There is no better way to begin your tour of Ravello than by visiting the Villa Rufolo. The entrance is on the main square (Piazza Vescovado), just across from the Duomo. You enter through a 13th-century, square Moorish tower. After purchasing your ticket, you walk along an inner pathway until you reach the Moorish Cloister. Best known for its colonnade of pointed arches, the cloister is an outstanding example of the Arabic-Sicilian style of the period.
Just a few feet from the Moorish Cloister stands the majestic Torre Maggiore, a large fortress, 30 meters tall, that Wagner said resembled the fabled “castle of Klingsor.” The tower is a powerful backdrop to a large complex of gardens that offer marvelous views of the Church of the Annunziata and the waters of the Mediterranean below. For most visitors, the terraced gardens, and the magnificent views afforded by them, are the highlights of the Villa Rufolo, but before exploring the gardens, take time to enjoy the brick and stone archways that abut them.
Upon leaving the Rufolo, turn left on the Via Rufolo, taking time to admire the ceramics, which are for sale in the shops along the street. Then continue through a small passageway and begin to climb the steps of the Via San Francisco. Immediately on your left is the Hotel Rufolo. As you pass by the entrance to the hotel’s restaurant, notice the plaque that indicates that D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover while staying there. Turn around at this point to get another perspective on the Villa Rufolo before continuing your walk to the Villa Cimbrone.
Convento di San Francesco
A few more steps up the hill on the left is the Convento di San Francesco, a 13th-century Franciscan monastery. The Convento serves as a reminder that the Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order, visited Ravello on his way to venerate the remains of Saint Andrew in nearby Amalfi. The convent is best known for its library, Biblioteca San Francesco, which is open to the public, though the hours are limited.
Monasterio di Santa Chiara
Continue walking up the Via di San Francesco, passing by the entrance to a small garden on your right and a couple of small shops on your left. Just beyond the shops, the walkway turns to the left. Continue straight until the walkway leads you to the Church of Santa Chiara (Saint Claire) and the accompanying convent. Saint Claire was a contemporary of St. Francis, who founded the Order of Poor Ladies or Poor Clares. At the church, the walkway bends to the right. Walk down the steps, staying to your left, and continuing on the walkway (Via S. Chiara) until you reach a passageway that leads you up to the Villa Cimbrone.
Villa Cimbrone Gardens
As you approach the Villa Cimbrone, admire the outer garden, the fountain, the trees, ivy-covered walls, and the large terra cotta orci (jars) that grace the entrance. Notice also the two towers that loom above. Up the stairs and inside the gate you can purchase your ticket and start your tour of the villa. Begin by exploring the cloister on the left with its Arabic-Sicilian-Norman-styled archways, and the wonderful covered well that sits in the middle of the courtyard. Farther back and to the left, you can also visit the crypt with its large Gothic columns (modeled after England’s Fountain Abbey).
Start your tour of the gardens with the pergola-covered Viale dell’Immenso, which leads to the Belvedere. Take time, however, to stroll alongside the gardens on either side. At the far end of the walkway stands the Temple of Ceres, which forms the entrance to the Belvedere.
The Belvedere, or the Terrace of Infinity as it formally known, is lined by a series of marble busts. Gore Vidal once claimed that the view from the Belvedere is the finest in the world. No one who has ever seen it on a clear day will ever forget it. If the visibility is good, you can see the outline of mountains in the distance and next to them the level plain on which Paestum, the ancient Greek city, was built.
Twenty five years ago I was asked by an American magazine what was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen in all my travels and I said the view from the belvedere of the Villa Cimbrone on a bright winter’s day when the sky and the sea were each so vividly blue that it was not possible to tell one from the other.Gore Vidal
After the Belvedere, take a walk along the trails, enjoying the other sights on the property, including a sculpture of Mercury sitting on a rock, the temple of Bacchus, and the little grotto that features a sculpture of Venus. Then, wind your way back, stopping off to enjoy the two formal gardens near the entrance. The larger one, known as the Rose Garden, is surrounded by a carved wall and has a sundial in the middle. Just beyond it is a smaller garden, called the Tea Room, which has a series of ancient columns, two bronze deer of Art Deco design, and a copy of Donatello’s David.
Before leaving the gardens of the Villa Cimbrone, take time to admire the villa itself. Now a luxury five-star hotel with a stunning infinity pool, the Villa Cimbrone has entertained a long list of notables. A plaque near the entrance to the hotel commemorates Greta Garbo’s and Leopold Stokowski’s stay at the Villa Cimbrone. Other notable guests here include Sir Winston Churchill, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, D.H. Lawrence, and John Maynard Keynes.
While the hotel is not open to the general public, the Chiostro (Cloister) and the Cripta (Crypt) are open and well worth visiting. The cloister, right across from the ticket office, was extensively redecorated by Lord Grimthorpe a century ago. It has a magnificent covered well in the center, and the walls of the cloister are richly ornamented with imported bas reliefs and old terracotta, the most notable being a tile by the famous Luca Della Robbia.The crypt, another Lord Grimthorpe creation, is modelled after the monk’s cellarium at Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian monastery near Malton, England, where Grimthorpe was born.
Returning to Villa Rufolo
If you’re running short of time, you can go directly back to the center of town, but if you have worked up an appetite, you can stop off on the way and enjoy a lunch at either the Villa Amore or the Villa Maria. The Villa Amore will appear on your right shortly after you have passed the Monasterio di Santa Chiara. It’s a short walk from the main pathway, down a narrow walkway. A little further on, the Villa Maria appears on your left. Both restaurants offer fine food, wonderful views of the Mediterranean, and a chance to rest up before recommencing your tour of Ravello.