Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Amalfi Coast

Several weeks ago now we spent a week in Vernazza in Cinque Terre, a place we found to be absolutely beautiful. The five small towns exist along a stunning coastline with magnificent, if difficult, trails and quick train rides connecting them. It’s like they are made for vacationers. The cruise ships know this and take full advantage. What follows is not meant to mean in any way that we were disappointed in Cinque Terre or that we will not travel there again. However, it won’t be as high on our priority list as it was for this trip.

Beyond Positano
Today we took a bus ride along the Amalfi coastline in southern Italy. There are no trains connecting the small towns here and the trails, such as they are, are not marketed as a fun trek for ordinary folk or even for adventurers. We did have other options for traveling today between the towns. We could have driven. Even with the excellent weather after many days of fog, the roads were mostly clear of traffic. Certainly it was nothing like what has been reported as driving conditions during the summer when police are stationed at key points to move rear-view mirrors out of the way on tight corners. Nor were the roads as scary or dangerous as we had been led to believe.

Positano from the bus stop
We chose not to drive mostly so that we could both safely watch the scenery and not have to watch the road. During the summer boats are a nice option. We saw no evidence of any boat traffic on our trip so we assume that they close down for the winter, at least on weekdays. We could also have taken a tour. A large group tour costs about €50 per person and a private tour closer to €250 for the car and driver for five hours. We decided to try the public bus at €8 per person for an all-day pass.

One of the watch towers. The white roofs are designed to shed rain.
The fact that the bus origin point is also the railroad station would make this an excellent and simple option for someone staying in Naples or places like Pompei or Ercolano. We were not disappointed.
The road is nothing but sharp corners even during the first hour getting from the town of Sorrento to the beginnings of the Amalfi coast. I was surprised at how long it took just to get above Sorrento and by the continuing stream of upscale hotels we passed as we did so. Most had great views of the town and the sea beyond. Many used their roofs as parking lots since there is no place else to park.

Comfortable benches for the climb.
We had arrived at the bus stop early so were able to take prime seats on the right side of the bus near the front. On the way back we were able to do the same thing to acquire good seats on the left side of the bus. We did want to be where we would get the best seaside views. The scenery is stunning. 

Every corner brings a different view of the steep coastline and the buildings that people have built so they could live and work along the beautiful coast. Most were built centuries ago, but we did see some more recent construction and a lot of repurposed buildings turned into shops and hotels and B&Bs along the road for drivers who do brave the curves. We were surprised by the number of cars just parked along the road, a road that in most cases is only marginally wider than necessary for two buses to pass.

Positano Beach
The towers were lit to warn of advancing Saracen raiders who would take slaves.
They are spaced quite close so no one missed the warning.
Our first stop was Positano, the ritziest of the coast towns. It has two bus stops. Fortunately we had been told to use the second one. The first is higher and still over a mile from the town center. The one we used still left us about a 20-minute walk down to the center, but it’s not a steep slope and several shops and views along the way made it easier. There isn’t actually much to do in Positano. It has a beautiful beach, a couple of churches, several places to eat and lots of shops. Linda did find a beautiful summer outfit on sale at one. She says that means there will be no leather coat for her this trip even though they are beautifully made here and relatively inexpensive.

Positano Beach
We wandered in a few other shops without purchasing, visited the two churches and had lunch on the beach at a nice, relatively expensive restaurant. Living here is not cheap by any means. We passed on gas station where the price was 20 cents a litre higher than any other place we have seen so far. The lunch was excellent and the view perfect, so the price did not deter us from enjoying the meal.

Close-up of the manger scene.
The cathedral has two interesting displays. First is the huge manger scene that includes people from the town as they live a couple of centuries ago. This kind of display is common in southern Italian homes. We have seen backdrops of varying sizes for sale in many shops. People will buy the backdrop and the gradually fill it up with characters that are also for sale. A fully completed display could cost several hundred Euros depending on the size. The one here in the cathedral far outsizes anything we saw for sale in a store.

The Black Madonna
The other interesting item is the Black Madonna. While it was probably brought to Positano in the 12th century by Byzantine Monks, the local story is much more interesting. Saracen pirates in the area had the painting when a violent storm hit. It seemed certain that the ship would sink when Mary in the painting spoke, “Posa, posa,” which means lay me down. The pirates did as told and the ship made it into the harbor where they intelligently decided that they much convert to Christianity. The town became known as Positano.

Waiting for the next bus
After lunch we walked back up the hill. A local bus could have taken us up, but since we had over  an hour to make the short walk, we decided to just hoof it up knowing we had time to stop an sit a while on one of the several interesting metal benches along the way. While waiting, we saw four school buses taking students home for the day. Nothing unusual in that, but these were adorned with pictures of the Simpsons, Disney’s Ariel, and the Minions. Not something we would see at home….yet.

Amalfi's reach during its glory years
Another warning tower
The bus ride to Amalfi Town is another hour. We were not the first on this bus so we had to sit on the left side. We still had good views, but picture-taking was not an option. Amalfi was, during the 10th and11th centuries a powerful maritime republic rivaling Pisa, Genoa and Venice. They founded a hospital in Jerusalem and can claim they also founded the Knights of Malta order with the Amalfi cross now known as the Maltese Cross. They minted their own coins and also claim to have invented the compass. An earthquake in 1343 and subsequent plagues left Amalfi a humble backwater that today lives off its tourism.

Amalfi Beach. Note the sunbathers in mid-November

Head of the canoe.
The bus stop in Amalfi is right on the waterfront in the center of town so we did not have to do much hill climbing. Because it was Monday, the two museums were closed. One of these shows off the town’s history. The other has a working model of a water-powered paper mill where visitors can actually make a sheet of paper. We did see a large rowboat inside one archway that we again saw on the water from the bus as we left town. Evidently they have some sort of regatta using these long boats with a competition.

St. Andrew's tomb

The highlight of the town is the Cathedral of St. Andrew, the Apostle. Andrew and his brother Peter were the two fishermen Jesus asked to join him and become “Fishers of Men.” His remains are in the crypt. They were brought to Amalfi from Constantinople in 1206 during the Crusades showing the power that Amalfi possessed in those years. The cathedral is worthy of its star inhabitant.

The cathedral sanctuary
The self-guided tour starts in the Cloister of Paradise, a cemetery for local nobles in the 13th century. The arches around the garden provide a peaceful and lovely setting for their eternal rest. The Basilica of the Crucifix, formerly the church in the 9th century houses the cathedral’s art treasures. Next is the Crypt of St. Andrew where the body is housed under an altar. The decorations are spectacular and include one fresco of the arrival of the bones, similar to what we saw in St. Mark’s in Venice. Finally, we were able to enter the Cathedral itself with its stunningly, opulent baroque interior.

The monumental steps leading to the cathedral

After leaving the cathedral walking down the monumental steps to the square in front, we wandered back to the port and chose our seats on the left side of the bus from which we could watch the lovely sunsets over the water. I pluralized sunset because as we traveled they kept changing both in color and ambiance. 

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