Where the Mountains Collide With the Sea: The Amalfi Coast
17.09.2009 - 17.09.2009
Years ago, while flipping casually through a travel magazine, I saw a photo that took my breath away. It showed a ragged mountainside, lush and green and covered with golden hued buildings that seemed to crawl slowly down the mountain toward an incredible blue sea. The beauty of it was staggering. I read the caption: The Amalfi Coastline.
I knew I had to go there one day.
Before this trip, I had never been to Italy before. I had never been to Europe before. This was my first trip across the Atlantic and I hadn’t chosen the standard first trip places: London, Paris, Florence, Dublin. I chose the Amalfi Coast that I had dreamed about for years…and today was the day I was truly going to see it. Could it possibly be as beautiful as I imagined? Nothing is ever what we dream it will be. My eyes popped open that morning with so much excitement I could scarcely hold it in.
Today we would drive the Amalfi Coast Highway, one of the greatest drives in the world.
But first things first: Cappuccino!
The fierce storms of the night had blown out the rain (and some of the windows) and we had a bright and beautiful day in front of us. Because whenever there is a Matt-Vicki dispute, Vicki usually wins, we first went to pay our parking ticket. We checked out of Hotel Caruso and were told that parking tickets were paid at the Post Office. Yes, the Post Office. Somehow, without speaking any Italian and while dealing with a postal worker who spoke no English, Matt managed to pay the parking ticket. Either that or he mailed it to China, we still aren’t really sure.
We had decided to dedicate the bulk of our trip to the area between Sorrento and Ravello on the Amalfi coastline. We really wanted to do the Amalfi drive all at once, so we chose to go from Sorrento to Ravello first.
We’d spend the next 2 nights in Ravello. As we left Sorrento, we began to climb, higher and higher, past emerald terraces filled with vineyards, Mount Vesuvius a dim shadow hulking in the background and Sorrento a jumble of stucco below us. We passed this gentle little man who was out clipping grapes, the grapes falling in fat, thick purple bruised bunches into his bucket. When we slowed to take his photo, he held a juicy clump of grapes out to us, a sweet offering still damp with the dew.
Have I mentioned how warm and gracious the Italian people are?
You have to understand why were were so excited about the drive. If you have never heard of the famed “Amalfi Drive,” let me fill you in. This narrow and twisting road is most definitely one of the world's most beautiful and thrilling sightseeing drives.
The Amalfi Coast road is a ridiculous feat of engineering that narrowly clings to a mountainside and drops off into the sea below. Very few tourists opt to drive it (except for the fearless or the stupid), most take the bus, for good reason. I tried not to hyperventilate, instead looking at how the Mediterranean, a sheer 500-foot drop below me, twinkled in the early sunlight. As we drove, villas cling to the vertical landscape and beautiful pebble coves peeked from far below and out of our reach.
Not only is the road itself a thrill ride in its own right, add to that the HUGE tour buses that fly up and down it, literally scraping each other as they pass and brazenly encroaching on your lane as they speed along. At every hairpin turn, you feel like your car could plunge into craggy, breaker-washed sea boulders far below.
At each turn there was a sight more beautiful than the last. Cobalt seas with washes of greens and blues splashing up to pastel villages perched on the cliffs sprung up around the curves. Tiny coves with ancient fishing cottages and sandy beaches littered with brightly colored wooden boats lay hidden beneath us…blink and you could miss them. They were there for as beautiful glimmering moment and then vanished as the road twisted along. Golden domes and colorful ceramic mosaics beamed on proud churches that stood sentinel over the small towns.
I could scarcely take it all in. It was phenomenal. It was all I had dreamed and more. I couldn’t believe I was really there.
With Matt doing his best Mario Andretti, we cruised along, feeling like we were on top of the world. I was getting a little thirsty when I saw a little truck on the side of the highway. A handpainted sign proudly proclaimed they had “Granita di Limone.”
We pulled over and I used my eloquent Italian to say, “Due.” The little farmer opened a huge frosty vat and poured two luscious cups for us. This is not your frozen Minute Maid, folks. This stuff was on a lemon tree just a day or so before, so fresh it still had seeds in it. It was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted. We sucked them down so fast I got a brain freeze.
Obsession #3 (falling in line with Nutella and Cappuccino): Granita di Limone.
We made our way through all the coastal towns: Positano, Praiano, Fuore, Amalfi, Atrani…and then we arrived in Castiglione.
Castiglione sits at the sea level where Ravello is located. Ravello is a village at the mountaintop straight above. We had decided to sleep at the sea while we stayed in Ravello…and we had made a wonderful choice.
Villa San Michele was like stepping into a slice of heaven after several confusing and hectic days. The small inn was literally carved into the mountainside. It had multiple levels and each one seemed like it should simply crash into the waves below. I got almost dizzy looking down at the azure waters below. The stairs wound round and round and round eventually reaching the sea where you could plunge yourself into the refreshing water below. Bougainvillea spilled out of every crevice and lemon trees let in the dappled sunlight as Emiliano took us down to our room.
Our room had a small balcony and when we threw open the doors and stood on it, we felt suspended over the water. Waves crashed on the rocks just feet below and the views of the coastline swept all the way to Sorrento.
It was early and we wanted to spend the day in Ravello. I had read so much about it. Ravello sounded like the stuff dreams are made of and I wanted to see if it was too good to be true. Ravello is touted as one of the most romantic and beautiful small towns in southern Italy. Described as “suspended between sea and sky,” Ravello sits perched on steep, terraced slopes high on a mountain and is filled with lush gardens, sleepy cobbled lanes, and whispery sun-drenched corners. At its heart lies an 11th-century cathedral and two famous old villas, Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone. In my mind, I imagined Ravello would look like heaven should.
You can drive up to Ravello but not into Ravello, so we thought it easier to just leave the car behind and walk. I asked Emiliano at Villa San Michele if the walk up was bad. I mean, it was 1200 vertical feet up from where we stood.
“It’s easy,” he said in broken English, “No problem. Easy. See the white house?” he pointed hiiiiiigh up on the mountainside. “Jus go up the steps…you cross road…go up more steps…all the time jus follow the white house….it lead you to Ravello….it’s easy.”
I looked at Matt. “It’s easy,” I said as I shrugged my shoulders. We decided we would walk.
We found the steps easy enough and up, up, up they went. There were so many of them. It was so hot. They were so ridiculously steep. If I learned one thing in Italy, it was that the Italian philosophy is: If you can build steps to it, you can walk to it.
Maybe I was too excited by the online photos I had seen of the path to Ravello, with its uninterrupted views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, or the description of Ravello as a dreamy little paradise sitting high above Italy's Amalfi Coast. Or maybe it was the descriptions of Ravello as a place not many tourists found their way to…like it was as special little secret hidden in the clouds. Something must have distracted me from the part about the steps -- endless, unrelenting steps -- that I'd have to climb to gain entrance to my private piece of paradise.
I am toned and fit. I go to the gym. I run. I do walking lunges. I wouldn't let a flight of steps deter me, no matter how ominous they looked.
Sixteen thousand six hundred steps later under the heat of a blazing September sun -- I arrived in Ravello, a more humble person . . . with tighter buns.
For the rest of the trip, when something proved really difficult, we’d look at each other, shrug our shoulders and say, “It’s easy….jus follow the white house.”
Despite being hot and exhausting, the walk had taken us through what appeared to be terraced farmland. We passed vineyards so thick with grapes that they hung over our heads in juicy bunches. We passed lemon trees bursting with bright yellow fruit. We walked by fig trees laden with ripe figs that sent a sweet smell into the air all around us. Olive trees rustled in the light breeze. We saw small stucco buildings that looked as though they had been there for eternity. If we looked behind us, the valley swept down the mountain and fell to the blue sea.
As we neared Ravello, Matt met a new girlfriend. Her name was Aisha. She was young and blond, beautiful and full of energy. She had honey colored eyes and a sweet smile. He stopped to scratch her ears. She whined with pleasure. Aisha was a lab mix that sat in a yard just before the entrance to Ravello. She was sweet girl. If she would make him forget his GPS girlfriend, I might just be willing to put her on my back and carry her back down those 70,000 steps.
We finally entered Ravello. It has to be the most beautiful city on earth. Perched in the clouds, plunging to the sea, filled with gentle faces, sunwashed buildings, and spilling over with flowers, it welcomed us with very soft, gentle arms. Ravello wrapped itself quietly around us like a cocoon and we immediately fell under its spell. We were enchanted.
We knew Ravello was famous for its ornate ceramics so we did some shopping and bought 3 bowls: one for me, and two for our moms. I kept trying to pick a cheaper bowl and the owner kept steering me back to the very expensive one I really loved and saying, “But it’s for mama. You can’t buy mama the cheap bowl.” He had my number. “Besides,” he said, “You get it back one day.” He made a good point....
We had lunch at Da Salvatore which had a staggering view of the coastline. We were late for lunch and the last patrons were just leaving as we arrived. We were seated on the garden terrace and had the place entirely to ourselves. The waiter brought the house red wine (what else?) and an appetizer that was a fried anchovy filet. It was surprisingly good. He also brought a basket of mixed breads.
Matt ordered a dish of spaghetti with clams (or some similar shelled creature). Not a huge fan of things from the sea, I opted for a baked pastry shell filled with ricotta and ham and served with parmesan crisps on the side. It was melt in your mouth good. Because we had hiked up 92,347 steps, we felt entitled to dessert. I had a chocolate and banana mouse with a center of brandied bananas and Matt had a frozen nougat with caramel sauce. Worth all 92,347 steps.
After shopping and lunch, we went through the villas and gardens of both Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone. Their beauty was mesmerizing.
The walk down to Villa San Michele was better than the walk up. When we got back to the hotel, Matt took a quick plunge into the sea and then we headed to dinner at the hotel dining room.
For the first course, I had a pasta filled with cheese that was baked in a terra cotta dish and Matt had prawns (yes, he went for the little clawed critters again now that he was no longer afraid) over linguine with cherry tomatoes and garlic. For our second course, I had the local catch with cherry tomatoes, black olives, and capers and Matt had a chicken baked in a wine sauce. Everything was delicious, particularly through my wine haze.
We headed to our room where Matt watched Dances With Wolves in Italian (a sure sign that someone was missing the T.V.).
When I heard Kevin Costner say, “Balli con i lupi,” I knew it was time to call it a night.