Words by Angela Terrell
For beauty, beaches and lemons, look no further than the Amalfi Coast, the Italian seaside escape synonymous with summer and the sweet life.
We set off as the sun’s soft rays kissed the mountaintops, its tendrils turning the spectacular limestone cliffs golden. Birds heralded the waking day while church bells welcomed early worshippers. Having ably contended with the 534 steep stairs down to the local beach the day before, we thought a quick 1,000 step climb skywards before breakfast would be a breeze.
Our jaunt rapidly became a quest. Stairs hewn from ancient stone rose tortuously, clinging to the land like veins on the heart, ours soon pounding with effort. We rounded corners breathlessly seeking the next Station of the Cross, a constant reminder of the area’s sanctity, but under the rising sun a tantalising promise of sublime destinations and a chance to pause. Old ladies burdened with shopping bags put us to shame by stoically climbing alongside us, stopping only momentarily to pray at grottos along the way.
Finally, with feet firmly on the ground yet spirits soaring, we reached the Sentiero degli Dei, the Path of the Gods. Still used as a mule track by locals who live and farm at these perilous heights, it’s from here that the true magnificence of the Amalfi Coast is revealed. Linking Bomerano with Nocelle, the route passes through olive groves, Mediterranean scrub and chestnut woods, with scattered shepherding ruins adding poignancy to the scene.
Life here continues unchanged by the passage of time. We listened to goat bells echoing across the cliff face and families chattering as they tended vines steadfastly growing on terraces sculpted to provide precious arable land in this dramatic landscape for each generation. Spirit and tradition are carved into the hills themselves.
The path appears to float above the world in an almost celestial way. Far below is the glistening Tyrrhenian and the rickety wooden handrail, although precarious, guided tentative footsteps as hypnotising views were absorbed. Dramatic plunging cliffs line the coast and Capri’s Faraglioni Rocks and the Li Galli Islands can be glimpsed against the horizon where the azure sky and turquoise water meet. Positano nestles peacefully across the bay, immense mountains dwarfing the brilliant buildings all seemingly piled upon each other and cascading down to the sea. Below is a flurry of activity with fishing boats and luxury cruisers leaving artistically patterned wakes swirling in the water.
With this remarkable panorama etched into our psyche and the sun high we turned back towards Casa Angelina in search of a well-deserved breakfast. Enjoying one of the best views on the coast, this boutique hotel hugs the mountainside at the end of a twisting driveway that tests even the bravest of Italian drivers. Here cutting edge design is paramount and, instead of appearing incongruous in the ancient landscape, the hotel’s clean lines, all-white interiors and soaring windows are a perfect framework for the canvas of natural beauty beyond.
Created to be a relaxing yet opulent villa for guests to enjoy, Casa Angelina also showcases the owner’s private art collection. An involvement in toy manufacturing could explain the whimsical nature of the objects d’art, vibrantly playful Murano glass sculptures and Impressionist-inspired paintings that adorn this tranquil space. Pieces such as smiling moon-men lamp bases and flower-filled table tops add to the enjoyment of staying here - and the sense you’re residing within an ever-changing art installation.
Pristine white furnishings maintain the calming palette in the expansive rooms. Beachside fishermen’s cottages have been converted into apartments for those requiring solitude, but no matter the accommodation, never ending sea views ensure constant tranquillity and ‘barefoot luxe’ encourages you to feel simultaneously extravagant and content.
The outdoor terrace of Un Piano Nel Cielo Restaurant allows meals to be enjoyed above soaring seagulls. Breakfast, designed to be brunch, meets all tastes, but after our arduous morning we particularly enjoyed tasting creamy fior di latte, a mozzarella crafted by locals residing in the hills we had just climbed. Later, as lights from Positano twinkle across the water, this window to the world transforms into a candlelit haven where chef Vincenzo Vanacore wields his magic - the La Gavitella tasting menu is a must.
Little can prepare you for the spectacular beauty of the Costiera Amalfitana. This 50 kilometre stretch of coastline claims to be Europe’s most beautiful and it’s hard to disagree. Cantilevered takes on new meaning here with glamorous hotels and bougainvillea-bedecked villas suspended mid-air. Driving along the corniche with its 1,000 hairpin bends is literally breathtaking and the bus drivers who negotiate precipitous corners over plummeting cliffs are miracle-workers; although you’re unlikely to see them bat an eyelid.
A maritime republic once rivalling Venice, the town of Amalfi was virtually destroyed by a tsunami in 1343, but young aristocrats following the Grand Tour of the 18th century ensured its rediscovery. Today tourism merges with the age old lifestyle as bright orange beach umbrellas flutter over timber fishing boats readied for the morning’s catch and tourists sip Campanellos alongside chess playing locals.
A melange of buildings flow down the cloud-capped mountainside to the bustling harbour and the glazed majolica roof of Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea dominates the town. Piazza Duomo is the place to watch the passing parade. Cyclists fill water bottles from the resplendent fountain’s sculpted marble breasts and gelato is savoured whilst sitting on the imposing staircase leading to the Duomo’s golden façade.
Following a map is pointless; roaming is the way to discover the real beauty. Cobbled streets become passageways wending their way betwixt and between pastel-hued buildings and, as you wander under fluttering washing, the spirited sounds of life echo off timeworn walls.
Many charming towns adorn this coastline but Praiano, where we had embarked on our adventurous morning climb, is a gem. Almost tourist-free, this former fishing village near Positano is the only town on the coast where the sun is enjoyed morning to dusk and fiery sunsets are watched from either of its two beaches, La Praia or La Gavitella. Life at the beach is as bright as the bougainvillea. Local boys dance, Campari in hand, to music bouncing over the waves, hoping to draw the attention of girls sun-bathing nearby. Watermelon hour sees the ceremonial ‘cutting of the melon’, everyone sharing in the dripping sweetness of the fruit before washing off the excess in the warmth of the sea. Cosmopolitan life is the essence of this rocky hamlet.
Atrani is reached by following a meandering pathway from Amalfi. Its timeless charm is pervasive, the beach welcoming and the cheerful piazza full of cafes serving limoncello and local delicacies. From the piazza narrow alleyways lead up to the Valley of the Dragon path. Steep, winding and sometimes filled with grazing goats, it takes you through terraces of luscious lemons and sun-ripened vegetables to lofty Ravello.
For centuries artists, writers, musicians and Hollywood stars have been drawn to this fantastic location - and the charm is evident. The town square appears to be perched on top of the world, and from one of its many cafes you can savour a spritz and watch the promenading of locals and tourists alike. The music-centric Ravello Festival takes place in the showpiece gardens of Villa Rufolo, once boasting more rooms than days in the year. Flowerbeds, palm trees and newly discovered Roman baths adorn the picturesque gardens, many of which seem to float like clouds over the sea far below.
The magical gardens of Villa Cimbrone are designed in the English aesthetic to reinterpret the Roman villa. Mixing exotic and local vegetation with fountains and nymphs, they are both theatrical and grandiose, and the Avenue of Immensity leading to the Terrace of Infinity are breathtaking examples of redefined Roman opulence. With such an evocative name the Terrace of Infinity, adorned with marble busts suspended high over the Gulf of Salerno, has a magnificence that is in no way understated. The view indeed appears infinite and standing by the balustrade you feel insignificant yet strangely calm.
The Amalfi Coast is more than picture-perfect, it has an intensity that seduces. The colours of the landscape are deeper, the expansive sky is bluer and the mesmerising panoramas wider. And of course the stairs are definitely steeper.