Even a Shed in Ravello Would Do

On the other side of Scala, far from the crowds of the Amalfi Coast is Ravello. The town hugs the top of a ridge that looks out onto the Gulf of Salerno. Our very first sight of it and we were irrevocably, irreversibly hooked. If a fairy godmother materialised and swished her wand for me, I would ask for a home in Ravello, on those mountains with a view of the inky Tyrrhenian. We would then be residents of a town with a history that goes back all the way to the 5th century when it was founded as refuge from attacks by barbarians. In time, it became a wool-producing, trading powerhouse in association with the Republic of Amalfi.

There is a story behind Ravello’s name. The first known inhabitants of this hamlet were Romans. There is little knowhow about Ravello from that period except for the fact that it was absorbed into the Republic of Amalfi during the 11th century. Two centuries later, its residents rebelled against Amalfi and the hamlet was dubbed ‘Rebellum’.

I revel in the sound of it. Ravello. Mark how it rolls off the tongue. And when locals enunciate it their sonorous way, she sounds like such a beauty, with the lush ways of a Sophia Loren about her.

The first thing you will notice from the coastal road that winds around the town, apart from the lush green hills and the very blue duet played by the sky and sea, is surely a modernist building that rises like a wave. It is a theatre designed by a Brazilian modern architect, Oscar Niemeyer, which sticks out incredulously in a medieval town. But then, it did fit in with the stories that add an aura of glitz to Ravello.

The town was the romping grounds of the rich and the beautiful during the ’50s and the ’60s. Stories abound, of the reclusive Greta Garbo who took off with conductor-composer Leopold Stokowski to the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, in the midst of a highly secretive affair. Of how the villa was thronged, and Garbo heavily annoyed had remarked about the need for a doctor, ‘in case anyone is hurt’.

I could, in my imagination, see film stars clinking flutes of bubbly and emitting tinkling notes of laughter as they took breaks from lazy laps in the pool of the uber luxurious hotel that stood adjacent to the theatre building. A contrast to this picture was perched, immediately across the valley, atop lush green mountains in the form of an austere monastery.

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We ambled down to the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, a 12th-century church with steps leading down to the coastal town of Minori. Lured by the solitude, we descended the steps as a local led his donkeys down alongside, beneath a tall, lone Cypress. If we had been going down them steps in the old days, say in the 16th century, we might have been offered wine on our way down to Minori. The man who had built the church had apparently stipulated it to his heirs. 

We sat on the walls of that church, with a view across the Gulf of Amalfi. It had an unreal quality. We had turned out to be the hero and heroine of our own dreams.

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In the cathedral square of Ravello, stands Villa Rufolo, named after the powerful family who lived in it. They became even more famous when the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio made a Landolfo Rufolo one of his protagonists in Decameron.

D.H. Lawrence is said to have spent time in the villa when he started writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Yes, writers such as Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and Andre Gide too had soaked in the wondrous charm of Ravello, not to leave out the German opera composer Richard Wagner.

Wagner visited Villa Rufolo in the late 1800s and he was inspired to compose the opera Parsifal. On a stone plaque on the walls of the villa are immortalised the words: ‘Il magico giardino di Klingsor è trovato’. It means ‘the magical garden of Klingsor has been found’. Now, every year Villa Rufolo hosts a Wagnerian concert in its gardens and this summer music festival gives it the epithet, la città della musica (The City of Music).

Standing upon the terraces of Villa Cimbrone, a few yards from Villa Rufolo, I could appreciate the words of Catullus that’s inscribed upon a bronze statute of Hermes: ‘Lost to the world of which I desire no part, I sit alone and speak to my heart, satisfied with my little corner of the world, content to feel no more sadness for death.’

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Things to Do: 

Mamma Agata’s (http://www.mammaagata.com/) cooking class. She has cooked for the likes of Fred Astaire and Humphrey Bogart and has many a story to tell.

Take the coastal footpath down to Minori.

Monastero Di Santa Chiara. You have to plan for it. It is open only on Sundays for morning service.

Ravello-Atrani walk along one of the oldest routes on the coast.

 

Where to Stay: 

Villa Amore (http://www.villaamore.it/), a basic bed & breakfast priced between €120 and €150 per night.

Hotel Rufolo (http://www.hotelrufolo.com/). Superior Sea View Rooms start at € 195 per night. The hotel has a roll-call of famous names to boast of, and one of it guests, French writer Lucette Desvignes wrote words that makes you want it all. She had noted: ‘From the medieval towers to the infinity of the sea, all belongs to you: mountains, coast, lemon valley or vineyard, magic garden, Moorish cloister, Byzantine cupolas, pine trees, all is yours and you take it with you when you leave.’

 

Far From the Crowds on the Amalfi Coast…

… are Scala and Ravello. They reinforce what the Gambardella sisters, owners of a 19th-century hotel on the coast, pointed out once. That ‘there are bits of the old life left on the coast, but you have to know where to find them.’ You do get more time to linger in spots you take a fancy to without having someone breathing down your neck.  

Scala is a sleepy village. Period. Apart from some dogs in a farmhouse excited by the sight of us passing by, we did not see many people. We sat on the terrace of a family-run trattoria in this oldest village on the Amalfi coastline. In our field of vision  was a landscape bathed in the glorious sunshine – the kind of view that made our wait for the food to arrive extraneous.

We sipped on limoncello – I mean you have to give into everything that’s yellow on this holiday – and slipped into a reverie, the kind that slowly descends upon you in the midst of all that lush beauty.

There was what man had built into nature — but it all came together quite effortlessly. Among orchards of lemons and piennolo (grape-like) tomatoes, white houses and terracotta roofs, church domes and an assortment of trees, climbed in conjunction, layer upon layer, on steps cut into the hills. Unbroken batches of puffy clouds floated by smothering the hill tops in the distance, imparting the scenery with an illusory touch. When you turned your head, you could see the winding roads cutting through the valley. Those roads had brought us up from the village of Atrani.

The 1000-year-old village of Scala had its heyday during medieval times when it was associated in commerce with the Republic of Amalfi. Many wealthy families lived in Scala at the time and it is reflected in the legacy of its duomo. However sizeable their fortunes were, in my books, they were wealthy by virtue of the splendid surroundings they got to live in.

I wonder if they knew how blessed they were. Because this would be my Illyria.

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The food did arrive and I cannot describe in words how luscious the grilled aubergines were. They were the perfect accompaniment with limoncello on that terrace with a view.

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Where to Stay:

La Margherita Villa Giuseppina (http://www.villagiuseppinacostadamalfi.it/is a family-run bed & breakfast hotel in Scala. We ate here during our stop in Scala. It is unpretentious and serves up delicious fare. Standard double rooms, with breakfast thrown in, start at €120 per night.

ll Pinguino (http://www.pinguinobb.it/) is another family-run affair where double rooms are pegged between €80- €150 per night.

Things to do:

Hike the Valle delle Ferriere. Maps can be downloaded from the official website of CAI dei Monti Lattari (www.caimontilattari.it). The trek lasts about three hours.

Monastery of Santissimo Redentore

Palazzo Mansi-D’Amelio

Church of Annunziata in the hamlet of Minuta

Arab Bath in Minuta

Ruins of the Church of San Cataldo in the hamlet of Campidoglio

Ziro Tower, part of an ancient Scalella, in Pontone

Next up is Ravello, the last in the Amalfi Coast series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Amalfi Dream

On the string bean of a road on the Amalfi coastline, it is imperative that you shall be caught in the midst of substantial traffic jams. You will hear a fair bit of Italian cursing or laughter — depending upon the mood of the driver. You will also peek out of your window, curious about the ado, till you spot the troublemaker. A man in a blush pink blazer getting into his ramshackle car with a sheepish smile and a few scusas and molto bene grazies. But he has had his coffee, thank you. Such important matters of life are not to be bypassed in Italy even if it means that you park your car on a ribbon of a road, okay?

We were on the way from Positano to Amalfi. After the essential coastal drive drama we were back on the road, with a stop at the fishing village of Conca Dei Marini for coffee. The driver wanted it, we wanted it, and we had a parking spot. The stars were aligned. From the coastline we had a spectacular view of its claim to fame – the Grotta dello Smeraldo — a cavern that glows shades of emerald inside as the sun shines through its fissure. It all seemed unreal at the time and even now, yes. If you have been a part of the Amalfi dream, you know what I mean. If you have not, what are you waiting for?

Then turned up the romantic town of Praiano. The brilliant white, yellow and blue colours of its majolica tiled domed church beckoned to us very invitingly indeed as it towered above a maze of pretty pastel houses, azure blue waters its immediate backdrop.

How to Get There: For any of these towns on the Amalfi Coast, opt for a water taxi or local shuttles. There are options for hiring private car/bus tours depending upon the depth of your pocket. I would steer clear of hiring a car because it would give you a few nerve-racking moments, guaranteed.

Things to do in Praiano: Relax on its beaches such as the Marina di Praia, scuba/snorkel or work off the pasta by taking steps down to Torre di Grado, one of the 16th-17th towers built by the Spanish on the Tyrrhenian Coast for defensive purposes.

If you are staying in Praiano, hop over to Africana Famous Club, a club which sits inside a cave. While dancing look down. You would be thrilled to feel that you are dancing upon water (’tis a glass floor). But this is a club which has received the likes of Jackie Kennedy, so beware of the prices of drinks.

Jump onto the local bus to Furore, a tiny village that is quipped not to exist because you cannot see it from the coastline. You know what that means. More steps. Who can complain about a little workout after a gelato? Head for the Fiordo, a narrow gorge.

Where to Stay: If you want atmosphere look out for the three-star hotel, Hotel Torre Saracena (http://www.hoteltorresaracena.it/en/). Standard rooms range between €80-€150.

 

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The 16th-century watchtower of Torre del Capo di Conca, also known as Torre Bianca, stands on the headland of Conca Dei Marini. A lift takes you down to the Grotta della Smeraldo. 
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Coastal route traffic jam

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Praiano
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Majolica dome of the Church of San Luca Evangelista
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A hint of the beaches in Praiano

In Amalfi, a plaque on the Porta Marina declared: “The judgement day, when Amalfitans go to Heaven, will be a day like any other”. It is not a swollen-headed claim given Amalfi’s scenic home in the valley of the Lattari Mountains. For all its small stature, it was a naval powerhouse in the 11th-12th centuries, drawing out codes of marine laws that were followed by medieval kingdoms and minting its own gold and silver coins known as tari. In the 11th century, a chronicler, William of Apulia, noted of Amalfi: “No other city is richer in silver, cloth, and gold. A great many navigators live in this city… famous almost throughout the world as those who travel to where there is something worth buying.”

From its busy harbour, we took a boat ride that gave us an eyeful of Amalfi’s landscape – pastel coloured houses, gaping caves in cliffs and well-perched convents, not to miss out on a certain white villa with green window shutters that belongs to actress Sophia Loren.

The stars of Amalfi are the glazed majolica dome of the cathedral with its stunning Arabic and Norman architecture and the basilica. Souk-like streets run the length of Amalfi, taking you past lattices of dried red chillies and baskets of Amalfi lemons, shops selling fresh seafood, gelaterias that charge you horrifically for a cone of gelato, but by and by, there are not many old structures around. In 1343, an earthquake brought down old structures in towns such as Positano and Amalfi and most of Amalfi’s old buildings along with its people were swept into the sea. Amalfi never recovered from its bad fortune after. Newer trading routes had started opening up with discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. Amalfi became a wallflower of sorts till it drew the attention of the Grand Tour-era travellers.

What to do: Vallone delle Ferriere hike. Take the steps that lead up from the main street of Amalfi, through the hamlet of Pogerola. Make your way to Pontone that is a another scenic hamlet in the oldest town of the coastline, Scala. The hike will lead you into chestnut and fern woods through charming waterfalls, rivers and lemon groves.

Where to stay: I fear that if I did recommend staying here you might pick up lemons again. The town is just too crowded.

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Amalfi
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Cruising along the waters off the coast
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The unreal beauty of the Amalfi Coast
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Streets of Amalfi
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Summer crowds
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Lemons or softballs
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A 9th-century edifice
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In front of the Cathedral of St. Andrew where we watched a bride and groom trip down its steps with love and laughter
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The most expensive gelatos we had had in a long time
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The white house discreetly located along the Amalfi Coast drive is that of Sophia Loren. It is right at the bottom on the right hand side of the photo with the Norman tower next to it.