Cradled in the narrow valleys that empty into the bay of the Bay of Salerno on the south side of the Sorrentine Peninsula are the jewel-like towns of the Amalfi Riviera. One hundred or so years ago these elegant tourist towns were sad old shells with storied histories. A millenia before that they were the epicenter of Italy’s mercantile economy. Improbably this forbidding landscape produced merchants who dominated trade in the Mediterranean long before the rise of Genoa, Pisa and Venice. And the wealth of the citizens built churches and villas of exceeding beauty.
What we love now about this locale, the dramatic green and rocky coastal shapes, contributed to its ancient success. During a time of pirates and Muslim invaders, the ancient Duchy of Amalfi had a defensible position. There is no large open port area and there was always escape to the hills.
The first jewel of the Republic was Amalfi itself. Central and inviting, in 1000 AD the city had a population of 70,000. Now there are only about 5000 residents. The coastal beach and marina narrow quickly between two rocky slopes. The upper valley was the home of Amalfi’s small manufacturing with foundries and paper mills, powered by a fast moving stream. At the shore is what remains of the Arsenal (1059), where the Amalfitans built, repaired and stored their merchant and military vessels. In the mid-14th century much of the huge facility was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami. What remains is now an historical museum displaying artifacts of the republic’s heyday, model ships and a Compass Museum with samples from the middle ages through NASA.
A 5 minute walk from the beach is the Amalfi Cathedral named for St. Andrew whose remains are contained in the crypt. Typical of many Italian churches, the Cathedral blends elements of the original Romanesque style with later renovations and additions. The overall exterior style is Norman-Arabic with bits of Byzantine and Gothic thrown in to create a surprisingly harmonic whole. The interior is primarily baroque with 5 huge frescoes by Andrea dell’Asta, including the Martyrdom of St. Andrew from the early 18th century. The bell-tower was built at an odd-angle to the rest of the Duomo and is topped by a distinctively Arabic looking copula. It features colorful majolica tiles, typical of domes in this area. The beautiful Crypt of St. Andrew and an older basilica are connected to the Cathedral.
Besides wandering the narrow cobbled alleys and shopping for local crafts such as hand-made paper, the other attractions in Amalfi are the Cloister of Paradise, the white stone passageway where the nobles of the city were buried, the Museum of Hand-Made Paper and the Mill Valley where lemon trees and a rain-forest microclimate offer a lovely walk.
The wealthiest merchants of Amalfi built villas in the scenic hill village of Ravello. When the economic power of Amalfi waned both towns fell into ruin for several centuries. Ravello was rediscovered by British visitors who used the ruins of ancient villas to create a paradise of their own. High above the coast, the fortress like villas of Cimbrone and Rafolo offer incomparable Mediterranean views amid formal gardens and medieval ruins. Wisteria covered arbors enhance the affect. This is where luxury meets the drama of nature.
For a more festive and less historic seaside experience, Positanoat the beginning of the Amalfi road offers a resort town ambiance with wide beaches and coastal cafes and restaurants overlooking the beach. The stunning majolica dome at the Church of Maria Assunta enhance many of the photos of this much-photographed location. In Positano flat ground is very limited so the 4000 residents have built their homes, inns and restaurants on severe slopes so that the colorful buildings seem almost to be built on top of one-another.
Though any one of these three jewels is a lovely full day wander, the road between them would be a shame to miss. Known as the Amalfi Drive it begins in Sorrento on the northern coast of the peninsula, but the most famous stretch is between Positano and Amalfi where the Romans cut a path along the coastal cliffs. Very narrow, the drive is difficult for tourists especially for drivers who want to enjoy the views. It is a far better idea to get a local tour guide to take you.
After the fall of Rome and before the rise of Venice and Genoa, hidden Amalfi was the center of a thriving culture whose remnants can still be seen on the stunning Amalfi Riviera. It would be a shame to miss!