Like most visitors, my 48 hours in Ravello begin in Amalfi. I had been hurtled to this famous coast’s eponymous town along the hair-raising Amalfi Drive, gasping each time we broke the laws of physics to squeeze past an oncoming bus on another hairpin bend. Leafy rockfaces had gazed down impassively at our vehicle’s peril, tiny tunnels yawned unconcerned as we rattled through, majolica-tiled church domes shrugged and continued staring out to sea. The town of Amalfi itself had proven a big disappointment. Sure enough, its cathedral is a stunner – a haughty delirium of arches, stripes, and winking gold – but beyond that Amalfi is a jam-packed tourist town of tawdry souvenir shops and none-too-clean alleyways leading down to a gritty beach. The bus to Ravello, however, will soon transport me to another world.
Much smaller and significantly less crowded than Amalfi, Ravello lies draped across a green mountaintop a thousand feet above the shoreline. Its views down the tumbling coast and out across the cobalt blue sea are fabulous, I’ve heard. Myriad arty minds have been inspired by the town’s lofty location and magnificent vistas, and by its sense of remove from the rest of the world. Wagner set part of his Parsifal opera in Ravello, and Grieg was influenced by the place as he put together Peer Gynt. While basking in Ravello’s sensual delights, D.H. Lawrence penned the first few chapters of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. E.M. Forster set a short story here, and André Gide set part of a novel. Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams, M.C. Escher, Gore Vidal – they all loved the place. So many discerning minds can’t be wrong, I figure.
I’m dreaming of Ravello’s inspiring space and tranquillity as I stand at the head of a long noisy line of people at the bus-stop in Amalfi. When the bus arrives, all semblance of a queue disappears and there’s an ugly free-for-all to leap aboard. Not even my sternest glare can secure me a seat. I stand in the crowded aisle, balancing heavy suitcases with my knees, apologizing each time they tumble over, hanging on for dear life to the overhead handrails and swinging monkey-like as we lurch and gyre up the endless switchback-bends of the mountain roads. Outside, the pinky-blue veils of twilight are settling over land and sea, viewed as jumbled glimpses through the forest of passengers. And then suddenly, one bus-stop before everyone else, I burst with my luggage out into Ravello’s evening air. The bus pulls away and silence lands on me like a heavy cloak. A green terraced hillside climbs in front of me, its distant homes prettily aglow. A sweet-smelling breeze gently lifts my hair.
My hotel room overlooks the dainty medieval borgo of Torello just below Ravello, which tonight in honour of a saint’s day has been strung with lights that outline its every building, turning the place into a graphic cartoon. It’s not long before fireworks begin, raining exquisite apocalypse down over the illuminated borgo. Vast booms echo off the surrounding mountains and resound across the coast. What a welcome to Ravello! They know a thing or two about putting on a show in this town, of course. Ravello is home to one of Italy’s most famous annual arts bashes – the Ravello Festival, which fills this tiny place with classical music concerts, jazz, pop and dance, as well as film screenings and art exhibitions, for a whopping four months of the year. The organizers have little trouble enticing big names to such a gorgeous location. After the fireworks, I wander further up through the town, and as I pass the big white Oscar Niemeyer Auditorium I overhear a singer giving it all he’s got inside, to the roar of an ecstatic crowd.
The next day and a half is a happy blur of sunwashed wanderings through convivial piazzas, quiet lanes and lavish gardens. Pavement cafés beckon, pretty villas and churches stop me in my tracks, and shops try to seduce me with giant, brightly-coloured majolica wares piled high outside. Ravello is sensationally pretty, its reputation thoroughly deserved. I’m pleased to note, though, that it’s not pristine. It’s not excessively prinked out for tourists with immaculate streets and manicured flower displays. It has its charming rough edges – a bit of crumbling plaster here, a scruffy alleyway there. They add a welcome touch of reality to this otherwise too dreamlike place.
The landscape vistas are heart-stopping. Inland, the green terraced slopes of serrated hillsides are dotted with fruit-coloured homes and churches. Seaward, the town plunges in decorative layers towards distant Amalfi and the high, dramatic coastline wriggling into a hazy blue infinity. You feel giddy confronting such views. Or you would if Ravello’s overriding atmosphere wasn’t so hypnotically serene. The calm sinks into you, reclaims you, takes you over completely.
There is a particular view I keep seeing on postcards in the stands outside souvenir shops. I’ve seen it countless times over the years, on book covers and magazine articles and all sorts of tourist bumf – a graceful umbrella pine arching mystically above two pepperpot domes gazing out to sea. I never knew that this classic Italian vista was here in Ravello. I buy a postcard and hurry to my hotel. “Where is this view?” I breathlessly ask the friendly girl on reception. She smiles at my enthusiasm, notes the big camera slung around my neck, and says, “In the garden of Villa Rufolo.”
Well, the villa is a tranquil wonderland with elegant cloisters and lavish plantlife laid out over intimate-feeling terraces. Built way back in the 13th century, the Villa Rufolo is mentioned in Boccaccio’s Decameron, no less. And it was here where Richard Wagner stopped and thought “Hang on a minute, wouldn’t this garden be just the perfect arrangement for my ‘Klingsor’ garden in Parsifal?” It takes a lot of traipsing up and down various steps and belvederes until I find it, but then The View is finally mine – the umbrella pine and the belltower-tips perfectly framing the fantasy seascape beyond. I photograph like a maniac.
My appetite for villa-gardens piqued, I march off to Ravello’s other famous gem, Villa Cimbrone. The walk there is wonderful, down quiet domestic lanes, past radiant villas and alongside an organic garden pendant with fat tomatoes. Villa Cimbrone and its six hectares of park-style gardens lie draped across a high, fertile clifftop on Ravello’s southern edge. The whole place was established by an Edwardian-era Englishman – a certain Lord Grimthorpe, who wanted a grand project to help him through depression following the death of his wife. Fittingly, the whole place is achingly romantic.
The villa itself is a charming architectural confection complete with a mock-Gothic cloister swathed in climbing creepers. And then the enchanted gardens unfurl, prettily dotted with statues and follies and fountains and bowers. There are ample vantage points to stand and to soak in the jaw-dropping panoramic views. Chief of these is the Terrace of Infinity, an absurdly sublime space which Gore Vidal claimed offered the single best view in the world. It’s certainly a vertiginous one. The terrace seems to float in the sky rather than be connected to the vertically dropping ground below. Standing here in awe, wrapped in silence and sky and space, I can’t help thinking that the terrace is rather a microcosm of Ravello itself – dreamily and serenely beautiful, and somehow quite removed from the teeming chaos of the normal world far below.
The undisputed heart of Ravello, this pleasant square is ringed by umbrella-shaded cafés and pretty souvenir shops, watched over by the dainty cathedral. It’s a place you’re bound to pass through repeatedly as you explore the town. Tranquil and traffic-free, it’s always nice to find yourself here again.
Piazza Duomo, open 9am-7pm
Ravello’s little duomo is a cheery 11th-century church with a richly ornamented interior. Admire the pictorial bronze outer doors, then go in to ooh and ahh at the marble-and-mosaic-adorned pulpits. Downstairs, a museum holds further decorative delights.
off Piazza Duomo, open 9am-5pm, entry €5
+39 089 857621, www.villarufolo.it
One of Ravello’s most delicious places, this rambling 13th-century villa features exquisite 19th-century gardens and glorious views down to the sea. A Moorish cloister and Norman tower are among the chunks of architecture. Descendants of the original gardeners still tend the lavish plants.
26 Via Santa Chiara, open 9am to sunset, entry €6
+39 089 857459, www.villacimbrone.com
Set on a fertile clifftop at Ravello’s southern edge, the Villa Cimbrone has six hectares of tranquil English-style parkland – complete with statuary, follies and fountains. It’s an enchanted place to wander lost in thought. The heaven-gazing ‘Terrace of Infinity’, meanwhile, is perhaps Ravello’s single most romantic spot.
Brightly-coloured ceramic work is a ubiquitous feature of the Amalfi Coast – from restaurant plates to souvenir trinkets, hotel floors to public benches. Take time to admire the pretty stuff while you’re here. Especially recommended is the large ‘Pascal’ factory-shop at 22 Via Roma. Owner Pasquale Sorrentino is an enthusiastic, multi-lingual charmer.
MUSIC IN THE OPEN AIR
From March to November, the Ravello Concert Society organizes numerous performances of classical music. Most are held in the peerless setting of the Villa Rufolo gardens, with jaw-dropping vistas of coastline far below. The dreamy evening twilight fades to starlit black as the music envelops you. Delightful.
THE RAVELLO FESTIVAL
If, like most visitors, you come between late June and late October, be sure to check out the manifold offerings of the Ravello Festival. This annual four-month extravaganza specializes in top-level musical performances of various genres but the programme also features dance, art exhibitions and cinema screenings.
2 Via della Repubblica, +39 089 857227
www.salvatoreravello.com, closed Mondays
Perched beside panoramic vistas, this reasonably-priced eatery serves pizzas downstairs and a fuller menu upstairs. The food is wonderful, and includes inventive dishes such as squid with puréed chickpeas, cod gnocchi and rabbit doughnuts. Meal for two about €45
2 Via Santa Chiara, +39 089 857225
Set amidst organic gardens that supply its kitchen, award-winning Villa Maria has been going for 80 years. Celeb diners include Susan Sarandon, Matt Dillon and Hugh Grant. The food is fresh, wholesome and excellent, with a menu of traditional and creative Italian dishes.
Meal for two about €80
44/46 Via Roma, +39 089 857156
This unpretentious-looking, single-room restaurant has no outdoor seating and no view, but its food is legendary. Reasonably-priced, too. Chef Netta Bottone has been wowing guests for more than 40 years – including celebrities such as Jackie Onassis and Mariah Carey.
Meal for two about €45
5 Via dei Fusco, +39 089 857135
One of Ravello’s best-value eateries, the Villa Amore has fantastic views from its airy interior and its vine-covered terrace. The menu is of typical local dishes made from high-quality ingredients. There’s a particularly wide choice of meat courses and steaks. Meal for two about €40
FIGLI DI PAPA
7 Via della Marra, +39 089 858302
www.ristorantefiglidipapa.it, Closed Tuesdays
In an ancient palace off Ravello’s main square, this reasonably-priced place has an elegant interior with high vaulted ceilings and a leafy terrace outside. The food is very good, and the menu varied and interesting.
Meal for two about €50
8 Via della Rebupplica, +39 089 857222
Nicely situated a short walk from Ravello’s main piazza, the pet-friendly Graal offers stunning views of the sea from every room. The building is decked out in an appealingly modern, faintly Art Deco style. There are two restaurants and an outdoor pool. Double rooms €100-€210
AL BORGO TORELLO
24 Via Traglio, +39 089 858164
This relaxed, homey B&B has just four rooms – spacious and spotless with fine tiled floors. Quietly set above the medieval borgo of Torello, some rooms enjoy views down to the sea. Friendly owners Roberto and Loredana make you feel well looked-after. Double rooms €60-€90
HOTEL VILLA FRAULO
18 Via San Giovanni del Toro, +39 089 858283
On a quiet street in the heart of town, this classy medieval villa is a blend of ancient charm and modern comforts. All rooms have stupendous views of sea and mountains. There’s a great pool, a spa, and lots of elegant vaulted ceilings. Double rooms €149-€349
2 Piazza San Giovanni del Toro, +39 089 858801
Deemed one of the best hotels on the Amalfi Coast, the Caruso sits at Ravello’s highest point, with predictably awesome views. The main building is an 11th-century palace complete with frescoes. Outdoor delights include gardens and a cliff-top infinity pool. Double rooms €470-€1,150
1 Via San Francesco, +39 089 857133
This grand old hotel overlooks the beautiful Rufolo gardens to the sea beyond. There are vine-covered terraces, a pool and a spa. The hotel has hosted some illustrious guests, including D.H. Lawrence who wrote parts of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here. Double rooms €180- €350
©Fleur Kinson 2013