My Trip to Italy ~ The Amalfi Coast

We arrived in Salerno after our lovely time in Naples, and took a bus ride along the Tyrrhenian Sea cost to the small town of Minori on the Amalfi coast. After the long and winding bus ride not for the faint of stomach, we arrived at the picturesque beach town of Minori. We checked into our rental and went exploring the meandering streets searching for grocery stores that may still be open and restaurants that weren’t tourist traps. We had no luck with grocery stores, but we stopped by the beach and found interesting things along the way.

Minori

Right next to our apartment sat an old Roman villa. Dating from the first century AD, the 8,000 square foot residence was most likely a home of an Roman aristocrat. The Roman aristocracy also liked to spend their summers on the Amalfi coast. The home is centered around a viridarium, a portico of rooms lining gardens and a central swimming pool. There is also one of the best-preserved Roman bath systems in Italy, including all rooms and floor mosaics. We walked by and through some of the apodyterium (changing room), tepidarium (warm room), caldarium (hot room), and frigidarium (cool room) just a Roman would have in the bathing ritual. On one wall sat a series of empty wall recesses where statues undoubtably once sat. We were able to walk through the arcades and take the stairs of a Roman home, both of which are rare to be able to do. The beautiful and formerly-imposing structure was entertaining to walk through. Totally unroped off and with no entrance fee, it was a wonderful surprise to stumble upon.

 

Adjacent to the the villa is a museum of villa and maritime artifacts. The villa sits on where the coast forms a natural harbor and also where the Regina Minor flows into the Tyrrhenian sea. Naturally, this makes the villa and its surrounding area a trove for fishing hooks, shells, pottery, transported amphora and beautifully-preserved wall frescoes of the Pompeian third style.

Next, we stumbled upon a church, whose name I cannot remember. Its striking art at the entrance and entryway drew us in. I’ve experienced harsh, somewhat physical entry rejections to Catholic churches and compounds in Rome, so I was somewhat timid to approach this church with decorations that jumped out at you as you walked down the street. Fortunately, it seems that Italian Catholics are more calm outside of Rome. The priest welcomed us in and used whatever English he had to tell us the history of the chapel and the entire church itself. We listened to the majority of the history retelling in Italian out of respect for his effort and enthusiasm.

Afterward, we found a passable and affordable restaurant nearby, Ristorante La Botte. We ate pasta and wine as we watched kittens beg for food in sync.

After dinner, we strolled to beach getting a first glimpse of the beach where we would finally get the chance to swim in Italy. We had not seen the sea while in Rome and we could only look at it at the bay of Naples. Finally, we’d get to go swim in it! We sat on the pier listening to the waves hit the shoreline and looking at the lights along the mountainside. We were surprised with a sudden fireworks show. We had no idea what the occasion was, but we took it as a celebration of our arrival, because we did not get any fireworks again.

Maiori

The next day we slept in late waking up day sun warming up the morning. We opened the shutters to a beautiful day and were happy to finally take it slow and easy on our trip. In RomeNaples, and Pompeii, we rushed off each day to see and do as many things as we could. We purposely ended our trip here where we could drift through small towns, laze on the beaches and eat all of food that we could afford. We walked through alley out back to Pasticceria Gambardella where we enjoyed strong wifi, cappuccinos and four pastries each. After nearly two years of leisurely watching people walk pebble streets, we finally joined them and to make our way to Maiori.

We walked by the Minori shoreline on our way to Maiori, with my desire for a beach growing more by the second. We walked along a narrow two-way mountain road with a blind curve and no sidewalk. There’s also no line demarcating where the roadside begins or ends. Unfortunately, the most spectacular view of the Minori beach is at the crest of the blind curve. The dangerous one-mile walk was well worth the views of both Minori and Maiori.

I practically sprinted to the beach. Unfortunately, here you have to pay a stand owner for the right to use his section of the beach, which comes with an obligatory beach chair and umbrella. It does not matter if you just want to swim and lay on your towel. You have to pay €6 – €10 for something for which you did not ask. This marred the immediacy of my ability to jump in the water. Because, if we chose the wrong spot, we couldn’t simply pick up our stuff and move. We would have to pay another €12 – €20 to go swimming 20 feet down the beach. After surveying options, we settled on a spot where we could hold down the fort for a few hours.

I jumped into the cool water, which was less than translucent, but  nonetheless welcomed. I spent the early afternoon floating in the water and snorkeling through schools of fish. My boyfriend was less amphibious and instead sat under an umbrella avoiding the sun and reading.

We stopped by a sandwich shop for quick lunch and then made our way into the town. We perused the shops, bought a few souvenirs and tasted varieties of limoncello. It was September and in the town the leaves were just starting to turn creating an unexpectedly colorful scene in the Mediterranean climate.

We stopped by the thirteenth century church, Chiesa Collegiata Santa Maria A Mare. The church itself was closed, so we just admired the hilltop church from the courtyard. After seeing photos of the church, we regretted not being able to see the inside. We walked back home at dusk, which made the windy road even scarier.

The next day, we woke up to a rumbling thunderstorm. Once the lightning and thunder abated, we ran through the rain to Pasticceria Gambardella for our now usual morning ritual of internet, coffee and pastries. After our two-hour meal, the rain cleared up and with blue skies we took the bus west to Amalfi. We headed straight for the famous Duomo di Amalfi, the Cathedral of Saint Andrew.

Amalfi

A church has stood on the site of the current cathedral since the sixth century. The current cathedral dates to the thirteenth century and adjoined to a basilica dating to the ninth century. Today, it is the seat of the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Salerno-Campagna-Acerno.

Walking into the town, the cathedral appears before you to the right sitting on top of over 60 stairs nestled between large buildings. It is known as the heart of Amalfi for good reason. It rightfully holds its place as the center of town.

Most visitors, myself included, love the cathedral’s novel design. An Arab influence is seen in the broad stripes of the building’s facade and arches. The inside of the cathedral is Baroque in design and bell tower is Romanesque.

At first, we met the oversized bronze doors cast in Constantinople in the eleventh century. The bronze doors were the first to appear in Europe after the fall of the Roman empire.

Then we moved to the Cloister of Paradise, which has a peristyle of pure white marble columns. Built in the thirteenth century, it housed the remains of wealthy merchants. Today it houses Roman sarcophagoi, art and Catholic artifacts. From there, we moved into the Basilica of the Crucifix, the ninth century basilica sitting on top of the site of the original church. More catholic antiquities and frescoes are found in here.

We then descended into the Crypt of Saint Andrew, where the bones of the saint are allegedly housed. The relics of the saint were reportedly brought to the Amalfi cathedral in the thirteenth century during the Fourth Crusade. The room is lavishly decorated in the Baroque style. A statue of Saint Peter stands over his relics flanked by statues of deacons of the church.

From the crypt, we finally moved into the cathedral itself. It is possibly the most beautiful cathedral that I have ever seen in person. The coffered ceilings boast a beautiful mixture of green and gold designs. The intermittent frescoes portray scenes of the life of the fisherman Saint Andrew. The high altar contains the relics of Cardinal Peter of Papua, the one reputed to have brought the remains of Saint Andrew to Amalfi. The apse flanking the altar comprises columns from ancient Paestum and frescoes of the lives of the twelve apostles.

After touring the cathedral, we went into the streets. We stopped in the piazza del duomo to see the fountain of Saint Andrew, the Fontana di Sant Andrea as well as a nativity scene characteristic of Naples and the Amalfi coast.

The main street is narrow and was frenzied with tourists from multiple tour busses. Rather than fight the crowds, we chose to explore the smaller town of nearby Atrani until the crowds died down. Luckily for us, this road had a pedestrian tunnel for at least part of the way there. The scenic town has a charming beach that is unfortunately more appealing for small boats rather than swimmers. Even with a natural breakwater, the waves still brought in debris. Instead of satiating my desire to swim, we descended the long stairway into deep and narrow old staircase to the quaint town hidden behind the SS163 highway and got some gelato. With sparse shops and no open public buildings, we quickly saw all that we could and headed back to Amalfi.

We stopped by a few shops and bought some souvenirs for family and gifts for ourselves. Then, we took a quick dive in the water as it started to hit dusk. I could not resist having found a beach that did not charge admission. Near dusk, we went into the town and explored the more empty streets. We walked through smaller walkways leading to homes and founds lovely nativity scenes and charming, weathered homes.

Just before closing, we hopped into the Museum of Paper, and admired the bambagina paper characteristic of Amalfi since the thirteenth century. We ate dinner at the only restaurant in town that had space. Thankfully, as we walked back further into town the more we encountered homes and locals, which generally bodes well for the food quality and prices. Unfortunately, Amalfi seems too famous to escape the money-making allure of tourist trap restaurants.

Our dinner took place on Italian time and by the end it was night and the buses were now running infrequently. So, we had to wander through the now mostly-closed village and enjoyed the ancient sites lit up. The Amalfi cathedral was more striking at night. The bus ride was tranquil in the pitch dark – with no street lights on the roads we slowly passed little houselights here and there as we winded up and down the mountainside.

Ravello

The next day we made our daily run to Pasticceria Gambardella where after a few hours of exquisite pastries and coffee we decided to venture to Ravello. Until now, we had either walked and taken buses everywhere. With us now accustomed to starting the day late and the bus running late, we either had to take a taxi or arrive at Ravello after 3 PM. We took the expensive option and called a taxi, a mini van one actually, which is even more expensive.

The road to Ravello has a few one-way portions where each lane can stop and wait for up to fifteen minutes. in a taxi where you are charged in fifteen-second increments, the charges add up quickly. We just missed our opportunity to make it past the one-way section and were the first car stopped. After ten minutes of waiting and over €30 racked up for those 10 minutes alone, we decided to call it quits on the cab option. Instead, we paid the current €50 bill and hoofed it not knowing how far away, or more importantly, how high in elevation, Ravello was.

After walking two miles in the hot sun climbing at least a few hundred of feet in elevation, we questioned our decision to bail on what would have been a €100+ cab ride. We did not pass a single open store or home on the roadside. After a while, we stumbled upon a pedestrian stairway and hoped that it led to Ravello. Because we took the walking path, as we climbed the curving path, we were able to see more and more breathtaking views of the oldest town on the Amalfi coast, Scala.

After a much-needed sweaty hike, we concluded that we deserved an indulgent meal. We went to a small trattoria run by a cute grandmother and her family, and ate roasted rabbit and ravioli. The friendly grandmother restaraunteur came over to our table and with only two dishes on our table took pity on my boyfriend. She patted his cheek and said, “That’s it? Aaww, I bring you pasta, big boy.” Because of her motherly love, we were given a complimentary plate of pasta and a new catchphrase.

After the meal, we walked to the central piazza and paid the required visit to the town church, the Ravello cathedral, la basilica di Santa Maria Assunta e San Pantaleone. The cathedral dates back to the eleventh century and has been renovated several times throughout the centuries. It is dedicated to Saint Pantaleo and was founded by Niccolo Rufolo, Duke of Sora and grand admiral under Count Roger of Sicily. The villa of the family, the Villa Rufolo still stands in city.

The large bronze doors dating to the twelfth century attract my eye. Although you make you want to enter, we were forced to the side door. We entered the church through the museum and were enthralled with the collections. We walked through and enjoyed many beautiful paintings, statues and other pieces telling the history of the church and the town.

From the museum, we moved into the chapel.

The chapel also boasts two pulpits, or ambos. The later is the Ambo of the Gospel, created by Nicola di Bartolomeo of Foggia in 1275, commissioned by another member of the Rufolo family also named Niccolo. It is exquisitely designed with peacocks, lions and geometric designs in polychrome mosaics.. It is an impressive structure containing an entrance with door and stairs. The pulpit itself is suspended on six twisting columns sitting on top of marble lion bases.

The oldest pulpit is Ambo of the Epistle dating to 1130 and it is engraved with the name of Costantino Rogadeo, the second bishop of Ravello, who donated it to the church. The ambo mosaics depict the Biblical story of Jonah with a sea monster, which has been said to be a whale. One one side, he is swallowed and on the other side, he is expelled.

After the church, we walked only a few steps to the home of the powerful family of Ravello, the Villa Rufolo. The villa belonged to the Rufolo family, who elevated the town in prominence through royal marriages and commerce during the twelfth and thirteenth century. The Villa Rufolo itself was built in the thirteenth century. After some missteps in backing the wrong royal players, the family fell out of power, reducing Ravello as well. The villa has passed through many hands since the Rufolo family undergoing restoration as well, but the villa still bears the name of the original owners.

The Arab-Noman influence is seen in the peristyle designs. There are beautiful beds of flowers accented by now-freestanding columns. Many different varieties of trees are all over the property. The sweeping view of theTyrrhenian sea coastline genuinely made made my jaw drop in awe. I had seen some breathtaking views of the sea from a number of elevations and towns, but nothing had rivaled this view. The postcard view has overcome many visitors throughout the centuries, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that I wasn’t immune to its splendor.

My boyfriend eventually pulled me away and we continued meandering through the rest of the the grounds. Around each corner, we found exquisite sights, like creeping vines, fountains, wells  pools, gazebos, and cloistered gardens.

We wandered into a few open buildings and viewed a men’s fashion exhibition, which was heaven for my boyfriend. We also stumbled upon an interesting art exhibit full of screwed-infused wooden boats and chairs.

After the Villa Rufolo, we made our way through the bending streets stopping here and there to explore. We pet cute kittens lounging on walls unafraid of strangers. We stopped by an open church, whose name we could not find.

A little further down, we found a path arched with vines. At the end, we found the remnants of the Holy Trinity Benedictine Monastery from the ninth century and destroyed in 1812 by royal decree. Now, the site is remembered with a wooden cross overlooking the remains and cliffside.

The further we went, the more grape vines and high brick walls we encountered. At the end of the road, we came to the Villa Cimbrone. The villa is named after the mountainous outcrop on which it sits, known as a Cimbronium. The villa dates back to the eleventh century belonging first to the Accongiogiocco family, then a myriad of others throughout the centuries. The property was most recently renovated in the early twentieth century. Today, a mix of Gothic, Moorish and Venetian styles are found on the villa turned hotel along with neoclassical garden constructions and statues.

We stopped briefly by the courtyard admiring the Arab building facade and moved straight down the path to the cliffside.

The Villa Rufolo was breathtaking, but the Villa Cimbrone outmatched it. It’s secluded spot and extensive gardens were reminiscent of a bygone time. The sky was gloomy and rain began to drizzle, but I could not be kept out of the gardens.

We took the wide, welcoming path that led to a gazebo housing a statue of Ceres, and ultimately the belvedere, the Terrace of Infinity, Terrazzo dell’lnfinito.

The terrace offers extensive views of the Tyrrhenian sea and coastline, including the steep cliffside below you. The terrace sits over 1200 feet above the Mediterranean waters. Apparently, Gore Vidal once called this the finest view in the world. I cannot deny how stunning the view is. As beautiful as the view from the Villa Rufolo was, the suspended view from the Villa Cimbrone was somehow ever better. The marble busts dotting the terrace balcony add to the charm of the vista.

We left others hiding under the gazebo from the rain and followed the path to more statues, gazebos and panoramic views.

We followed the path through bushes, archways and olive groves to the front of the property where the flower gardens and found. My boyfriend was fed up with the rain and my insistence in exploring despite it.

I finally acquiesced now that we were near the front and we sought refuge in the arcades of the courtyard. Once, the rain abated, we set surveying the gardens, tea room and statues that we passed over.

We found more views of the sea, but with autumn vines overlaying the railings.

We went into open parts of the villa and found what used to be part of chapel, which was now open to nature. There were gorgeous views of the mountains as dusk arrived creating pink and purple skies.

We were worn out from the day of weather of hiking and ready to go home. We ran back to the center of town to make the bus before the next rainstorm. We made it and enjoyed a ride through Scala and down the mountainside for less than €5 each.

Maiori (Again)

The next day we went through our daily ritual of late morning coffee and pastries. Today, we deserved a slow day of relaxation as a reward for the hard day of exploration the day before. Cloying ourselves at restaurants and lazing on the beach were the orders of the day.

It was a splendid day for the beach. We took the winding road back to Maiori and went back to the patch of beach we picked out before. I swam with the fish while my boyfriend sat under an umbrella until it was time for food. Across from the beach, we ate pizza and pasta until we needed to move.

My boyfriend could not go sit in the sun any longer, so we walked around the town again moving back further back into the mountains this time. We had heard of a castle sitting on top of the town, but we had not heard any specifics about it.

To my boyfriend’s consternation, we followed the handmade signs up steep alleys leading to castles. We saw no people, only cats, which made us second guess the veracity of our directions. After a long, steep climb, we were above the line of homes and walking on noticeably older steps.

Shortly after, we came to a mural of the castle, the Castello di San Nicola de Thoro-Plano, which made us (at least me) gratified with our trek. Construction of the castle dates back to the ninth century. The castle was built around the church dedicated to Saint Nicolas of Thoro-Plano.

An old man came out of a room when we entered the castle and proceeded to coral us from one room into another yelling at us in Italian trying to coax us into understanding the louder he spoke.

We walked through rooms of and gardens of relics with him before he let us go explore on our own.

On our own, we looked through the battlements and surveyed the valley and town of Maiori from the mountaintop castle. We went into the highest building, which was furnished with a dining table and other older working pieces.

We didn’t understand what we were seeing, so we just went outside and admired the view.

We sat on the cistern and walked through the vines enjoying the view of the city as the sun started to set. After enough sun we descended into the town.

The walk down was much more enjoyable than the walk up. We were greeted by the cats again as we made our way into Maiori.

We said goodbye to the town stopping by some sights that we had missed.

We enjoyed the beach with the white and black cobbled streets for one last time.

We finally stopped by the Chiesa di San Francesco, which we had passed each day in Maiori.

Then, we took the windy road home one final time and finally went inside the Basilica di Santa Trofimena in Minori.

Afterward, we looked at the water and the lights from the roadside. We didn’t want to leave this town, because that meant we would be on our way out of Italy.

The next morning we had to forgo the ritual of coffee and pastries and hop on the bus to Salerno. From Salerno, we took a train to Rome, where we spent our last night. We ate our final slices of diavola pizza and went to bed. The next we took a train to the airport and said our goodbyes to Italy, until next time.

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