Cruising the Amalfi Coast offers spectacular scenery and magical land excursions, as Mt Vesuvius hovers above. JOY DODDS reports.
THE Amalfi Coast is one of life’s treasures – a truly unforgettable experience. To its breathtaking beauty add its ancient and medieval history and renowned dolce vita, with all its elements from enchanting locals to tangy limoncello.
Ancient Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum can be explored and some intrepid cruisers may even venture into enigmatic Naples, once a thriving Greek commercial centre, now a trifle seedy but real.
And what of the magnificent Amalfi Coast? Given its plunging sheer cliff setting, exploring options are best limited to boat or bus. The local bus travel experience is unforgettable - and exhilarating, once you accept your fate along cliff-hanging narrow routes driven by super-dexterous drivers who invariably manage to exchange jokes as they pass within a hair’s breadth of each other, with a sheer 200-metre drop to the Mediterranean below. My advice is to head north along the coast by bus, and use hydrofoils and ferries venturing south, to minimise exposure in left-hand drive vehicles to the sheer drops on roads that defy engineering and gravity.
And it’s not all vertical landscape and vertigo. The UNESCO-nominated Amalfi Coast is known for its exquisite beauty – as well as its limoncello, hand-made thick paper (bambagina) and the colorful ceramics from Vietri.
The numerous watchtowers perched on rocky promontories bear testament to defiant Amalfi’s historic role trading and repelling invaders from the sea. It means that the towns and villages of Costiera Amalfitana project a distinctive Eastern influence, such architecture evident in the Saracen Tower at Cetara and the Romanesque Cathedral of Amalfi and its Cloister of Paradise.
Between Sorrento and Salerno is a string of beautiful coastal towns clinging to the cliffs, including Amalfi, Positano, Sorrento and mountaintop Ravello. (see break-out box) Their hotels, villas and former watchtowers-turned-restaurants overlook the bluest-of-blue waters, idyllic sandy coves, arches and beaches.
Most cruise ships moor off the town of Amalfi, making it a superb landing point. A maritime superpower in the 11th century and Italy’s first maritime republic, its emblem features on the Italian flag (along with Venice, Genoa and Pisa). Amalfi’s trade with the East led to the introduction to Europe of paper, coffee and carpets and its layout reflects its Eastern links, with closely-spaced houses climbing up steep hillsides, connected by a maze of alleys and stairs, reminiscent of Arabian souks.
Destroyed by an earthquake/tsunami in 1343, its ancient buildings slid into the sea but today Amalfi is a congenial atmospheric town with an impressive 11th century duomo, Sant’Andrea, where the remains of the apostle St Andrew lie. The cathedral, which sits at the top of a steep flight of marble stairs, has a striking Arab-Norman presence, with two-tone marble masonry and a belltower. Below is a buzzing piazza with an ornate fountain permanently spouting locals the sweetest water. Visitors cannot get enough of the ceramics, hand-made paper and fashion shops, Antica Sartoria being a real magnet for couture amalfiana. Traditional paper factory, Cartier d’Amatruda, and the Paper Museum, located in a 13th century paper mill in Valle dei Mulini, are also popular with visitors.
High in the hills above Amalfi sits Ravello, for centuries a source of literary inspiration, from Boccaccio to DH Lawrence who stayed there whilst writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Its duomo, villas and gardens command spectacular views but be prepared for a hair-raising drive there through ravines and mountains via the Valle del Dragone – as in “dragon”.
Far better to enjoy the unsurpassed scenery of the Amalfi Coast from the water, whether it be from the luxury of a deckchair on a large cruise ship, local ferry or hydrofoil – this world famous landscape is best experienced while looking up, rather than vertiginously down at that unforgettable vista.
PRINCESS CRUISES berth outside Naples, the Amalfi Coast and the ruins of Pompeii. Details: 1300 551 853 or www.princess.com/learn/cruise-destinations
WHERE TO STAY:
HOTEL RESIDENCE, AMALFI
Located in a 300 year-old building which overlooks both the beachfront and the piazza, this family-owned hotel offers traditional service from great staff. Breakfast on the upper terrace is superb. email@example.com
HOTEL LUNA CONVENTO, AMALFI
This former convent with its 13th century cloister is now a luxury hotel. Its pool sits at sea level under a 500 year-old tower, now a superb cliff-top restaurant. firstname.lastname@example.org
AMALFI STAND-OUT LAND EXCURSIONS:
POSITANO is the glittering star of the Amalfi Coast with its terracotta houses that tumble down to the sea, with steep streets of steps and tiny alleyways lined with wisteria-draped hotels, shops, restaurants and bars. It requires plenty of physical stamina to negotiate its slopes. At the base is Spiaggia Grande, a stony beach full of deckchairs. The Torre Trasita tower separates it from a less crowded western beach, Spiaggia del Fornillo.
Less-hyped SORRENTO, perched on a ledge between a volcanic mountain chain and the sea, is a resort at the northern gateway to the region. Overlooking the water to Naples and Mt Vesuvius, this old town is renowned for its ceramics, lacework and intarsio (marquetry). Nearby is tourism icon Capri with its Blue Grotto, the vacation hideaway isle of Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius, and somewhat of a tourist trap. However, beyond the grotto hype, its Roman ruins and 14th-century Carthusian monastery are of interest.
While it tends to get a bad rap, NAPLES offers a fascinating collection of museums and architecture, including the Archaeological Museum (relics and art from Pompeii and Herculaneum) and the Farnese Collection, a giant hall of huge restored statues excavated from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla. For something different, visit Cappella Sansevero, its marble art collection including the Veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sammartino (1753).
POMPEII, once a thriving port, was cemented into history by the AD79 eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Visitors can observe the workings of an entire 2000 year-old city in its well-preserved ruins buried under metres of hot mud and volcanic ash. Everyday life, from markets to chariots, is on view, the stone-like human victims being particularly moving. Pompeii’s archaeology and art can also be viewed in Naples’ Archaeological Museum, one of the most famous in the world.
HERCULANEUM — smaller and less crowded than Pompeii — offers a closer and complementary look at ancient Roman life. The summit of Mt Vesuvius, which resembles a desolate lunar landscape that has thankfully been asleep since 1944, is accessible by vehicle.
South of Salerno is PAESTUM where, set in fields of poppies, stand three Greek temples dating back to 6th century BC. Remnants of the Greek colonies in southern Italy, the site near Capaccio includes the Temple of Ceres, a forum, amphitheatre and remnants of the city walls. Near the Temple of Neptune is the basilica including a sacrificial altar. A little further south is the medieval village of Agropoli with its old castle on a promontory looking out to sea, near where US forces landed in 1943.
Left to right:
Aerial view of Positano on Amalfi Coast;
Interior and details of the Duomo, cathedral of Amalfi,
built in 1208;
Ceramics in mountaintop Ravello;
Positano’s pebbled beach.
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Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media
Telephone: 02 9478 1200
Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media