The Amalfi Coast: a road trip to remember
The Amalfi Coast, located along the southern flanks of the Sorrento Peninsula near Naples, is by far Italy's most scenic stretch of coastline. A landscape with cliffs rising out of the sea, medieval villages terraced into hillsides is what you can expect. No wonder that Unesco decided to add this unique Mediterranean landscape to the World Heritage list in 1996. The Amalfi Drive, which we follow, is a narrow road that threads along the high cliffs above the Tyrrhenian Sea. Add in drop-dead views and mad Italian drivers, and this will be a road trip to remember.
Start in Salerno
Salerno is the main town close to the Amalfi Coast, and is mostly known for its Schola Medica Salernitana, the first medical school in the world founded in the 8th century. In recent history, the Allies formed one of their main beachheads here during the invasion of Italy in WWII. For a few months, Salerno became the capital of Italy, when King Victor Emmanuel III lived in a mansion in its outskirts until Rome was liberated again.
Apart from many medieval buildings and the Schola Medica, the Lungomare Trieste (Trieste Seafront Promenade) and Castello di Arechi (Arechis' Castle), are special highlights.
The Seafront Promenade was created from the sea during the 1950s and it is one of the best in Italy. It has an extension of nearly five miles (8.0 km) with many rare palms.
The Castello di Arechi (Arechis' Castle) is a massive castle commanding the city from a 300 m (984 ft) hill. It was enlarged during the middle-ages over a pre-existing Roman-Byzantine construction. The Castle offers a complete and spectacular view of the city and the Gulf of Salerno.
Leaving the city on Autostrada A3, we pick up the SS163 at Vietri sul Mare, a village with sweeping views of the dramatic coastline. The road weaves past viewpoint after viewpoint and skirts the villages of Maiori (with a great sandy beach) and Minori (ruins of an old Roman villa) before a junction close to Atrani sends you inland to Ravello.
According to Wikipedia,“Ravello is a popular tourist destination due to its scenic beauty“. And who are we to question Wikipedia? Perched on steep, terraced slopes and with lush gardens, quiet lanes, it provides unforgettable views over the azure coast below.
In Ravello we find an 11th-century cathedral and Villa Rufolo. Built in the 13th century by one of the richest Patricians in town (who’s name was Rufolo offcourse), the villa's guests have included popes and kings, as well as Richard Wagner, who composed part of his opera Parsifal here.
There is an ancient legend who states that Satan transported Jesus during his second temptation to Ravello, with its breathtaking view of Amalfi coastline, to show the beauty of the world's kingdoms. (Luke 4: 5-8)
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
Dropping back to the coast from Ravello, the winding road brings us to Amalfi, in the middle ages one of Italy's most powerful maritime republics. All sea trade in the Mediterranean was once governed by the 12th-century Tavole Amalfitane, one of the first maritime codes in the world. Flavio Gioia, traditionally considered the first to introduce the mariner's compass to Europe, is said to have been a native of Amalfi.
A remnant of this maritime history is the Arsenal of the Maritime Republic (Arsenali della Repubblica). These two large halls are supported by repeated pointed arches. The vaulting rests on ten piers, originally there were twenty two, the missing twelve and the structure they supported having been lost to centuries of coastal erosion. The main function of the arsenal was the building and repair of warships. Amalfitan war-galleys were among the largest to be found in the Mediterranean during the Early Middle Ages.
Another highlight is to take the popular walk along the Valle dei Mulini, a steep-sided ravine dotted with ruined watermills once used to make paper, an industry for which Amalfi was, and still is, famous. The small Museo della Carta celebrates the long-established paper manufacturing history of Amalfi. The museum is housed in an old paper mill once owned by the Milano family.
The road to Sorrento
Leaving Amalfi, the corniche road passes Grotta dello Smeraldo, a marine cave of luminous emerald waters reachable by boat, elevator, or rock-cut steps. Just beyond it, the road passes the Vallone di Furore, one of the coast's most impressive gorges, before arriving at the villages of Praiano and Positano, two scenic coastal villages.
From here the road leads us to Sorrento, the final destination of this road trip. Sorrento is famous for the production of limoncello, a digestif made from the typical long, big sized lemons that are cultivated in this region. These lemons have a thick, wrinkled skin and a sweet and juicy flesh without many pips. It is common to see them growing in the terraced gardens along the entire Amalfi coast in spring and summer.