Italy

The Amalfi Coast

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amalfi

I have longed to visit the Amalfi Coast for years, entranced by the beautiful pictures I have seen of its rugged coastline and pastel coloured villages clinging to the cliffs above the glittering Mediterranean sea. It seemed impossible that anywhere could truly be so gorgeous, but as soon as the bus from Sorrento crossed the hills that straddle the middle of the Sorrentine peninsula and gave me my first glimpse of the Amalfi coastline, I was mesmerised by what unfolded before me. Words cannot do justice to such beauty; it truly has to be seen to be believed.

Positano

 

Amalfi Cathedral

Positano, Amalfi and Ravello are all famously picturesque, and I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around all three. Positano is made up of steeply winding cobbled streets and tiny piazzas containing lovely little shops and restaurants. There is also a pretty beach down at the harbour, and I couldn’t imagine a better view while sunbathing than the sugar cube houses spilling down the hillside above and the endless sea sparkling in front. Like on Capri, much of the older architecture on the coast is heavily influenced by Moorish culture, and this is particularly noticeable in Amalfi, which is larger than Positano and has a seriously impressive cathedral. As the biggest town on this stretch of coastline, it is busy and bustling, with so many streets and staircases and nooks and crannies to explore that a week probably wouldn’t be enough to discover everything of interest. My favourite discovery was the cathedral, which is stunning inside and out, and well worth the hike up the front steps to explore. However, the highlight of the Amalfi Coast for me was Ravello, which is perched high on the cliffs above Amalfi and is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

villa rufolo

 

villa rufolo

Like Capri, Ravello has long been a place of glamour, sought out by the rich and famous for its seclusion and glorious, sweeping views of the surrounding landscape. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to explore due to the limited public transport up to the town, but we did manage to visit Villa Rufolo, a Moorish villa much restored in the 19th century, with luscious gardens that offer uninterrupted views over the sea. In the summer, they have concerts here, and the stage literally juts out over the sea below – what an experience! If we had longer, we would have gone to Villa Cimbrone, which has an illustrious past and more envious views, and is now a hotel to boot – it’s my dream to stay there one day! The Amalfi Coast is one of those places that stays with you after you visit, and really fires the imagination. It was the jewel in the crown of a wonderful holiday, and I know I will be back for more.

Naples and Herculaneum

palazzo reale

Naples

‘See Naples and die’ said Goethe, after experiencing the glories of Naples in the Golden days of the Bourbon Kings. Naples was once the wealthiest and most beautiful city in Italy, and  I couldn’t wait to see it. I imagined splendour, pomp, gilding and streetscapes so architecturally perfect that they would send me into raptures. Unfortunately, my first impression was anything but. On disembarking the train at the Piazza Garibaldi, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The building of the train station had obliterated this clearly once majestic square, and all I could see were seedy shops and crumbling stucco. Where was the fine city I had been promised? Walking through the streets to the Duomo, the dilapidation of the architecture all around me became even more pronounced. Glimpses of alleyways filled with hanging washing and mopeds were all very quintessentially Italian, but they weren’t particularly gorgeous. The Duomo, tricky to find, nestled amidst a huddle of flaking apartment buildings and shops, was breathtakingly beautiful inside, but on the outside, it was rather lost in its insalubrious surroundings. I felt very disappointed.

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Palazzo Reale

However, as I walked on, through the maze of ochred buildings with their wrought iron balconies, beautiful french windows, peeling shutters and decorative ceramic tiles, and caught glimpses of intriguing courtyards and alleyways hidden behind arches, I began to fall in love. Then, when I found the long main shopping street, with its pretty piazzas, side streets that climbed steeply up the cliffside, fantastic art deco buildings and glimpses of the sea beyond its shops, I was able to capture the essence of what made this such a gorgeous city. The piece de la resistance, however, was yet to come; at the end of the main street is Piazza del Plebisicito, home of the enormous Palazzo Reale, former palace of the King and Queen of Naples, which dangles over a cliff edge with incredible views across the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius. This Piazza, sadly covered in scaffolding so not a great photo opportunity, is truly beautiful, and I can only imagine what it looked like back in the days of Naples’ eminence. The Palazzo Reale is just as opulent inside as out, and in true Italian style, it is a bargain to visit; just 4 euros to wander the marble and gilded halls, the sumptuous state rooms and galleries, and the formal gardens overlooking the sea. It was the highlight of my visit. I wish I had have had more time to explore; I wanted to get to the archaelogical museum where most of the relics from Pompeii are on display, but it was too hot and too far to walk, so I contented myself with the Palazzo as my token nod to culture for the day. Getting the ferry back to Sorrento was the cherry on the top of a wonderful cake; the view of Naples from the sea, blurring its dilapidation into finery once more, is priceless. It was only later that I found out how badly Naples was bombed during the war, which explains the state of many of the buildings. An astonishing 20,000 civilians died from aerial bombing.

herculaneum

herculeaneum

Later in the week, I hopped back on the wonderfully named Circumvesuviana train from Sorrento to Ercolano Scavi, which is home to the ancient town of Herculaneum, unearthed from volcanic mud mere decades ago to reveal the Roman civilisation trapped at the moment of Vesuvius’ famous eruption. Unlike Pompeii, which is absolutely massive and crowded with tourists, Herculaneum is very compact, nestled amidst the existing city of Ercolano, and not as well known, so much quieter. I couldn’t bear the thought of wandering for miles around Pompeii amidst masses of crowds in the considerable heat, so I decided to visit Herculaneum instead, for a snapshot of what life was like in AD79. I found it fascinating to see how much remains; shop signs hang from walls, wooden doors and shutters separate rooms, the most intricate mosaics and paintings decorate walls and floors, and in the baths, the shelves to put clothes and towels look like they were built only yesterday. It was eerie and rather thought provoking to think that this was a world busy and bustling with people, living lives not dissimilar to ours nearly 2000 years ago. The footprints they left behind show us that we, like them, will soon be ancient history, our customs and habits discussed by people far removed from us in time, and yet in spirit, still essentially the same. I have never before been in a place that showed so clearly how little separates us from the past, and I found it an absolutely brilliant, illuminating experience. If I go back again, I’d like to visit Pompeii, but if you are in the area and it really is too hot to cope with too much walking, Herculaneum is a much more manageable alternative.

Sorrento and Capri

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I have just returned from a glorious week in Italy, exploring Naples and the Amalfi Coast. What could be a more perfect way to spend the summer holidays? I had never been to Italy before, and was delighted by everything I saw; it was all I had imagined and yet also so much more idyllic, beautiful and atmospheric than I could possibly have dreamed. I stayed in the hills above Sorrento, with a breathtaking view of Mount Vesuvius and the entire bay of Naples from my balcony. There could not possibly be a finer view to awake to every morning, and, coupled with the sound of church bells and braying donkeys, it really did feel like I was in a timeless landscape where the worries of the modern world had dissipated entirely.

sorrento

Below me was the resort town of Sorrento; a marvellous maze of alleys lined with aesthetically pleasing, slightly decrepit buildings, bustling piazzas and lavishly gilded churches, all perched precariously on a cliff top above the sparkling Mediterranean sea. The main street is lined with fancy shops and gelateries, the air is filled with the smell of pizza and lemons, and everywhere you go, you can see tantalising glimpses of the sea or Mount Vesuvius in the distance. There are palm trees, umbrella trees, colourful flowers and beautiful cloistered gardens everywhere you look, giving it a wonderfully verdant, luscious quality that makes for a vivid backdrop against the faded ochres of the buildings. Down in the marina, a mixture of fishing boats, yachts, ferries and enormous cruise ships bob in the bay, and every inch of the strip of beach is teeming with people eager to soak up the sun. Sorrento is packed with delicious restaurants and amazing food shops, so all of your Italian culinary needs can be fulfilled; I loved getting to eat so much pizza and gelato, both of which are specialities of the region, as well as the rich and tasty local tomatoes and sharp lemons that are often grown in the gardens of the restaurants themselves. Whether shopping in the lanes, gazing up at an intricately painted church ceiling, hiking down the steep steps to get to the marina, having a drink in the piazza or sitting on a bench watching the sunset over the bay, Sorrento provides endless opportunities to people watch, soak up the Italian culture and feel utterly immersed in the slow place of Italian life. I adored every minute.

marina grande, capri

capri from chair lift

One of the reasons why Sorrento is such a popular resort is because it is a transport hub for the entire region. Trains, buses and ferries can take you as far as Naples on one side of the bay and Amalfi on the other, and one of the most pleasurable trips is the ferry to the legendary island of Capri. Capri has been popular with the rich, famous and artistic since the 18th century, and it is easy to see why. Approached from the Bay of Naples, it rises from the sea unexpectedly; a sheer wall of rock and greenery, it initially appears entirely deserted, like something from a Greek myth. As you round the bend, the island lengthens and its craggy slopes reveal hundreds of white houses cascading down the rocks and into the pretty harbour. To get from Marina Grande, the harbour town, up to Capri Town itself, you board a charming funicular railway that takes you up the steep cliffside and deposits you in the town’s main piazza, which has stunning views across the bay and over the island. The winding, cobbled streets of Capri Town are filled with designer shops and expensive restaurants, as befits Capri’s status as a chic holiday resort, but amidst all of this glamour and opulence is plenty of lovely historic architecture, much of it Moorish in style, and absolutely astounding natural beauty, which is added to by the luscious and colourful gardens of residents. My favourite part of Capri, however, was Anacapri, a town perched even higher up on the island, and accessible by the public buses, which are tiny orange tin cans that trundle merrily up and down the island all day like mechanical toys and threaten to plunge you into the sea at every turn. Anacapri is a pleasant maze of much quieter streets, filled with more affordable shops, relaxed restaurants, historical buildings and pretty houses. This little town was once the home of many writers, including Graham Greene, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. Anacapri is absolutely idyllic, and one of its greatest assets is the chairlift that takes you up to Mount Solaro, the highest point on the island. Dangling over rooftops with the sea sparkling infinitely beneath you, it is an experience I will never forget. Capri certainly captured my heart, and I only wish I could have spent more time exploring its wealth of history and natural beauty.

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