Amazing Amalfi

The Amalfi Coast is arguably the most spectacular piece of coastline on the peninsular boot of mainland Italy. It stretches along the coast between Sorrento and Salerno. Going via the autostrada is the shortest journey between these two points, but it is nowhere near as scenic as the coastal road, which is worth it for the breathtaking views, as long as you are not the steely-eyed one in the driving seat. The vertiginous road, which stretches for about 45 Km like a ribbon along the clifftops, is a white-knuckle ride with “near miss” thrills all along the way.

Amalfi is the major town of the Amalfi Coast and is pretty much in the centre of the Bay of Salerno. A major tourist resort now, it only really developed as a destination in the 1960s because it was quite remote and cut-off before then. Inspite of this it has had a colourful and chequered history. 

Founded by the Romans, it was subsequently ruled by Byzantines and Saracens. Amalfi was the first Italian maritime republic and its golden age was between 800-1100. During its prime, it was one of the leading ports in the whole Mediterranean area and trade routes were established from Tunis to Contantinople. The wise and shrewd merchants of Amalfi set up strategic links in the Arab world and amassed considerable fortunes.

The locals were also skilled navigators and they devised the worlds’ first maritime laws governing marine traffic in the Mediterranean, the Tabula Amalfitana. The orginals are still kept in the Civic Museum in the Town Hall and you can view them if you wish.

Amalfi was a major competitor to the North Italalian port powerhouses of Genoa, Pisa and Venice. The competition wasn’t always friendly as the Amalfi merchants used to resort to piracy frequently to gain the upper hand on their rivals. Each summer, in June or July, their former combative rivalry is commemorated in a less aggressive fashion, as they do battle on the waves in a special regatta that rotates between the former “republic” ports of medieval times. In period garb, the local residents of Amalfi defend their honour in blue boats, which is the colour of the Tyrrhenian Sea they look out on each morning, with a winged horse motif.

Many Amalfi merchants based themselves in far off ports and even decamped to places as far away as Jerusalem. Here they founded a hospital that resulted in the first military and religious order of the Knights of St John. The symbol of this order is the Maltese cross and you can see the design on some of the street corners of Amalfi.

The arrival of the Normans in 1131 marked the decline in Amalfi as a maritime power. An earthquake and an epidemic of the black plague conspired to reduce Amalfi to obscurity for centuries. It was a bit of an Italian backwater until it was rediscovered by the tourist droves.

The centrepiece of Amalfi is the great Arab Norman cathedral or Duomo. Part of the structure dates from the 10th century, but it has been redeveloped and the existing elaborate façade is no more than two centuries old. Some ancient bits remain including the great brass doors that guard the entrance.

They were made by the grandly named Simean of Syria in 1066 and were a gift from the people of Constantinople. Amalfi merchant Pantaleone di Mauro, living in Constantinople at the time, commissioned these great doors. The shining, ingraved Jesus, the only part of the doors that is polished, stands out from the dull green oxidised brass.

Amalfi Cathedral is called St Andrews and it is alleged that the body of Jesus’s first disciple is interred in the depths of the cathedral’s crypt. His remains were stolen from Constantinople in the name of the murdering first Christian crusades of the early thirteenth century. Posthumously, of course, his shoulder blades were gifted to Scotland, as he is the Scot’s patron saint.

The Cloisters of Paradise is one reason that it is certainly worth climbing the steep sixty-two steps in front of the cathedral and paying the meagre entrance fee. This haven of white Moorish tranquillity with its colourful iconic mosaics is a place of repose. It was originally built as a cemetery for the local aristocracy Two locals vie for being the most famous former residents of Amalfi, although one was a “blowin” who actually was more famous in fiction than real life and there is doubt whether the other even existed and if he did he was a plagiariser and fake.

Although the Duchess of Amalfi was not a native she did come to Amalfi to marry the Duke when she was but a teenager. He died of a fatal illness almost instantaneously and she was left a young and beautiful widow. The story was best extolled by English Elizabethan playwright John Webster in his play Duchess of Malfi. The lusty Duchess secretly took on a second husband – her manservant Antonio. She kept it secret from her subjects, as it would have been frowned upon to be associated with someone of lower status and would have undermined her authority. She became pregnant and everyone found out about her secret alliance. Her brother Ferdinand was most angry and plotted to kill her and as you might expect from a romantic thriller of that era it all ended in a scene of macabre violence and carnage. Although the Ferdinand character displays some distasteful and unhealthy fraternal affection for his sister, he has himself become a cult hero. Some of his fans perceive inner werewolf traits, so you better watch out if you stay in Amalfi during a full moon and certainly don’t go wandering at midnight up towards the Torre di Zirro way high up on the cliff above the town where some of the action took place.

The second most famous resident remains an enigma. His name was Flavio Gioia and he allegedly invented the modern maritime compass. Gioia’s achievements are locally acclaimed and the seafront boulevard is named after him. An American Professor of Mathematics, Amir Aczel, who as a child used to cruise around the Bay of Salerno with his family, has also written a book extolling his virtues. Aczel feels that Gioia’s invention was the most important technological advance since the invention of the wheel. The whole thing doesn’t ring true and smacks of the crafty Scot Alexander Bell’s claims to having invented the telephone by quickly slapping a patent on someone else’s designs. The Chinese invented the compass, the Arabs may have adapted it and Gioia or one of his clever merchant mates may have developed it more still. Amalfi also introduced the Eastern practice of papermaking to Europe. This arrived from China via the Arab merchants with whom the Maritime Republic did business. The Valley of the Mills is now the home of one of these ancient mills, still running, and also an excellent paper museum where you can see how they make paper by hand.

There have been many famous visitors to Amalfi. Henrik Ibsen, who James Joyce thought superior to Shakespeare, stayed in a Franciscan monastery here and worked on his novel A Doll’s House. Other famous visitors to the town include Bismarck, Tennessee Williams and Mussolini.

The food on the Amalfi coast is as good as you will get anywhere in Italy. The Campania region is home of pizza and the famous buffalo mozzarella. Amalfi is also famous for its lemons with are allegedly the best for making the sickly sweet limoncella liquor you see on sale everywhere.

The Grotta Esmeralda is not far from Amalfi. It is a small cave with sparkling emerald green water and stalagtites and stalagmites. It is a rival to the Blue Grotto of Capri but not as famous. I can’t compare as rough seas made the mainland grotto inaccessible on both times I visited.
A day trip from Amalfi to see the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum should not be missed. The ruins really give an insight into the destructive potential lurking inside the volcanic Vesuvius, which dominates the views across the bay, could inflict again one day. It seems crazy that people still defy the mountain by living on her slopes.

Amalfi is not the only attraction along the Amalfi Coast. Positano is the first town you meet on your way south from Sorrento and was American writer John Steinbeck’s “dreamplace” when he visited here. The small pastel cube shaped houses of Positano perch precariously on the small ledges of a precipitious cliff. The whole town defies gravity and nothing is horizontal at all except a tidal beach and the ocean, which seems waiting for the town to crumble downwards. The only fault Positano really has is that it is a little too pretentious. Nearby Praiano would make a better and more economical base. To the south of Amalfi is the town of Ravello, which was also part of the Duchy of Amalfi, and this is a magical place with inspiring vistas. Set back from the coast and high on a hill the town was built here for its strategic location and to make it easy to defend. The view in a southward direction from the town is stupendous and the land and sea seem to melt into one another at the horizon. It is an exclusive place to stay, so you might make one of the less salubrious but delightful coastal twin towns of Maoiri and Minori as your base.

Two luxurious villas are the major attraction of Ravello town. Villa Rufolo with its famous tropical gardens was Klingsor’s Garden for Wagner’s opera Percival. Periodic concerts are held here on summer evenings. Villa Cimbrone and its gardens is the other must see. The bust lined clifftop Belvedere at the end of the eternity garden is where the really wealthy come for champagne receptions at sunset. Fireworks fill the air as a spectacular end to concerts when there is a Wagner festival on. This is not a place where they scrimp on expense for the sake of a spectacle.


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