ou may have heard that the magic of the Amalfi Coast is in its colors: That no other place has a pink that rivals the neon hues of Positano’s bougainvillea; that no body of water matches the lapis lazuli tint like the sea that snuggles up to this rocky coastline; that no other yellow can approximate the glowing brilliance of lemons hanging heavily from local groves.
Having carefully scrutinized this celestial terrestrial parenthesis myself, I can confirm it’s all true.
But I can also confirm that the kaleidoscopic brilliance of the Amalfi Coast is not just a summertime phenomenon, as the swarms of high-season troopers would have you believe. The Amalfi Coast is, in fact, unique in this regard. Its colors might change during the autumn and winter months, but they never fade.
Amalfi’s true magic is as an off-season destination for those who can’t bear to sever ties with summer. The crowds are gone, the luxury hotels offer discounted rates of 40 percent or more (and most do stay open) and you can actually accelerate into a higher gear along the coronary thrombosis otherwise known as the Amalfi Drive. Although the overall beauty of the Amalfi Coast is less flashy, less cheeky, less mandolin-serenades-by-checkered-tablecloth-wearing-waiters in winter, those spunky summer hues — the pinks, yellows and turquoises — still shine bright.
The ancients said of the region: bis floribus vernat (“everything blooms twice”). Indeed this was Campania Felix (“Happy Country”) where roses and citrus trees were observed to bloom throughout the year — a phenomenon that kept ancient agronomists in awe. Unrelenting sunshine combined with mineral-rich volcanic soils keep local botany revved up and the summer growing season never knows when to give up.
This unique characteristic has lured year-round visitors since the time of Odysseus. Of the coast’s many attractions, the most famous are the doily-like towns of Positano and Amalfi, and the two-lane road (route 163) that links them. The Amalfi Drive, or the Via Smeraldo, is a corniche extraordinaire that snakes along with hundreds of bends and hairpin curves that open onto breathtaking panoramas of the sea. It’s the kind of road that demands respect, and RPMs you can’t gear up to in summer traffic.
Overlooking the Gulf of Salerno, Positano is perhaps the most picturesque town. Like a giant amphitheater, it encloses a good-sized beach and a small harbor with bobbing fishing boats. Among its buildings sprout flower-cover terraces and the odd palm tree. But the yellow and green dome of the Santa Maria Assunta church dominates the cityscape. For the best views, head up the steep stairs off Via Positanesi d’America, named after the immigrants who left here in the early 1900s. Nestled in the side streets are botteghe where artisans make leather sandals to fit your feet.
The entire stretch of shoreline is named after the town of Amalfi. Unlike its neighbors, it should not be confused with an innocuous fishing village. From the 9th to the 11th century, it was in fact a regional powerhouse with ruling Doges who regularly flexed their muscle at maritime republics Venice, Genova, and Pisa. (The Regata Storica, held alternatively in each city each year, is a boat race that celebrates this ancient rivalry). There are many ways to describe paradise on earth but the words chiseled on an inscription near the harbor say it best: “For the people of Amalfi who go to heaven, judgment day will be a day like any other.”
Even closer to heaven, perhaps, is the town of Ravello that offers the only horizontal experience along a vertical coast. Perched on a balcony of rock 370 meters above the sea, this is where you see the Amalfi Coast from the sky. Ravello was first settled by aristocratic Romans who built their lavish vacation palaces beyond the reach of invaders and presumably beyond the stench of the fishermen at sea level. Its link to the fashionable and the literate is legendary — Greta Garbo, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf all visited — and continues today.
Vietri sul Mare is the last town in the chain to the south and is the coast’s ceramics capital. Production started with the ancient Romans who scoured nearby terracotta deposits for the raw material used in making oversized urns and pots for transporting goods and liquids. By the 15th century, craftsmen had turned ceramics into an element of design. Hand-painted tiles with lively geometric patterns, flower, and animal motifs are a distinctive element of Campania’s architectural style. If you’re in the market for majolica (tiles), tabletops, or kitchen crockery, you’ll find the cheapest prices here. Lower your eyes when you enter Vietri’s main square. There is a superb hand-painted rendition of the same sea scenery that comes into view when you lift your gaze.
Enjoy Amalfi in the winter when few others do. But do bring an umbrella, because you never know.