Amalfi is a jewel on the coast: glittering turquoise sea and pastel houses hugging the cliff-face in vertiginous beauty. But in summer it is also a claustrophobic tourist magnet which, in its desperate attempt to fulfil the filmic fantasy of Italia, conceals real life beneath a shiny facade of artistically arranged tat in souvenir shops and preening waiters dolling out 10 euro spritz to adoring foreigners. But it’s not all been filtered to over saturation like an attention-seeking Instagram post. Here are some suggestions of places where you might actually hear some Italian being spoken.
1.Lose yourself among the ‘Ancient Staircases’ or Le antiche scale
These can be accessed almost directly from the beach, or off the crowded main street cluttered with brightly coloured plastic chairs and tables (look for a wooden arrow pointing up some stairs). Step out of a world in polychrome and into narrow alleys and winding stairs whose dusky white walls haven’t been touched up for tourist appreciation. The ‘touristic’ areas of Amalfi are actually rather limited – the Piazza del Duomo, the main street and the beach, so unless you really have no curiosity you’ll probably find yourself venturing up a staircase or two. That being said, we were almost alone as we endevoured to lose ourselves not just horizontally but also vertically.
2.Eat with the locals and escape the centre
Before visiting Amalfi I read Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow, an intoxicating read that had me virtually sniffing the pages her writing was so alive with the fizzing scent of citrus. Here I garnered information about where to eat in Amalfi. When we asked the Tourist Information office by the beach how to reach Ristorante Il Mulino I received a dubious look and was told with an athletic hand gesture it was quite a hike up the hill to the Valle dei Mulini. Certainly an exaggeration, but we did leave behind all the trinket shops and over-priced bars before reaching it, and found ourselves in a peaceful street quiet enough you could hear the water, which once fed several paper mills, gushing below the road. There is a saying in Italy that the uglier the restaurant, the better the food. While Il Mulino was not unattractive, by Amalfi standards it had been decorated by a blind man. But that could only mean one thing – great food. Following Attlee’s recommendation I had pasta with lemon, rocket and clams, a dish to really tingle the tastebuds. After I had my favourite fried alici (anchovies) with a squeeze of the infamous Amalfi lemon, and of course finished the meal with an icy limoncello.
3.Visit a Lemon Garden
Attlee’s book had me a little inebriated by the thought of a countryside heady with the aromatic scent of lemons, so I followed in yet more of her footsteps to one of a dwindling number of remaining lemon groves in Amalfi. Once the hillsides around the Valle dei Mulini were lush with thickly growing lemon trees studded with pale yellow treasures, arranged in terraces called macerine, a name only used in Amalfi. Now there are an increasing number of withered, abandoned gardens. So to support part of Amalfi’s historical beating heart and experience the sfusato amalfitano (specific name of Amalfi lemons) take a lemon tour through the ancient, secret side of Amalfi which will hopefully finish with a few tasters!
4.Delve into the tunnels beneath the church
To the left underneath the magnificent staircase leading to the Duomo you can find a mysterious tunnel leading beneath the church. As you emerge from the gloom you find a little warren of white alleys and modest houses with the occasional decorative tile or quiet bar.
5.Buy the REAL local handcrafted souvenirs
From the moment you arrive you are bombarded with commerce – a myriad of exotically patterned tiles, acidic yellow limoncello in gimmicky bottles and thousands of miniature Amalfis shrunk to perfection on a magnet. But the most ‘authentic’ souvenir you can take away from Amalfi is paper.
Since the Middle Ages paper mills in the Valle dei Mulini (meaning mills) were churning out this high quality product called bambagina, made from cotton and cellulose. Amalfi was one of the four great Maritime powers of Italy (the others being Venice, Genoa and Pisa) and established flourishing trade links with Byzantium and Egypt. Their resulting contact with Arabic traditions lead to Amalfi becoming one of the first towns producing paper in Europe. The Museo della Carta is actually the old mill of the prosperous Milano family, which stopped commerical production in 1969. Here you can admire the robust ancient wooden machinery and assist with a bit of paper making yourself. You can purchase exquisite paper and pens at the Museum or at the elegant paper manufacturers Amatruda to be found nearby.
However, in terms of cermaics the best come from Vietri, a little way down the coast from Amalfi. The bold designs and sunny colours decorating anything from tiles to coffee cups have been an art in Vietri since 1600. There is a multitude of ceramic shops to choose from in Amalfi but my choice is to be found a little up the main street, called Ceramica Vietri in Amalfi, selling ceramics you can be sure were created in Vietri. The owners were a delightful couple who not only assisted my inability to decide what to buy but embodied the Italian spirit of taking life slowly and always having time for a chat.
6.Visit the glittering church of Sant’Andrea and the Chiostro del Paradiso
What with trying to escape the centre so much, I ended up leaving my visit to the church till the last minute. I always visit churches, partly to satisfy my art historian love of money showered upon art, and partly because, particularly in Italy, the main church still just about clings onto the title of the heart of a community. Majestic from the outside, the Duomo is truely sumptuous within. The Baroque decoration features marble, chandeliers, and extensive gilding. Then for a moment of heavenly quiet and a surprising segment of the Orient in Southern Italy, relax in the pale courtyard of Paradise surrounded by elegant arabic arches and palm trees.
Ristorante Il Mulino, Via delle Cartiere 36, Amalfi
Museo della Carta, Via delle Cartiere 23, Amalfi
Cartiera Amatruda s.a.s., Via delle Cartiere 100, Amalfi
Ceramica Vietri in Amalfi di Bruno Salvatore, Piazza Santo Spirito 21, Amalfi
Lemon tours from Cooperativa Amalfitana Trasformazione Agrumi leave at 10.00am every Tuesday and Saturday from the Piazza del Duomo.
This article is now available to download as a GPS enabled map guided you to all the places mentioned in this post! Click on the link below: