Amalfi coast; beautiful but be prepared to share

It’s always interesting to come back somewhere you visited many years ago. We’re in Sorrento, where I last stayed in 1995. As I did then, I took a tour along the Amalfi coast, stopping at the three locations most tours encompass – Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. They were as beautiful as I remember, but the main difference seemed to be how crowded and busy they were. Memory is selective; perhaps I have held onto the majestic views and selectively discounted the throngs of tourists, but it’s more likely that what we encountered was similar to what I’ve experienced in the other Italian cities I return to over and over – Florence and Venice.

I’ve written extensively on Florence and how busy it seems now, compared to when I first visited over 30 years ago. The phenomenon is even more marked in Venice, where the huge influx of visitors, many from cruise ships, has led to crisis measures including one way systems for pedestrians.

On the Amalfi coast, the rate limiting step is the road, built in the nineteenth century and a marvel of civil engineering, its vertiginous stretches and multiple hairpin curves struggle to cope with tourist coaches and larger rental cars. Authorities have put in place officials to marshall traffic by intermittent one way systems, especially in towns, but between these the road is often temporarily blocked by buses approaching each other on bends or vehicles parked by the roadside. Official parking is severely limited; I’m so glad I didn’t attempt to hire a car and sightsee!

From a small coach, the views along the coast are magnificent.

Our first stop was in Positano, a town which positively tumbles down the hillside from the road above to the cathedral and beach below. Pavements (where they exist!) were thronged with tourists making progress slow and potentially dangerous. But it was well worthwhile descending to the seafront, pausing to enter the cathedral.

Back on the coach we struggled on to Amalfi, a short drive but one frustrated by frequent hold ups and delays. We were happy to disembark with a couple of hours to take lunch and explore the magnificent cathedral. The exterior is fronted by sixty steps up to the magnificent facade.

The Moorish cloisters are beautiful with their greenery, mosaics, frescoes and views of the belltower.

One then enters the first basilica, a single nave now given over to the diocesan museum, the highlight of which is a silver altar front.

The route then descends to the crypt, remodelled by Philip III of Spain in the eighteenth century and dedicated to our own St Andrew.

From the crypt one exits into the magnificent cathedral, remodelled on a number of occasions and thus exhibiting a range of architectural styles.

We enjoyed a few moments at the harbour before reboarding the coach to Ravello.

I remember Ravello as a peaceful haven in the mountains, cool and remote. I had considered returning to stay there, a decision predicated on enjoying the solitude. How different it seems now! Getting there involves a halting journey up a one way road then a queue to find a place for the bus to drop us off. Getting back on the bus was even more problematic, with pretty chaotic scenes as throngs of tourists and exasperated guides jostled for parking spots.

What has not changed is the beauty of the vistas; the coastal ones are best enjoyed from the gardens of the Villa Ruffalo.

The main square has lovely views of the hillsides but seemed to lack the tranquillity which was again perhaps a function of selective memory.

So, the Amalfi coast is an area of great natural beauty and I would definitely recommend a visit. However, it’s the antithesis of ‘unspoiled’ and expect plenty of company. I’d definitely avoid July and August; with temperatures in the 40s and crowds reportedly even more manic I’m not sure it would be much fun!

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