Jane's Delicious Garden Blog

Romancing Amalfi

Posted in Travels by Jane Griffiths on the May 16th, 2015

When my delightfully quixotic friend Karen was planning her wedding, she wanted something ultra romantic. And I can’t imagine a more romantic spot than her choice of the dramatic Italian Amalfi Coast, south of Naples. For centuries, painters, poets and writers have been inspired by this magnificent coastline. Stretching from Sorrento to Salerno, it is a twisting succession of bays carved steeply into rugged cliff faces. Small towns cling precariously to sheer mountainside rising above the sparkling turquoise Mediterranean. This was going to be a wedding to remember.

Arriving in Naples we are ready for some Italian food. We meet a Brazilian couple on their way to eat at L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michel, which they had heard makes “the best pizzas in Italy”. We check our guidebook and sure enough, there it is with this bold claim. After bumbling around narrow, busy streets we find the restaurant, a tiny hole-in-the-wall spot with a huge crowd outside. We are given ticket number 73 with 40 people ahead of us. A couple of beers later and we are in. The first surprise is the choice – they only serve two varieties of pizza! The second surprise is just how delicious they are. I was expecting them to be good, but they are superb. The secret is the locally grown Napoli tomatoes. And the locally made buffalo mozzarella cheese. And the freshly made pizza dough. It is our first taste of how great this region’s food is. (The following morning we discover that Julia Roberts had been at the restaurant a few days earlier. It had apparently featured in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat Pray Love and she was filming the scene. So it has now become even more famous!)


This is a fertile land. Dominating the bay of Naples is Mount Vesuvius, the yin yang giver of fruitful soil and active taker of life. This imposing volcano is an omnipresent reminder of how quickly life can be cut short with a violent act of nature. The inhabitants have absorbed this lesson and the fiery Neapolitans exuberantly live life to the full as they have since Roman times.

The city of Naples is best explored starting from the centro storico, the historic heart of the old town, where the main streets still follow the old Roman roads.

Open-air fish markets display their fresh catch.

Farmers park three wheeler trucks and loudly sell fruit and vegetables to elegantly dressed woman on their way home to cook dinner.

From this bawdy and energetic centre, with narrow cobbled streets and buildings strung with washing, the city sprawls outward. IMG_2302
Al fresco diners eat in spacious piazzas, overlooking elegant 18th century architecture. Up a steep street paved with shiny black lava stones, we window shop at Prada, Gucci and Armani.

Nearby we sample ice cream made with the freshest ingredients from a gelateria dating back a hundred years.

Heading south from Naples, we climb to the top of Mount Vesuvius, smell the sulphur and stare in awe into the slowly steaming crater. From the summit there are sweeping views of the bay and it is just possible to make out the ruins of Pompeii far below.

We spend a day exploring the maze of ancient streets, transported back to a way of life frozen in time from 2000 years ago. In 79AD the volcano erupted, smothering the city and its inhabitants with its deathly pyroclastic flow. Since excavations began in 1758 the city, from lofty temples and sumptuous villas to prosaic bakeries and brothels, has re-emerged intact. Plaster casts of people and animals overwhelmed by the flow, their bodies and mouths petrified in a rictus of terror, show just how quickly the volcano dealt its deadly blow.





From Sorrento we catch a bus to Amalfi. The narrow, winding road is sliced out of near perpendicular cliffs, the Mediterranean a stomach-swooping drop way below. The view across the shimmering sea, with the Isle of Capri sculpted on the horizon, is spectacular. Our bus driver, sporting cool mirror shades and hefty arm muscles, swings his passengers around corner after corner, sounding his musical hooter at oncoming traffic to warn them we are coming. Often there is no room for two vehicles and one has to reverse until there is an inch more space. We play ‘spot the car without a ding.’ On average only one in twenty is free of scrapes, scratches, dings or dents.





All along this coastline, in the smallest corner, on rooftops, on staggeringly steep terraces, vegetables are thriving. Huge bunches of vine-ripened tomatoes and shiny red chillies hang outside doorways.









This is the land of limoncello, a sweet, tart liqueur made from the peel of a lemon only grown in this section of Italy. Every little shop sells its version of limoncello. And every courtyard of every home has lemon trees. They are grown up trellised supports, so the fully-grown tree forms a shady canopy, with lemons hanging within easy picking reach. Free tastings of limoncello are offered from home distilleries along winding paths and alleyways. A shot of icy cold, fiery liqueur is one way to keep the legs moving up steep hills.




And so we gather for the wedding; friends and family from Spain, South Africa, England and Australia. Dressed in our finery we climb up steep pathways to the gardens of Villa Cimbrone, perched so high on a rocky cliff above Amalfi that there is no vehicular access.

Wagner wrote opera here, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was conceived here and Gore Vidal once said: “ . . the most beautiful place that I had ever seen in all my travels [was] 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.” Dating back to the eleventh century this villa’s history, which includes being the love nest of Greta Garbo and Leopold Stokowski, is as romantic as it gets.

And in her inimitable style, Karen makes her dream of the most romantic wedding ever, come true. Wearing full-length red silk, she is the picture perfect bride as she walks down the rose petal aisle to marry her love.

Afterwards we celebrate with champagne and walk along avenues of umbrella pines, past fragrant rose gardens and wisteria draped arches for photographs on the “Terrace of Infinity”. Lined with patrician marble busts it is suspended between sky and sea, floating above the scalloped coastline and vivid blue ocean.



The late afternoon storm, which has been threatening for hours, is starting to spatter. We run down the steep path but are soaked by the time we reach Palazzo Sasso for dinner. In true five star style, they greet us with large heated towels. It is a rather bedraggled wedding party that sits down to savour a ten course meal at the two Michelin starred Rossellini restaurant. And just before the final course, the valley below explodes in a pyrotechnic spectacle of colour. The fireworks display, the culmination of the local Ravello music festival, provides the final touch to the perfect wedding.

There are no direct flights to Naples from South Africa but there are many connecting hubs. If you fly in via Rome, an efficient rail service connects to Naples.
Purchase a Campania artecard which gives you free travel on public transport as well as free or reduced admission to a various museums, galleries and architectural sites. There is easy access from Naples to Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum via the Circumvesuviano rail line, which runs to Sorrento.
Don’t be misled when ordering Pizza Marinara. In Naples it is not a seafood pizza. Its name originates from the sailors who would eat the traditional Neapolitan pizza comprising tomato, garlic and a couple of basil leaves, no cheese at all.
Don’t miss the Archeological Museum in Naples, filled with artifacts removed from Pompeii and Herculaneum, including an extensive mosaic collection.