Jewels of the Amalfi coast
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
The spectacular landscapes in this part of Italy will literally make your jaw drop. The coastline is simply magnificent. When I was a child, I loved jigsaws, in particular the 1000 piece puzzles of European coastlines with tiny whitewashed villages set into jagged cliffs and mountains, with narrow roads and the sea in the foreground. I dreamed of such places but never before did I feel I’d stumbled upon one in real life. Until we hit the Amalfi coast. Everything you’ve seen in the movies is true – it really does take your breath away.
We started off by spending two nights in Sorrento, which we really liked, and which is a great base for travelling to Pompeii as it’s a short train ride. Sorrento is very pretty and the sea views are dramatic and really impressive, but we found it quite touristy. That’s probably a silly thing to say – of course Sorrento is touristy: it’s a mecca for honeymooners and for the rich and famous – but even though it had its charms, we weren’t completely bowled over. However, we fell head-over-heels in love when we arrived in the small town of Praiano, which was to be our base for the next three nights.
Praiano is located between Positano and Amalfi, about an hour from Sorrento by SITA bus, even though it’s only 21 kms. You soon see why. The buses take the coastal roads which are so narrow that sometimes it’s not possible for two vehicles to pass. It’s quite hairy. Fences are few and far between and the drop is precipitous as the buses are constantly climbing higher and higher. What that should mean is that everyone drives slowly, with care and consideration for other road users. Not in Italy. The drivers drive like maniacs, tearing around corners and refusing to give way on those narrow stretches, not helped in the least by the cars which are randomly abandoned (you couldn’t call it parking) at the side of the road. We found it very amusing watching the drivers gesticulating and shouting out the windows at the other road users and drivers. So far, so Italian. On one occasion, two bus drivers had a twenty minute stand-off where neither would reverse to let the other pass first through a narrow tunnel. So now you see why a short trip can take over an hour. You may now also see why we didn’t hire a car. You could not pay me enough money to drive on those cliffside roads. I closed my eyes for much of the bus trips. I really didn’t want to see how close we were to falling off the edge.
We booked an absolute gem of a hotel, run by a mother and son whose warmth and kindness marked this place as one we would never forget. It’s called Hotel le Fioriere, and it’s located right on the main street of Praiano. In fact, the bus stops right outside the door. It’s not a fancy high-end hotel, but it hits all the right notes. It’s spotlessly clean and bright, with tiled floors everywhere, which is a welcome reprieve from the heat outside. When we asked about times for breakfast, we were told ‘it’s available to you whenever you get up’. In fact, we arrived at 2pm in the afternoon and were given breakfast at this point. Nothing was any trouble to them. Our happiness was complete when we were shown to our lovely room. It was really big and bright but the clincher was the balcony overlooking the sea and two sun loungers which saw a lot of usage over those four days. Luigi, our host, gave us an iPod dock to play music in our room which was such a nice touch. Unfortunately another large hotel was built across the road from this one, which somewhat blocked the sea-view from our floor, but as we had a corner room, our views were still really nice.
And then there was the roof terrace. I’d read about this on a number of reviews but nothing prepared me for how gorgeous it really was. It’s absolute paradise.
It is floored with blue tiles to reflect the sea, and which are also cool to the touch on hot days. It has a series of sun loungers, all with parasols to shade from the sun; chairs and tables to sit and admire the spectacular sea views, and a small pool to cool off in hot weather. There are brightly coloured plants and flowers everywhere, which look so pretty against the white, and dramatic cactii creeping over the walls. In one of the corners, they have built seating areas into the crescents of the walls and piled them with cushions, which is particularly nice to snuggle up in at night and stare at the sea. In the evenings they have really laid-back tunes playing on the candle-lit terrace and it becomes a bar and restaurant, serving wine and great cocktails. Try their Negroni – you won’t be disappointed.
Bear in mind that this part of Italy is quite expensive, particularly for food and drinks. But for views like this, it’s totally worth it. Praiano is such a little gem of a place and way less touristy than Amalfi or Positano. There is a wonderful square in front of the church where we spent an evening watching the local children play a very animated game of football against a backdrop of the sea, and listening to the church bells chime on the hour. So charming. That night we witnessed from our balcony one of the most spectacular storms I’ve ever seen. And the next day the sun was beaming down again.
There’s a great restaurant next door to the hotel: La Brace. It has wonderful views over Amalfi, if you’re lucky enough to get a table on the terrace, and serves fantastic food. Try the gamberoni al limone, or prawns with lemon. The pasta in this dish is vermicelli, the really thin one, and it is to die for. So simple and so tasty. I’m still dreaming about it. We ate here twice out of three nights in Praiano. Nice wine list too. Not cheap but not ridiculously expensive either – in keeping with Amalfi coast prices. And worth it for the quality and freshness of the food. I really enjoyed the two older male wait staff too. Started out being the usual slightly grumpy Italian waiters, but were smiling and joking by the end of the meal. Probably at my awful attempts at Italian but they seemed to appreciate it.
On our third day we headed to the town of Ravello on the recommendation of an Italian artist I know who once said to me ‘it’s the most beautiful place in the world’. Couldn’t really disagree with her. It’s stunning. It’s a tiny little town high in the hills off the Amalfi coast, pretty much halfway between Positano and Salerno, and approximately 17 kms from Praiano. Again it takes a long time on the local buses as the roads are very narrow and vertiginous, to say the least. But I would highly recommend a trip. A must-visit is the wonderful 13th century Villa Rufolo which has the most spectacular views across the bay. The grounds house picture-perfect gardens and a huge stage-set which juts out over the Mediterranean sea. For the past number of decades it has hosted an annual summer concert series including piano concerts and chamber music. We didn’t make it to a concert but I can only imagine how moving it would’ve been with such a stunning natural backdrop.
The villa is a cultural centre for the town and holds regular exhibitions of predominantly Italian artists. We were lucky enough to catch the internationally renowned sculptor Mimmo Paladino’s show while we were there. I cannot think of a more perfect venue or setting for his work.
It sat perfectly within this landscape and seemed all the more affecting because of it. I saw his work for the first time in Rome a few years ago and it stopped me in my tracks. In particular I find his figures profoundly moving, and the placement of these lone figures throughout the gardens and the villa cloisters enhanced that feeling of solitude. I love seeing sculpture in an outdoor setting and I don’t think there could be a much more beautiful backdrop than this.
I imagine that the magical Amalfi coast has something for everyone, whatever your interests. It has beautiful weather, magnificent scenery, the sea, great food and wine, and a vibrant arts and music scene. It stole my heart and is somewhere I know we will return to again. I look forward to coming back to Hotel le Fioriere and sipping a spritz on our balcony, watching the sun going down over the Mediterranean. Life doesn’t get much better than that.