As my parents have been to Florence countless times, last week while I went to work, they took the car down to the Amalfi coast. In this post, Mom reports back proving that the area is as beautiful as they say!
Although many people say it’s not wise to drive on the Amalfi Coast due to the narrow roads and crazy drivers, we took the risk (we’ve driven through Tuscany and around much of the world) and found that having a car gave us freedom that public transportation would not. From Florence, we took the highway straight down towards Naples and then along the Salerno-Reggio Calabria until Vietri sul Mare. For our late October holiday we chose to stay outside of Vietri in Raito, essentially a suburb, but we enjoyed Hotel Raito very much. We booked a superior room with sea view, and while the room itself was nothing to write home about, the view was. We had a small private garden, huge terrace and view off the cliff to the sea, and found ourselves going out to look at the view at various times of the day, including sunrise (see photo).
The purpose of this trip was to relax (and get away from Florence!) so we took it easy, enjoyed the amazing views, took photos and ate good food. Here’s what we recommend for three days in the area at an easy pace while trying to keep away from the tourists.
Day 1 – Amalfi + Ravello
The Amalfi coast is reputed to be one of the world’s great drives, so of course we had to tackle this on the first day. It’s under 30km from Vietri to Amalfi but it can take all day if you stop to admire the views every few curves as we did.
We drove from Vietri sul Mare, through Maiori, Minori and all the way to Amalfi, with a detour inland (up the mountain) to Ravello. This is half of the famed coast but is home to some of the best views. Most tourists start out in Naples and go through Positano to Amalfi so we were happy to go against the flow.
We had heard that Ravello was a must-see and not as crowded as the coastline towns since public transportation to this town is limited (however there were plenty of tourist busses). Ravello is known in particular for its two spectacular gardens at Villa Cimbrone (also a luxury hotel) and Villa Rufolo which offer impressive panoramas of which one cannot get enough.
First up was Villa Rufolo, the home of the rich Rufolo family which was mentioned by Boccaccio in the Decameron. When Wagner visited in 1880, he exclaimed that he had finally found the setting for his opera, Parsifal. Every summer, music (not necessarily Wagner) is performed at the Ravello Festival on a stage that juts out over the sea. Who knew that playing classical music could be such a risky job?
The most photographed feature of this garden is the remainder of an 11th century cloister in the Moorish style. The original grounds held a mix of Arabic, Sicilian and Norman architecture that no longer is present); now in its entirely Romantic 19th-century form, it is a mix of formal plantings, ruins, and heavy 19th-century porticoes and other structures, though still offers the surprising views over the water.
Next stop: Villa Cimbrone…
Like Villa Rufolo, this place was transformed by an English traveler during the Grand Tour. The basic shape of the garden revolves around a central Renaissance avenue, but evolved in the shape and taste of late 19th century English gardens. The choice of plants was by Vita Sackville-West, poet and gardener who was friends with the owners, the Becketts. For the influential Bloomsbury group, whose most famous member was Virginia Woolf, the garden embodied an idea of aesthetic harmony.
The famous Terrace of Infinity is adorned with 18th-century busts. From here you can see all the way down the Amalfi Coast.
It was already quite late in the day by the time we made it to Amalfi, so we didn’t explore much, though appreciated the cathedral with its Romanesque facade (Duomo di Sant’Andrea), which seems to be the main art-historical highlight of this town, with is otherwise lovely to explore due to its tall white houses hugging the hill. Shops and all are very touristy.
Day 2 – Sorrento
We got going late in the day on our second day, which had been set aside for Sorrento, because the hotel breakfast was particularly good and ample, and thus deserved our full attention over the course of a few hours. We then enjoyed the view in our garden before heading out about an hour and a half away to Sorrento.
As in most Italian towns, one first hits up the cathedral, which we didn’t enter, however. In Sorrento an unusual feature is the bell tower which is close by but not adjacent to the cathedral. It has a medieval base but as you can see from the picture the actual structure is much more modern, with a clock face from the 18th century.
Another quite unique feature in Sorrento is what is called a “Sedile” which we’d never heard of, but appears to be a kind of almost open-air civic building where nobles met to discuss administrative and government issues. Now it houses the “Sorrentine Club” so we saw old men playing chess there. The structure has a maiolica roof and in the covered areas is decorated with trompe-l’oeuil frescoes.
A major reason we’d visited Sorrento this day (which we found overly touristy) was to look into how to get to Capri the following day.
Day 3 – Capri
To get to Capri from Vietri sul Mare, you could take a 2 hour ferry ride, but we opted to drive and catch a faster boat from Sorrento. From here it was about a 25 minute boat ride. We left early in the morning and returned at 7pm. Although some people suggest that Capri is a half day trip, we certainly didn’t think so. You can’t rush taking in beauty, sometimes you just have to sit down and soak in the view.
We headed straight for the Blue Grotto, probably the number one tourist attraction on Capri but worth trying to see. Turns out that one can get in only 30% of the time due to rough seas, so we were lucky. First you take a largish motor boat to the entrance to the grotto, at which point you line up and wait…
A series of row boats take in four tourists at a time. We waited about an hour, and then our moment came to get into the boat. The entrance to the grotto is very low, so we are positioned in a particularly intimate way: Basically you sit in between each others’ legs, lying back, and when you go under the entrance, the rowing man also lies down on top of all of you!
Inside the grotto it really is blue! The rowboat men sing Neapolitan songs to show off the acoustics. Within minutes, you’re out again. Although it is a short visit and not cheap (18 euros per person for the two boats, plus the trip to Capri), it’s the kind of thing you ought to do once in a lifetime, if you can.
The other major thing to do on Capri is to take a chairlift up to the top of Mount Solaro. This old-style chairlift transports a single person at a time and the ride takes about 12 minutes (cost is 10 euros per person, round trip ticket). From 589 meters up there is quite an impressive view!
As we travel frequently to Italy, we know we’ll be back some day, so we weren’t too worried about seeing everything in the area. We’d already been to Naples and Pompeii with Alexandra on the train once, but otherwise the south of Italy remains to be explored for us. After this positive experience, we hope to come back to this area and see Positano, and would even return to Vietri sul Mare – in the off-season of course!