The Amalfi Coast is the beautiful 50km stretch of Italian coastline on the southern shore of the Sorrentine Peninsula between the Gulf of Naples and the Gulf of Salerno.
Sorrento is built along the cliffs overlooking the sea, with views across the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius. It doesn’t have a beach, but instead platforms over the water provide convenient access for a dip and a comfy place to enjoy the waterside.
We stayed up in the hills just above the town, with lovely views across to Naples.
And of all the Amalfi Coast towns, Sorrento is the most convenient for visiting Pompei.
By the 1st century CE, Pompei was home to between 12,000 and 15,000 people. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE was the end of it all.
Not lava, which would have destroyed everything in its path. And not gas or ash as has long been believed. The most current studies conclude that most people died from extreme heat caused by hot surges from the volcano’s vents before it started spewing out ash. At a temperature of 250 degrees Celsius, death would have been instantaneous in a 10km radius.
Then came the ash, which rained down over an estimated six hour period, burying the entire city to a depth of 25 metres.
Except for some low level looting shortly after the event, the city lay buried and eventually forgotten, for 1,500 years. In 1592, workers digging an irrigation channel came across some frescoes. An architect was called in, but after a cursory look, he just covered them up again and work continued. Maybe he was on a performance bonus for getting the job done on time.
It was not until 1738 that the city was rediscovered, this time by workers digging foundations for a new summer palace for the then King of Naples. This time excavation began in earnest.
Fast forward to today, and 44 of the city’s estimated 66 hectare area have been excavated. What lay beneath was remarkably well preserved, as the smothering blanket of ash meant nothing was exposed to air or water.
The site is vast. Where some ancient sites require a fertile imagination to ‘see’ streets and precincts, walking around Pompei is very much like walking through a city, with streets and precincts clearly laid out. Much of it looks similar to other ancient ruin sites – columns, armless statues, civic buildings etc.
But then there are more interesting buildings, mostly ordinary working ones. Like these ancient eating houses where food was kept warm in urns which fitted into the counter with heating underneath. A bit like an ancient Bain Marie.
And there’s some quite cool stuff as well. Like this mosaic in the entrance to a wealthy private residence, which is jokingly referred to as the oldest ‘beware of the dog’ sign in the world.
And everyone has a giggle at this mural of Priapus. It’s quite an impressive …. mural.
Gladiatorial contests were held in the amphitheatre, which could seat an audience of 20,000. In 1972, Pink Floyd performed here to an audience of zero (except for the crew), recording a full live performance for a concert documentary Pink Floyd: Live at Pompei. Why no audience? Apparently it was the director’s not-so-subtle jibe at earlier rock documentaries, particularly Woodstock which he thought spent too much camera time on the audience instead of the artists.
The most moving exhibits are the casts of those killed. When the ash settled on the dead, and the body eventually decayed to dust, all that was left was a void. Archeologists in the late 1800s discovered this, and devised a technique for preserving them by pouring plaster into the void to create a cast of the deceased before excavation disturbed the void.
Some of them are incredible. A man hunched over as if in despair. A pregnant woman lying on her side. A dog in its death throes.
Isle of Capri
30 minutes by fast ferry from Sorrento is the Isle of Capri.
Once on the island there are lots of options for sailing trips. We took a cruise which circled the island, idling by the points of interest. There’s the bronze statue called the Scugnizzo (Napolitano dialect for ‘young kid’), sitting on a rock welcoming boats into the harbour.
There’s a series of imaginatively named grottoes – White Grotto, Green Grotto, Coral Grotto – which small boats may or may not be able to enter.
The Faraglioni are a famous image of Capri – three limestone sea stacks just off the coast, two of which are more than 100 metres high.
The most famous site of the island is, of course, the Blue Grotto, a sea cave on the north coast of the island. Sunlight penetrates through a small opening in the top of the cave and the light is refracted through the water and onto the cave walls, creating an intense blue colour both in the water and on the walls.
The only entrance is a small opening from the sea. Row boats wait at the entrance to take visitors from bigger boats in. But it’s highly water dependent and the day we went, although it was a beautiful, sunny day, the winds in that area were too strong for the row boats so the cave was closed.
Back at the marina you can catch a funicular to Capri town and a bus to Anacapri. There’s a chairlift from Anacapri to the top of Monte Solarno but we ran out of time to do that. Nonetheless, the views from town are still quite magnificent.
John Steinbeck visited Positano in 1953. He wrote glowingly of it and asserted it would never fall prey to high impact tourism, stating “there isn’t the slightest chance of this in Positano. In the first place there is no room. There are about 2,000 inhabitants in Positano and there is room for about 500 visitors, no more”.
He was right there is no room. He was wrong to think this would deter people. It’s now home to 4,000 people – all working in tourism, it seems, since there’s no longer any other activity there. And although we couldn’t get a firm number on how many visitors it gets now, it’s zillions.
Positano is a favoured hang out for the rich and famous, although they mostly loll about on super yachts, well away from the riff raff, so if you’re there for celebrity spotting you’ll most likely be disappointed. Unless you count Instagrammers as celebrities, which we don’t.
Positano is famed for its steps which climb the steep cliffs between wedding cake-like tiers of buildings which create a dramatic and beautiful cascade. It has no ‘sights’ beyond its own beautiful physicality, so there’s not a lot to do beyond the usual resort town boutiques and restaurants.
In our opinion it’s best appreciated from the sea. From there it is, truly, beautiful.
Positano was only ever a small fishing village. In contrast, Amalfi was once a maritime superpower with a population of 70,000. Most of it crumbled into the sea in an earthquake in the 1300s and the town never recovered. So, like Positano, there are few historical sites and the town is all about tourism, the beach, shopping and dining.
And also like Positano, it’s a favoured relaxation destination for celebrities and has celebrity status itself, which attracts far more tourists than its infrastructure – particularly roads in and out – can handle.
Like Positano, Amalfi is at its most elegant from the water.
We had planned to spend some time in Amalfi on our way to Ravello, but the press of tourists was too much so we didn’t linger. Even boarding the bus to get from Amalfi to Ravello was like an open audition for a role in The Hunger Games.
Lovely little Ravello sits perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, seven winding kilometres uphill from Amalfi. The views over the coast are brilliant.
It has long been a magnet for artists, writers and musicians, with D. H. Lawrence, Salvador Dali and others all living there at times.
It’s most famous association is Richard Wagner. The composer started writing his iconic opera Parsifal in 1857, but suffered a massive case of writer’s block. Almost 20 years later, he’d completed several other operas but still couldn’t get the second act of Parsifal done. Then he visited Villa Rufulo in Ravello, which so inspired him that he completed it in a rush of creativity, setting it in a mythical garden named Klingsor, inspired by the Villa’s ornate gardens. He wrote in the visitors book “the magical gardens of Klingsor have been found”.
Now the gardens are a major drawcard and the town hosts a strong classical music program every summer in honour of Wagner.
Ravello is pretty and dramatic in its landscape, the town is relatively calm, and the shopkeepers believe in truth in advertising.
The town is all cobbled streets, stone buildings and medieval charm, but as there’s no beach, many people just come up for a day trip from Amalfi. This makes it a good choice for those seeking to get the Amalfi Coast experience without the crowds. We spent three nights here, in an apartment overlooking that mesmerising sea and enjoying the calm.
We didn’t feel shortchanged by the lack of a beach. Or the absence of celebrities.