I was happy as a pagan. Lunch was cheese and prosciutto and peasant bread, washed down with swigs of dark red Brunello di Montalcino straight from the bottle, all taken while sprawled on a ledge, bare toes wiggling in the clover, with 1,500 feet of limestone cliff plunging beyond my elbow toward the noisy sea.
Here - on the fabled Isle of Capri, only an hour’s walk from gaggles of Germans fondling hand-painted china in tourist shops - I had my peregrinatio to myself.
Two thousand years ago, to purge the winter chill in their bones, pleasure-loving Romans fled the capital 150 miles to the north every April (the month of my visit) and headed for the Bay of Naples on Italy’s west coast, to laze about as I was doing among the pines and palms. In doing so, they literally invented the idea of the holiday trip.
Their peregrinatio - the term translates as “a journey abroad” - was devoted to sybaritic pursuits: Noblemen soaked in the baths of Baiae, cruised the countryside in litters borne by slaves, dallied with their kept women and fed the pet fish they had fussily adorned with jewels.
The Amalfi Coast begins just south of Pompeii, points a craggy finger west from Sorrento toward the plug thrusting suddenly out of the sea that is Capri, then carves its way back east. It forms a string of cliff-hung coves that guard old fishing villages such as Positano and Maiori before petering out in the streets of Salerno. It is the most amazing, and at the same time, the most mysterious, of all Mediterranean shores.
The Monti Lattari, a miniature range of soaring limestone spires and ridges that ripple the coast, rise only two miles inland to a stunning apex 4,750 feet above the ocean. Every square foot of arable land is claimed by olive and lemon trees, and in coves untouched by tourism - at Furore, Erchie and Conca dei Marini - local men still put to sea in sturdy boats to mine mullet and dorado, squid and cuttlefish.
To be sure, in the wrong season (July or August) or the wrong crowd (amid that busload of German shoppers, or marooned at breakfast in a hotel full of British retirees), Capri and Positano can feel like tourist traps. But the magic of the place is that, with only a little effort by foot or by car, you can escape the modern throng and plunge into the 19th century - or for that matter, into the first century A.D.
So fierce is the landscape, so ancient its habitation, that the Amalfi Coast tolerates none of the architectural bric-a-brac - high-rise hotels, casinos, fast-food joints - that have despoiled the more famous Costa del Sol in Spain and the Cote d’Azur in France. What is more, though the Amalfi Coast runs riot with scenery, it is markedly lacking in the sandy beaches that define the postcard image of the Riviera.
To reach my solitary picnic above the surging waves, I had walked the Via Migliara out of the center of Anacapri (the island’s second town), reached a belvedere overlooking Capri’s southernmost cape, then doubled back up an obscure forest path that tiptoed along a vertical precipice. Two days before, I had made a kindred stroll on the other end of the island to investigate the ruins of Villa Jovis, whose toppled stones lie strewn across a lofty headland looking east toward Sorrento.
Here, in 26 A.D., the aging Emperor Tiberius, absconding from the cares of state in Rome, betook himself to while away his dotage in private debauchery.
Like other mad dictators, he tortured and killed his enemies, real or imagined, and today’s guides point out Tiberius’s Leap, the cliff behind the villa off which the emperor pushed lovers of whom he’d grown weary. In the town of Capri, however, a wall plaque remembers Tiberius only in chamber-of-commerce homilies about sound administration and orderly rule.
In his voluptuous hedonism, Tiberius cast the mold for centuries of visitors who would come to the Amalfi Coast in quest of the good and easy life. Everywhere I went, I stepped across their shadows. It was on a thinly disguised Capri that Norman Douglas, the deft English aesthete, set his titillating 1917 novel “South Wind.” The poet W.H. Auden lived for 10 summers on Ischia, Capri’s twin island to the north, “believing,” as he wrote in a valedictory verse, “that amore is better down South and much cheaper….”
In the 1950s John Steinbeck found himself charmed to distraction by serene and lovely Positano, which some call the most vertical town in Italy. As I would do more than 40 years later, Steinbeck hiked up and down the twisting alleyways, paused at corners to stare at each new prospect of the pretty harbor, admired the hand-painted tiles cemented into walls (“The cat of this house is always nervous,” one announces), then downed his red wine at some shoreside cafe.
A covered passage near the beach bears a long quotation in Italian from Steinbeck’s encomium on the town. The writer’s ambivalence perfectly captures the paradox of the whole Amalfi Coast today, teetering between its unconscious perfection and the perils of quaintness manufactured for tourists.
Puzzling through the sentences with my pocket dictionary, I made out the following: “When you happen to find a place as beautiful as Positano, the first impulse is almost always to keep the discovery to yourself. You think: ‘If I write about it, the town will fill up with tourists, who will ruin it…; the locals will start to make a living from tourism, and goodbye to our beautiful discovery.”’ On Capri, I got a heady dose of what Steinbeck had foreseen in the person of Carlo the singing taxi driver, who drove me from the harbor to Anacapri. “Where you from?” Carlo demanded. “Boston? Bella, bella, bella! I have friend, Rocco. He run a restaurant. I give you note. Tell him Charlie from Capri!”
Then Carlo, or Charlie, as he called himself for my Anglocentric benefit, popped a tape into his tape deck and burst into song. “Canzone dedicata a Capri” (“A song dedicated to Capri”), he noted between mellifluous tenor strophes.
Next Charlie sang “the best Neapolitan song,” conducting himself with his right hand as he swerved around giddy hairpins with his left. Charlie soared to an operatic climax on the phrase, “l’elisir d’amore” (“the elixir of love”), then punched out a pair of honks on his horn in perfect synchrony with the trumpet cadence on the tape.
In Anacapri, he handed me his card. “Carlo Imparato,” it read; “Expert Driver With Opened Limousine Car.”
Yet behind the cheery veneer of the Charlies, there is a stolid local reticence, a private dignity that shrugs off visitors as a necessary nuisance. One day I got lost driving over the headland between Sorrento and Positano. Deluded into believing that the steadily dwindling lane was the road to the pass, I found myself pinched tight between 12-foot stone walls covered with vines. When I started scraping the paint off the passenger door, I realized I ought to back up - a desperate undertaking under the circumstances.
At that moment, a wizened old man appeared on his Vespa, trying to descend the lane I had plugged shut. He carried a bag full of eggs in his right hand. The man started cursing me in a patois so thick I couldn’t even figure out how to look up the words in my dictionary. “Mi scusi!” I yelled back pathetically, as the ancient squeezed through a gap narrower, I could have sworn, than his Vespa, without cracking a single egg.
For most of a week I stayed in Sorrento, a busy but neighborly town that makes an ideal base. From my hotel I could stroll down to the harbor where boats for Capri and Ischia embarked, or jump aboard the commuter train called Circumvesuviano for a day’s outing in Pompeii, or motor south to the remarkable highway that clings like a roller-coaster track to the cliffs between Positano and Salerno.
It was those cliffs, and the south-facing but somber coves they hide, that made the Amalfi Coast such an important place in the Middle Ages. The town of Amalfi itself has only 5,000 inhabitants; yet at the peak of its glory, in the 11th century, a prosperous throng of 80,000 turned this city-state into a sea power to rival Genoa and Pisa. As you stand in the crowded cathedral square today, beneath beetling brows of limestone, you cannot imagine how so many souls could have lived in so cramped a space.
I wanted to sleep on this immemorial shore, lulled by the waves that had launched Crusaders heading for the Levant, so I moved for my last two nights to the Tritone in Praiano. This stunning hotel, glued to a cliff 400 feet above a black stone beach, was almost empty during the best season of the year.
On a rainy morning, I took an elevator to the subterranean bowels of the building, then hiked down a staircase that tames a cliff so steep it would otherwise require technical climbing. Winter storms had loosened falling rocks that here and there had smashed away big chunks of railing; the staircase looked as though it had been bombarded by heavy artillery.
In the United States, such a passageway would have long since been locked up as far too hazardous for tourists. Here, in fatalistic Italy, to my delight the stairs were mine for the walking. And when I reached it, I had the stony beach, like so much of the Amalfi Coast, entirely to myself.
On a last hike, a mile above Positano, I tried to reach Monte Pertuso. The name, lent to the tiny village just below, means “hole in the mountain” - the hole being a jagged arch worn through a limestone buttress by eons of wind and rain. According to local lore, the Devil and the Virgin Mary fought a battle for the souls of the villagers. The Devil tried in vain to blow a hole in the rock, whereupon Mary simply walked through the mountainside.
The streets of the old town were as innocent of tourism as some hamlet in Albania. On a faint path I walked past caged dogs that howled their lust to tear me limb from limb. I reached the limestone buttress, tried to circle it on the right and on the left, and gave up in the face of unclimbable rock.
So instead I sat on another grassy ledge, pulled out my cheese and sausage, swigged from a new bottle of Brunello, and listened to the seagulls. My peregrinatio was about to end, but in a week I had stolen from this stern and storied land enough pleasure to soothe the most jaded libertine.
Map of area
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go Naples and Rome are gateways for the Amalfi Coast, with Naples next door, Rome a four-hour drive away on the autostrada. Rental cars are expensive in Italy, thanks to obligatory insurance and hefty government and airport surcharges, but driving your own car is the only way to see the glories of the coast. A warning: The wild, corniche road between Positano and Salerno is not for the faint of heart. Ferries leave the Sorrento harbor several times a day for Capri and Ischia. Reservations aren’t necessary, but boats sometimes sell out a half-hour or more before departure. On Capri it’s easy to get around by local bus or taxi - or simply on foot. There are many good hotels in Sorrento. I stayed at the Carlton International, a quiet place favored by Brits with excellent views over the Bay of Naples (011-39-81-807-2669; fax 011-39-81-807-1073). The romantic Tritone in Praiano has an incomparable setting, 400 feet above the ocean, as well as good food and sophisticated decor (011-39-89-874333; fax 011-39-89-874374). Every major town (Capri, Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi, Ravello) has many good cafes and restaurants. Two favorites, on the slightly elegant side: the Palazzo della Marra in Ravello and Il Capitano in Positano. The gardens of the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello are open daily from 9 a.m. to one hour before sunset; for more information, call 011-39-89-857459. Tiberius’ Villa Jovis, an hour’s walk from the center of the town of Capri, is one of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the Campania. Not to be missed also are the medieval cathedrals in Amalfi and Ravello. An excellent guidebook to the area is “The Bay of Naples & The Amalfi Coast” by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls (Cadogan Books, $12.95).
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