Tuesday, 5 January 2016

A (very) late postcard from Campania, pt I: Vietri and Ravello

Balcony #1
It feels a bit odd to be writing about a trip we were on nearly three months ago, but what the hell, here goes. In any case it beats banging on about not drinking for a month, or whatever, and a blast of sunshine in these dark months is surely not unwelcome. It sort of felt like like a lucid dream then, so I doubt if the intervening time will prevent me from recalling anything very important, especially as the thing that would be most worth getting across anyhow isn't anything factual, but just the feel of the place. Kasia and I had just under a couple of weeks in Campania, or, to be more precise, the Amalfi Coast and Naples. Be in no doubt, this is a sensationally beautiful and completely beguiling part of the world and we loved it, eating and drinking our heads off along the way. Here's some of what happened.

We got into Naples early and got the bus to Stazione di Napoli Centrale, getting our first view of the insanity that is Neapolitan traffic. Dumped near the station, we ran the gauntlet of the seedy cast of characters who line its approach and then took an hour-long train ride to Salerno, the port town which marks the far east of the Amalfi Coast. From there it was a short hop on a local train to Vietri sul Mare. Being a bit of a travel ponce I had wanted to stay somewhere a little bit untouristed while Kasia wanted a beach and a balcony. Vietri, not even mentioned in some guide books to the area, seemed like a good candidate. As the train grudgingly dragged itself out of Salerno and uphill towards Vietri, we got our first glimpse of the shockingly vivid blue Mediterranean behind the industrial heft of the busy port.

Vietri sul Mare turned out to be a perfect base for the first few days. The apartment, procured through Airbnb, natch, had a view down the sea below and up to the mountains. We wandered down to the almost deserted beach then followed a winding road back up into the town, taking in the stunning views east to Salerno and beyond, full of that feeling you only really get at the start of a promising holiday. We found our way back to the apartment, via the first of a good many superlative ice-creams.

Vietri is famous for its pottery and ceramics in a bright and vivid style which are seen all along the Amalfi coast. I'm not a fan, but anyone who is wouldn't be short of somewhere to make a purchase in one of the many shops that line the streets of the citadel-like old town. In the evening, or the early morning, it was fabulous to wander about getting slightly, but never completely lost.

The town is crested by the 17th century Church of St John the Baptist, the bell tower of which is covered in painted pottery in a style characteristic of the area. Dotted around the place were a number of shrines, which look as odd as they do beautiful to Anglo Saxon eyes. Like so many other things, we like to keep our religion behind closed doors, don't you know.

We were recommended Pizzeria da Massimo by our Airbnb host, and I can now recommend it in turn to you. Little more than a shack built into the side of a mountain, Massimo somehow cooks and serves a full restaurant menu, as well as being the local takeaway, despite apparently being a one man show. The pizzas were superb, throwing down the gauntlet for those we would have in Naples. One involved an almost sweet artichoke cream which was new on me. Also fabulous was a dish of cuttlefish braised with escarole and a plate of patate olandesi (dutch potatoes) with pecorino, which might have been the best cheesy chips I've ever had. The bread was a wild shade of blue-grey; it took us most of the holiday to suss out that the carbone vegetale which gave it this colour wasn't in fact some sort of burnt vegetable, but charcoal.

Pizzeria da Massimo
We got lucky with some late September sunshine, which made for a couple of proper lazy days on the beach, which was blissfully sparsely populated. Other than an American couple, we had only a few Italians for company as the beach season petered out.

The sea was a perfect temperature for swimming; floating on your back staring at the gravity defying hotels and apartments jutting from the cliffs is a great way to pass the time. I left Kasia and took a short hike up where I'd been looking, made friends with a scrawny cat, found a fig tree sporting the last of the years stickily ripe bounty and enjoyed the view.

It took us a day or so to remember that life works to a slightly different rhythm in this part of the world, with shops opening in the morning and evening, but closing for hours during the afternoon. Or, in some cases, just opening when they fancy, all of which made shopping for comestibles a fun but confusing lottery. We ate great cured meats, bread and cheese, the best being some completely sensational buffalo mozzarella, completely bursting with milky freshness.

Wanting to find a good place for fish for Kasia's birthday dinner, we took our host's advice again and ate at a tiny place called Benvenuti a Bordo ("welcome aboard"). Great frito misto, grilled tuna and seafood pasta were all washed down with some very good local Greco di Tufo, served by a super-cheery chef and waiter double team.

Benvenuti a Bordo
The weather turned to a grizzled shade of dour as we bid a slightly sad farewell to Vietri, taking the excellent SITA bus west to Ravello, where our next four nights would be. It's not for no reason that the road which winds along the Amalfi coast is regularly cited as one of the most beautiful in the world. We climbed steeply up ravines before dropping into weathered but beautiful towns and villages. The skill of the bus drivers who hurl their vehicles round endless blind corners is quite something. We arrived in Amalfi, before jumping straight onto another bus which took us the half hour climb up to Ravello.

Most of the vistas in this part of the world are outrageous, but the ones you catch for the first time as the bus swings into Ravello town are especially worth a sharp intake of breath. After dumping our stuff at another Airbnb we mooched our way through the heavily touristy streets to the Villa Cimbrone gardens to cop some gelato on the infinity balcony.

Ravello is a funny place; it's undoubtedly gorgeous and there's something wonderfully defiant and ridiculous building a town this improbably high above Mediterranean, but something about it just didn't quite grab me. It was nicest in the early mornings, before the day-trip hordes made their way up from sea level.

There is a creaking dilapidation to parts of the town, which it wears rather well. Some astonishingly fancy hotels are situated in restored grand old houses, among those not so fortunate.

Hotel Palumbo
Ravello main square, sans tourists
Ours was not quite so formidable, but still sported a fantastic view up the coast to the east, which made for some startling sunrises.

Casa mia
Sunrise from the terrace
You see where that sea is, all the way down there? Well we walked down to that, traversing god knows how many flights of stairs, through olive and lemon groves that hung desperately to the sides of the mountains.

We were just about broken by the time we made it down to Amalfi (some masochistic idiots walk this route uphill, apparently), but it was all for a good reason as we worked up a hunger for lunch at the Michelin-starred institution that is La Caravella. Of which more next time.

1 comment:

  1. It's a lovely area - we had a lovely couple of weeks between Amalfi and Sorrento some years ago.


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