The Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi Coast

One is never quite prepared for life Italian-style, be it exquisite, confounding or mildly diverting.

After the obligatory harrowing ride from the airport, we spent the first evening of our weeklong Amalfi Coast vacation on the waterfront in Naples, where the "beach" consisted of massive slabs of plaster-colored riprap keeping the Mediterranean at bay. Nonetheless, this well-littered littoral was awash with bathers and fishermen, as well as amorous couples who seemed oblivious to the physical and karmic hazards of love on the rocks.

Naples has its charms, the magnificent Museum of Archaeology for one, but the city exudes a decidedly tumbledown, third-world feel. We dined outdoors in patio seating at a tony restaurant near the Castel dell'Ovo (the Egg Castle, which resembles a pound cake on steroids). The food, by all accounts (there were eight of us), was mediocre, and we were sorry we ordered the antipasto because it was a meal in itself. The experience was also marred by the cars parked remarkably close to our table, and a dog that did his business nearer still. No one else seemed to take notice.

That night a thunderstorm blew the heavy wooden shutters off an upstairs window onto our little balcony, and a large flowerpot smack dab onto a car in the alley. Thankfully, better days and meals lay ahead as we meandered down the coast, where we would be sharing a villa in the modest fishing village of Praiano, which is less than two hours from Naples and convenient to better-known destinations such as Positano, Amalfi and Ravello.

We had hired a car in Naples and made the required stops along the way at the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii (you also can get there by rail or bus). Our personal docent at Herculaneum (with whom we negotiated a group fee of 50 euros) told us repeatedly during our 90-minute walkabout that it was better to have a good guide who spoke English poorly than the other way round. Quite soon we were whispering that this gentleman, who had a politician's gift for not answering questions, was lacking on all fronts. At Pompeii, guidebooks and brochures in hand, we showed ourselves around. Admission to both, along with three associated sites, was 20 euros, or 11 euros individually.

Despite being the lesser of two ruins in size and reputation, Herculaneum has much to recommend it: It can be traversed in less than two hours; it isn't overrun with visitors, and because it was covered in Vesuvian mud rather than ash, its first-century remains are better preserved than Pompeii's. The separate public baths for men and women look like they could reopen for business. The floor of the men's bath is adorned with a delightful, mint-condition mosaic of a quite naked Triton, Greek god of the sea, surrounded by squiggly denizens of the deep. Why the Greek image in a Roman bath? Because the artisan was Greek, at least according to our guide.

The town's stone roads led us past houses and grand villas (some with surviving second stories), shops, gardens, the gym and roadside cafeteria-style restaurants with large clay pots that would have been filled with hot prepared foods like garum (a fermented fish sauce) and pasta.

In the afternoon, Pompeii provided a sense of the size and complexity of a bustling, sprawling Roman town in 79 A.D., as well a metaphor for the fragility of life. The town and its 10,000 inhabitants disappeared in a matter of moments and were soon forgotten for more than a millennium.

After a day of relentless ruins, it was time to fast-forward to the 21st century. Italy's present can be as astonishing as its past. Photos and guidebooks can't properly prepare one for the Amalfi Coast. As we careened along the seaside road, our driver Paulo honking in self-defense before every switchback and claustrophobic tunnel, each new vista that appeared, whether straight down hundreds of feet to the Mediterranean or up the terraced slopes, seemed to outdo the preceding one. How could anyone live and work in such a place and get anything done? Where would you go for vacation?

From our base camp in Praiano, we mapped our daily battle plans, well fortified with indigenous victuals, winsome wines, passable Italian beer, astonishing breads and fresh produce (squash still sporting their yellow flowers) from the indispensable corner store, the Tutto per Tutti, or Everything for Everyone (except fish). The word from an advance scout on nearby Positano, a charming-enough town with a respectable beach and ubiquitous boutiques climbing like ivy up the slopes, was: "If you don't [like to] shop, you're doomed."
We instead took the bus (2 euros) for the 15-minute ride to Amalfi, where the retailing was easy: the usual suspects: linens, ceramics, coral jewelry, etc. But Amalfi's narrow streets and meandering alleyways retain an unaffected, lived-in air. Finding a recommended eatery, Restorante al Teatro, renowned for its calamari in mint sauce and pizza (the fungi and prosciutto rocked), was a challenge as we navigated a steep, narrow labyrinth of stone steps with nary a sign to guide us, backtracking as needed.

Easier to find was the Cathedral of St. Andreas, a magnificently grand melange of architectural styles dating to the 9th century, its 60 broad stone steps leading to a delicious Arab-Norman-style marble-cake facade that looks good enough to nibble on. The sumptuous Baroque interior, which dates to an 18th-century makeover, houses the remains of the apostle St. Andrew, whom Jesus called, along with his companion Peter, to join him and become "fishers of men."

The "head and other bones" of St. Andrew, who was crucified in Greece circa 60 A.D., are said to have made their way to Amalfi in 1208. The occipital bone from his skull is brought out on special occasions at the cathedral. The crypt is far from gloomy, with its marble altar and sculptures, vivid ceiling frescoes (circa 1660) of the Passion of the Christ, and a large bronze statue of St. Andrew fashioned by a student of Michelangelo. The admission fee of 2.5 euros ranks it as the bargain of the trip. The 13th-century Angevin Mitre on display in the Basilica of the Crucifix, bathed in gold leaf, with an array of precious stones on a background of about 20,000 tiny pearls, is worth the price alone.

We took a boat to Capri, which was a splendid day trip, but unfortunately we left the best for last, immediately lamenting that we didn't have another day to traipse about Ravello, which over the centuries has attracted innumerable glitterati, from Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius to Greta Garbo and Gore Vidal.

You simply must visit the gardens of the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello. Take the Avenue of Immensity to the Terrace of Infinity, and look down, as in straight down - more than 1,000 feet - and see the Amalfi Coast spread out before you like a timeless work of art.

Many aver that there is no view on earth that compares.