June 19, 2009

Ravello and Vietri Sul Mare: Two towns you should visit on the Amalfi Coast

Two places in the Amalfi Coast that you must visit are Vietri Sul Mare and Ravello. Both towns are extremely beautiful, with Vietri Sul Mare right on the coast, and Ravello perched high up on a plateau, overlooking the sea. Maybe you’ve heard about the famous ceramics from Vietri Sul Mare, or the Ravello Festival, which is a summertime concert series of musical events? After about a week of chilling out in Maiori, it was time for little sightseeing.

I had visited Ravello for the first time in the summer of 2007, and to this day, it’s still one of the most romantic and beautiful places I have been. You can get to Ravello several ways, including a direct bus from the town of Amalfi, but I think half the fun is hiking up to the town, taking in the changing views with every step. There are stairs the whole way up, passing by doors to many homes. Now I understand why people here live so long, they definitely get their exercise. I started the climb from the town of Minori, which sits directly under Ravello on the coast. My parents and I started at about ten o’clock in the morning since it gets really hot midday and it’s nice to rest at lunch time, eating in the shade, while overlooking the coast below.

The whole coast is composed of a network of trails, many of which are stairs that link the little towns together. The climb up was pretty straightforward from Minori, and there are enough signs so you don’t get lost. The climb takes about an hour, or an hour and a half if you’re hiking with two old parents who are slow going. It’s my mother’s sixtieth birthday on Tuesday, but as she likes to say “age is a state of mind,” and she hiked at a good pace.

After about a ten minute walk from Minori, you come to the town’s beautiful little cemetery. It was interesting to take a quick peek and look at the family tombstones over the past hundred years. Generations of families who were born and raised in this tiny town. It was such a nice view over the sea, that I wouldn’t mind being buried here when the time comes, but somehow I feel like I would need to live in the town before this was allowed.

Continuing the climb, we then passed through the tiny town of Torello, and finally reached Ravello, via a small pathway opening up into the Piazza Duomo, the main square with a nice church. Being lunch time, it was quieter than I remembered, but I walked around to take some photos and admire the view looking down the other side of the valley to the towns of Scala and Pontone. Ravello is known as a glamorous town, with celebrities and the upper classes staying in some of the best five star luxury hotels, such as the Hotel Caruso, or the Palazzo Sasso. It was only natural that I would have a star sighting, and I came across Dennis Leary, comedian and actor, sitting by himself in the town square, looking across at the Church. I figured it was probably better to let him enjoy his holiday in somewhat anonymity, than harass him for a photograph.

Ravello was originally founded around the fifth and sixth centuries AD, and some of the wealthiest families built palaces here in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. These of course have been converted into luxury hotels. The small town which is perched on a flat plateau, is filled with gorgeous cobblestone pathways, old houses, hotels with views that will take your breath away, and some fantastic restaurants. It is touristy, I won’t lie, but you can avoid the crowds at times. Lunch time is a perfect chance to get away, and enjoy a meal with stunning views. I think the views over Minori and Maori are the best. My family likes to eat at the hotel and restaurant Villa Amore. The food is fantastic, it’s reasonably priced for the quality, and the husband and wife owners are so friendly. This time around I ate a nice white fish cooked in a tomato sauce, but I definitely had food envy when I tasted the fish my parents ordered, which was a grilled white fish in olive oil, lemon, wine vinegar, and mint. It may not sound like much, but then again, Italians are masters of making mind blowing meals with few ingredients.

Being one of the most beautiful places on the coast, and possibly in the world, many people choose to get married in Ravello, and I understand why. If you’re thinking of a destination wedding the two places I love are the Hotel Villa Amore, and my favorite, the Villa Eva, which just next door. Once you see the views overlooking the coast, you’ll understand why.

After a nice lunch I made my way over to Villa Cimbrone, with its massive gardens at the tip of the plateau. The villa was originally built in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries by a noble family, but was later rebuilt by an English Lord in 1904, who purchased the property. I had visited the property two years earlier, and it is worth the six Euro entrance fee to the grounds. There are pathways that take you across the lawns, and through the gardens filled with sculptures and flowers. At the end of one of the paths is a terrace at the very tip, which overlooks the sea and the gulf of Salerno. This is my most favorite view of the coast, and also the best for photos. To one side you can see Maiori and Minori. On the other side, you look down towards the town of Atrani. The villa has several rooms to spend the night, if you can afford it. But then again, there is also a private helicopter pad, so if you can afford a helicopter, than you probably can pay for a night at the villa.

The other main site in town with stunning views is the Villa Rufolo. Built in the thirteenth century, with gardens overlooking the sea, this is where the composer Wagner was inspired to write part of the second act of Parsifal. The villa grounds are home to the Concerti Wagneriani, a summertime festival of classical music, and to part of the Ravello Festival. The large concert stage was being erected when I was visiting, and the view made me wish I could stay longer to hear a performance while watching the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea. The Festival di Ravello runs from July to September.

I took a different path back down to Minori, and found myself walking through lemon groves for most of the way. It was the path less traveled so to speak, but it was well worth it. I got lost several times, but since this trail was set further back in the valley, I had great views into the Minori and the sea down below. The whole area smelled like lemons, and I didn't see a single person on this trail. What a great way to end the day.

Vietri Sul Mare is the first town you reach while driving from Salerno. It’s a great first introduction to the towns on the coast, since it’s one of the most charming places I’ve visited. The town is located in a valley, and occupies both sides of the river, and like most towns in the area, it’s comprised of both the shore and the hillside.

If you’ve heard of Vietri Sul Mare, it’s probably because of their ceramic trade which has made the town so famous. I had so much fun wandering the small cobblestone lanes filled with stores, cafes, restaurants and you guessed it, lots of ceramic shops; the most famous ones being Ceramica Pinto, and the massive Ceramiche Artistiche Solimene. The building itself is a work of architecture wonder, by Paolo Soleri, who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. The studio and store is four stories tall, the bottom floor being a hodge podge of ceramics stacked all over the place for sale, and the top three floors are where the craftsmen make the pieces by hand. While exploring the building, I noticed that there was a group of people on the upper floors. I figured it was open to the public as no one stopped me while I walked through an unlit passageway packed with boxes, but it turns out that I saw a school group being given a private tour, and so I tried to blend in with the kids in matching uniforms, while watching the workers hand paint plates and bowls. If you’re looking to get a new dining set, this is place to buy it. They do custom work for many of the hotels along the coast, and ship all over the world.

I had a fun time wandering the streets and taking photos. The town is proud of its ceramic heritage, and this is seen with all the public artwork adorning the walls as you walk around. I think what I like about Vietri Sul Mare is that it’s a healthy balance of tourism and locals just getting along with their days. Whereas everyone seems like a tourist in Amalfi or Positano, the townspeople here were going about their day as usual, shopping for groceries, or heading to the beach. I should mention that the beach is nice, and is only about a ten minute walk downhill from the town center, but it was packed on a weekday, and I could only imagine how a weekend would be. It is only a ten minute drive from Salerno, so if I was living there, this is where I would want to spend a sunny afternoon.

To see why I love these two places, here are my photos from Ravello and Vietri Sul Mare. I should preface this by telling you there are a lot of pics. I just couldn’t help myself. This is one of the most photogenic places I have ever been. Whether you’re celebrating your sixtieth birthday such as my mother, backpacking through Europe, getting married, or on a honeymoon, this is one of the most romantic places I’ve been to.


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