Monday, November 19, 2012

A Day on the Amalfi Coast

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Amalfi Coast in Southern Italy attracts millions of visitors every year. They come to enjoy the sunny weather, see the sparking blue waters of the Mediterranean, and explore the cities that cling to the coast along the 40km stretch of road. We knew that we couldn't pass up the chance to see some of these cities up close and after a little research (and some advice from our B&B owner in Sorrento) we decided to narrow our visit to two areas, Amalfi and Ravello. 

We boarded the bus in the morning with expectations of a twisty and turny ride from Sorrento to Amalfi, however we weren't prepared for how narrow the hairpin turns really are, requiring a three (or five) point turn in some areas. I can honestly say that there are only a handful of jobs I wouldn't do, and "Amalfi Coast Bus Driver" has got to be near the top of that list. How he managed to maneuver the bus around dubious right-angle blind corners, past parked cars and oblivious tourists, and squeeze between cars in the oncoming lane and the cement barrier I will never know. All I do know is that I am a pretty easy-going guy and am usually hard to rattle, but my legs felt like jello when I got off that bus. 

Winding road and nerve wracking driving aside, the views along this stretch of road are stunning, and easier to enjoy through the bus' large windows than while focusing on the road in a rental car. Like Cinque Terre and Santorini, the colorful cities are perched in seemingly impossible positions and painted in bright pink, orange, and yellow hues. 

Amalfi and the coastal road

The city of Amalfi


After a slight mechanical malfunction in Positano (the bus doors stopped opening and closing automatically meaning people had to hold them shut while driving and open them to let people on and off), we arrived in Amalfi just in time for lunch.

Amalfi was once a real maritime power and proof of this can still be seen through the Duomo, a magnificent Cathedral with some real treasures inside. After paying the 3 euro entrance fee (a great deal as we got a nice 10-page booklet explaining much of what we would see), we entered into the Cloister of Paradise, a beautiful white-columned Arab-inspired cloister where the elite of Amalfi used to be buried. 

The facade of the Amalfi Cathedral

Original frescoes in the Cloister of Paradise


Upon leaving the cloister, we entered the Cathedral itself which is made up of three main parts. First is the original 9th Century Romanesque Basilica of the Crucifix, which currently holds a museum containing relics found on the grounds and gifted to the families of Amalfi during its most prosperous times. Second is the Crypt of St. Andrew, which houses (you guessed it) the remains of St. Andrew, brought to the Cathedral in 1206 from Constantinople for safekeeping. The final part of the Cathedral is the "new" 13th century Basilica, decorated sumptuously in Baroque style. 

Painted ceilings in the Crypt of St. Andrew

The interior of the "new" Basilica


The exterior of the Cathedral is just as impressive. 62 wide stone steps lead visitors up to its entrance, huge bronze doors forged in Constantinople in the 11th century guard the treasures inside, and a beautiful Romanesque Belltower rings on the hour. 

The Romanesque Belltower


Our experience in the Cathedral was made all the more memorable by the presence of an Eastern Orthodox religious tour group that was there at the same time as us. While in the Crypt of St. Andrew, they broke out into full singing and praise. Taken off guard at first, we decided to just sit down nearby and enjoy the free entertainment. Even as we were leaving the second Basilica we could still hear them singing away down in the Crypt.

The tour group singing in the Crypt of St. Andrew


The rest of Amalfi is just as fantastic as the Cathedral, and is complete with a beach, a promenade, and some lovely streets housing interesting shops and lovely restaurants. We settled on a simple slice of pizza that we enjoyed on the steps of the Cathedral, where we enjoyed one of our favorite past-times - people watching.

While Amalfi is bus and bustling, Ravello is quite and tranquil. Perched high above Amalfi, it can be easily reached by public bus in about 25 minutes. Ravello is the kind of place that makes you want to slow down and relax. Panoramic views can be had from nearly everywhere in the town, and small streets and alleys are just waiting to be explored. It also has a very nice Duomo from the 13th century as well as two very famous villas - Cimbrone and Rufolo. For those who love a nice hike you can also hike all the way back down to Amalfi in just a couple of hours. 

The understated Duomo of Ravello

The 13th century Villa Rufolo


We decided just to take some time and explore. The temperature was a bit cooler and made it nice to just walk around and peek in on the way of life of the people there. We watched kids play soccer in the main square, using the Cathedral as a substitute for a goal; we admired the lovely villas that inspired the likes of DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Richard Wagner, and Winston Churchill; and we strolled the narrow walkways lined with vegetable gardens, monasteries, and small restaurants. 

Vineyards in Ravello


After a couple hours relaxing in Ravello it was time to head back to Sorrento. A quick bus ride back down the hill connected us with the bus back just as the sun was setting. If I thought the ride there was harrowing, well just imagine my pleasure to do it in the dark. Needless to say, I was extremely relieved when our bus finally pulled into Sorrento and I could get back to my preferred mode of transportation - my feet. 

We would have liked to visit more of the towns along the coast. We passed Positano, Praiano, and a few others during our bus rides, and all of them looked just as amazing as Amalfi and Ravello. In the end, however, what we did get to experience was fantastic and we loved (almost) every minute of it.

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Calli and Travis returned from a four month trip through Europe more excited than ever to hit the open road. Who knows where they'll end up next...

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