by Nicky Swallow, The Telegraph, July 10, 2019
Storied towns, sea vistas and spectacular food
The Sorrentine peninsula pushes out into the Tyrrhenian sea like a gnarled finger, its southern shores blessed by some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the world. Linking the towns is the SS163, the legendary Amalfi Coast Drive, a 16 km twisting, turning two-lane road that weaves and dips torturously in and out and up and down gorges, clinging to the cliff face from Positano to Amalfi. The background is lemon and olives groves, picture-perfect whitewashed villages and the ever-present shimmering blue sea.
This itinerary focuses on the principal stretch of the SS163, but the corniche road continues no-less dramatically all the way to Vietri-sul-Mare and tends to attract fewer crowds in this eastern stretch. A word of warning; the road is notoriously difficult to navigate, mainly for the sheer volume of traffic. In high season (May to September), you are likely to find yourself at best crawling along at a snail’s pace, bumper-to-bumper behind scores of tourist buses. So either move around by sea or avoid these months; April and October are good times to visit.
Hot right now . . .
Nicky Swallow, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest places to eat and drink and stay and the best things to do this season.
The venerable Hotel Santa Caterina (S.S. Amalfitana, 9; 00 39 089 871012) in Amalfi has recently shaken up its food act with a new chef. Michelin-starred Giuseppe Stanzione whips up inspired dishes such as subtly smoked risotto with scampi and lemon and guinea fowl with local black truffles. Desserts – chocolate mousse with almonds and mango maybe – are divine, and it’s all served on a dreamy terrace looking out to sea.
Franco's, the rooftop bar at hotel Le Sirenuse in Positano (Via Cristoforo Colombo 30; 00 39 089 875066), is enjoying its second season as one of the most desirable cocktail spots on the Costiera; ogle the contemporary art works and the in-crowd while you sip on an Old Fashioned and glory in the jaw-dropping views.
The newly opened Villa Margherita is tucked away in the garden of the super-luxe Belmond Caruso hotel in Ravello (Piazza S. Giovanni del Toro, 2; 00 39 089 858 801); the two-suite villa comes with its own butler and private chef and offers privileged privacy for a lucky few.
Stuff Pompeii: Positano has its very own Roman villa, recently opened to the public as Museo Archeologico Romano (Piazza Flavio Gioia, 7; 00 39 331 208 5821). Only one room of the complex buried in the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius is open to visitors, but the wall paintings are astonishingly well-preserved.
48 hours on . . . the Amalfi Coast
Start your tour of the coast in Positano, the most famous of the Amalfi Coast towns, a tumble of pastel-hued houses clinging impossibly to an almost sheer cliff face. The best way to arrive is by sea, but if you are driving, park at the top of the town and walk down to Piazza dei Mulini from where steep, narrow (and tourist-clogged) Via dei Mulini descends towards the beach.
La Zagara (00 39 089 875964) is a good stop-off for coffee and delicious pastries and cakes. Further on is elegant, 18th-century Palazzo Murat, once home to Giochino Murat, King of Naples, and now a very lovely hotel. Further down the hill lies the church of Santa Maria Assunta and the entrance to the newly opened Museo Archeologico Romano (00 39 3312085821).
The grey pebble beach of Spiaggia Grande is a good spot for a dip; you can hire a sun bed and umbrella from one of the lidos, or claim a patch of the free beach in the middle. Alternatively, a footpath leads to the right around the point to the less-crowded local’s beach of Il Fornillo where the Il Pupetto hotel and beach bar (00 39 089 875087) will serve you an ice cold beer. Take the stepped path up the hill behind the hotel to see another side of Positano, a quiet neighbourhood where locals outnumber tourists.
The tiny village of Montepertuso lies 400 metres above Positano (either drive up or catch the SITA bus) and is a cool, quiet escape from the crowds. Book a table at Donna Rosa (00 39 089 811806) for ravioli stuffed with local artichokes and lamb cutlets flavoured with wild rosemary.
Bolstered by lunch (and not too much wine), head to the even tinier village of Nocelle; the SITA bus will take you almost there. From the car park, access to the clutch of rustic houses is via some 100 steps, but once you arrive, the views are breathtaking.
Nocelle is the starting point for the ‘Sentiero degli Dei’, the Costiera’s most celebrated walk. The path meanders along the pinnacle of the mountains with, at times, sheer drops on either side. Finishing in Bomerano, the whole thing will take the best part of a day, but you can tackle just a short section. It is essential to carry water, a sunhat, sunblock and a camera to capture the extraordinary views.
Back in Nocelle, you can have a cool drink and a piece of homemade cake at Bar-Ristorante Santa Croce in the centre of the village (Via Nocelle 19; 00 39 089 811260).
You have earned a slap-up evening out, so slip into some kind of casual-chic linen and cashmere combo and head for the Champagne and Oyster Bar at hotel Le Sirenuse (Via Cristoforo Colombo, 30; 00 39 089 875 066) for bubbles, bi-valves and magnificent views.
Round the evening off at the mythical Africana (Via Terramare, 2; 00 39 089 874858), a night club with dance floor built over the rocks; there is a boat and bus service from Positano and Amalfi.
There is a lot of ground to cover today, so try and get an early start; the going on the SS 163 can be maddeningly slow. From Positano, a few twists and turns in the road to the east lead to the sprawling, low-key village of Praiano.
Bar Sole (Via Capriglione 120; 00 39 089 813079) on the main street is the modest social hub of the village and they make a decent cappuccino. Ceramics whizz Paolo Sandulli has his studio in a Saracen watchtower looking out to sea just outside the town (Via Terramare; 00 39 089 339440 - follow the signs to the Africana Club).
Just along the coast is the tiny, picturesque fishing hamlet of Marina di Praia, a clutch of cottages, a couple of restaurants and a few boats pulled up on a tiny beach squeezed between walls of towering rock. From here you can rent a boat, either with or without a skipper, and spend a dreamy hour put-puttering along the coast towards Amalfi.
Pull up at waterside Ippocampo (00 39 089 831153) at Conca dei Marini for a simple fishy feast; it's only accessible by sea or hundreds of steep steps. Alternatively, back at Marina di Praia, Armandino's (00 39 089 874087), a modest quayside trattoria, offers up pasta with clams and grilled swordfish.
Continuing east, past the towering viaduct that crosses the Vallone di Furore, lies the Emerald Grotto, a popular tourist attraction named after the intense blue-green light that filters into the cave; access is via a lift on the main road.
The coast road twists and turns past Amalfi and Atrani before reaching the turn-off for Ravello, a ravishing little town with an other-worldly atmosphere perched on a bluff 350 metres feet above the gulf of Salerno. After a refreshing iced tea or gelato at one of the bars in the square, pop into the 11th-century Duomo to admire the two magnificent pulpits.
Nearby Villa Rufolo (00 39 089 857621) has a Moorish cloister and gardens that inspired Wagner for the second act of Parsifal in 1880. But the jewel in the crown is Villa Cimbrone (00 39 089 857459) with its grandiose gardens suspended above the sea; the Terrace of the Infinity is a particularly Instagram-worthy spot. The Bloomsbury set hung out in the villa in the 1920s; today it is a luxury hotel where you can call in for a very civilized aperitivo.
Alternatively, head back down to Amalfi in time to visit the great Arab-Norman Duomo di Sant'Andrea (00 39 089 873558) and to stock up on traditional 'bambagina' paper at the Scuderia del Duca (Largo Cesareo Console, 8; 00 39 089 872976) and lemon and almond biscuits at historic Pasticceria Pansa (Piazza Duomo 40; 00 39 089 871065).
Once a glorious maritime republic of some 70,000 souls, Amalfi can feel oppressively crowded during the day, but come evening, many visitors leave. Bag a table at one of the bars in piazza Duomo, order a Campari spritz and settle down for some people watching before heading to the upper part of the town for dinner at Trattoria dei Cartari (Piazza della Spirito Santo, 5; 00 30 089 872131), a friendly little place serving authentic local dishes such as paccheri pasta with monkfish and prawns.
In keeping with this evening's low profile entertainment, wander round the headland to charming Atrani and Bar Risacca (00 39 089 872866) in pretty piazza Umberto I for a nightcap; it's a delightful spot in which to soak up a bit of local life.
Where to stay . . .
Often included in ‘World’s Best’ lists and frequented by such stars as George Clooney and Julia Roberts, the legendary and oh-so-glam Il San Pietro di Positano lives up to its reputation. But the luxuriousness and spectacular setting belie what is, at the heart, a family operation, so the five-star service comes with a smile. Don’t miss restaurant Zass, where dishes such as lemon tagliatelle with lobster and fennel use fresh produce from the hotel’s 10,000 square-metre kitchen garden.
Doubles from €495 (£394). Via Laurito 2; 00 39 089 875455
Until recently, Casa Buonocore was the home of a family who now run it with great dedication and style. The location is excellent and compared to Positano’s often outrageous prices, it is pretty good value too. Eight beautiful rooms of wildly varying sizes are all meticulously furnished with lots of attention to detail – one even has a huge panoramic terrace with views over the town and sea. Breakfast is the only meal on offer, but it's outstanding (homemade cakes and pastries, eggs made to order, organic jams and yogurts) and changes daily.
Doubles from €195 (£170). Via Cristoforo Colombo 77; 00 39 089 875085
For peace, verdant nature, and a taste of Italian family-style hospitality, look no further than La Valle delle Ferriere, a little b&b set on a footpath around a 15-minute walk from Amalfi’s town centre. It’s a heart-warming place with beautiful views (though the climb up to it will make your pulse race). With just three rooms and one apartment (done out in simple Amalfi Coast style), the atmosphere is quiet, intimate, and charmingly homely.
Doubles from €75 (£67). Salita Grade Lunghe 8; 00 089 871653
What to bring home . . .
Vietri sul Mare has been famous for its production of majolica ceramics since the 11th century. The best place to buy the typically colourful homeware (you will recognize the naïf animal designs) is the Solimene factory (Via Madonna degli Angeli 7, 00 39 089 210243) whose warehouse is stuffed with seconds at bargain prices.
Derived from the Roman sauce 'garum', colatura di alici is an extract of anchovies used as a condiment on pasta and other dishes. Cetara is known for its anchovy fishing and the highly prized colatura is a by-product; all of the delis on the main street sell it, but some of the best can be sourced at Cetarii (00 39 089 261863) down by the harbor.
When to go . . .
This short stretch of coastline is packed from Easter until late September. July and August (Italian holiday time) are the hottest, most crowded months; the best times to visit are spring and autumn. In spring, the air is clear and fresh, the colours bright and the hillsides are carpeted with wild flowers. In late autumn, the sea is still warm enough to swim and the whole place seems to mellow in anticipation of the end of the season. Many hotels and restaurants close for the winter, but it is a wonderful time to come if you are into nature and the quiet life.
Know before you go . . .
• In high season, the SS 163 coast road is chockablock with traffic and can make frustratingly slow going. The way to avoid the jams is by using the ferry service that links Positano to Amalfi and Salerno. Travel time will be much reduced (20 minutes from Positano to Amalfi), you won’t suffer from road rage and you will get a different perspective on the coast. Services function all year but are much more frequent between April and October.
• The Amalfi Coast is not the most accessible of places. The nearest airport is Naples Capodichino but Rome Fiumicino handles intercontinental flights. From Naples you can arrange a private transfer or take the Campania Express train (mid-March until mid-October) to Sorrento and then a bus to the coast. Off-season, you are left to the mercy of the much slower Circumvesuviana service. There is also a regular ferry service from Naples to Sorrento.
• Once in the area, the SITA bus company provides an efficient, cheap service up and down the coast and to outlying towns and there are plenty of taxis.
• The local dress code for churches dictates that shoulders and midriffs should be covered (a scarf or shawl will do) and skirts should not be too short.
• Italians always say hello and goodbye in social situations and when entering or leaving a bar or a shop; a simple buon giorno in the morning or buona sera in the evening is good, plus arriverderci when you leave. When you are introduced to an Italian, it is normal to shake hands.
• In Italy, generous tips are not expected in restaurants or by taxi drivers although you can always show your appreciation after a meal by rounding the bill up a few euros.
Telephone code: 00 39 081 (anywhere in the province of Naples); 00 39 089 (anywhere in the province of Salerno)
Time difference: UTC +1 hour
Flight time (from London): Approximately 2.5 hours
British Embassy: 00 39 06 4220 0001; gov.uk
Via Venti Settembre, 80A, 00187 Roma, Italy
Open 9am to 5pm, Mon-Fri
Visits by appointment only
Police: Dial 11
Ambulance: Dial 118
Positano: 00 39 089 875067; aziendaturismopositano.it
Via Regina Giovanna 13
Amalfi: 00 39 089 871107; amalfitouristoffice.it
Corso delle Repubbliche Marinare 27
Ravello: 00 39 089 857096; ravellotime.it
Via Roma 18/BIS
Nicky Swallow is Telegraph Travel’s Amalfi Coast expert. She has lived in Florence since 1981 and first visited the Costiera Amalfitana in the mid-1990s when she tasted local mozzarella grilled on a lemon leaf and was hooked. She has been going back regularly ever since.
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