Close to Heaven in Ravello
I can only tell you that the air is perfumed with the sweet tang of lemons; that the heat of the splendid sun warms the skin like the comforting touch of a mother’s embrace; that the blue of the sky is of a cerulean hue, not quite turquoise, not quite azure, but the complexion of happiness.
But I cannot tell you of the breathtaking vista below; my words are those of others who have witnessed the shear drop from the coastal mountains plunging into a crystalline sea, and who have worshipped at the altar of sublime nature. I cannot tell you myself because I have never seen the stunning vertical drama of the precipitous promontories of the Amalfi Coast. I have been there, of course, having been driven around the narrow perilous bends that wind tightly around the mountainsides and come daringly close to the edge. But I have never seen it, for you cannot see something with eyes closed tightly shut, except to the sky and sounds and scents. I suffer from a pathological fear of heights 😓, and, to be driving along possibly the most beautiful coastline in the world and not partake in its beauty has to be the most punishing of experiences.
And so it was that early September day when we wended our way up the Calabria Campania coast and came to the signpost that indicated the start of the steep climb to Ravello. Almost immediately, with the first tight bend, I was assailed by the crippling anxiety that instinctively caused me to close my eyes. When the unusual pelting of rain against the windshield broke my self-imposed retreat and forced me to dart a quick glance to the road, I knew this would be my last day on earth. An eerie calm overtook me and I sat quietly waiting for the end as my husband deftly handled the wet hairpin curves against the rain and under a blackening sky.
We reached Ravello as a hazy evening sun broke through the clouds and lit our way through narrow, rough-patched alleyways (we had taken the wrong turn in to town), and finally found ourselves in front of our hotel.
The Hotel Palazzo Sasso (now called the Palazzo Avino), was once a 12th century Italian villa that was originally part of the aristocratic quarter of Ravello during the Middle Ages. It is perched high on a cliff with postcard perfect views over the towns of Amalfi and Maiori. Having checked in finally, I found myself in front of a large arched window holding a glass of sparkling wine offered to us as a welcome on our arrival, and gazing, without fear and anxiety, at the azure Mediterranean stretching out as far as the eye can see. And below me, what must surely be God’s greatest gift of Nature was a coastline of unparalleled beauty: The Amalfi Coast.
André Gide, a notable French author, once claimed, “Ravello is closer to heaven than it is to the shore”. After the hair-raising, winding climb that seemed never-ending, it certainly felt as if we had made our way straight up to the limits of the universe.
But now, safely ensconced in a comfortable gilt framed sofa, and looking around at the quite opulent lobby area surrounding me, I began to relax, releasing the pent-up anxiety that threatened to way-lay my holiday.
Once settled in our room, we ventured out into the late evening to meet Ravello, the small jewel that crowns the Amalfi coast.
That was 2004, twelve years ago. This past September we were making our way up the same road but coming south from Rome fortified by a beast of a car that carried six of us. I don’t know why, but the fact that we travelled with our friends, tightly packed like sardines with our many bulging suitcases, reassured me. A tumble down the steep precipice surely would mean only a simple inconvenience and minor injury. Still, the climb to Ravello was done in silence, with not so much as a “how beautiful!” or “oh, look!” to distract us from our focused stare ahead at the hairpin curves!
We arrived at Villa Maria, a charming and pretty hotel just outside the central piazza, as the sun began to sink into a darkening ocean. Ravello, I had told my travelling companions, had been the site for the filming of Beat the Devil, shot here back in 1953 and featuring Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollobrigida. Even back then this must have been a singular and alluring spot resting high atop one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines.
We dined that evening, tired and hungry from a long flight, on the delightful terrace of the Hotel Villa Maria. Our first dinner in Italy would not disappoint. Fish dishes were plentiful and varied, as each of us ordered something different. A creamy and luscious dessert concluded a long and tiring day.
The following morning brought light drizzle and grey skies but sitting on the terrace for breakfast and still able to capture glimpses of the ocean through the dissipating fog was more than we could have asked for. Besides I would not allow the rain to dampen my spirits—-not on my birthday. We set out for a walk through this little town that was visited throughout the years by such luminaries as DH Lawrence, Wagner, Virginia Woolf. Writers and composers have always flocked to the idyllic Ravello to immerse themselves in its beauty and to be inspired by it. Tight narrow alleyways dotted here and there by small attractive boutiques that display their wares outside their doors of mostly ceramics and linens, led us to the main piazza. One final sharp turn and an expansive bright piazza opened up before us. Here a lovely Duomo presides over the piazza that boasts a magnificent lookout to the valley below. Bars and cafes line either side of the piazza where the favourite activity seems to be to sit sipping espressos and watch people stroll by.
Off the main Piazza Vescovado, it is possible to catch a glimpse of an old square Moorish tower. In fact, signs of Arabic Moorish influence are everywhere here.In particular, and a fascinating sight, is the Moorish Cloister. This cloister, a stupendous colonnade of pointed arches, is an outstanding example of the Arabic-Sicilian style of the 13th century.
A number of venerable grand hotels in Ravello boast the visits of many famous and notable personages. Hotel Rufolo proudly displays a plaque that indicates that D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover while staying there. Villa Cimbrone, now a magnificent 5 star hotel, has entertained a long list of notables such as Greta Garbo, Sir Winston Churchill, and E.M. Forster. Ravello, it seems, holds the distinction of having been the travel destination of many high and mighty, and rich and famous. A visitors’ brochure I pick up at my “not so posh and swanky” but still quaint and comfortable hotel, Villa Maria, claims that Gore Vidal made it known that
“Twenty five years ago I was asked by an American magazine what was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen in all my travels and I said the view from the belvedere of the Villa Cimbrone on a bright winter’s day when the sky and the sea were each so vividly blue that it was not possible to tell one from the other.”
Wow! I would have to agree with that.