The Italian jewel

Southern Italy’s coastline holds a number of exotic locations and tourist hotspots – so they are best visited off-season.

THE TOWN of Positano shines like a jewel on mountain slopes (photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
THE TOWN of Positano shines like a jewel on mountain slopes
(photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
There is a feeling among many that whenever people come to inhabit a place, the landscape will be ruined or at least forever changed. This is not the case with southern Italy’s Amalfi Coast, located in the province of Salerno.
About 50 km. south of Naples, the high bluffs of the Lattari mountains rise majestically from the vibrant blue Mediterranean Sea. The steep hillside leaves little room for agriculture or housing, yet the Amalfi Coast is a highly desirable spot.
Being inaccessible made this rugged coast a perfect place to which to run away and hide from danger.
The Romans built the town of Amalfi in the fourth century. Over the years there were times that it flourished, but it also fell on bad times, when it was conquered and destroyed. It was only in the 19th century, when a road was built between Naples and the Amalfi Coast, that prosperity came to the small villages that dotted the hilly seaside.
Today there is still only one road crossing the Amalfi Coast from east to west. This 56-km. road winds up and down through the brilliantly colored towns. Not only is this route considered the prettiest in Italy, it is also on the list of the most beautiful roads in the world.
Since the 19th century, the area has gained a reputation as a tourist attraction, drawing writers and artists to find serenity and inspiration in this breathtaking environment. The masses of visitors were not far behind.
OF THE 13 towns along the coast, the most famous and most visited are Amalfi, Ravello and Positano. By no means are the other 10 towns boring, however.
The sights include beautiful local harbors with colorful fishing boats, smiling, friendly people and remarkably shaped houses along the face of the cliffs, one above another. There are paths that climb the cliff walls, the sounds of the village center, and always the blue sea peeking around every corner.
Of course, no less important are the gastronomic attractions of the many restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries, which are almost always bustling with people.
The summer months are the high season and may be the only time of year a trip to the area is not recommended, unless you want to suffer claustrophobia and spend a lot of time in your car at a standstill in lines of traffic. Tens of thousands of tourists descend on the Amalfi Coast in the summer, so avoiding the area from June to September, if possible, is wise.
If the weather is good, which is not uncommon, the time to visit Amalfi is from March to May. Allow at least four days to absorb the area.
Driving on the Amalfi Coast road requires your full attention due to countless curves that the rugged slopes make necessary, but in return, you get one of the best rides anywhere, with a constantly changing landscape and a new surprise waiting around each corner. These features have earned this scenic road the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Towns like Ravello, Amalfi and Positano shine like jewels on the mountain slopes. From every angle, there is another dimension of color to the houses, making them picturesque and wonderful to photograph at any time of day or night.
Ravello, founded in the fifth century, once had 25,000 inhabitants. Today there remain only about 2,500. At 360 meters above the Mediterranean Sea, the view is stunning – especially from sites such as Villa Cimbrone, where in addition to the spectacular vistas, there are beautifully cultivated gardens. Just walking along the alleys of Ravello can send you 1,000 years back in time, and here and there, you may see a donkey carrying a load of building material or household supplies.
Other favorite sites are Villa Rufolo and Ravello’s cathedral. If you can, take one of the trails that lead down from Ravello to the lower town on the water, Minori. This is an old trail that the local people used before cars or buses came along. The walk boasts lots of vantage points and nice vistas of little lemon orchards and other small gardens.
Once down in Minori, you can take the public bus back up to Ravello, but make sure to look around Minori first.
A longer trail will take you to Amalfi, which was founded in the sixth century and built up around its harbor. It was once a major trading port in the area.
The town lies on a narrow strip on the water with the dramatic landscape of a deep valley that separates Mount Cerreto and Ravello. The main sights are the harbor and the cathedral.
Vying for the best view among the coastal towns is Positano. Looking majestic from inside and out, it is a crown jewel of a town. During the high tourist season, there is little chance of finding an available parking spot, and even the buses that arrive from Sorrento or Salerno are crowded – yet another reason to visit the Amalfi Coast in the early spring. Nonetheless, make sure to visit the old church with its beautiful golden dome. The harbor and the small shops around it are charming.
It is also recommended to take a local bus to the top of the town and walk down via any of the paths consisting of hundreds of stairs. This is the best way to experience the town’s beauty fully and explore its more hidden treasures.
To complete any trip in the Amalfi region, don’t miss out on tasting limoncello. This liqueur, produced from the giant yellow lemons that grow everywhere in the area, is a specialty of the Amalfi Coast.
Despite common wisdom, it seems like the human presence did well by the area, even if that is partially thanks to geographical limitations – the sea on one side and the rugged mountain slopes on the other. In any event, the result is a healthy balance between people and nature.