The Amalfi Coast, the romantic cliff-edge Italian riviera beloved of Jackie O, Gwyneth Paltrow, and coachloads of American retirees, is not renowned for quiet isolation. But it is possible. With a little tenacity and willingness to dodge the yacht dwellers, you can find spots where a small slice of rural Italy remains.
We started on the train from Naples to Sorrento, fuelled by €3 Marinara pizza from the original outpost of the Sorbillo pizza-making dynasty. From Sorrento the bus climbs, wheezing, out of town and up on to the far western headland of the Amalfi coast. This is where the tenacity is needed. Hitting the right stop does involve a little negotiation with the gruff Italian bus drivers.
Our stop was Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi (St Agatha over Two Bays), so-called because of its pinprick position overlooking the Bay of Naples to one side, and the Amalfi Coast to other. The village has an attractive work-a-day feel, dotted with the occasional hiking tourist.
Up a short hill from the village is Agriturismo Le Tore where the haphazard but hospitable Vittoria Brancaccio has been farming since 1982. It is a classic crumbly Italian farm. Crates of apples hide under an archway, enormous pieces of brown furniture dot the rooms and end-of-season tomatoes scatter the surrounding fields. We felt like we’d made it as a walk-on part in Call Me By Your Name.
Since the mid-1980s agriturismi have been an approved part of Italy’s accommodation network. You can learn something about rural life and take full advantage of the abundant picnic basket of Italian cuisine.
Vittoria produces her own olive oil, wine and tomato passata, and is more than happy to turn her produce into what she calls “a simple supper”. It’s an education in what a tomato should really taste like.
She also recommends that rather than join the hoards on the ‘Walk of the Gods’ – a beautiful but well-trodden route above the Amalfi Coast – we head instead to the Baia de Ieranto. This rocky headland with its secluded bay derives its name from the Greek ‘ieros’ for sacred and is said to be the setting Homer used for Ulysses’ seduction by the sirens.
Certainly the isolation is seductive. Heading out of the picturesque village of Nerano you pick your way along the headland, past a small picnic spot in an olive grove and down to the secluded bay below. Vittoria tells us that boats are not allowed in the bay meaning you can float for hours in the intensely blue water without fear of engine-dodging.
From Sant’Agata we wound our way around the corner on the ‘road of 1,000 bends’, commissioned by Ferdinand II of Naples in what can only have been a fit of bold ambition, to Positano. A town the artist Paul Klee said was ‘the only place in the world conceived on a vertical rather than a horizontal axis’.
This, the Amalfi Coast’s most famous postcard, is day tripper heaven but go down to the beach and follow the tiny coast path west and you’ll find the quieter cove of Fornillo where the hardy La Marinella seafood restaurant clings to the rocks above a small public beach: a welcome stop for a plate of mussels.
Amalfi, which was once the hub of the Amalfi Coast for trade, is now better known for John Webster’s gruesome 17th century play The Duchess of Malfi. You can ferret around in the back streets and staircases to your heart’s content but the real highlight is the fascinating paper museum, housed in a 13th century paper mill – Europe’s oldest. They will crank all the old machines for you and let you try making paper as the medieval Italians did.
Culture is one thing but wine is another and so we followed our Bacchanalian instincts up to Furore, home to the Amalfi Coast’s only winery, Marisa da Cuomo. The road is bends on a pin but is well worth it for the views.
Perched 500 metres above sea level, the vines of Marisa da Cuomo grow shallow roots in the Dolomitic soil to produce small but intense flavoured grapes, some of which only grow on the Amalfi Coast. A tour around the winery shows just what is possible in a small space. Do not miss the lunch at the Hostaria di Bacco after the tour. Little feels more idyllic than sitting on a terrace supping their acclaimed Fiorduva wines while watching toy-sized yachts bob past in the sun.
Our final stop was Salerno by way of a short stop in Atrani, Amalfi’s smaller but equally enchanting neighbour town.
Salerno is too often overlooked. Bookending the coast with Sorrento, it is the busier more quotidien city of the Amalfi region but its reputation is undue. It boasts a delightfully decripit old quarter – a low key version of Naples’ Quartiere Spagnoli with its own gallery of graffiti, a majestic cathedral – allegedly home to the remains of St Matthew – with a 12th century bell tower, an intriguing medicinal garden and one of Italy’s finest sea fronts.
Arriving on a Sunday we find the coastal promenade covered with Italian children, mothers pausing for chiacchierare (a word well worth knowing in gossipy southern Italy) and men cackling over beers and backgammon.
Our impressions are no doubt helped by our accommodation. Trotula Charming Houses, managed by Starhost, are part of a former convent-turned-aristocratic 17th century residence. Now split into three flats, they feature the original frescoes discovered when the architect owners Giulio and Olimpia Stacchi started to redecorate. Beneath the frescoes is an artful mixture of modern and antique design and shuttered full length windows that look out over the harbour.
On our last morning, loaded up with aragostine and coffee, we head to Salerno’s Zaha Hadid-designed maritime terminal. Having travelled down the winding coast road by bus, there is no better way to get an impression of the trip than seeing it all from the sea. It’s like watching the holiday in tranquil rewind. And, by dint of embarking at the beginning of the line, for much of the trip we had the boat almost to ourselves.