Had a dream last night about a trip we took to Amalfi and the tales we were told. Once upon a time Hercules, the celebrated son of Zeus fell in love—or was it lust—with a captivating sprite named Amalfi. When she died, the despairing Hercules buried her on one of the most pleasing coasts on earth and named it after his dearest love. The Amalfi Coast has and does enthrall artists, writers, composers, crowned heads, buccaneers, mercenaries, farmers, movie stars, and travelers who drive along the Strada Statale 163.
The Strada Statale known as the Nastro Azzurro—Blue Ribbon—road, is named for the milky color of its limestone and built with reverence for the natural turns of the Latteri Mountains. Built, between the 1840s and 1850s, it is a 41-mile awe-inspiring, spine-tingling adventure along Amalfi’s sensuous coastline between Sorrento and Salerno, Italy.
Our bus winds and spirals along the narrow road—presenting imposing vistas on all sides. Far above, chestnut, pine and walnut forests use the mountains as a setting for their verdant foliage. Accessible by steep ladder like steps, houses outfitted in the colors of sherbet—strawberry, vanilla, and lemon—hug the craggy rock formations that plunge to the Bays of Naples and Sorrento
Imagination roams free on Amalfi—we hear about Grecian Sirens—bird women who lived on the islets of Sirenuse and beguiled sailors with their sweet song. The sailors wrecked their ships on rocks as they sought to reach the sirens. Ulysses had himself tied to the ship’s mast while his crew placed beeswax in their ears to avoid the temptations that would smash their vessel and take their lives. Thwarted, the sirens tried to leap on board the ship, plummeted into the sea and drowned. History converted the Greek myth to Italian, the sirens became mermaids then changed into three rocks but their promise of pleasure continues—the islets were bought first by the Russian dancer Leonide Massine and then by his balletic heir, Rudolph Nureyev.
Wherever there is a tight space between the Moorish style houses that clasp the face of the rock, steps climb to another level in Positano—founded by Poseidon, the God of the Sea. A retreat for writers and artists—John Steinbeck lived here in 1953. The foundation of the town’s affluence have fish from the sea and water for making bread and—before the industrial revolution—water for wool, iron and pasta mills.
Part of Amalfi’s Maritime Republic in the 10th century, Positano’s ships carried spices, silks and wood to the east by the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, Positano, the first town to import bikinis is known for its fashion, Moda Positano. A dance festival, dedicated to Leonide Massine, is presented in summer and, in winter; the town’s traditional Prespio—a creche with a nativity scene—is much admired. The Prespio with stable, houses, shops and worshippers are all modeled on the town. The pebbled beach, Spaggia Grande, close to many fine restaurants, may be reached by a walkway from Piazza Flavio Gioia.
We stop at a roadside stand near Praiano, a fishing village that offers lemons, hot peppers, walnuts and figs reputed to be the finest on the coast. The town, colonized in the 6th century A.D., became a refuge for people seeking protection against the barbarians after the fall of the Roman Empire. From the town, cameras try to photograph the breathtaking seascape of blues and greens that change color in harmony with the water’s mood. Praiano is 2,000 steps above a small marina and steps are everywhere leading to bathing platforms by the sea.
Towers built from the 13th to 15th century and used for defense against the enemy fleets of Il Saracen—Muslim pirates—and Turkish invaders rise everywhere along the coast. One tower built at the beginning of the 19th century— was built in fear of the English. Sophia Loren’s villa is pointed out, off-white in color with terraces and a 500-year old tower. Perhaps Sophia’s tower protects against the paparazzi.
Of major importance is the Port of Amalfi, during the middle ages the principal town of the Ancient Maritime Republic—the other three towns were Pisa, Genoa and Venice. A commercial town, overlooking the Bay of Salerno, Amalfi, known for its shipbuilding, bustled with activity—spices, perfumes, silks and carpets. Amalfi ‘s Tabula Amalphitana—Maritime Laws—was believed to be the most accredited code of all maritime nations and may be viewed in the Civic Museum.
Around the square are old dockyards, while overhead are winding alleys that lead to the main square, dominated by the Duomo, the Cattedrale di Sant’ Andrea. The height and sweep of the Cathedral’s magnificent stairs, its Moorish features, black and white facade and Byzantine mosaic work, bronze doors made in Constantinople in the 10th century and its representations of the 12 apostles are both magnificent and imposing. The church is said to have the bones of St. Andrea—Amalfi’s protector of seamen—and the Saint is honored with a feast on June 27 celebrating the defeat of Barbarossa, known as Redbeard, the Admiral of the Turkish fleet, in 1544. Men clothed in white carry a silver-gilt statue of the Saint to the water and fishermen convey the statue back up the 62 steps to the cathedral. The Saint is thanked by the fishermen who decorate the statue’s left wrist with wooden and gilt amulets. Amalfi also has welcomed composers and authors; the Luna Hotel, in the past a convent, welcomed both Wagner and Ibsen who, in the 18th century, wrote “A Doll’s House,” during his stay.
Scala is a town said to have been founded by survivors of a shipwreck. As we drive, chestnut trees impress with a rich display of black nuts—Scala holds a Festival of the Chestnuts every year and is known as the Town of the Churches, with one hundred serving the devout.
From Scala, we look across a deep, narrow valley called the Valley of the Dragon, and see our next stop—the town of Ravello. Known for its textile industry in the 13th century, Ravello is recognized as both The City of Music—music is heard in Ravello throughout the year—and The Town of the Villas –one belonged to Gore Vidal. Two of the villas are world famous, the Villa Cimbrone, a Gothic castle where Greta Garbo once tarried and the Villa Rufalo which hosted D.H. Lawrence, Wagner, Grieg and Adrian IV, the first English Pope. The Villa Rufalo is mentioned in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. The Cimbrone is surrounded by rose gardens that lead to a stone parapet known as The Terrace of Infinity that overlooks the Bay of Salerno where the sapphire sky often melts into the ultramarine of the sea. The Villa Rufalo is a combination of Moorish and Mediterranean architecture with two towers, a Gothic arch that dates back to the 12th century, a cloister within and a garden where lavender grows and chamber music is played. The gardens inspired the magic garden in Wagner’s Parsifal. Below Rufalo is the village of Minora where a Roman Villa was built one century before Christ’s birth.
The Amalfi Coast with its legends, history, and promise of pleasure is as enchanting to mortals as the nymph Hercules loved and the tantalizing sirens sailors died for. A place where romantics, teller of tales and those dreaming of adventure continue a love affair with one of Italy’s most romantic treasures.