The Grand Balcony Between Sky and Sea ~ Amalfi Coast, Italy

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” ~ Giuseppe Verdi

We headed to the Rome airport from Tuscany, where we were set to part ways with Winston, our leased vehicle.  He had served us well, but after doing a little reading, we all felt it was time for someone else to be doing the driving for the rest of our journey.  Given there is only one overland passage on the Amalfi Coast, the 25-mile Strada Statale 163, a winding, narrow road of 1,000 bends, this seemed like the perfect place to cut our ties with Winston.  Sorry old chap. 😦

Initially I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend time on the Amalfi Coast, but since many consider this stretch of coastline to be Italy’s most scenic, I acquiesced.  After wandering through the hill towns of Tuscany, five sun-kissed days ogling soaring rock faces, pastel-brushed villages tumbling to the sea, forested hillsides, and the azure waters of the Mediterranean sounded rather enchanting.

Artists have been drawn here for centuries, from the 14th-century writer Giovanni Boccaccio, the 19th- century composer Richard Wagner, to the 20th-century playwright Tennessee Williams.  In spite of its glitz and glamour there is a rural side here also.  Farmers still work small plots of steeply terraced land to eek out a living and their wives make cheese.  All different sizes and shapes of lemons are grown, some that become part of the famous digestif, limoncello, a blending of lemon rinds, alcohol, sugar and water…quite tasty.

View to the sea from Piazza Tasso, Sorrento's main square
View to the sea from Piazza Tasso, Sorrento’s main square

We chose a hotel in Sorrento for our base, a funky little inn perched atop a cliff, with sweeping vistas of the sea and Mt. Vesuvius.  The entire town is clifftop, looking down on its two marinas, filled with narrow alleys lined with tiny shops and restaurants, and tenants living above.  A 15-minute walk got us into the heart of Sorrento, where we spent most days exploring and sampling the local fare.

Here’s a glimpse of our time spent on the Amalfi Coast:

1)  Sorrento 

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Sitting on a clifftop, balancing above the Mediterranean, Sorrento is an attractive place to spend several days. This town of 20,000 doubles in size during the summer, and was still quite active during our visit in October.  The main drag changes depending on the time, allowing vehicles to move through, then becomes a pedestrian walkway later in the day.  And just off this main drag is a street that goes back centuries before Christ…hard to get my head around such history.

“Sorrento’s name may have come from the Greek word for “siren”, the legendary half-bird, half-woman who sang an intoxicating lullaby.  According to Homer, the sirens lived on an island near here.  No one had ever sailed by the sirens without succumbing to their incredible musical charms…and to death.  But Homer’s hero Ulysses was determined to hear the song.  He put wax in his oarsmen’s ears and had himself lashed to the mast of his ship.  Oh, it was nice.  The sirens, thinking they had lost their powers, threw themselves into the sea, and the place became safe to inhabit.” ~ story told in Rick Steves’ guidebook

This same Rick Steves’ book suggested taking a day tour of Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello with Mondo Tours.  It was great letting someone else worry about losing a side mirror trying to pass other vehicles on this winding, seriously narrow stretch of road that hangs off a cliff face like a grand balcony.  But you exchange stress-free driving with little time in villages, making for a whirlwind day and finding out you may have missed the very best some of these villages has to offer.

2)  Positano

In days gone by, Positano was famous for its fleet of ships and heroic sailors, but a tsunami in 1343 and Middle Age pirate raids zapped its power and wealth.  It flourished again in the 1700’s and in the 20th century Positano became a haven for artists and writers wishing to escape the ravages of Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Today this village is a mass of cafes and women’s boutiques, with a broad beach at her base.

It’s been almost impossible for Positano’s residents to get a building permit for the past 25 years, resulting in endless staircases that have become a way of life for her 4,000 residents.  There is only one street that allows motorized vehicles, so this village has been spared the influx of big bus tourist mobs.

3)  Amalfi

This town of 5,000 had its heyday back in the 10th and 11th centuries, when it was a major maritime republic, rivaling Venice and Genoa.  The tsunami that struck in 1343 almost wiped her off the map, and today Amalfi relies on tourism.   Her waterfront continues to be the coast’s biggest transport hub.  Amalfi’s most important sight is the Duomo, begun around 1000 A.D., and is certainly worthy of a tour.  The beautiful bronze doors, as old as the cathedral, were cast in Constantinople in the year 1066.

4)  Ravello

Sitting on her lofty perch 1,000 feet above the sea, Ravello is considered one of the most romantic small towns in southern Italy, attracting celebrities for generations.  Those who have fallen under her charms and called Ravello home are Gore Vidal, Richard Wagner, D. H. Lawrence, M. C. Escher, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Greta Garbo.  Visitors come here to visit her two magnificent gardens and estates.  Unfortunately we had time for little except lunch and a quick walk through town.  And I learned just last night from friends that Ravello’s flatware and beautiful hand-painted dinnerware were not to be missed.  Darn! 😦

Next Up:  A Cataclysmic Eruption – Pompeii and Herculaneum

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