The Amalfi Coast has entranced travellers for more than a century with a romance that captures Sarah Duff’s heart
It’s hard not to fall in love at first sight as you wind your way round the hairpin bends of the narrow road hugging the cliffs of the Sorrentine Peninsula, which juts steeply out of Italy’s southern coast near Naples. The changing landscapes of hilltop villages with whitewashed houses precariously clinging to rugged cliffs, tiny terraced gardens, fragrant lemon orchards and grape vines tumbling down to the shimmering Mediterranean Sea are all impossibly photogenic.
There are only a few places that have quite literally taken my breath away, and the Amalfi Coast is one of them – and that was just on the drive there. Italy’s celebrated shoreline – about 50 km of spectacular beauty and Mediterranean charm – which has long been a favourite destination for poets, artists, movie stars and honeymooners, seemed the perfect place for my romantic break.
Our base for exploring the coast was Positano, the Amalfi’s most visited (and photographed) village. From the hotel balcony, glasses of Prosecco in hand, we looked out on to pink, yellow and peach houses and sprawling villas stacked on top of one another like architectural puzzle pieces on slopes leading down to a gently curving bay, dotted with bobbing fishing boats and yachts. Our view was so perfect it looked not quite real – as if someone had built the quintessential Italian coastal village for a movie set.
We quickly slipped into an easygoing Positano rhythm of days spent lazing on the pebble beach and swimming in the sea, licking pistachio gelati and slurping icy lemon granitas for refreshment. We tucked into seafood pastas for lunch from the beachside Ristorante Buca di Bacco; sipped aperitivi at one of the many lovely little bars lining the road that gently curves around the village; and then had dinner on one of the restaurant terraces that offer panoramic views, feasting on lobster risotto and fresh grilled fish, accompanied by golden white wines made with grapes from the tiny vineyards along the coast, and shots of the locally produced lemon liqueur, limoncello.
Evenings were the most magical time of the day in Positano. As dusk fell, the cloudless sky turned a bruised, dark blue and the tranquil ocean became a mirror reflecting the twinkling village lights. It’s pretty evident why couples from around the world choose to wed in the village’s 900-year-old pastel-yellow church every year – Positano is sheer romance.
One day, we decided to escape the hordes of beachgoers and hired a small, retro-style speedboat to cruise along the rugged coastline. I felt like an old-school Italian movie starlet (catching a glimpse of Sophia Loren’s former hilltop villa helped that fantasy along) as we plied our way through the placid water, stopping off in secluded little coves and tiny beaches for swims, and exploring turquoise grottoes. We anchored our boat for a lazy lunch at the shabby-chic restaurant Da Adolfo, which lies on a sliver of beach surrounded by cliffs and only accessible by boat. We tucked into mozzarella grilled on lemon leaves, tomato bruschetta, clam and chilli linguine, and garlicky mussels with cold white wine. Happily drowsy from the meal, we steered our boat into a quiet bay and anchored for a siesta, rocked to sleep by the gentle sway.
It would be incredibly easy to spend a whole holiday in Positano alone, taking more boat trips (and more wine-fuelled lunches followed by slothful naps), and catching the ferry to the stylish island of Capri. But the Amalfi Coast had more land-based treasures for us to explore.
Further up along the coast, Amalfi is a postcard-pretty little town with streets lined with shops, and boxes of juicy figs and peaches, a large piazza, a beautiful 9th-century cathedral, great restaurants on every corner and gelaterias galore.
We spent a happy few hours browsing the shops, buying strands of jewel-like chillies and giant lemons, and drinking espressos in the piazza, watching the town buzz around us.
Ravello, perched high above the hills overlooking Amalfi, is a quiet antidote to the seaside town’s bustling energy. I’d thought I loved Positano, but I fell even harder for Ravello: wandering through the narrow, quiet streets to a soundtrack of chiming church bells and tweeting birds really felt like stepping a few decades back in time.
My favourite place in Ravello was Villa Cimbrone – a property more than 1 000 years old – situated on the edge of town, with a beautiful garden of blue wisteria-covered pergolas, romantic walkways full of fragrant flowers and a statue-adorned terrace looking out over terraced vineyards leading to the Mediterranean far below. It really was not difficult to imagine all of the glamorous celebrations that have taken place in this seductive spot over the centuries.
On our last day, we drove to Pompeii – just an hour inland from Positano – to step back even further in time, all the way back to 79 BCE. Nearly two millennia ago, Mount Vesuvius, the cone-shaped volcano that still dominates the horizon, erupted violently, covering the Roman town in lava and ash. Concealed for hundreds of years, Pompeii was only excavated in the 18th century, and is now one of Europe’s most notable and unique archaeological sites. It’s quite surreal to walk along the paved streets and marvel at the well-preserved buildings of this ancient site, pausing to look at the items of furniture, sandals and jewellery encased in lava for so long, getting a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Romans 2 000 years ago – in many ways not too dissimilar from our own.
Back in Positano for our last night of dinner overlooking the Mediterranean, we bid farewell to the sweeping views, the magical evening light, the gentle sea breeze and the limoncello that tasted of hot Amalfi sunshine. The American author John Steinbeck wrote in 1953, ‘Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.’ As with Steinbeck, la dolce vita on the Amalfi Coast stayed with us long after we returned home.
Photography: Gallo/Getty Images, Istockphoto, Courtesy Images