Ravello: an enchanting Italian hilltop gem

by Jeff.Mills

Outstanding views, a fabulous hotel, good food and drinks at great prices, and history galore - Ravello has it all. There’s even a beach down the road in Amalfi

The road from the Amalfi coast up to the hill village of Ravello provides the kind of drama that nobody can do quite like the Italians. Mount Vesuvius can be seen perching threateningly on the horizon, the Mediterranean sparkles as it does for most of the summer months, there are plantations of vines, tomatoes and other wonderful local fruit and, just feet away from the side of the car, there's one of the sheerest drops I have ever seen.

Fortunately the driver knows this route well, every twist and turn. He seems to know which vehicles coming in the opposite direction will give way and which to treat with caution. Perhaps there is some unwritten rule; maybe the biggest has priority or maybe the newest and most expensive. After all, the Italians do love their cars.

They love their beautiful atmospheric hill-top villages and their top-class hotels, too, and Ravello provides both. With its 11th-century cathedral and equally old Villa Rufolo, in the ruins of which concerts are performed on many summer evenings, this is one of the most picturesque towns to be found along a coastline where such treasures are almost commonplace.

Among the latest of the top-class five-star hotels to open here is the Caruso, part of the Orient-Express group, whose other Italian properties include the Splendido in Portofino, the Villa San Michele near Florence and the grand old Cipriani in Venice.

Mind you, even though the Caruso may have reopened its doors just a year or two ago, after a $30m refurbishment, it can hardly be called new. It was originally built as a palace in the 11th century by the patrician D’Afflitto family from Rome, who apparently settled here after their ship, bound for Constantinople (now Istanbul), was wrecked off the coast.

This stunning hotel has 54 guest rooms, including 36 suites, most with sea views, all set in beautiful manicured gardens, the focal point of which is one of the most outstanding infinity swimming pools to be found anywhere, with a view over the valley to the sea beyond that will simply take your breath away. And the goodies don’t stop there. Apart from a poolside bar, you have a choice of two restaurants serving the freshest of local food and seemingly enough sunbathed terraces (ideal for breakfast) for you to find a new one every day of your stay.

If you can bear to drag yourself away from the delights of the Caruso, it is easy to explore the whole of Ravello on foot, provided, that is, that you don’t mind a few steps up from the village square on the way back. Though you could always take a local taxi if you really can’t face them.

Much of the action, both during the day and in the evening tends to take place around the main square, dominated by the cathedral. This is where locals gather to sit on the steps, soak up the sun and catch up on all the latest gossip. It’s where locals and visitors alike sit at pavement tables sipping their Campari and sodas or chilled white wine, as local teenagers flirt with each other and smaller children chase footballs across the cobbles.

There’s not really very much in the way of shopping to excite you here. But that said, there are some antiques shops and art galleries worth a look in the small streets around the Villa Cimbrone, worth a visit in its own right for its fabulous gardens.

At night the main square takes on a different complexion, as small bars and restaurants do a roaring trade providing good value food and drinks to all comers, certainly worth an hour or so of your time, if only to take in the scene as the locals take their regular evening promenade.