Thursday, June 23, 2005

Amalfi Paradise

Note to self: never attend any event with the word 'folkloric' in it. What was I thinking? The Naples song and dance evening, held in the attractive basement of a Sorrento nightclub, was pretty dire. Granted the singers and dancers were mostly young and enthusiastic, but it didn't clang my gong, as Jonathan says at the beginning of The Sirens of Surrentum.

So I was dubious about whether to sign up for the 'Amalfi Coast' tour. I figured we could get the little SITA buses and just hop off and on. However, after our struggles and disappointments with these buses, I was beginning to wonder if a guided tour mightn't be better after all. Then, coming into the station one hot morning after a recce to an archaeological museum, I see the queues of people for the Amalfi buses and immediately phone Julia, our rep, to book the last two places on the tour.

And I'm glad I did. The little bus comes at 7.45 on the dot. It is sparkling clean and our tour guide for the day is lively and sparkly, too. Her name is Luciana and although she has by her own admission been giving this tour daily each summer for eight years (!) she still manages to be enthusiastic and charming. Better yet, our driver Giovanni drives very slowly and carefully. This is the same coastline that had John Steinbeck clutching his wife in the back of an Italian taxi and weeping with terror. And though one of my recurring nightmares is plunging off a road just like this, I am never once afraid.

Of all the days we have been here, today has the most perfect weather. It is clear and calm and we have the road to ourselves. One good thing about being up in Sant'Agata: we get a head start on all the other day-trippers. Being a movie buff, I am looking for locations from The Talented Mr Ripley and A Good Woman , both fairly recent movies that were filmed on location. I am not disappointed. The setting is really breathtaking and I recognize several places from the films, especially A Good Woman.

We cruise through Positano and Praiano, with the Siren islands always on our right, and reach Amalfi by about 10.00. We are given the option of an hour's boat cruise for an extra 10 euros and we all reckon it will be worth it. It is. Julia meets us with her coachload and as we sail up and down the coast, she and Luciana take it in turns to point out the homes of celebrities like Sean Connery, Sophia Loren, Gore Vidal (well, he just sold his) and Richard Branson's Palazzo Sasso, a villa in the hills of Ravello. That's just the kind of thing I want to know: who lives where!

The Romans didn't get here until the 4th century AD, so I can relax a bit.

After our boat trip we are given a free hour in Amalfi. Richard and I opt to sit in a cafe and watch the tourists go by as we sip an espresso (him) and a premuta di limone (me). That's the Italian version of a citron presse: pure lemon juice in a tall glass with ice. You add your own water and sugar.

After our break we take a winding road up to Ravello and stop at a restaurant in Scala for lunch. Although it's a touristy package lunch it is absolute bliss. Our busload gets the best tables, in the shade with a panorama and a half, because we are first. Yay, Giovanni!

We have salad and a choice of grilled swordfish or aubergine pasta with lemon cake for dessert. It's a magical hour overlooking the majestic mountains to the northeast and the fertile gorge below us. Richard and I are sitting with Peter and Rosemary, whom we have got to know a little already.

Then on to Ravello. It's up in the mountains with no access to the sea, but with heart-stopping views over the Gulf of Salerno. We visit the Villa Rufolo with its lovely gardens. There are concerts here almost every evening in summer and in one cloister we stop to hear the haunting sound of a pianist practising his Schubert. Suddenly he breaks off to play something jazzy – more Benoit than Bach – so we sit in a cool spot surrounded by lavender and geraniums, and let him serenade us for five minutes.

Then under a shady parasol in the sunny square for iced coffee. This really is iced coffee! It's sweet espresso frozen and churned into a kind of sorbet. Delicious and reviving and refreshing. I now know why Richard Branson and Gore Vidal have chosen to invest here. I too have fallen in love with Ravello.

Afterwards everyone on the tour says this was their favourite part of the week. For us it was certainly the most relaxing. We are back at the hotel by 4.00, in time for a cooling dip in the pool and a chance to snooze or read a book.
We try to catch a SITA bus at 7.45 down to Capo di Sorrento for my interview, but the bus never comes so we splash out twenty euros for a taxi.

The reporter had better be there!

He is. And he asks all the right questions. Vincenzo interviews me for about an hour, takes a photo of me and Richard with a friend's mobile phone and promises to send a clipping of the article to my Italian publisher. I'm not even sure which paper it will be in but hey! any publicity is good!

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