Saturday, 16 August 2014

amalfian dreams

We returned home from the Amalfi Coast last Saturday, after a sublime summer holiday. On the previous Saturday afternoon we flew into Naples (via Stuttgart), past Vesuvius, which seemed to loom dark and heavy over the blue shoreline. To get to our base for the week, we drove for an hour or so south, eventually coming to the notorious SS163 coastal road. We joined at its beginning in the town of Vietri sul Mare and then, clinging to the cliff edge, crawled along to our destination, the beautiful Villa Scarpariello. We dropped off our bags and de-robed, achey and hot after the long journey, and jumped straight into the sea.

Later that evening we walked from the villa along the SS163 to the charming fishing village of Atrani. We did a lot of walking along this coastal road, which provides access to the towns dotted along the sea. It was quite terrifying at first - there are no pavements, and you're faced with sharp bends and twists whilst mopeds, sports cars and buses come hurtling towards you at great speed, but we quickly got used to it. Atrani has the most lovely square, which we ended up frequenting most nights for a spritz or three. We'd sit there as the sun was setting over the water, in front of the church of San Salvatore, and watch people from all generations going about their business. It was just the most perfect Italian square; full of life. Interestingly, Atrani resides along the valley of the Dragone River, named after a legend which describes a terrible dragon that would hide himself there.

The family run Villa Scarpariello was a great find - our terrace overlooked the sea, and we'd wake up every morning to the most fabulous view. A cluster of simple, rustic rooms and apartments surround tiered gardens and a 15th-century watchtower - all connected via a maze of steps.

After our daily breakfast of coffee and fruit, we'd go for a swim in the saltwater pool. Or we'd wander down to the rocks and dive into the sea.

On Sunday morning we drove up to nearby Ravello, which is set like an eagle's nest above the shimmering coastline. We explored the town's lanes and terraces before enjoying a delicious poolside lunch at the Hotel Caruso. Described as one of the best hotels in Europe, the Caruso was once a palace, with terraced gardens and an infinity pool that seemed to spill into the Gulf of Sorrento below.

We took a ferry to Capri on Tuesday. Lunch was at La Capannina, one of the most perfect restaurants I've had the pleasure of visiting. Waiters in pale pink waistcoats and black cummerbunds serve local dishes, whilst diners sit at tables laid with matching pink tablecloths, which I remember jarred superbly with the vivid green tiled floor. I highly recommend.

After lunch we paid a visit to the Grotta Azzurra, a sea cave on the coast of the island. Sunlight, passing through an underwater cavity and shining through the seawater, creates a blue reflection that illuminates the cavern. The grotto was known by the Romans, and apparently used by the Emperor Tiberius during the years when he retired to Capri. To get to it, you take a small boat around the coast to the tiny entrance, before being rowed into the cave itself by a local guy in a gondola.

Amalfi, in the next bay over from Atrani, felt much more touristy than it's quieter neighbour, but I still liked it very much. We had dinner in Amalfi a couple of times; afterwards we'd sit in the Piazza Duomo, the heart of Amalfi, with a few scoops of hazelnut gelato. The Duomo itself, which dominates the square, was magnificent. The façade of the cathedral is Byzantine in style and is adorned with various paintings of saints, including a large fresco of Saint Andrew.

Wednesday found us renting a small boat, which we sped up and down the coast in, dropping anchor and taking a quick swim every now and again. We visited La Gilli (or Le Sirenuse), an archipelago of little islands just off the coast of Positano. The name, Sirenuse, is a reference to the mythological sirens said to have lived there. Several sirens were said to have inhabited the islands, the most famous of whom were Parthenope, Leucosia and Ligeia. One of them played the lyre, another sang and another played the flute.

Holiday essentials...

Happily, I did quite a lot of sketching during our stay, usually in the evenings before supper or first thing in the morning.

On Friday we climbed down hundreds of steps from the road (further west and closer to Positano) right down to the sea, with the idea of having lunch at Da Adolfo, which I'd read about and couldn't wait to visit. The restaurant is situated in a tiny rocky cove (I imagine it's much easier to get to from the sea), in what is more or less a straw-roofed beach hut. The food, however, was incredible. We had, amongst other delicious things, grilled mozzarella on lemon leaves and the most excellent drink - jugs of white wine served with peaches. Could this work as well in North London, do you think? I have my doubts!

Two other highlights of the trip were a perfect, simple shrimp risotto from the wonderful A' Paranza in Atrani (which I ate on three separate occasions because it was so heavenly) and the Villa Cimbrone, a historic building in Ravello, with its beautiful accompanying gardens, which we spent Thursday afternoon getting lost in. Saturday was mostly taken up by the lengthy return trip (this time via Düsseldorf). We had a fabulous week, with just the right amounts of rest, relaxation, eating, drinking, exploration and discovery, which I reckon all summer holidays should have in equal parts. Amalfi, when can I return to you?

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