June 14, 2009

The Amalfi Coast might be the most beautiful place on Earth

The Amalfi Coast of Southwest Italy is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I know, it’s a bold statement. I’ve been to a good amount of countries in the last two years, since I first visited this region in 2007. I still get that same feeling of awe when I look across at the jagged coastline, with little towns built into the hillsides and small valleys, and the towering mountains behind them. Lemon groves on the step terraces of the steep hills give the area a sweet smell, and make for beautiful scenery when you are walking between towns. For tourists that know of the Amalfi coast, they usually only think about the towns of Amalfi and Positano. These were made famous by American authors John Steinbeck and Tennessee Williams, who lived in the areas while they wrote. But there is so much more than just these two, over-touristy towns.

The Amalfi coast is located south of Naples, framed by the towns of Sorrento in the North and Salerno in the South. If you fly into Rome, which I did, it’s about a three hour train ride from Termini station to Salerno, then about an hour bus ride along the coast to the towns of Maiori, Minori, Ravello, Atrani, and Amalfi. If you follow this route, make sure you get a bus seat on the left side, since this will give you the best views over the towns and sea. You can also take a boat from Salerno or Naples to Amalfi, which allows you to see the beautiful coastline from the sea. The road for most of the journey is high up on the hills, on top of cliffs, with a steep drop down. The drive is one of my favorites, since the road is about the width of two buses at most, and of course there is no shoulder. Throw in a ton of hair-pin turns, and your blood pressure rises when the driver speeds around blind turns, honking his horn, and hoping you’re the only vehicle. One of these days I want to come back and drive this route in a fast car or motorbike, just because I think it would be fun.

Life is good here. It’s easy. No rush hour traffic. People are friendly, greeting each other with a simple “buon giourno” or “ciao.” The towns typically shut down from about one to four in the afternoon, since it’s hot during those times, so I understand why. It’s a nice break if you’re working, or lucky to be relaxing at the beach. Families get together for a big meal, then it’s time for an afternoon break. For me, it includes a nice long nap.

My family has been coming to this area for the last three years. We’re a traveling family in the sense that my parents and sister have always traveled as well, and I guess this is why I am who I am. It looks like they also feel the same about this place, which is why they come back to rent the same little villa each year for May and June. It’s nothing fancy, but it does have a nice terrace with a view over the town of Maiori and the Mediterranean Sea. I can tell you that with a view like this, no one would ever need to eat dinner in front of the television again. Instead of finding out if Jack Bauer made it out alive again on the series “24” or if Ted finally found his future wife on “How I Met Your Mother” (my favorite show by the way), I watch the colors of the changing sky during sunset, listen to the sounds of the town’s church bells, and get lost in my thoughts. Maybe if I stay here until I’m old, I will become a man who just sits on a bench, watching the world go by.

I’ve been here for about a week so far. Relaxing, and taking advantage of the good food, fantastic regional wines, the beaches, and of course the stunning scenery. The town of Maiori is the largest town in the area, and is where the majority of Italians in this area live. There are tourists, but they are Italians. It’s the ideal place to try and immerse oneself in the culture and language. I’m getting better with both, but a week so far is hardly enough time.

Maiori has one main road running along the coast, that is filled with small hotels, restaurants, and a large beach separated only by a pier. Italians like their beach clubs, so for about ten Euros a day you can rent two chairs and an umbrella on a private stretch of sand, or you can find a spot to relax on the small public beaches, which seem to be more fun, and less packed.

There is another main road that runs up through the valley, and into the mountain towns of Tramonti. A large promenade also runs up from the beach and is filled with specialty shops such as a bakery or butcher. In the distance, up in the hills, is the Ninth century Castle of San Nicola de Toro Plano, which looms above the town. It’s mostly ruins now, with lemon groves, but there is the nicest old caretaker who will show you around, pointing to things with large hand gestures, while talking in Italian. I just smiled and said “si” all the time. It’s amazing how a smile is something that transcends the language barrier, and can make both parties feel at home. I try to practice this even when I’m in an English speaking country, and especially when I’m abroad in an area with a language that is new to me.

Just before dinner, and again after the meal, the promenade gets packed with locals taking their customary stroll, called a “passeggiaro.” You’ll see couples, friends, and family members walking along holding hands, or linking arms. It’s a great Italian custom practiced all over the country. At sunset, the promenade is especially beautiful. The houses are from a mix of eras. Their walls are stuccoes in pastel colors of pinks and yellows, which have faded over time. Flowers of pinks, purples, yellows, flow from balconies. I especially love that buildings like these have big windows, with shutters, and large balconies that look out over the street. It’s a very typical style of old Europe, but something that you just don’t find in North America, and it brings a smile to my face whenever I get reminded of this. Not far up from the beach on this main promenade, you’ll find the Palazzo Mezzacapo built in the nineteenth century, with gorgeous frescoed ceilings, and a nice garden in back. It’s now municipal offices. Could you imagine going to work each day in a setting like this?

In between these two main streets running up from the beach, there are little cobblestone laneways, big enough only for pedestrians and scooters. Found in many classic Italian towns, these laneways are the most fun to wander through, as they twist and turn, with stairs going up or down, and they give you the feeling that you are not in your home country. Unless, you were lucky enough to grow up in Italy, or a similar European place.

Just around the bend, up the coast from Maiori, is the small, and cute town of Minori. As the name suggests, it’s a smaller version of its neighboring town. I find the beach here a little more scenic than in Maiori, since it’s smaller, and framed by two cliffs, with the town of Ravello towering above. The one main road which winds its way from the old church and shore, is quaint. For the history or archaeology buff, there is a well preserved Roman villa you can visit. Other than this, there isn’t much sightseeing in Minori, or much of the other towns on the Amalfi Coast, outside of natural vistas, which is really the reason you want to come visit the area. Hiking is a major activity of the area, as the coast didn’t get a real road until the mid eighteen hundreds, so the towns are all linked by a network of paths and stairs going up and down. Every step up provides another breathtaking vista. I did a great hike up into the hills behind Maiori and Minori, to the Convent of San Nicola, built in the sixteen hundreds. It’s closed now, but the view of the towns and sea was stunning, and also a great spot to eat lunch with a bottle a vino. The hike down through the valley into Minori, passes by smaller towns, and even some old ruins of paper mills which were once a large business for the coast. The Amalfi coast is believed to be the first location in Europe where paper was made, and the Vatican still uses Amalfi paper for correspondence.

Italian cuisine, wow, where to start? I guess with the antipasti! These are the appetizers if you didn’t already know. There is fried calamari, caprese salad of buffalo mozzarella, tomato, and basil. Steamed clams and mussels, prociutto and melon. Then of course there is the first course of pasta or pizza, followed by a second course of a meat dish. Since it’s a coastal area, seafood dominates many of the dishes, whether it’s risotto, pasta, or grilled fish. Lemons are incorporated into a lot of dishes, since they grow almost everywhere on the coast.

One highlight for me, was eating at the Torre Normanna restaurant run by four brothers, on the second night in town. The restaurant is set in an ancient Norman Tower from 1250 AD, which was used as a lookout post over the sea. The setting is breathtaking, especially at sunset and night, since you can see all the lights of the coastal towns twinkling in the distance. Then there is the food. I’m not sure how my father loses weight every time he’s here, but all I seem to be doing is eating. Maybe it is the combination of walking everywhere, and the healthy, fresh food. I shouldn’t be complaining, I’m enjoying life right now.

Coming to towns like Maiori remind me that quality is essential when buying food. For Italians, this is another form of religion. Everything here is fresh, and grown locally. People have small fridges, and they generally go shopping everyday. My family goes to the butcher, the pescheria for fish, the vegetable store called Tutti Frutti (I love it). No preservatives, nothing is picked prematurely, only to somewhat ripen en route to the supermarket. I had forgotten what real tomatoes tasted like until I came here. This is living.

Two things I must mention are: 1) If you are going to stay on this part of the coast, get in touch with the amazing sisters Julia and Mille who run Amapola Servizi Turistici, and they can find you an apartment for rent. 2) When you do get your apartment with a kitchen, head to Il Pastaio in Minori (Largo Solai del Pastai, #37) and pick up the best fresh pasta I have ever eaten, prepared by Filamena. Cook their lemon and ricotta ravioli with a marinara sauce, and drink with a local wine such as Greco di Tufo or Fiano di Avellino, from the Campania region.

I’ll be here for a little longer, with more activities and sight-seeing along the coast, but in the meantime, here is a little taste of the area with some pictures from Maiori, Minori, and their surroundings.

Have you ever been to this area or somewhere similar? If so, I’d love to hear about it.


Hostels Valencia said...

Amalfi!!!! one of my favorites places on hearth, very relax, supernice people, thats all you need,and on the top of that superb food, i am sure God lived there for a while

Mandino said...

I was wondering why does those statues show the other breast? is it kind of a cultural thing? :) I really love the sea theere, but I am really curious about the history of the statues there... I've found a way to review places, and I got myself into www.baraaza.com ... I usually connect with my family there...