Italy’s Amalfi Coast: Heaven in the Details
I am in amore with Amalfi.
There’s no point in denying that bias—one I share with every smitten traveler who’s toasted one of its tangerine sunsets with an electric-yellow limoncello.
The scenic beauty had me at “hello,” but it’s much more than skin deep. Succumb for a week to this legendary Italian coast, and you quickly realize that it is…well, it’s… “Heaven,” volunteers Sergio, completing my thought as I suspect he’s done for many other guests in his care. Classic Journeys’ senior guide and most well-connected friend for 20 years, he’s a passionate Napolitano who’s famous for his appreciation of all things Amalfi. Sergio’s point is undeniable, and he’s not just referring to the spectacular vistas. Here, heaven is truly in the details.
“You must relax into this place, let it wash over you and happen,” says Sergio. “Don’t worry about the sights of Ravello or Naples that you read about on Wikipedia. I’ll see to it that you see them.” It’s lovely advice—well taken in a setting where the wide-angle spectacle can easily distract you from the intense, second-by-second charms of life.
My first proof comes on the chairlift up to Capri’s Monte Solaro. The vast arc of the Bay of Naples sweeps off to the right. But just below my dangling feet is the back garden of a small house. A nonna steps out just then, looks up, and throws me a smile. Her faded floral tablecloth, hung out to dry, snags on a thistle-y artichoke plant, almost ready for steam and lemon and butter. A little bit of everyday paradise.
Personally, I’m not much of a shopper, but a different kind of moment in Capri is one I’ll never forget. We were out for a stroll at dusk. The lanes were so quiet it was hard to believe the town was a crush of people earlier in the day while we had been out in the countryside. There in a shop window, under a tiny spotlight, all by itself, glowing like a crown jewel: a pristine, lapis-lazuli blue cashmere sweater. The shopkeeper, at ease after a busy day, smiled and crooked her finger to invite me in. A leisurely chat later, I’m a V-neck richer. I prefer to think of it as a cultural exchange rather than a retail transaction.
Once you discover the trick of focusing close-up and letting the scenery be its plain-old beautiful self, you realize that this is a place where a pizza can easily overshadow a 14th-century monastery. We stopped at that historic building on a coastal walk one day—fascinating to see the monks’ cells, wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But best of all, it was just down the path from the home where Sergio’s friend Luca lives. In we went, to toss some dough and bake a simple pizza in his wood-fired oven. It’s the bad luck of every pizza I’ve eaten since that it has to be compared to that homemade pie. Does its fire-blistered crust shatter like that one? Never. Do the tomatoes have the bite of the ones grown in volcanic soil? I wish. Does the cheese melt like the day-old fior de latte made of local milk? Why ask? Was it one of the simplest, nicest experiences I’ve ever had on a vacation? You know it’s true.
Then there’s Positano. You’ve seen the photos of the amphitheater-shaped town where each tier of pastel-colored houses seems to stand on the shoulders of the row just below. Unlike many postcard shots, this isn’t one that requires you to stand in one very specific spot to capture it. Positano poses perfectly from every vantage point. Down at sea level, where water laps at the feet of restaurants and shops, ask Sergio to point out the location of your hotel. (You can, after all, see virtually every building in town all at once!) “So you see the wide lemon-colored house with the three colonnades? Just up and to the left, there’s a coral house with lime umbrellas. Look two to the right, and the two-story Pompeian red building with the creamy-white balustrade is it.”
There are, of course, plenty of other rapturous sights. The Faraglioni—legendary rock formations that erupt from the sea. The bone-white remains of Pompeii, negotiated with a private guide whose favorite mural is in a house too far to the edge of the site to attract crowds. The Blue Grotto, especially in the morning when the sun is at just the right angle to amplify the blue (and the tourist horde has yet to arrive).
But then I found myself walking on the Sentiero degli Dei, or Path of the Gods, the same route once used to move goods by mule-back from town to town along the Amalfi Coast. Yes, I have photos of the vista. But what do I recall most vividly? The fig trees, sagging under the weight of sun-warmed fruits. If I close my eyes, I can still taste that air.
To be an Amalfitano—even for just a week on an Amalfi walking tour—is to appreciate that no moment is too small to be sweet, that pleasure is everywhere and that you have every right to claim it all for your own. That is pretty heavenly.