What is the magic of this seaside place, so potent it makes people take leave of their senses? Even in our own times, film stars have been known to strip naked fully to embrace its inky blue waters.
It may be an innate sense of freedom. The first sensation that hits you as you descend the winding mountain roads into Amalfi is one of refreshment. There’s the wide expanse of twinkling sea, the smell of lemon groves, the promise of serenity that beckons the world-weary.
Like many seasoned travellers, I’ve heard of Amalfi, but know little about it before I arrive. I wonder whether its household name will live up to the hype. When you first descend its steep cliff roads by car, on foot or by bike, there is something invigorating about being in the presence of a landscape that has captivated traders, clergy, travellers, artists, saints, sinners and those just looking to chill out.
One reason why this part of the Campania coastline has maintained its original grace, is it has adhered to a single aesthetic for centuries. As I arrive at the Hotel Santa Caterina (see box) I gaze out at the bay of Amalfi from its terraces. In this town, there is no building more than five storeys high. The pastel-painted houses seem to cascade from the mountains. From where I stand I see swathes of lemon groves and lush greenery adorning terraces that unfold like a stairway in a gradual decline to the sea.
It’s a place both blessed and cursed by nature. Scorched by ashes from the same eruption that wiped Pompeii from the map, it was one of the most important Mediterranean ports from the 9th to the 11th century, when a savage earthquake devastated its wharves and warehouses.
I venture into the town and find the legacy of this era is the centrally located cathedral. Inside it’s adorned with gold, outside with giant copper doors, built when Amalfi was twice the size of London. Nowadays you can walk this town end-to-end in 30 minutes.
I’m hoping for gems more interesting than the usual rota of churches and town halls. A guide, fittingly named Michel Angelo, tells me the town is full of secrets. It’s in the secluded castles, coves and caves where the real story of Amalfi is to be unveiled.
For example, there’s a covered alley next to Supportico Sant’ Andrea, once used as a honey trap to capture those pirates of old. When Amalfi was a wealthy port, these amoral seafarers would stop supposedly for supplies, then plunder its women and wealth. To put a stop to such behaviour, the town governors enlisted the local womenfolk to take part in a cunning plan.
A bevy of youthful beauties waited by the port, like sirens beckoning the buccaneers into town. Duly refreshed by the local wine, the seafarers stumbled into this very alley, at which point the women vanished, the road was blocked off and hot oil rained down from above with very unpleasant consequences.
Walk through the alleyway today and instead of that gory fate, you’ll find a retreat sheltered from the heat and hordes. Along the path look out for hidden trattorias, such as Taverna Buonvicino on Largo Santa Maria Maggiore, serving Italian and Amalfi specialities.
At Piazzo Spirito Santo, you’ll find La Piccola Repubblica – offering free samples of the local tipple, limoncello, and local chocolate liqueur, as well as quirky gifts such as Viagra pasta. If any more evidence is needed of the hot passions that swelter under the Amalfi heat, look up to the furthest heights out of the town to spy a castle tower.
It’s here, in the 16th century, that a noblewoman was locked up with her illegitimate sons and slowly starved to death; all as punishment for bearing the children of her servant. The tale has been retold via Elizabethan playwright John Webster’s drama, the Duchess of Malfi, almost ever since.
Some of the finest parts of Amalfi are by the sea, including the Emerald Cave, hidden among rocks and found by a fisherman in the 1920s. It’s a less touristic version of the Blue Grotto in nearby Capri. Once inside, a rowing boat takes you into hidden depths, to marvel at stalactites that may date back millions of years.
These parts can easily be reached by a yacht trip with Private Charter Italia which also includes the artist-favoured spots of Positano and Ravello. But, as for the hidden secrets of these places, those are stories for another time.
The Hotel Santa Caterina is an address that oozes Italian hospitality. It’s also one gloriously free from big business ownership, having been the property of the Gambardella family for generations
Maybe because of this independence it’s an undisputed gem, both of Campania and the Med alike. One of the original stops on the Grand Tour, it still oozes a non-stuffy attention to detail. No matter where you go, the whole theme cries out: ‘We’ve thought about you.’
It’s the small things: the embossed bed sheets, the artwork in the floor tiles, the way the staff know what you want before you do. Even the menus of its restaurant are hand-printed daily in an artisan Amalfi style that can trace its origins back to the 13th century.
All rooms face the sea, with sweeping French windows opening to elegant balconies. The hotel floors are built along terraces. Guests can walk through ornate gardens and lemon groves, before arriving at a secluded beach club, with a swimming pool and the sea lapping at your toes.
The enormous homegrown lemons are also used in therapies in the spa and as ingredients in its dishes. Even if you don’t stay, take a drink on its terrace to sample the view and service, both the best in Amalfi. This hotel has an ingredient lacking in many far more publicised properties – emotion.