by Chris Apel
We all have a spiritual home, a place where our mood is lightened, our anxieties ebb, our pulse quickens, and our hopes soar. For me, that place is Ravello. Why Ravello? Because it sings to me. Admittedly, that’s not a very satisfactory explanation, but I’m a painter, not a writer. If you want colorful prose, read Shakespeare, but if you want to understand why I’m obsessed with Ravello, look at my paintings. Better yet, buy one. That way, you and I can both enjoy Ravello.
If I could, I would live in Ravello. Not year around, I can’t afford it. But three to four months a year would be nice. Beyond nice actually, particularly as I am now devoting my career to capturing Ravello on canvas, and there’s nothing I love more than painting on location.
They say that as you get older you realize that life is a journey, not a destination. If so, I want Ravello to be part of my journey. Wherever I am going, whatever I am doing, I want it to be one of the stops along the way. My painting, too, is a journey, not a destination. I do not aspire to paint all of Ravello, no one could. Michelangelo spent years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; I think it would take my lifetime and more to adequately capture Ravello on canvas. I just want to keep on painting it as long as I am able to paint.
I’m not the first person to find artistic inspiration in Ravello. Far from it. Richard Wagner, the great German composer wrote the second act of Parsifal, his final and perhaps greatest opera, in Ravello. D.H. Lawrence wrote much of the infamous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, while staying in Ravello. It was here that André Gide, the famous 20th century French author, wrote his first novel, and where E.M. Forster, the great English novelist, wrote his first short story. Noted American author Gore Vidal lived and wrote in Ravello for 30 years, eventually becoming an honorary citizen. The paintings of M.C. Escher, one of the most popular artists of the 20th century, were heavily influenced by Ravello.
Nor am I the first to find romance in Ravello. Seventy five years ago Greta Garbo, the famed American actress, eloped to Ravello with the intention of marrying the composer Leopold Stokowski. Today, Ravello is one of the most popular places in the entire world for destination weddings. And it’s no wonder. Perched in the Lattari Mountains, Ravello offers dramatic views of the Mediterranean. According to local legend, when Satan wanted to tempt Christ with the wonders of the world, he took him to Ravello.
And I am very far from being the first person to ‘discover’ Ravello. Giovanni Boccaccio, the great early Renaissance author, wrote of the wonders of Ravello long ago in the Decameron, and much of what inspired Boccaccio 800 years ago is still here today. Ravello continues to enchant.
* * *
I did not discover Ravello until the fall of 1990 when my husband and I were taking our third trip to Italy. After renting a car in Rome, we drove south on the autostrada, always an adventure. In less than two hours, we were whizzing around Naples with our eyes glued on Mount Vesuvius, which loomed large just off to the east. Somehow, thanks to my constant gawking and my limited navigational skills, we missed the turnoff that would have taken us through the town of Angri and over the Lattari Mountains to Ravello. Once I realized my mistake, we turned around and began searching for signs to Ravello. The roads in the area around Naples, however, are poorly marked, and driving anywhere in the vicinity of Naples is a white-knuckled pursuit.
We were traveling with another couple, Lorne and Diana, who were close friends from college days. Lorne pointed out to my husband that virtually all of the cars on the road had big dents, a stark testimony to the hazards of driving in a metropolitan area where drivers routinely scoff at red lights.
Being unable to locate the exit that would have taken us over the mountains to the Amalfi Coast, we drove further south on the autostrada to Salerno, and picked up the narrow, sinuous road that snakes back along the Amalfi Coast.
Like the sirens of myth who lured sailors to their death in the waters off the Amalfi Coast, the Amalfi Drive is both seductive and dangerous at the same time. The road is carved out of mountains that slope down to the sea. Driving northeast from Salerno, the mountains are on your right, the Mediterranean on your left, and at times the only thing standing between the two is the road itself. Every bend in the road produces another stunning vista…and another brush with an oncoming car.
The danger arises from the narrowness of the road, the severe drop-offs, the large tourist buses that hog the road, and the manic urgency with which most Italians drive. As my husband likes to say, there are only two kinds of drivers on the Amalfi Coast, the quick and the dead.
The road is so narrow that bottlenecks frequently occur at hairpin turns that were never designed to accommodate a bus and a car at the same time. At one of those logjams, we found ourselves penned between the mountain on one side and a bus on the other. Even hugging the wall and pulling in our side view mirrors, the bus cleared with only an inch or two to spare. Our friend Lorne, who was sitting behind my husband, nervously watched the wheels of the bus, and exclaimed that he could count the rivets as the wheels rolled by. Had he been so inclined, he could have reached out an inch or two and polished them. It was that close.
Because of our detour and the traffic jams, it was getting dark by the time that we saw a sign for Ravello. Bob issued an audible sigh of relief at the thought of exiting the Amalfi Drive, but the road up the mountain to Ravello was every bit as hair-raising. In the enveloping darkness the roads appeared narrower, the drops more precipitous, and our destination ever more elusive.
We had reservations at the Caruso Belvedere, a marvelous old palazzo at the top of Ravello. To get there, we had to drive up narrow unlit streets and make a hairpin turn around an old fountain. As a final tribulation, the last hundred yards of the road leading to the hotel was under repair. A large trench had been dug on the right hand side of the road, leaving scant room for maneuvering. Walker, as my husband likes to be called, fretted that we would get stuck in the trench or that there would be no room to turn around at the top, but as you eventually discover in the hill towns of Italy, there’s always just enough room to get by. And, mercifully, when we got to the hotel, there was even a parking spot waiting for us. Our little driving adventure was at an end.
The Caruso Belvedere is a former 11th century palace that was converted in 1893 into a small hotel by Pantaleone Caruso, the owner of a local vineyard. Today it’s a fully renovated five star hotel, one of the finest in Europe, but in 1990 the hotel was showing its age.
We had dinner that night in the hotel dining room. Our waiter, the venerable Luigi, was a congenial and memorable host. From our dining room table, you could see below the lights of Minori and Maori, two nearby coastal towns, and, if you look closely enough, you could see the cars weaving their way along the Amalfi Drive at night. God help them.
Dinner that night was a romantic, almost magical experience. Looking around the dimly-lit dining room and watching the formally-dressed Luigi escort diners to their table, I fantasized that we were 19th century English travelers on the last leg of our Grand Tour. I tried to imagine who else might have dined at our table. Years later, I would discover that the Caruso Belvedere had been keeping a guest list of distinguished visitors that included such literary giants as Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, William Styron, and Gore Vidal.
Early on the next morning, long before I was ready, I was awoken by a bright shaft of light. The Amalfi Coast is a peninsula that juts westward towards the sea. The sun rises on one end of the Amalfi Coast and sets on the other end, providing the inhabitants with dramatic sunrises and sunsets. In the winter months, when the sun is lower in the sky it rises and sets directly over the water, while in the summer months, it rises and sets further inland over the mountains.
On this particular morning, the sun rose where the mountains meet the sea, its rays lighting up the clouds, setting the sea aglow, silhouetting the mountains, and producing a veritable painter’s palette of warm, bright colors: translucent yellows, dramatic oranges and shimmering blues.
The overall effect was mesmerizing, and if I had been an accomplished landscape painter, I would have been scrambling to capture the moment on canvas or camera. But my career as a painter had only begun a few years earlier and capturing the wonder of that moment was beyond my modest abilities. Instead I just opened the balcony doors with their fragile glass panes and reveled in the sheer beauty of it all.
The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, my husband and I set out to explore a little bit of Ravello. As we exited the hotel, a black limousine pulled up and discharged two couples and their luggage. As we discovered later, they were bound for the Palumbo, an old and prestigious hotel down a little street that was too narrow for large cars.
Walker, who was busy looking at a map, went ahead on the narrow pathway, while I paused to look at the new arrivals. When I caught back up with him, I told him that the men looked like Bob Newhart and Don Rickles, the comedians. His curiosity piqued, he pulled me off into a little park next to the hotel and we waited for them to catch up. The driver came through the narrow passageway with the luggage, but there was no sign of the two couples. At last we gave up. As I walked back onto the pathway, I bumped headfirst into Bob Newhart’s video camera, making a brief, if unflattering, cameo appearance in his vacation video. I often wonder if I ended up on the cutting room floor.
Unfortunately for my husband and I, our sightseeing in Ravello was cut dramatically short by a severe flu that we had picked up from our friend Diana, who, after kissing us both at the airport in the States, informed us that she was recovering from one of the worst flus that she could ever recall. As a result, the bulk of our time in Ravello was spent in our room just gazing out at the stunning view. I briefly ventured out, but only to seek relief from a raging earache.
At the time my Italian was limited to grazie and prego, and the local doctor did not speak a word of English, but all I had to do was point at my ear, and let the infection do the talking. A short while later, after a quick visit to the local farmacia, I returned to my room with my prescription in hand, and stayed there for the remainder of our all too brief visit. Not the best introduction to one of the most spectacular towns in all of Italy.
* * *
Eight years would elapse before we would return to Ravello. In the intervening period, we had gone back to Italy three times, but always staying north of Rome. When we finally returned to Ravello we reserved five nights at the Villa Maria, with the intention of going on to Capri for three nights and then driving back to Rome for the final leg of our two week sojourn.
Sometimes getting to a destination is half the fun. Not so in this case. This time around, we did manage to take the correct exit off the Autostrada. It was a relatively hot day in June. We got off at Angri, a small but sprawling town that makes foreign travelers positively…angry. The town is a maze of dirty, narrow streets, and navigating your way through them with any hope of reaching Ravello requires you to pay careful attention to a myriad of road signs. At any intersection there might be a dozen or more signs. The signs were uniformly small and most of them pointed the way to hotels and other local destinations, and you could drive a long way without finding a proper road sign. As a consequence, we slowed down at every corner desperately looking for a sign pointing in the direction of Ravello or the Costiera Amalfitana. After making several turns, including a few wrong ones, we drove through a small tunnel and began snaking our way up the slopes of the Lattari Mountains in hopes that this torturous route would lead us to our ultimate destination.
Along the way we had more than a few close encounters with an on-coming bus, and around one turn we found the road occupied by a flock of sheep, a welcome respite from the harrowing drive. Eventually, however, we crossed over the mountains and began seeing signs of Ravello. Off in the far distance we could see the sun’s rays shining off the azure waters of the Mediterranean. We were nearly there.
Walker, my husband, drew a heavy, but premature, sigh of relief as we approached the town. The real adventure was yet to come. Ravello is many things, but car-friendly it is not. The center of the town is closed to vehicular traffic, and some destinations, including a number of the finer hotels, are only reachable by foot. The absence of cars is part of Ravello’s charm, but it does present a challenge to all those arriving by automobile.
There is a parking lot for visitors just below the town’s central square, but parking is expensive and not necessarily the best option for those staying overnight. We parked there at the outset and hiked the quarter mile uphill to the Villa Maria, a small, but delightful hotel offering dramatic views of the valley below and the Mediterranean in the distance.
At the front desk we were told that we could park the car for free at the Hotel Giordano, a stone’s throw from the municipal parking lot. Eager to save a few lira, we hiked back down and began our next hair-raising adventure.
On our way back to the municipal parking lot we passed by the Hotel Giordano, but little did we realize that getting there by car would be such a feat. To get to the hotel’s parking lot, we first had to find our way back to the other side of town, via a tunnel, and then drive through another tunnel that empties out into the town’s main piazza. At that point, we were close, but oh so far from the safe confines of the Hotel Giordano.
We turned left onto a short, narrow street lined with shops, but at the end of a short block we had to make a sharp right hand turn onto an even narrower road that led to the hotel a short distance ahead. On the left side of the road there were buildings and on the other side metal pylons connected by a chain. We had by my husband’s calculation about three inches to spare on either side of the car. It turned out to be a generous assessment. Even with mirrors pulled in on both sides, we had maybe two inches of clearance.
Walker’s temperament, under normal circumstances, is pretty even keel, but nothing quite rocks his boat like navigating a rental car with a big insurance deductible in a confined space. When the wall on his side of the car scratched the mirror he nearly lost it. He stopped the car, and we got out of the passenger side to inspect the damage. Somehow– and did not take a lot of imagination to see how–he had managed to wedge the car into a position where we could only do further damage to the car whichever way we drove. Not the way to commence a vacation.
Within ten minutes the car was safely in the hotel parking lot, but not without some help from the hotel staff. With a little heavy lifting they were able to dislodge the car without further damage. One of our helpers, no doubt amused by these helpless Americans, volunteered to guide us the rest of way, but Walker thought it was best, at this juncture, to leave the driving to the professionals.
In planning our trip, we had talked rather offhandedly about using Ravello as a base, and doing daytrips by car to Positano, Amalfi, and other major attractions in the area, including the Greek temples at nearby Paestum. On our walk back to the hotel, my husband suggested that we might just leave the car where it was it and focus on Ravello for a few days. What a marvelous and fortuitous suggestion it turned out to be, for while there are many wonderful attractions on the Amalfi Coast, there are none so fine as Ravello.
After checking into our room, we walked back to the center of town to reacquaint ourselves with Ravello and enjoy a late lunch. As we walked around that afternoon, I was thoroughly enchanted. That night in my journal I wrote that “it was divine to be back” in Ravello. I noted that it was “oozing in charm”, and that flowers were “spilling everywhere”. I guess it was love at second sight.
In the eight years that had elapsed since our last visit to Ravello, I had become a serious artist. Now, for the first time really, I was looking at the town with an artist’s eye, and everywhere I looked I saw potential paintings. I didn’t have my paints or my easel with me, but I had a sketch book, and I had a powerful urge to start sketching.
I had planned to take a large number of pictures on our trip with the idea of doing paintings from the photographs upon my return, but the battery in my camera was not working, and I started getting nervous that I was missing photo opportunities. Walker, who had regained his normally calm composure, quietly listened to me burble on about what I wanted to photograph and paint.
That evening we had dinner on the veranda of the Villa Maria. We were seated at a table for two next to the railing overlooking the valley below and the lights in the small towns across the way. The setting was magical and we enjoyed a wonderful meal. I started with a blissful pomodoro salad. The local farmers grow several different varieties of tomatoes, and in June they are all fresh and delicious. We both had a veal limone for our main dish. In Ravello, I later learned, you will never go wrong by eating anything made using the local lemons.
Afterwards, we walked back into the center of town, and stopped to order an after dinner drink at a café in the Piazza Vescovado, the main square. To one side we looked at the 11th century duomo (cathedral) that dominates the square. The other side of the piazza overlooks the Valle del Dragone (Valley of the Dragons) that separates Ravello from Scala, the neighboring town. It was there, on that warm summer evening in June, that we first tasted limoncello, the signature liquore of the Amalfi Coast that is now gaining so so quickly in global popularity. What a tangy, absolutely delectable way to conclude a day in Ravello! I realized then why lemons were featured so prominently in the ceramics that are sold in the shops.
The next morning, after a pleasant breakfast on the veranda, we set out to discover Ravello in earnest. We started by touring the Villa Rufolo, which for centuries has been Ravello’s chief attraction. Built over 800 years ago, much has been lost to the ages, but what remains is stunningly beautiful: the Moorish towers and cloister, and most dramatically, the beautiful gardens that offer mesmerizing views of the Mediterranean far below.
The weather that day was particularly hot. Even the little green lizards that darted around the bricks and the walls seemed to be overcome by the heat. Years later I learned that M. C. Esher, the 20th century Dutch lithographer, whose etchings of tessellated lizards were so popular with students when I was in college, had been influenced by these same lizards during his stay in Ravello. I guess an artist never knows where she or he will find artistic inspiration.
At noon, we paused for lunch at Cumpa’s Cosimo, an absolutely delightful family-run trattoria presided over by Netta Bottone. Wearing a 1950’s styled blue gingham apron, she greeted us like lost friends, even though she could not possibly have remembered us from eight years earlier. The pasta, not surprisingly, was divine, but I also remember fondly the ciliegie (cherries) that she served us that day for dessert. Grown in her backyard garden, they were incredibly sweet; they put to shame the organic fruit that I buy from the farmer’s market back home.
Because of the unusually hot weather, we took the advice of the front desk and went for a swim at the Hotel Giordano, which has a nice size pool with panoramic views of the town and the valley. At the pool we claimed two chaise lounges that were shaded by a large bank of jasmine with a heady scent.
On the advice of hotel staff we attended that evening a chamber concert at the Villa Rufolo with pianist Daniel Blumenthal, who played two Beethoven sonatas and another one by Brahms. It was an outdoor concert, held within one of the ruined portions of the villa. Folding chairs were set up on the lawn. The piano framed against a wonderfully flood-lit stone archway. I must say that there are few things as enjoyable as listening to classical music in the ruins of an old Italian villa with a starry sky above and warm sea breezes all around. There was an intermission that featured champagne and limoncello, and at the end of the concert, Blumenthal played two fabulous encores. All evening I felt like I was in heaven…and in a manner of speaking, I was. As we walked home, I told Walker, in dead earnest, that I did not want to leave. He just smiled and said that we could stay as long as he never had to drive the car out of the Hotel Giordano’s parking lot.
* * *
As fate would have it, we would eventually depart Ravello, but not as soon as originally planned. The next morning Walker and I agreed to extend our stay in Ravello. Tina, our cheerful and engaging concierge at the Villa Maria, was more than happy to cancel our reservations in Capri.
After another leisurely breakfast on the veranda, we had the pleasure of meeting Vincenzo Palumbo, the owner of the Villa Maria. Il professore, as he is affectionately known, offered to show us the Villa Eva just a short distance up the path. The villa, which was undergoing extensive reconstruction, was hidden behind a large wall, but people passing by could look through the gate and catch a glimpse of the villa and its gardens.
Patrician in both appearance and demeanor, il professore was a gracious tour guide, showing us the downstairs and then taking us up to see the bedrooms, which were still being worked on. He talked confidently about his plans to convert the Villa Eva into a venue for destination weddings, and it was easy to envision the potential. The two-story villa, which was little more than a century old, was surrounded by gardens, flowers, walkways, and benches. The first floor was largely open with high ceilings, white walls, and floor to ceiling windows that offered marvelous views of the gardens on one side and the Mediterranean on the other.
In the main room, holes had been cut in the ceiling that admitted flowering vines that snaked across the ceiling creating a delightful lattice-like effect. There would be no need, I guess, to cater flowers for any wedding receptions held at this villa. Outside, I could easily envision bridal parties lining up for wedding photos with the Amalfi Coast as a dramatic backdrop.
While the villa itself was still a work in progress, il professore invited us to make full use of the gardens during our stay. Except for the occasional workman, he said we would have the gardens to ourselves. So we spent an hour relaxing in the gardens, and then renewed our exploration of Ravello.
Leaving the grounds of the Villa Eva we turned left and continued our walk towards the Villa Cimbrone along the Via di San Francesco. A few yards up the path, we came across the vegetable garden where my tomatoes had come from the night before. The Villa Maria maintains extensive gardens to provision its kitchen, and hotel guests are allowed to wander in them.
Years later, we learned that the Villa Maria and the Hotel Giordano ran the popular Nonna Orsolo Cooking School and participants would generally begin their cooking class by picking vegetables in this garden. For someone, like me, who loves to cook with fresh ingredients, what a treat!
A few more yards up the path we ran into the Monasterio di Santa Chiara (St. Clare). Eight centuries ago, St. Francis had visited Ravello and established a monastery in nearby Amalfi. Ever since then, the Franciscan order and the “poor Clares” have been well represented on the Amalfi Coast.
Santa Chiara, however, was not open to the public, so we meandered a few more yards down the narrow path and came to a covered archway that forms the entrance to the external gardens of the Villa Cimbrone.
Largely the creation of an English aristocrat, the Villa Cimbrone does not have the history of the Villa Rufolo, but what it lacks in architectural lineage, it more than makes up for in the beauty of its sculptured gardens and the view from its jaw-dropping belvedere.
In the 19th century, the Villa Cimbrone was little more than an abandoned farmhouse, but Lord Grimthorpe utterly transformed it. After purchasing it in 1904, he hired Nicola Mansi, a local builder, to oversee the reconstruction of the farmhouse and the layout of the gardens. Furniture and precious art objects were imported to give the villa a more historic appearance and a number of large sculptures were purchased for placement in the gardens and the follies that were being built.
Today, the gardens of the Cimbrone are a work of art unto themselves. Brick walkways and flower-covered arbors allow the visitor to wander through them at their leisure. The path under the main arbor leads to a neo-classical temple dedicated to Ceres, and just beyond it is the belvedere, a large balcony that juts out over the Mediterranean coast below. Called the Terrazza dell’Infinito, or Terrace of Infinity, it offers visitors what Gore Vidal once claimed was the finest, most romantic view in the entire world. Lined with white marble busts that stand in sharp contrast to the blue sea below, it leaves an indelible impression.
There is a trail that leads to two other shrines that are little more than whimsical follies. Classic in their design, the first one, the Poggio di Mercurio, is a statue of Mercury reclining on a rock. The second one, il Tempietto di Bacco, consists of a small temple supported by eight columns with a statue in the middle of a satyr carrying grapes. It’s here that the original Lord Grimthorpe is buried.
Next along the path you encounter the Grotta di Eva, a small grotto, or cave, with the sculpture of a nude Eve sitting up and contemplating, presumably, the Garden of Eden. There is an iron gate, however, in front of the grotto preventing visitors from vandalizing the sculpture. The gate was erected after D.H. Lawrence, the famed British author, decided that Eve needed a fresh coat of paint. The owners were not amused.
There was a time, not long ago, when Ravello was famous for its grottoes. Tourists used to come from far and wide to explore the caves that still dot the mountains in which Ravello is nestled. The entire Amalfi Coast, in fact, contains a number of famous grottoes, including the Blue Grotto on the island of Capri and the Green Grotto, which can be reached by a short boat ride from Amalfi. Today, hardy hikers and spelunkers still explore the grottoes around Ravello, but the only grotto that the average tourist is likely to see is this small cave on the grounds of the Cimbrone. And, as I am not particularly fond of caves, it may be the only one that I will ever seek out.
* * *
That evening as we sat out eating dinner on the veranda of the Villa Maria, it was our good fortune to meet a charming couple. They were older than us, about our parents’s age, and quite refined. I had noticed them earlier in our stay. He was always carrying around a Patrick O’Brien book with him. She was an artist, and they lived, as it turned out, just outside of Annapolis, Maryland, a short drive from where we lived in Alexandria, Virginia. She and her husband had developed such a strong affection for Ravello that they began returning to Ravello every year. She said that she enjoyed painting scenes of Ravello on location, and, indeed, I had seen her earlier in the day doing some watercolor sketches at the Villa Cimbrone.
After dinner she showed me some photos of her work. She painted in oil, and most of her paintings were abstract. My taste in art runs more toward the classical, but she had a wonderful sense of color and design. Listening to her talk about her love of Ravello and the inspiration that she derived from it, I envied her artistic devotion to Ravello.
That night in my journal, I wrote down their names with the idea of staying in touch with them. I never did, but I will always be indebted to her for giving me the inspiration to paint Ravello. At the time, the idea of returning with regularity to one location, even one as beautiful as Ravello, seemed too limiting. My husband and I were avid travelers, and while we loved Italy, and Ravello especially, we were quite fond of traveling to other countries as well, in Europe and beyond. Still, the idea of painting Ravello had been planted. It just needed time to germinate.
* * *
For the remainder of our ten-day stay we split our time between short sightseeing trips and sheer relaxation in Ravello. One morning we meandered over to Scala, the town on the other side of the Valle del Dragone (Valley of the Dragon). Scala is a charming enough village, with an old cathedral and the remains of ancient fortifications, but compared to Ravello, I found it a bit disappointing. I wrote in my journal that it was a “little underwhelming”. The most interesting feature of the town was the panoramic view that it offered when you look back at Ravello.
Another day, we took our life into our own hands and hiked down to the coastal towns of Atrani and Almafi. The trails in the area are not well-marked, and it is easy enough to veer off the beaten track into the gardens, vineyards and small farms that dot the hillsides. You never really get lost, but it inevitably becomes an adventure. The steps in many areas are quite steep and you never quite know what lies around the corner, whether it is a barking dog, or the ruins of an old church.
Atrani and Amalfi are picturesque, and I love exploring the narrow streets, the shops, and the churches. The Romanesque Cathedral in Amalfi is truly stunning. Its massive façade is glows with gilded mosaics and there is a tremendous flight of stairs that leads up to the main portal. The cloister, with its Moorish columns, is also well worth a visit.
Positano, one of the most population tourist destinations in Italy, is only a short bus ride away from Amalfi, but the best way to get to Positano is by boat, which allows you to admire the interplay of mountains and sea that makes the Amalfi Coast so famous. I love looking at the caves and harbors that punctuate the coast line, and approaching Positano by boat is just a delight. Built on a steep hillside, Positano is well-suited for mountain goats. The buildings sparkle with bright colors, but the whole town looks as if it could easily fall into the sea; I certainly would not want to be staying in Positano if it ever experienced a major earthquake.
More than anything else I love the painter’s palette of colors that make up Positano, from the gleaming white and pastel colors of the homes to the bright pinks, reds, and purples of the wisteria and bougainvillea that wind their way up the trellises and arbors throughout the town.
Anyone who travels to the Amalfi Coast should visit these coastal towns and enjoy their sun-drenched splendor, particularly if you like the access to the beaches and the sea, but at the end of the day, there is nothing like returning to Ravello. Amalfi and Positano have their attractions, but they are confined by the surrounding mountains and in the summer throngs of tourists clog the streets. Ravello, which sits on a mountain top, gets its fair share of tourist traffic during the day, but not to the same degree, and by the time evening rolls around Ravello’s main piazza becomes a family affair with mothers pushing their baby strollers, teenagers congregating in small groups, and younger children riding bicycles or kicking soccer balls to their playmates.
Ravello also also has the advantage of elevation. It looks down upon the Amalfi coast from an altitude of about 500 meters, offering views of the Mediterranean coast line that people staying in the coastal towns just never see. Nor do the coastal towns have gardens and villas that compare to the Villa Rufolo or the Villa Cimbrone. Unless you enjoy the crowds or crave immediate access to the beach, Ravello is the place to be on the Amalfi Coast.
* * *
Many people who visit Ravello for the first time come by bus from Amalfi. Whether it’s a chartered tour bus or one of the local SITA buses that ferry passengers back and forth between Positano, Amalfi, Ravello, and other points of interest on the Amalfi Coast, it’s a thrilling, sinuous ride up the mountain with great views for those courageous enough to keep their eyes open. The road is narrow and on the many hairpin turns that the drivers must negotiate there is no room for another vehicle. Fortunately, there are large mirrors positioned at every turn. Without them the bus drivers would never know whether another vehicle is approaching, and many a car would be lost off a sharp precipice or crushed beyond recognition.
One section of the road to Ravello is so narrow that stop lights have been installed. Situated about a quarter of a mile apart, the lights are timed so as to facilitate one-way traffic in between them. Nothing in Italy, however, works all the time, and one afternoon on our way back to Ravello by bus from Amalfi, the stop lights were not working. As a result, our bus encountered another bus coming from the other direction on this narrow section of the road. Fortunately, there was plenty of room to stop. Unfortunately, however, there was no room for either bus to pass.
Physicists have long debated what happens when an irresistible force meets an unmovable object. Such was the predicament that we found ourselves in on that sunny afternoon. The bus drivers got out to discuss this theoretical possibility now made real on the Amalfi Coast. The discussion was animated, with much waving of arms. A good twenty minutes passed. It seems that the irresistible force (our bus) did not want to go in reverse, while unmovable object (the other bus) refused to budge. Meanwhile the standoff was getting more interesting by the moment as cars began lining up behind both buses.
Whichever bus was going to back up would have to negotiate a sharp turn in the road, as would all the cars that were now lined up behind. As fortune would have it, our bus (the irresistible force) was forced to yield and back up. This was only accomplished with the help of numerous impromptu traffic cops.
The whole incident was a little scary and more than a little amusing, but I thank God that Walker was not driving one of the cars caught up in that traffic jam. My husband, no doubt, would have freaked out. It might have finished him, literally or figuratively, on Ravello.
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After our return from that trip in 1998, the appeal of Ravello was so strong that I immediately began plotting our return, and it was not long before I came up with a great idea: returning to Ravello with good friends to celebrate the millennium.
My husband and I had been talking for some time about going someplace nice for the millennium, and neither of us could imagine any place quite as nice as Ravello. So why not? If modern human civilization was going to come crashing down as a result of the dreaded Y2K glitch, why not tough it out with close friends in a beautiful town with well-stocked wine cellars?
And so on December 28th, 1999, we returned to Italy in the company of six very dear friends. Getting there, once again, was a bit of a challenge. We had rented three cars at the airport in Rome and Walker had handed out walkie-talkie radios (my husband was still very much in the 20th century), so that we could communicate on the road. He was fearful that we would all get lost in Angri and never make it over the mountain to Ravello.
Rather than drive straight to Ravello from the airport, we decided to stay overnight in Anagni, a small town that was known during the Middle Ages as the “City of Popes”. That night, after visiting the cathedral, we had a rather raucous dinner at the hotel. The ‘millennial spirits’ were running very high.
Anagni was halfway between Rome and Ravello, leaving us only a short distance to cover the next morning. Long before we reached Ravello, however, we encountered a massive tie-up on the autostrada. For more than an hour the traffic was at a complete standstill and nearly everyone got out of their cars. Young Italian women walked around displaying their stylish mink coats in the balmy 40 degree weather, while their husbands and boyfriends were busy talking on their cell phones. With traffic still moving very slowly, we exited off the autostrada in hopes of seeing Monte Cassino, the famous Benedictine Abby that had been so heavily bombed during the ally advance in World War II. As fortune would have it, however, we arrived ten minutes before it was scheduled to close at noon.
We regrouped over lunch at a nearby pizzeria and while we were eating we were serenaded by an older man playing a crude bagpipe that was made from a pig’s bladder. He wore a long black cape adorned with medals, curly-toed sandals, and an Alpine hat. With his big bushy beard and his sparkling eyes he looked like a gnome come to life out of some child’s fantasy. He went from table to table serenading the patrons and collecting generous tips in return.
Our spirits revived by meal and the entertainment, we returned to the autostrada and had no trouble, with our convoy still intact, finding the exit for the dreaded Angri. We had warned the others that navigating the streets of Angri was no easy task, and Walker volunteered to lead the way. This time we didn’t get lost, but traffic was heavy and before we got out of town we ran into a large funeral procession that proceeded on foot for several blocks. If it had been anyplace else or any other time, we might have veered off a side street and circumvented the funeral procession, but Walker had fears, probably justified, of getting lost again in Angri.
At last, the procession turned off into the cemetery and our millennial pilgrimage to Ravello recommenced in earnest. With much chatter on the walkie-talkies, we wound our way through the narrow tunnel and up the windy mountain road towards Ravello. The tops of the mountain were covered with snow. At one point near the top we ran into a goat herd being ushered along by a shepherd and his dogs. After about a 45 minute drive through the mountains we reached our final destination, pulled into the municipal parking lot just off the main piazza in Ravello, unloaded our bags, and began our ascent to the Villa Maria with a little relief and much laughter.
I distinctly remember how grand it felt to be back. Il Professore Palumbo and Tina, the receptionist, greeted us at the door as if we were long lost friends. The Villa Maria itself was all decked out for the holidays with table arrangements, boughs on the balustrades, and a splendid Christmas tree in the lobby.
That evening, we recommenced our pre-millennial festivities with a dinner in the hotel’s parlor. It was dark outside, so we could not see the Mediterranean, but we could see the lights of Pontone, a small village on the other side of the valley, and the lights of the distant cars as they traversed the mountain roads.
At dinner the conversation turned to the millennium. Walker mused what life must had been like at the beginning of the millennium for the residents of Ravello. Amalfi, in the year 1000, was emerging as a sea-faring power, but Ravello was probably populated by sheepherders, farmers, and the merchant families who would build the Duomo and the other churches in the next two centuries.
We did not realize it that evening, but many of us were starting to come down with one malady or another. Diana, our dear friend who had accompanied us on our first trip to Ravello ten years earlier, walked out after dinner that evening and managed to trip over an iron latch at the entrance to the Villa Maria and fell flat on her face, nearly breaking her nose. The next morning our friends Ricky and Tom were ill, Ricky with the flu and Tom with a cold and laryngitis. Walker and I were fine the next day, but several of the others were prone with one complaint or another.
For over a year my husband had been talking about taking the group and climbing Mt. Vesuvius on December 31, 1999. Walker was so enthused by the prospect of climbing a volcano that he was willing to drive back and forth through Angri again. I wanted no part of it; the weather was cold and windy. To me the whole idea of going to Vesuvius seemed like going through hell to get to hell and back, but then it was not my idea in the first place. In any event, at breakfast the next morning, no one volunteered to accompany him and his hopes of bidding a fond farewell to the millennium by peering over the abyss quickly evaporated. Walker was disappointed, but as consolation he got to spend the day with me in Ravello.
And a wonderful day it was. After breakfast we returned to the Villa Cimbrone with our friend June Foster and gave her a tour of the gardens. The flowers, of course, were not in bloom, but view was still spectacular. It was a windy day, and I remember standing on the Belvedere overlooking the Mediterranean. The winds that came sweeping up the mountainside from the sea were ferocious. Sticking your head out over the railing was like putting your head into a wind tunnel. Still, even if it was breezy, it was exhilarating. The view even on a winter day is one of the finest in the world.
For lunch that day we sought the warmth and comfort of Cumpa’s, the trattoria on the other side of town. Netta was there, as always, to welcome us, and what a pleasure to see her again. She was still wearing a light blue gingham apron, and she still treated us as if we were long lost family. We ordered a carafe of wine and let Netta select, who has an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what you want to eat, select our entrees. Her choices have never disappointed.
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After a leisurely lunch we headed back to our rooms at the Villa Maria and rested up for the New Year’s Eve festivities. Dinner that evening was a packed affair consisting of hotel guests and many local celebrants. We were seated at a round table in front of the fireplace in the main parlor. There was a red cloth on every table with little gold “2000”s sprinkled everywhere and a festive arrangement in the center, complete with candles. Each guest had a chocolate favor wrapped in a gold lame cloth tied with a red bow.
Dinner was a seven course extravaganza, starting with a fabulous bruchetta topped with fresh mozzarella, smoked salmon, and a smidgen of raw onions. It was positively divine. The second course, potted salmon with puff pastry crust, was equally inspiring, but our enjoyment of it was interrupted, and wonderfully so, by a large local band of musicians composed, for the most part, of rosy-cheeked children. They were playing rudimentary handmade instruments, most of them constructed from brooms, pots, pans, and other kitchen implements. Amidst all the clanking and banging of the instruments they chanted songs as they paraded amongst the tables. What a highly memorable treat.
Next, we had a serving of filet mignon, followed by a traditional New Year’s Eve dish of lentils and ham. The lentils, we were told, were for good luck. The sixth course was fresh fruit, and then the dinner was wrapped up with two types of cake, one chocolate with lots of nuts, and the other a cherry tart. Capping it all off, as we got closer to the appointed hour, was a bottle of champagne.
The dining room had televisions set up to bring us the New Year’s Eve celebrations at the Vatican, including the Pope’s New Year’s Eve blessing. When the new millennium arrived the room erupted in cheers of “Buon Anno”, and there were plenty of kisses and hugs around the room.
The celebrations, however, were only beginning. After dinner, everyone put on their coats and joined a crowd that was going down to the central piazza for the obligatory incendiary devices. For a small town, Ravello managed a very impressive array of fireworks that lit up the square, the skies overhead, and in the Valley of the Dragon below. It was enchanting to see hundreds of people in the piazza, including hotel guests from all over the world, joined together in a global celebration of the new millennium.
The two young women in our party, both single, moved on to the Hotel Giordano, where the bands were going to perform, but the old married couples in our group, my husband and I included, retired to our rooms awaiting news of the Y2K disasters, which were, no doubt, sweeping the globe.
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After breakfast the next morning, with modern civilization still intact, we walked around town and were pleased to see the musical brigade of pots and pans reassembled on the steps of the Duomo. The group was performing in front of a good-sized crowd that had assembled in the main piazza.
We also encountered a large, open-air bingo game with the numbers being announced over a loud speaker. Walker was tempted to try his luck in the new millennium, but we decided, wisely no doubt, to go with a safe bet: Cumpa’s. Enjoying a good home-cooked meal and Netta’s welcoming cheer, we decided, was the absolute best way to celebrate the first day of a new millennium.
Having consumed a full bottle of wine at lunch, we returned to our rooms and caught up on our sleep. That evening our group reassembled for another meal at the Villa Maria, though not for the seven courses that we had the night before. At dinner that night, Walker revived the notion of getting together a group the next day to see the ruins of Pompeii in the morning and then hiking to the top of Mt. Vesuvius in the afternoon when it would be warmer.
The next morning, unfortunately, Walker and I were not feeling well, both of us having finally succumbed to one of the viruses that were afflicting our party. Walker’s grand adventure had to be scrapped once again. Some of our group did go to Pompeii, but not Walker, and certainly not me. As it was the last full day before our millennial party headed back north to Rome and other destinations, my husband and I recuperated in the hotel and deferred any further any sightseeing in Ravello. I told Walker that we would just have to return so that he could climb Mt. Vesuvius… and I could begin painting Ravello in earnest.