Coast of miracles: uncovering the secrets of Amalfi
Travellers the world over flock to the Amalfi Coast for glittering sea views and rainbow-coloured villages spilling down hillsides. But the real treasures of this well-trodden corner of the country only reveal themselves if you dig a little deeper.
It’s a summer Saturday on the Amalfi Coast, and it feels like everyone has come to Positano. Only one street leads up from the harbour through the village, and it’s packed — a long snake of people winding their way up, the swell of the crowd moving as one. Initially, it’s hardly appealing, to be honest — the reality of overtourism dampening the beauty that brought us all to Positano’s colourful cliffside houses. But there’s a different side to the Amalfi Coast, as I’m discovering: a place of thriving culture, history and dolce vita beyond the Instagram shots. It’s just that, as in any place grappling with its honeypot status, you have to dig a little deeper to find it.
Literally, in the case of Positano. I’m in the crypt of the church of Santa Maria Assunta, part of the Roman Archaeological Museum of Positano (MAR). But this is Italy, where history is layered like a lasagne, so as well as Roman finds, there’s this medieval crypt, plus a 17th-century cemetery. Opposite the church — where tourists in shorts and T-shirts are piling in to watch an American couple get married — Paola, the MAR’s guide, leads me down an underground staircase as we spin back the centuries with every step.
Suddenly, we’re under the church in another, upper crypt, a kind of auditorium — dozens of seats, carved from the soft rock. In fact, says Paola, they’re colatoi — niches where the bodies of abbots were positioned for a mummification process between the 17th and 19th centuries. Beneath us, under a glass floor, is a room frescoed in brilliant scarlets, jades, mustards and azures. It’s the first excavated part of the luxurious Roman villa that sprawled along the Positano shore before it was buried by ash and pumice (and, later, mudslides) in AD 79 — the same eruption that destroyed Pompeii, eight miles to the north. “We knew there was a villa somewhere — we just didn’t know exactly where,” says Paola. Hidden for centuries, it was discovered in 2003, and opened to the public in 2018. Frolicking through the room are stucco seahorses, mermen and cherubs; elsewhere, scenes from classical mythology are ‘pinned’ on trompe l’oeil hanging canvases. It’s as spectacular as Pompeii.
Afterwards, I slalom past the crowds back to my hotel, halfway up the cliffside. The street may be packed, but at Hotel Poseidon, run by the Aonzo family, I’m whisked back to the 1950s, when Positano went from simple fishing village to the beating heart of la dolce vita.
In 1955, nonna Liliana started renting out her spare rooms to early tourists, then building extensions whenever she could afford it, gradually creating the 48-room hotel. Little has changed since then — not least the spectacular coastal views. The tiled floors, panoramic terrace and pool, her collection of glass penguins — it’s all been lovingly preserved by her daughter Monica and granddaughters, Margherita and Liliana, who live on the top floor and chat to guests as if it’s still a B&B.
There’s so much hidden in plain view along the Amalfi Coast, I discover. Above Ravello, I follow mountain roads to Tramonti. Swaddled in a valley, the Tyrrhenian Sea flashing blue in the distance, it’s a lost paradise, with centuries-old vines crisscrossing the landscape. At Antica Latteria di Tramonti, the village dairy, owner Raffaella Di Martino is so thrilled to see a tourist that she plies me with hunks of homemade cheese: ricotta, caciocavallo and provolone that she’s smoked over straw.
Descending from mountain to sea, the vines give way to lemon terraces, stacked along the cliffsides, and in Amalfi itself, I get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the area’s agrarian side. “This is another Amalfi,” says Salvatore Aceto, gesturing from the town below to his terraces — forests, really — of gigantic, knobbly, organic lemon trees. For seven generations, his family have grown the citrus fruits here. “We treat them like children,” he says, caressing one, encouraging me to smell it (although I’m not allowed to touch). Walking under the trees — the jasmine-like scent of the blossom, the calm buzz of the resident bees and of course the lemons themselves, each as individual as each of us — I can see why.
Where Amalfi is known for lemons, the town of Vietri sul Mare produces the folksy ceramics you’ll see all along the coast. Among the artisans is Mirkò Guida, who uses the local red clay and traditional glazes to produce Picasso-like artworks painted on vases, lamps and tiles. “Most ceramicists here make crockery but I wanted to make art,” he says proudly. He’s succeeded; his works sell for thousands in the US, while Italy’s Foreign Ministry bought a piece earlier this year. But he credits the Amalfi Coast with his success. “You meet people here. If I was born in Molise, I wouldn’t have reached New York,” he says. “This is the coast of miracles.” I can’t disagree.
How to do it
Fly to Naples and take the train or bus to Salerno. Salernorental has cars from €30 (£25) per day, including station pick-up.
Where to stay
Hotel Poseidon has doubles from €300 (£255), B&B.
B&B Vietri Centro has doubles from €70 (£60), B&B.
Published in the September 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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