A caveat: Since I first wrote this, things have changed greatly in Ravello. On our return there two weeks ago, we ate in the excellent Café Klingsor and did not have to mortgage our house to do so. Lots of other tourists in other bars, cafè’s and restaurants also seemed to be enjoying the experience and I saw no-one faint on receiving the bill!
By now it was getting hot. We were going out for our walks earlier and earlier in the day, sometimes starting off at 6 o’clock in the morning to avoid finding ourselves under the baking noonday sun, halfway up or down a mountain. But we didn’t mind the early starts. By five in the morning, we were normally so sweat-soaked that we didn’t want to lie around in bed anyway.
Our walk today would take us to Ravello, often referred to as “the balcony of the gods” and sometimes considered as something of an afterthought to Amalfi. So many times, I’ve heard tourists say, “We’ll pop up to Ravello if we’ve got time.” This is a great pity, as Ravello is infinitely more beautiful than Amalfi for my money. Serene and never overrun with tourists, Ravello has a wealth of art and culture. The cathedral was established in 1086 by the town’s first bishop and renovated in 1786 and again in the 1930s. It is dedicated to Saint Pantaleon and is worth a visit purely for its fabulous bronze door from 1179, with 54 scenes depicting the passion of Christ and various saints.
But Ravello is best known around these parts for its twin villas; Villa Rufolo, with its various Arabic-Sicilian structures and wondrous terrace overlooking the Gulf of Salerno, has gardens of pines, cypresses and exotic plants. Richard Wagner loved it here and saw, in the gardens, the materialisation of Klingsor’s magic garden in his opera Parsifal, and a series of concerts is held in Villa Rufolo every summer in honour of the great composer.
Villa Cimbrone is a twin-towered construction with equally lovely gardens, in which you can visit Bacchus’s temple and Eve’s Grotto, now sadly shielded from the public’s gaze and the vandal’s aim by a vulgar, transparent plastic barrier. Here, too, you almost feel that you can hear Wagner’s music playing in the background, especially in the late autumn, when the mists are swirling around the peaks of the mountains.
But if Ravello has one major fault, then it is that it is impossible to eat or drink here without having to first mortgage your house. A tiny bottle of mediocre Italian beer will cost you almost three times what it does in Sorrento; order a sandwich in a bar and it will be unwrapped from its cellophane, tossed hastily into the microwave, and served limp and lifeless with all the charm of a cluster of haemorrhoids. If you really want to make the platinum card choice, then go for seafood. But, be warned; it is likely to have come out of a bag marked “Findus”.
This is something that you find more and more frequently in Italy, and I really cannot understand why they do it. If it is an attempt to preserve the exclusivity of places like Ravello, or to fleece poor unsuspecting tourists, then it simply doesn’t work. Tourists just go to the nearest salumeria, make their own, reasonably-priced sandwich from what they find on offer, and squat on benches or by the side of public flowerbeds, munching on oversized bread rolls, swigging beer straight from the bottle and generally making the place look untidy. And who can blame them?
When thirst and hunger got the better of us, we took the bus back down to Amalfi. There was absolutely no way I was going to shell out €3.50 for a small bottle of mineral water, no matter how lovely the surroundings. Now, Amalfi is certainly beautiful, there is no doubting that. But there is something about it that makes it my least favourite of the coastal resorts. Perhaps it is the fact that it is overrun with tourists at all times of the year.
Positano, a sort of anthill, can cope with a large tourist influx. Amalfi, spread out on the flat at sea level, cannot. Perhaps it is the fact that it is permanently clogged with traffic, directed by bad-tempered traffic policemen; it might even be the simple fact that, with its predominantly white buildings, it is just not as colourful as Positano. Or perhaps it is its flatness I don’t like. Whatever it is, I have only ever been able to take Amalfi in small doses.
Amalfi was one of the four maritime republics and the sea has always been its lifeblood. But it has also been a cause of calamity, such as on 24th November 1343, when a seaquake submerged and wiped a third of the town off the map, destroying its ships and entire arsenal, along with every building along the coast. Petrarch recorded the fact in one of his epistles. Today, Amalfi, just like the rest of the peninsula, owes its wealth to the tourists, many of whom flock here to visit its incredible cathedral, dedicated to St. Andrew. Work on the cathedral was started in the 9th century. It was reconstructed in 1203 in the Arabo-Normanic style typical of Sicily.
From 1701 to 1731, the cathedral was given a complete Baroque makeover. What we see today is the façade that was rebuilt between 1875 and 1894 after the previous one collapsed in 1861. If you were to give a particularly imaginative child a limitless supply of cream and brown lego bricks, he would probably come up with something like Amalfi cathedral, and it is well worth whiling away a morning in its vicinity.
We found a street café very close to the cathedral itself, where the advertised beer prices were so cheap as to make us suspicious. But we sat down and I ordered a birra grande on tap. “I suppose you’d like a small one,” I said to Giovanna. But she was having none of it. “At these prices, I’m having a big one too,” she insisted. Catello and the others did the same, and a tray was duly brought to us, on which there were glasses of such magnitude, each and every one of them filled to the brim, that we attracted the bemused glances of almost everyone who passed. When the bill came, there were no added extras, no cover charges, hidden service charges or any of the other swindles we had feared. We left a lavish tip, shook the waiter’s hand warmly, and expressed the sentiment that the owner of the establishment might well wish to hold a seminar or two up in Ravello, and show the greedy swine up there how this sort of thing is done properly.
We explored the cathedral, including the crypt built to conserve the relics of St. Andrew, marvelled at the Roman and medieval fragments in the Paradise cloister and then, still weaving from the combined effects of the beer and the sun, we ricocheted our way up to the Valle dei Mulini, heading along Via Genova, up from the piazza. Several paper mills were constructed in this district, some of them the oldest in Europe. Paper production is a long-standing tradition in Amalfi, a fact that owes a lot to the commercial relations that the Republic enjoyed with the Arabs. In one of the old mills, there is a paper museum in which you can admire etchings and prints, as well as the old machinery used in the manufacture of paper, and which, along with the Museo della Civiltà Contadina, or “Museum of Peasant Civilisation”, is well worth a visit. We spent the afternoon idling around Amalfi until the noise and confusion became too much to bear, and we began to hanker, once more, after the peace and quiet of Vico Equense.
We boarded the big, blue bus that would take us as far as Sorrento, and Giovanna began to regret the birra grande, as the driver swung the vehicle around hairpin bends at reckless speed. I always enjoyed this most spectacular of rides along the Amalfi coastline, and I enjoyed it especially that afternoon, after what had been another perfect day in the company of Catello and friends. I was glad to have seen Amalfi itself at long last. But I was also glad to be leaving.