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We last visited this area with our friends the Hockeys about 20 years ago. We had flown down to Naples, hired a car and stayed in a lovely hotel overlooking the town of Sorrento, the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius. Chris was so impressed with the view as he sat on the WC that he spent longer there than normal which was always a hell of a long time!
I did some walking in the mountains, we went to Capri and Ischia, we hired a boat from Luigi who sat by the rubbish bins in Marina Grande dreaming of "the lovely Argos ladies" who he "worked with" during the winter. We visited Capri and Naples for the best pizza in Italy and were nearly run down by a police car on a pedestrian crossing. We went to Pompeii and Herculaneum, explored the towns along the peninsula as far as Ravello where we joined the list of past admirers of the place, people like Virginia Wolf, D. H. Laurence, Graham Greene and Gore Vidal who became an honorary citizen.
The scenery around was so beautiful and the meal we had in a local restaurant so memorable that we vowed to return some day so when planning this trip to visit places in Italy we had not been too before, Ravello was the exception.
We found a nice little guest house called l'Antico Episcopio in Pontone which sits on the opposite side of the Dragone valley from Ravello. The house had recently been renovated and used to be the Bishop of nearby Scala's winter palace and is more like a boutique hotel with ceramic tiling everywhere and a breakfast to set you up for the day!
Dapne Satnav brought us here over the mountains, leaving the autostrada at Nocere, a very grimy town, and up to the col of Chiunzi at over 600m. It was Saturday and my driving became ever more defensive when faced with the weekend Italian drivers and big buses coming at you around hairpin bends taking the whole road! I stopped on the way up to photograph Vesuvius brooding over Nocere, perhaps another Pompeii sometime in the future?
We found a place to park at the end of the road in Pontone. There was a parking charge of €1 per hour but the guest house arranged a permit for the period of our stay. We climbed a few steps to the little square, enquired at the Blue Bar where we could find l'Antico Episcopio and were directed up further stairs where we easily found it. We were shown into our room and the shutters opened to reveal the superlative view below, down the steep sided valley to Atrani on the coast.
Lemon production is a major activity here and you can see lemons the size of Melons on sale everywhere in addition to normal size ones. There is also quite an industry producing and selling lemon products like Lemoncello, lemon confectionery, lemon flavoured olive oil, lemon ice cream and sorbet, lemon soap and, of course, all sorts of shapes and sizes of ceramics with lemons incorporated in their designs!
On our first day we walked up the steep steps above the guest house to Scala. On the way we passed a memorial to the occupants of a Swedish passenger aircraft which crashed here in the 1950's and in the town there is a tunnel with framed newspapers of the Twin Towers disaster in New York with which city they have some sort of municipal connection. This is the commune to which Pontone belongs and was where the Bishop had his cathedral from the 10th to the 17th centuries before the bishopric was merged with Ravello across the valley and it was to here that we walked next, dropping down to the valley floor than up to the other side where the serious shopping commenced!
We bought an expensive Ravello tee shirt for me, a ceramic lemon table lamp and a large lemon canape dish plus loads of postcards. We were now completely lemoned out!
I mentioned that some 20 years previous we had a memorable meal at a restaurant in Ravello but could not remember the name or it's location. It was renowned for it's pasta and we asked in a shop if they knew of it but and they said it probably did not exist any more.
Back in Pontone we collapsed in the square after the climb up where a draught Peroni "birra grande" for me and a fresh orange and lemon squash for Sue reached the required parts precisely. More food was out of the question in the evening so we were ready for a big breakfast the next day and decided to walk to the Torre dello Ziro. This is situated overlooking Atrani on one side and Amalfi on the other at an altitude of 185m. This is some 100m lower than Pontone, however, you have to negotiate Monte Aureo nearly 100m higher on the way and it was hot. The Belvedere commands a spectacular view along the coast with Amalfi vertically below and the opening photo at the top of this page is taken from this spot. There is also a lovely view from the "Torre" (Tower) down to Atrani on the other side with views across the Gulf of Salerno towards Maiori with the backdrop of the craggy ridge leading up to 1138m Monte Finestra. We walked back to Pontone and decided to carry on to Amalfi down hundreds of steps, well you can almost calculate how may steps there are, say three per metre on average so about 750 steps!
Once again the shopping started in earnest and I even found a bottle of Glen Grant Malt Whisky in a shop for the ridiculous price of €13. One enterprising shopkeeper had this splendid display of chillies which he reckoned was some sort of aphrodisiac which you rub on your private parts to get them up to temperature!
After a large lemon sorbet in a local "genitalia" we visited the local cathedral (what more churches I hear you ask?). There is just no avoiding them in Italy and there is something you have never seen before in nearly every one.
The Cathedral of Amalfi is a collection of religious monuments of which the actual baroque interior of the cathedral itself is the least impressive. The facade located at the top of a huge flight of steep steps was rebuilt in the 19th century and is of alternate colours of stone similar to the Cathedral in Sienna. It makes an impressive sight but the tower is the only original part left of the original Cathedral.
You first enter the Cloister of Paradise, a medieval cemetery now incorporated into part of the church. The architecture is Moorish and there are Etruscan sarcophagi scattered around.
As 'yer Romains did away with the Etruscians around the 2nd century BC who had then already been around for about 800 years before that, these marble coffins were pretty ancient, possibly as old as 10th century BC and had high quality carvings around them. The cloisters are now used for classical music concerts during the summer months.
You next enter the Basilica of the Crucifix which dates from the 6th century and is now a museum containing many religious artifacts then descend into the Crypt of St. Andrew where the head and other bones of Jesus' first disciple are preserved. The bones arrived in Amalfi in 1208. The Apostle was crucified in Patras in Greece. The decoration of the crypt is remarkable as you can see from the photograph on the right.
St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and there is a picture of his crucifixion behind the altar of the Cathedral itself. The cross on which he is crucified is not a conventional one that symbolises Christianity but one like an X. It occurred to me that this might be the origin of the Scottish saltire and subsequent research proved this supposition to be correct.
It is claimed that St Andrews bones produce a Manna, a dense oil which has appeared in Amalfi for 750 years and also in Patras and Istanbul where his bones were first preserved. This event inspires intense spirituality in the Amalfitani and no wonder as it would seem an impossibility in scientific terms so if it really happens is inexplicable?
The weather is now settled and the temperature climbs to over 30 degrees C each day so, logically, we decided to climb up from Pontone at 266m to just over 500m! We started early before it became too hot but it nearly killed us! We stopped for a rest at Minuta church and down the steps came a pony train with empty panniers heading downhill for provisions. This form of transporting provisions is still very evident along the coast.
We continued on up a steep flight of steps to join another path which then contours around the Valle della Ferriere which literally means the Valley of Iron, the reason for the name were the iron works which date back to the 14th century whose products were exported all over Italy by the Amalfian fleet. The iron works furnaces were fed by charcoal so up until the 20th century the valley was a hive of industry. Paper making was also an activity in the valley.
We walked to where the path meets the valley floor and crosses a stream. Here was the perfect place for a picnic which we had arranged with the Blu Bar in Pontone. The bread rolls they provided were mountainous and we could only manage half but it was nice and cool sat by the waterfall.
The path continues on the other side of the valley down to Pogerola but we would have then had to descend 350m almost down to Amalfi and then climb up 200m again to get back to Pontone which in the heat of the day might have ended in divorce so we returned along the same path until we found another easier route back.
The view down the valley to Amalfi as we approached Pontone deserved a photograph then back in the square we both slaked our thirst on Peroni draught "birra" and chatted to a couple of Brits just arrived with their young daughter, giving them the benefit of our aquired local knowledge to date.
We kept getting official looking tickets left under the windscreen wipers on the car where we were parked in Pontone despite having a special parking permit. There was a minibus parked nearby with the Scala commune emblem on the side and the driver fortunately spoke a little English. He was also puzzled as to why we were getting parking tickets so he phoned the town hall and they told him that it was because we were parked in "Zona A". "In a Zona A" he said " all a da residente including da mayor must pay, even da priest!" he said, laughing and slapping me on the back! Well if a local official has to call his office to understand the parking regulations, what chance have the tourists?
Positano used to be a little fishing village until tourists discovered its charms and is now a sophisticated resort on a par with Portofino. It calls itself the "vertical city" as it is built on a very steep slope beneath some of the highest mountains on the peninsula. When we arrived there were three gin palace super yachts moored off. We made our way gently upwards from shop to shop until we found a shaded bar where we shared a plate of antipasto for lunch with some local white wine.
There were some spectacular views as we climbed higher after lunch and the bougainvillia was much in evidence giving many vistas a bright splash of vivid purple. There was even a Jacaranda tree in bloom which just couldn't compete with the bougainvillia.
Back in Amalfi by ferry and more shopping but it was too early for dinner so we took the bus up to Ravello and spent some time in the Villa Rufulo garden. Unfortunately they were getting ready for the Ravello music festival the following week so much of the garden was covered in the stage and seating for that event but I managed to put together that photograph looking down over the coast to Maiori for which Ravello is famous.
We wandered around trying to decide where to eat but in the end could not resist another plate of Mamas pasta at Compo Cosimo before walking back to Positano for a carafe of wine outside the Blu Bar in the square.
Our last day on the peninsula was spent on Maiori beach. In Italy you pay to sit on the beach an one of the many lidos you will find. They provide you with a sun bed, deck chair and sunshade which are arranged in regimental rows along the beach and are charged on a sliding scale, the most expensive being closest to the sea. We were charge €12 for the day, third row back!
On our return to Pontone, Antico Episcopio had organised a wine tasting on their roof terrace with a light supper of food that medieval people might have eaten. It was a delightful way to finish our time in Pontone.
The Italian word "simpatico" literally translated just means "sympathetic" but to Italians means much more and is untranslatable. I was called "simpatico" by a young waiter in Campagnia many years ago and was flattered then but when our lady host said I was "molto simpatico" then that was the ultimate compliment. Sue said I must have been Italian in my other life!
Off down to Sicily now in my Lions shirt and hoping for the right result!
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