Beyond Positano: the other Amalfi Coast

by Lee.Marshall

A few hundred tourists can turn the steep cliffs, coves and narrow roads of Positano and Amalfi into human cattle runs. For a taste of the Italian good life and how the peninsula used to be, head west

With its legendary mix of rugged scenery and dolce vita lifestyle, its wild gorges and sheltered coves backed by lemon trees and bougainvillea-clad villas, the Amalfi Coast comes pretty close to heaven on a gradient. Yet it is no longer the undiscovered place it was when John Steinbeck and his wife came here in 1953 – though parts of the winding Amalfi Drive road are still as he described them back then: “carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side”.

The joy of this spectacular stretch of Italian coastline is also its potential high-season ruin: space is so tight, parking so tricky, restaurants so petite and beaches so hemmed in by the surrounding cliffs, it takes only a few hundred tourists to make the place feel crowded – and a few dozen more to turn Positano or Amalfi into human cattle runs.

And yet, if you take time out to explore the relatively undiscovered western fringe of the Amalfi Coast, you will be rewarded by an uncrowded, laidback alternative to the Positano pile-up – even in July and August.

Point of entry is the town of Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi, which stands just below the watershed where the main Amalfi access road from Sorrento begins to dip down towards Positano. Instead of following it, turn off to the west on the road marked “Termini”. This sinuous route is frustratingly devoid of views at first, but take the next turn-off – signposted “Nerano” – and it soon opens out into a bucolic landscape of olive groves and kitchen gardens, beyond which the islands of Li Galli (which once belonged to Rudolf Nureyev) rise from a cobalt blue sea.

A pretty, untouristed village, Nerano has two persuasive attractions. First, it is the hopping off point for the 45-minute walk down to the Baia di Ieranto, a lovely secluded bay kept in its pristine state by the FAI, Italy’s equivalent of Britain’s National Trust. Second, it is the location of the family-oriented Relais Villarena (which also goes under the name of “Casale Villarena”; apartments from €130 per night in mid-season). Centred on an 18th-century Marchese’s residence, this lovely bolthole is not so much a hotel as a cluster of six comfortable rooms and apartments (with a shared pool) in the old stepped lanes of the village and one charming villa just outside, with its own pool, garden and panoramic terrace. The décor is cheerful Italian family-style rather than cutting-edge design, but that is very much in keeping with the warm welcome from owners Rosa and Guglielmo (who are also great cooks – they dish up evening meals using produce from Guglielmo’s nearby farm).

Just down the road, Marina di Cantone comes across as a modest family beach resort – but it also happens to host three of the Amalfi Coast’s real destination restaurants. Two of them, the beachfront Taverna del Capitano (closed Monday and Tuesday in low season) and the more rural Quattro Passi (closed Tuesday evening, all day Wednesday), are elegant though unshowy Michelin-starred establishments serving exquisite culinary creations based on fresh local seafood and farm produce (allow about €85 a head for both, without wine). Both also have rooms – perfect if you have overindulged on the limoncello and can’t face those hairpins home.

However, it is the third (and more modest) of Marina di Cantone’s restaurants that the Capri yacht set converge upon – true to the Italian millionaire’s homing instinct for unfussy cooking like mum used to make. Set picturesquely on a jetty above the waves, Lo Scoglio (open daily) is the domain of Mamma Antonietta, who dishes up tasty dishes such as spaghetti con le zucchine (dripping with cheesy courgette sauce) and a delicious peperoncino-spiked seafood sauté to guests ranging from Princess Caroline of Monaco to Roberto the builder. Allow €42 a head without wine for three courses.

For the ultimate in Amalfi Coast seclusion, continue along the road to Termini, where the 11-room Relais Blu (doubles from €310 mid-May to mid-October) offers a classy retreat in surroundings of cool, teak-decked, white-walled nautical minimalism – all the better to focus its guests’ attention on the jaw-dropping view across the sea to Capri. There is no doubt, either, that Christoph Bob – the hotel restaurant’s German chef, trained by Alain Ducasse – knows one end of a swordfish from another.

Of course, Positano has to be visited. With its tumble of pastel-coloured houses scattered across the cliff, its perfect pair of crescent beaches and faintly retro air of hippy-dippy dolce vita languor, it is one of those places that knows what it does – and does it well. Adopt the eye-of-the-storm approach by staying at the heart of the Positano legend: Le Sirenuse (doubles from €500 mid-May to end October), a luxury hotel far enough above the beach to feel gratifyingly aloof, and stylishly spot-on with its balance of antique elegance and seaside casualness. Or head east to Praiano, where Casa Angelina (mid-season doubles from €280) stands in glorious seclusion above a private beach. As at Relais Blu, the look is cool white minimalism, and here, too, the pared-back décor is jazzed up by a seriously creative restaurant. With two pools to choose from, as well as the beach, this is a perfect place to recharge and chill out.

Even Positano has its wild side, though. Perched above the town (and served by regular buses), the mountain hamlet of Montepertuso provides a welcome injection of real village life – and a wonderful restaurant, Donna Rosa (open for dinner daily in high season, and for lunch Wednesday-Sunday) where refined versions of dishes such as tagliatelle ai profumi di mare (made with whatever seafood was good and fresh that day) are complemented by a very fine wine list. Book ahead, as tables are few and this is a real in-the-know address. Allow about €47 a head for three courses without wine – a price that is well worth it.


Taverna del Capitano (+39 081 8081028,, piazza delle Sirene 10, Marina di Cantone.
Quattro Passi (+39 081 8081271,, via A Vespucci 13, Marina di Cantone.
Lo Scoglio (+39 081 8081026), piazza delle Sirena 15, Marino di Cantone.
Donna Rosa (+39 089 811806), via Montepertuso 97/99, Positano.



I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (, due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?