Newest Review: ... felt fully acclimatised, especially after another copious dinner at the Scapolatiello. * Ravello and Atrani * The next morning we heade... more
A walk above the shores
Amalfi Coast (Italy)
Member Name: duncantorr
Amalfi Coast (Italy)
Date: 20/09/09, updated on 20/09/09 (488 review reads)
Advantages: Spectacular scenery, with attractive towns and good walking
Disadvantages: A tourist trap, albeit a superior one
On this occasion, though, business and family commitments constricted us to early April, so we sought somewhere southerly, not too high up and with other things to do besides walking if the weather proved adverse. In the event, we coincided with a freak cold spell and were even snowed on - south of Naples in April! - but that was just luck of the meteorological draw, and we decided to spend most of our time walking irrespective of the temperature.
* Where exactly is the Amalfi Coast? *
In southern Italy, facing out over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Lay your right hand flat on a piece of paper, index finger pointing towards the top left hand corner, and stick out your thumb. If you imagine the left edge of your hand representing the shoreline of the Bay of Naples, with your index fingernail being the city itself, then your thumb is what is known as the Sorrentine Peninsula, after the resort of Sorrento that faces north towards the bay.
The Amalfi Coast is the lower, southern side of the Sorrentine Peninsula, and is named after the town of Amalfi, located about half-way along its seventy-five kilometre length. Geologically, the peninsula is formed of rugged limestone, with some steep slopes rising sharply to a ridge down its spine. The seaside towns on the southern side tend to be packed tightly into the narrow valleys where rivers disgorge into the sea.
* Arrival and orientation *
We flew BA Gatwick to Naples airport, from which we were transferred by train and taxi to our first hotel, the family-owned Scapolatiello in the little village of Corpo di Cava, only a few kilometres inland but about 450m above sea level. We sat shivering on the balcony of our comfortable bedroom to sip a complementary Spumante and take in the awe-inspiring panorama: east to the snow-capped mountains of the interior and south down the coast past Salerno. After a short stroll round the village, our good impression of the hotel was confirmed by an excellent dinner.
On some Inntravel holidays you move on practically every day, on others less often. This itinerary was one of the latter, and the next day's walk was a warm-up circuit in the wooded hills around Corpo di Cava. The basic route was only 9km (less than 6 miles) and, although it included some strenuous ups and downs and a visit to an ornate Benedictine abbey, it hardly constituted a full day's walking. So we added an ad hoc diversion of a couple of miles each way, down through chestnut woods to the charming seaside town of Vietri sul Mar. By the time we'd explored the town, eaten our picnic, and picked our slow way back up the hillside with frequent pauses to enjoy the view, it certainly was a full day, and a most enjoyable one. Moreover, by its end we felt fully acclimatised, especially after another copious dinner at the Scapolatiello.
Ravello and Atrani *
The next morning we headed for Ravello, accompanying our luggage some of the way as it was being taken onwards by car, as far as the town of Maiori. This resort boasts the longest stretch of beach in the area - which does not make it very long, for this is essentially a rocky coast - but is otherwise remarkable. From there we walked just the final 9km with a loop inland through lemon and olive groves past the Convent of San Nicola, which looks imposing on its hillside but which we did not visit. This was a pleasant walk, uphill but over undemanding terrain. Again we felt we could have done more, and began to regret having not taken on the full distance from one hotel to the next, though this would have included an ascent of Monte Avvocata, which is said to be very tricky. Maybe regret was the better part of discretion on this occasion.
Ravello is a beautiful old town of narrow streets and little piazzas, perched on a high hilltop, with breathtaking views along the coast. There are lovely gardens too, notably those of the Villas Cimbrone and Rufalom though we were a little early in the year to see them at their best. Here Inntravel have found another comfortable and characterful hotel with good food - the Villa Maria. But we had a quibble with their route-planning. Inntravel's notes suggest you spend the day exploring the town. Despite its attractions, seeing Ravello does not require a full day, especially if you have arrived early the previous afternoon. But we found that the Tourist Office in Ravello sold a local walking map for just Euro1 showing paths down to the coast, so this was not a problem.
The walk down to Atrani is precipitous, and the climb back up seemingly even more so, but the village more than merits the effort. It clings to the side of its little bay as if hanging on for dear life, with stepped lanes like staircases picking their way up through the ancient dwellings. And there can be few better places for refreshment than the cafés that spill out onto the stone-flagged piazza, enclosed by the flaking pink stucco of balconied buildings all around.
* On to Amalfi *
Atrani is less than a kilometre along the coast from Amalfi, but we reached the larger town the next day only after a 14km loop inland through beautiful - and remarkably wild - country in the Valle delle Ferriere Nature Reserve. Here vertiginous precipices tower above dense woods formed of beeches, limes and pines rather than the more typically Mediterranean vegetation found elsewhere in the region, with a few mandatory birds of prey hovering above the slopes. And, of course, there are distant views seawards, of which one never tires despite seeing their like day after day; each time the light is different, or the angle or the landscape that frames the sea.
From the Valle delle Ferriere an easy track leads down to Amalfi itself. In the early Middle Ages Amalfi was the capital of a thriving independent state with a commercial fleet to rival any around the Italian coast, but defeat in a war with Pisa proved to be a setback from which it never really recovered. Nevertheless, traces of its distinguished past remain, with some fine statues and fountains. The cathedral too is worth seeing and of ancient origin, as in apparent in its cloisters and crypt, although its frontage, with arches and pediment in patterned light and dark grey stone, is as recent as 19th century. Constricted in its valley and with just one main street descending to the town centre and the sea, Amalfi nowadays seems above all bustling and touristy. Moreover, we had this impression while there on a chilly day in early spring; what's it's like in high summer I hesitate to imagine. At least by then, though, the boats that take visitors out to explore the coves and grottos along the coast would have been running.
From Amalfi we caught a bus onwards to the tiny village of Bomerano in the hills some miles to the west (with foreknowledge of what the town was like and more confidence in our map, we might have tried hiking directly there from the Nature Reserve without the diversion to the coast). At Bomerano Inntravel have found another good hotel, the Due Torri, a touch basic but owned and run by the most friendly and welcoming of families.
* And to Positano *
The next day provided the best walking of the holiday, 11km on the Sentieri degli Dei - "the footpath of the gods" - high above the coastline with spectacular panoramas down the cliffs and hillsides along to the end of the Sorrentine Peninsula and out towards the island of Capri a few miles beyond its westward point. The country we passed through proved to be surprisingly rustic too, with working mules and herds of goats frequently encountered along the way. Our one regret in following this route was that we missed the little port of Praiano, said to be a picturesque gem and home to many artists and artisans.
Instead we stayed high up as long as we could before finally making our way down into Positano, which is squeezed between hills and sea with terraces of houses ascending the hillside. Here we spent two nights at the Hotel Buca di Bacco in the pedestrianised old town near the beach. A well-positioned and pleasant enough hotel, but our least favourite of the four in which we stayed.
Positano is pretty, but has been a fashionable resort rather too long for its own good (or rather, for the good of its visitors; I don't suppose the town would see it that way, let alone its citizens), with expensive shopping and restaurants. Apparently, it is a centre for the fashion trade, and its boutiques might attract some visitors, but did nothing for me. To escape Positano, we tried to board a boat-trip to Capri, but the sea was too rough; so instead we found our way up to Monte Pertuso to eat a delicious, copious and cheap lunch at The Ristorante Tagliata - full of locals and atmosphere, a real discovery if you're ever in the area. By contrast, a good-value dinner in Positano is quite hard to find. For all the beauty of its setting, Positano really is a tourist trap, and an upmarket one at that, with a consequent impact on prices. On the whole, if forced to choose between the two, I think I would prefer to stay in Amalfi; but mostly, I'd prefer to stay in the hills behind the coast, as indeed we mostly did.
* Food and drink... *
...is typically southern Italian, but with an understandable emphasis on seafood from the local fisheries: plenty of octopus, prawns, clams and swordfish are to be seen in the quayside restaurants. Buffalo mozzarella and ricotta cheeses both come from nearby and find their way into a lot of dishes. Lamb is a mainstay for meat courses. And there are, of course, pastas and pizzas in abundance. Plus some wonderful fruit and vegetables.
The local lemons, which grow very large and sweet, are particularly prized and are used to prepare a liqueur know as limoncello - sickly drunk on its own, but excellent poured over vanilla ice cream. Lachryma Christi, the citrusy white wine grown on the volcanic slopes of Vesuvius just up the coast, is a good accompaniment for the fish, but most of the best local wines are full-bodied reds: Furore and Tramonti particularly stick in my memory.
* Ways to visit *
The holiday I have described was obviously of a particular kind, and would not suit those who don't enjoy walking. A number of tour operators do packages, or you could simply fly to Naples by one of the many airlines that go there and take public transport, by which the area is well-served, or hire a car. Better still, you could take the train all the way, though that would be expensive and time-consuming. There are any number of hotels, hostels and campsites in the area. As to the Inntravel option that we took, had we had more time we could have added extra nights en route, done an extension round the end of the peninsula to Sorrento, seen the relics of Pompeii and Herculaneum or spent time in Naples, which looks a grim city but I'm told is full of interest by those who know it well.
* When to visit *
Quite apart from our bad luck with the weather, I think that in early April we were about a month ahead of ideal timing. By mid-to-late May, blossom and spring flowers would have added both colour and scent to the scenery, and the warmth would - one hopes - be more reliable. That's when we'd aim for if we went back.
* Recommendation *
The Amalfi Coast has been declared a World Heritage Site for its scenery, and it would be hard to argue against the designation. The jagged headlands rising from the sea, the wooded slopes, the deep valleys, with citrus groves, vineyards and little stone and stucco villages nestling among them - all these make for a dramatic and exhilarating backdrop to the resort towns on the coast. The towns themselves, though attractive, are expensive, limited in activities and their beaches are nothing to speak of.
Definitely you need to be able to explore beyond the towns, either by foot, bus, boat or car. Some people speak well of driving the length of the coast, but I'm surprised they can take their eyes off the cliff-top road long enough to admire the views, or live to tell the tale if they do. Somewhat to our surprise we found it, though densely populated in places, to be much less so in others, and excellent walking country. But however you approach it, the Amalfi Coast is well worth a visit.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2009
For those interested in assisted walking holidays generally, a review of Inntravel as organisers thereof can be found at http://www.dooyoo.co.uk/travel-agents/inntravel/13 14608/
Summary: A rather too discovered jewel
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