Amalfi: Round the Hairpin

The most interesting thing about visiting the Amalfi coast is the drive. The bus drivers are -by necessity- kamikaze pilots, achieving great speeds on a road which has an entirely blind corner every 20 seconds or so. They simply hoot their horn to advertise their presence. From Salerno, the zig-zags are at least relatively flat; but to Sorrento you can add to this merry hell a continual climbing and descending of steep hills, and woe betide the fool who boards the bus on a full stomach (this fool had a rum-soused cream cake with his breakfast cappuccino, and barely lived to tell the tale). It’s very narrow too, and many a car was compelled to reverse back by our bus. The only time we had to reverse was for a lorry. At one point, it took us half an hour to travel half a mile because men in a pickup truck were pruning the branches on the vertical cliffs, and this section of the coast road was made one-way for the afternoon. The road is very popular with cyclists. People around here must be mad.

The Amalfi coast’s towns are pretty small; you’re here for the scenery, and the John Webster connections, I guess. The forested mountains give way to rocky cliff-faces that are a sheer drop to the beach or the sea; the towns cram themselves into inlets where they can, their villas appearing to clamber up the hills like mountaineers. Each one is built around a church with a brightly-coloured dome in lime green and lemon yellow. Between them the steep slopes are all lemon groves, covered in black netting. Go up to the mountaintops and it feels like the kind of place a god would live; you can see why Wagner liked it. You would dream strange dreams up there.

If you’re used to big cities, there isn’t a huge amount to do. People say Amalfi is bigger and feels a little grittier than Ravello or Positano but it’s fairly slim pickings. Amalfi has a population of 5,000, swelled every afternoon by daytrippers. It was founded by Romans, shipwrecked here on Constantine’s big move to Byzantium, who decided not to leave. By the early middle ages it was a maritime superpower comparable to Genoa, Pisa or Venice, with 80,000 souls. The Normans conquered the South, and in 1343 an earthquake & tsunami saw most of the town collapse into the sea, taking most of the residents with it. Plague further ravaged the population, who fled to Naples, and by the time of Napoleon’s conquests Amalfi was almost a ghost town that could only be reached by boat. The Bourbons started building the coast road and it became an exclusive hideaway for the elite, the secret only getting out to the masses in the second half of the C20th.

Amalfi has its seafront (with a chaotic bus station) and beach, behind which is the Piazza del Duomo, a compact and crowded spot with the odd good pizzeria or pasticceria hidden in plain sight amongst the tourist shops. The stunning Duomo and its wide front portico are up a steep flight of stairs to the right; the piazza narrows into what is essentially the one street in Amalfi, a slender thoroughfare selling trinkets and ice creams, with most housing (including our flat) on whitewashed alleyways, usually covered, running off it and leading to tiny mazes of steps. It feels more like being on a small Greek island than Italy.

The contrast of sea, cliffs and blinding sun might be the star, but it’s the Duomo that eclipses every other building. It’s C9th although the famous gold-laden, stripey facade dates only from 1891, and does feel like it could have been made by the same people who did Westminster Cathedral. The campanile is original C12th.

On the inside, its Romanesque structure has been given a Baroque makeover with lashings and lashings of coloured marble, most of it yellow. I liked this cherub who is presumably meant to look grief-stricken, but looks more as if they’re struggling to fake sobriety after three sherries too many.

At the other end of the church’s portico from the entrance is the Cloister of Paradise, which you can enter for 3 Euro. It feels very Islamic, no doubt reflecting who Amalfi was trading with in their heyday and what their Norman masters found when they landed in Sicily.

The cloister was built for the tombs of Amalfi’s wealthy. The needlepoint arches around the garden are very distinctive.

In addition there are some mosaics, frescoes and Roman sarcophagi, showing elaborate crowd scenes carved in marble. The ticket includes admission to a small museum of ecclesiastical treasure, an earlier and simpler version of the Cathedral, and the tomb of St Andrew (in your face, Sturgeon and Salmond).

St. Andrew’s bones came to Amalfi after the fourth crusade; the Byzantines having mistreated the Westerners living there to trade, the Doge of Venice (whom the Byzantines had blinded) persuaded the crusaders that attacking the Islamic world in the Holy Lands would be too much like hard work, and got them to pillage and plunder their Christian cousins in Constantinople instead. Venice and Bari used underhand means to swipe the remains of St Mark and St Nicholas; in the medieval age, having the body of a saint in your city was a mark of prestige akin to having Google or Apple place their headquarters there. One thing I never knew about St. Andrew is that the saltire comes from his asking for the crucifix to be tilted, as he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as Christ. His crypt has some lively and fascinating paintings telling the story.

It’s a pretty big Cathedral and a major saint for what is a very small town, and it appears to play a big part in town life. Amalfi tended to have emptied out at night (some say Atrani, the town around the corner, provides what passes for nightlife) but one evening we stepped out into the piazza and straight into a large crowd, singing hymns and following an icon of Christ. Around the fountain, out to the seafront, around the fountain out there and back into the church. Once the show was over and the crowd dispersed, in the melancholy silence we saw the cassocked boys hanging around on the Duomo steps; now changed into jeans and trainers, still holding on to their incense swingers but looking like they couldn’t wait to get back to playing football.

I had a birthday in Amalfi and one evening we splashed out for one of the fancy restaurants on the beach. The seafood was rapturous and it was quite special to hear the crashing waves just below us, but with all the daytrippers gone there seemed to be three waiters watching every table and it was hard to relax. My girlfriend noticed the staff take a good look at our shoes on the way in, to assess how rich we were. The restauranteur came over to chat her up whilst I was in the gents. He spends half his year in San Francisco, and interestingly had been to the Shankill (what an Amalfitano makes of the Heel & Ankle, I cannot begin to imagine). Their mutual antipathy was assured when he sneered at the mention of Matera, and she pointedly replied that it was the most beautiful city in all the South.

The other place we spent time in was Ravello, high up above Amalfi. Coming here you see what people mean about Amalfi being more real; it is only 93% tourism whereas Ravello is 98% tourism.

Again, the first golden age of Ravello was in the early middle ages, and curtailed by Pisa effectively razing the town and most people moving to Naples. The second golden age was when the well-to-do discovered the Amalfi coast, and Ravello provided a secluded and particularly giddy parking spot. There are plaques for celebrities dotted around, including one which says that D.H. Lawrence wrote his “capolavoro” Lady Chatterley here.

The town is again centred on a piazza with an old cathedral (shut for the afternoon), a few cafés, plus a view of the mountain range opposite and the plunging valley separating you from it. Wandering around reveals a few churches and more hotels, expensive restaurants and palazzi, plus the odd garden you can sneak into for very dramatic views of the lemon groves meeting the sea.

There are two famous villas, whose gardens you can pay into for a nose around. The Villa Rufolo is very old, inspired Wagner to write Parsifal (he said he had finally found the garden of Klingsor), and right on the main piazza. The Villa Cimbrone, now a plush hotel, is a bit of a walk away and fractionally less famous, so we choose it. The gardens are carefully laid out to look centuries old, if not eternal. Part Greco-Roman, part Moorish, part Venetian Gothic, in truth they are Romantic through and through. Everything is very picturesque and pieces from antiquity are carefully positioned to make the route a procession of delight after delight. This was all the work of Lord Grimthorpe, an English aristocrat, in the early C20th (he is believed to be the illegitimate father of Violet Trefusis, Vita Sackville-West’s lover). A memorial plaque pays tribute to a “Lord Grimpthorpe” from “Leed”. Some of the poetry chosen suggests a melancholy strain to his character.

There are a few Davids, including a decent copy of Donatello’s. Each stopping point has a name like ‘The Avenue of Immensity’ which probably sounds much better in the Italian.

As well as the art there are all kinds of exotic plants and animals. Geckos abound, long snakes swish past your feet and on one flight of steps we saw the longest, hairiest centipedes wriggling laboriously. They are charring wood somewhere just out of sight, so there’s a faint charcoal aroma in your nostrils and continual wisps of smoke rising up at the seafront edge. It is all exquisitely well stage managed.

The piece de resistance is the Terrace of Infinity, which Gore Vidal called the best view on earth and which you may well have seen on TV or in some film. Six weather-beaten marble busts line a balcony, with views of the rocky headland jutting into a sky and a sea as blue as the Italian football shirt. Get the best ingredients, and often the simple dishes will be the best you ever taste. I spent an age sitting on the benches, just soaking up the perfection, and I have seldom felt as entirely happy as I did up there. Such was my bliss that it took a day or two to notice what the walk downhill to Amalfi did to my poor calves.

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