The Amalfi Coast offers a warm welcome and inspirational scenery. But the region is also of immense historical interest and includes one of Europe's best preserved monuments of the ancient world
Near the sea front beneath a narrow portico is a plaque with the following inscription: ‘On the day of judgement, for the townsfolk of Amalfi who go to Paradise it will be a day like any other.’ If you visit this beautiful little town on Italy’s south-western coastline, you will perhaps agree with the sentiment behind the statement.
Part of the reason I had come to Amalfi was to pay homage to one of my Gods. To get to the shrine I had to walk along the cliff-top road as far as Atrani and then ascend the path to Ravello, which, from a height of 300 metres, offers spectacular views of the Mediterranean in all its sapphire and emerald glory.
With its ivy clad tower and double rows of slender columns surrounding a subterranean courtyard, Villa Rufolo evokes an otherworldly air befitting holy places. The gardens too, which blaze with colour and burst with luxuriant foliage, are suggestive of a world inhabited by divinities. Richard Wagner composed the music to Parsifal while living here, and I wondered if his visions had come to him while he sat on the same stone bench from which I now gazed over the jagged, mountainous coastline.
Man’s days are short, but I was visiting Ravello at the beginning of November, when they are even shorter, and after paying my homage to Wagner, I had little time left for visiting other sights. The cathedral, however, is well worth a look, as is Villa Cimbrone.
The sun was already setting as I descended the path to Atrani. The cloudless blue sky took on the deep melancholy tones of twilight, and a full moon rose above the terracotta tiled roofs of the houses below. Suddenly, in the silent valley, a dog began to howl. Again and again it repeated its plaintive wail, and the valley itself seemed to shudder in anguished anticipation of the howl which followed as soon as the echo of the last one had died away. I thought of those haunting passages in Parsifal and imagined Wagner sitting on the bench in the gardens of Villa Rufolo. Had he too heard that howl rising from the valley? A shiver ran down my spine. Now that the sun had set, it had turned very cold, and I had a strong desire to be back in my cosy room at Hotel Lidomare in friendly, picture postcard Amalfi.
One of the great experiences of life
The following day I again went in search of Gods. This time I had to go a little further afield, and after catching the bus to Salerno, I continued to Paestum by train, a half-hour journey down the shin of Italy’s boot.
Travel writer Norman Lewis visited Paestum during the Second World War, when he was serving as an intelligence officer in southern Italy. In Naples ’44, he describes ‘a scene of unearthly enchantment. A few hundred yards away stood in a row the three perfect temples of Paestum, pink and glowing in the sun’s last rays. It came as an illumination,’ he writes, ‘one of the great experiences of life.’ I would certainly go along with that. Indeed it is rather futile to try with mere words to capture what is not only a visual experience but also (at the risk of sounding pretentious) a spiritual one. You simply have to go there to sense the aura which emanates from those ancient stones. If you do go, I suggest you take a packed lunch. None of the eating places near the site are particularly inviting. I decided to wait to eat until I got back to Amalfi, where I had a wonderful pizza in Lo Smeraldino while gazing at the lights twinkling across the bay.
Other ways of passing the time in Paradise
Amalfi makes an excellent base for exploring the region (Positano and Capri are easily reached from here) and is itself an attractive town. There is a lovely fountain in the main square and the cathedral is striking for its decoration: an exuberant mixture of mosaics, marble and majolica.
The Costa Amalfitana is not cheap, but my hotel was reasonably priced. It was also clean and comfortable, and the staff were very friendly. Due to its many attractions, this region can get as packed as Oxford Street a week before Christmas. It was unseasonably cold while I was there, but unless you want a sunbathing holiday, November is a good time to avoid the crowds. The wonderful food will warm you up in any case. I recommend Linguine all’Amalfitana, made with anchovies, black olives and capers. For a very nice, inexpensive meal in Ravello, try the fusilli al ferretto con cozze e rucola selvatica (fusilli with mussels and rocket) at Ristorante Vittoria.
Lo Smeraldino, Piazzale dei Protontini, Amalfi (tel: +39 089871070)
Ristorante Vittoria, Via dei Rufolo, Ravello (tel: +39 089857947) www.ristorantepizzeriavittoria.it