
Between Positano and Amalfi are a series of small fishing villages, each one more charming and picturesque than the last. Of these, the largest is Praiano, which despite being a tiny cluster of houses perched above an equally tiny harbour, boasts the rather delightful Africana disco, with a dance floor suspended over the waves.
Between Positano and Amalfi, the biggest tourist attraction is the ethereal Grotta dello Smeraldo, which is reachable by boat from Amalfi or Positano, or from a car-park on the road above. The translucent light glowing from an underwater opening in the cave is lovely sight, though most claim that the Blue Grotto on nearby Capri Island is far superior.
Amalfi: An Ancient Republic
After the Grotta dello Smeraldo, the coastal road makes its way around the Capo di Conca and with the grand vista of the Bay of Amalfi spreads out before a visitor’s eyes, with the pretty white, pink and yellow houses of Amalfi perched on both sides of the steep Valle dei Mulini, embracing the deep blue waters of the harbour. Surrounded by whitewashed courtyards, and neat terraces planted with lemons, grapes and olives the town is a photographer’s delight.
Amalfi is the largest town along the coast, and its most historic. It was once the centre of a great maritime republic, which flourished between 800 AD and 1100 AD. At its height, more than 70,000 inhabitants made their homes in this valley, while many others lived in merchant colonies around the Mediterranean from Tunis to Constantinople. The shrewd merchants of that ancient republic were the first to set uppapermaking factories in Europe and it was their intrepid sailors who first introduced the compass to the Christian West from Muslim Africa.
The great trading empire of Amalfi brought back many spoils, not least of which was the great bronze doors of the Cathedral in the town’s main square, the Piazza Flavio Gioia. The magnificent façade of the Cathedral, Byzantine-Moorish in appearance, contains within its walls a number of prized pieces of treasure. Also in the square are age old workshops, remnants of the original paper mills, and a cluster of restaurants and bars, all serving good brew and simple, hearty seafood dishes.
Nearby is Atrani, a pretty fishing village wrapped around the church of Santa Maria Maddalena. In 10th century Amalfi, this was the favoured residence of the upper class and even today, it still has some of the finest examples of vernacular architecture along the Coast. It also has some of the best restaurants, making it well worth the walk from Amalfi. Further along the breathtaking coastal road to Salerno is Minori, a huddle of houses clustered around the mouth of another steep walled valley and harbouring one of the coast’s best classical sights: a Roman villa with the remains of a viridarium (sunken garden) and a small museum of finds from here and elsewhere along the coast.
Beyond the great massif of Monte dell’Avvocata and overlooking the Bay of Salerno is the pretty fishing village of Cetara. Of all the ‘fishing villages’ along the coast, this one has the most active fleet and consequently, some of the best seafood as well. Preserved fish is the local speciality, in particular tuna in oil and anchovies. It is probably the only place in the world where you can still find the famed Roman fish sauce, garum (locally known as colatura di alici). To try it, a visit would have to be timed to late autumn, when this delicacy is produced.
Once past Cetara, the road leads further east until Salerno, and from there, to the rest of the Italian landmass. Not everyone who travels the coastal road will traverse the entire stretch and quite often, at the end of the holiday, visitors are reluctant to leave – but its all part of the fun of seeing and enjoying Italy’s most beautiful coast.