A Spring Visit to the Italian Amalfi Coast
Having lived in Tuscany Italy, I have a strong attachment to this beautiful part of the world, with its wonderful culture, welcoming people and incredible landscapes. One of my most memorable trips was to the Amalfi Coast on a spring break, whose breathtaking beauty was exactly as I imagined it to be. This famous stretch of coastline is located in the Province of Salerno, south of Naples, and its Mediterranean climate makes it a perfect holiday destination. It is a wonderful landscape of whitewashed houses, beautifully adorned by the vivid colours of bougainvillea, and connected by a labyrinth of alleys and stairways leading to picturesque piazzas, where the scent of lemon blossoms linger in the balmy air.
The Amalfi Coast consists of 13 towns which are spread across this strip of land, whose amazing inlets, bays and fjords are interspersed with pebbled beaches and rocks. The towns are conveniently connected by the SS.163 road, which is famous for its scenic route and is considered one of the most beautiful roads in Italy. Built in the 19th century during the Bourbon period, it follows the natural course of the coastline where each bend and curve highlights the spectacular beauty of the sea cliffs. Interestingly, before the coastal road was constructed, the locals used various footpaths and mule tracks to reach the towns, which are still in use today by trekkers and hikers who can enjoy the stunning views at their own pace.
Spring on the Amalfi Coast is a wonderful time to visit as the sleepy towns and villages, with their authentic cafes and restaurants, come to life after their winter hibernation. With perfect temperatures and the welcoming sight of spring flowers, exploring this beautiful coast can be taken at a more leisurely pace, avoiding the busy tourist months of July and August. In this article I will share my favourite must-see towns and villages, along with their interesting attractions.
Beginning at the water’s edge, the beautiful town of Amalfi is one of the most historic along the Amalfi Coast, where its cluster of whitewashed buildings gracefully adorn the hillside. As you meander along the pretty promenade with its variety of shops and cafes, you cannot fail to notice the marina with its colourful boats resting side by side in the azure water, displaying their international flags.
Founded in the 9th century, there is a distinctly Moorish feel to the small town which was once a maritime republic, rivalling Pisa, Venice and Genoa as the coastal trading powerhouse between the Byzantine and Western world. One of its most famous traditions is the ‘Regatta of the Ancient Marine Republic’, where each year a crew of rowers challenge the arms of the cities of Pisa, Venice and Genoa in an unforgettable boat race. Originating in the post-war period, the event is organised at the beginning of summer in one of the four cities, who take it in turn to host the event.
Amalfi has something for everyone, with a variety of beaches and an interesting mix of culture and history. Its location, which is right in the middle of the coast, makes it the perfect base for day trips to the island of Capri or smaller towns.
The Amalfi Cathedral (Duomo di Sant’Andrea)
Located in the Piazza del Duomo, and well worth a visit, this 9th century cathedral is in the Arab/Norman/Romanesque architectural style, with several additions made over the years to include Gothic, Byzantine and Baroque elements. Dedicated to the Apostle St. Andrew, it includes the 9th century Basilica of the Crucifix which leads to the Crypt of St. Andrew, whose remains were brought to Amalfi from Constantinople in 1206. The original facade of the cathedral was rebuilt in 1891 after collapsing, and is a mixture of striped marble and stone with the most wonderful lace detailing on its open arches.
There are a mere 62 steps which lead up to the bronze doors of the cathedral, which were cast in Constantinople in 1066 by Simeon of Syria and bear his signature. However, I personally thought the Romanesque bell tower, whose structure began in 1180 and took over 100 years to complete, is quite beautiful. Including four small towers that are adorned with arches, this Arab structure has a highly elaborate top which is covered with the most wonderful majolica tiles.
Stepping inside the cool interior of the cathedral, you cannot fail to be impressed by the triumphal arch in the apse which is supported by two ancient columns from Paestum. Adorning the walls and ceilings are paintings from the 18th century by Andrea D’Asta and Castellano, which depict the life and miracles of St. Andrew. On the left side of the cathedral’s portico you will find the Cloister of Paradise, which was built in 1266-68 and houses the tombs of Amalfi’s wealthy merchants. Featuring beautiful arcades made of pure white marble, complete with a Mediterranean garden as a centrepiece, there is a real sense of tranquillity as you gaze at the many historical art pieces on display in the surrounding walkways.
Leading from the Cloister, and dating from the 9th century, is the Basilica of the Crucifix, which contains amazing frescoes and houses the cathedral’s museum. Descending the stairs located at the east end, you will find the Crypt of St. Andrew which houses the saint’s relics in a central altar and is decorated with wonderful Baroque murals dating from 1660. There are also a selection of statues in bronze and marble, and I was particularly impressed by the large bronze statue of St. Andrew sculpted by Michelangelo Naccherino of Florence in 1604, who was a student of Michelangelo.
Tip: As you leave the Cathedral, you will come across a number of narrow alleyways with numerable twists and turns which lead absolutely nowhere. Designed centuries ago to confuse attackers and protect the cathedral and inhabitants of the town, they are definitely worth exploring and a fun thing to do.
The Cathedral is open daily from March to June, 9.00am-6.45pm.
Entrance to the Museum and Cloister costs €3.
If you enjoy walking then a morning stroll to the tiny town of Atrani, which is located a couple of miles from Amalfi, is well worth the trip. A place where time appears to have stood still, this coastal fishing village nestles comfortably between two steep cliffs on the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea, where its tiers of multi-coloured houses overlook one of the most beautiful pristine beaches I have ever seen.
To appreciate the rustic charm of this village, you can climb the steps from beach level and meander through the winding streets, where you will discover incredible piazzas with cascading fountains, not to mention 13th century Baroque churches. Reaching the main square, I would suggest stopping at the cafe terrace in Piazza Umberto, where you will experience traditional Italian food whose recipes have been handed down through the generations.
Timeless and authentic, Atrani epitomises the real heart and soul of Italy, and even though the facades of the buildings lining the square appear to be a little weather beaten, they have managed to retain their own unique beauty and, not surprisingly, have featured in numerous films throughout the years.
One of the most popular destinations on the Amalfi Coast, Positano is simply breathtaking and distinctly its own. There is something very special about Positano as, against all the odds, it clings defiantly to the cliffs of Monti Lattari in a pastel painted landscape which drops dramatically to the sea. Perching above the gulf with the most incredible views, it has an abundance of steep sets of stairs interlinking the alleys between the houses.
Once a Roman settlement, it later became the site of a Benedictine abbey dating back to the 9th century. Due to its position, it was constantly pillaged and raided by Saracens and pirates; however, with the construction of the coastal road, Positano prospered becoming the playground of the rich and famous.
The best way to explore is on foot, and with only one road through the town, you will be spoiled for choice by the many shops and cafes which huddle together, taking advantage of the space. However, there are many other eateries and coffee bars which are hidden away among the lanes surrounding the town that are definitely worth a visit.
The Church of Santa Maria Assunta
Situated in the centre of Positano, the allure of this beautiful building makes it an obvious choice for weddings on the Amalfi Coast. Built on the site of a former Benedictine Abbey in the 10th century, the church, with its central dome of yellow, green and blue majolica tiles, is one of Positano’s most distinctive landmarks. There is a small piazza in front of the church where you can admire the building’s facade and, in particular, its 28th century bell tower. With its bas-relief of fish, fox and a mythical dragon just above the bell tower door, it is one of the few surviving relics of the original abbey.
Stepping inside, you cannot fail to be impressed by its white and gold interior in the Neoclassical design dating from the 18th century. Above the main alter you can admire the 12thcentury Byzantine icon of the Black Madonna, who according to legend was aboard a ship which was stranded off Positano’s coast when the sailors, believing they heard the icon calling out “Posa Posa” (“Put me down”), decided to leave the Madonna on the mainland, where the inhabitants of Positano chose the Virgin as their patron and built a church in her honour. Interestingly, this is said to be the origin of Positano’s name.
Adorning the side chapels and altars, there are a number of beautiful artworks including the famous painting of the ‘Circumcision’ by Fabrizio Santafede. An important part of Positano’c cultural, religious and architectural landscape, the church has appeared in many paintings, photographs and films. It is a haven for photographers and artists alike, and you can purchase paintings of the church directly from the artists. Given its location and the fact it can be seen from any point in Positano, this amazing church exudes an air of permanence and is fondly known by the locals as the ‘heart of the town’.
Famous for its beaches, you cannot visit Positano without relaxing on the ‘Spiaggia Grande’ which is particularly beautiful in the evening where you can enjoy live music and sample the wonderful fresh produce at the many restaurants and cafes close to the beach. However, if you prefer a more private and quieter beach, a favourite of mine is the ‘Laurito Beach’, which is accessed by boat (leaving Positano’s Spiaggia Grande every 30 minutes) or from the square opposite the Hotel San Pietro via a flight of steps. It also boasts a number of wonderful restaurants; however, it will be necessary to book a dinner reservation in advance.
If you want to get off the beaten track then I highly recommend the lesser-known but equally enchanting village of Praiano. Once a fashionable resort and a favourite summer residence of 1st century Roman emperors, this seaside resort has a friendly and laid-back ambiance, where its crystalline seas were awarded the Bandiera Blu (Blue Flag) for cleanliness.
Known as the Amalfi Coast’s best-kept secret, its whitewashed homes, complete with terraced gardens, cascade dramatically down the stone cliffs. Throughout this hilly expanse, small boutiques sell locally made wares and visitors can sample the delights of just-caught seafood at the many restaurants and alfresco trattorias, where you will receive a wonderful welcome.
Introduced in 2016, the NaturArte Project is an open-air museum where majolica plaques and sculptures cover the pretty streets along eight routes. I actually enjoyed exploring all eight routes; however, my favourite and most picturesque path would have to be along Via Massa, which is an extremely narrow cobblestone lane meandering above the coastline. Interestingly, adorning the facades of the tiny homes hugging the cliffs are a wonderful array of beautifully glazed tiles depicting octopuses and dolphins, not forgetting the many figurines of saints who appear to keep a protective eye on the village and its inhabitants.
Path of the Gods
Having some of the most amazing walking paths I have ever experienced, the famous ‘Path of the Gods’ is one of the best. Originally built in the 4th century by the Romans for transporting goods, it runs from Bomerano to Nocelle. You can join the route at Praiano by climbing up to the Convent of St Domenico. I have to say, it is a bit of a climb involving 1900 steps to reach the top, and actually feels a little like climbing a small mountain, however it is well worth the effort as the view across the bay to the island of Capri is indeed magical. If you are not keen on steep climbs, there are lots of other amazing walking routes stretching along the coastline either through the hills or beside the water.
Marina di Praia Beach
Wedged between two towering cliffs you will find the picturesque cove at Marina di Praia, where you can cool off in the clear blue water which in spring is still warm enough to swim in. There are a variety of restaurants situated on the beach, and if you enjoy music, pay a visit to the nightclub Africana, which is cleverly built into sea caves with a glass floor just above the water, perfect for that evening cocktail. Perhaps not quite as glamorous as other beaches on the Amalfi Coast, I find it to be a peaceful oasis with many charms of its own.
There is something truly magical about the Amalfi Coast, and in a country awash with beautiful landscapes, I feel it rightfully takes its place as Italy’s most scenic stretch of coastline. The enchanting towns and villages, with their string of pastel-coloured homes, elicit an old-world glamour of their own.
With ornate churches, lemon groves, ancient palazzos, and incredible walks to explore, or simply relaxing on the many pristine beaches and sampling the delights of authentic Italian cooking, you are sure to return time and again to glimpse yet another stunning vista.
© 2019 Lorna Lamon