John Steinbeck said: ‘It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.’ Though speaking about Positano, in my opinion, one could describe the entire Amalfi coast with those same words!
My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.
The Amalfi Coast
A Place of Dreams
In 1953, John Steinbeck said, “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” Though he was speaking specifically about Positano with that infamous quote, in my opinion, one could describe the entire Amalfi Coast with those same words!
I read his words years ago when I was preparing for my first trip to the Amalfi. I read the words and said them over and over to myself. For some reason, they just weren’t taking a seat in my soul. So, I forgot all about them until I went and returned. We had been to five or six countries along the Mediterannean on that trip, but the Amalfi coast changed me. It really changed me.
And, that my friends, is what I’m going to tell you about. Settle in, this is going to be a great read!
The Amalfi Coast
The Amalfi Coast is a 50-kilometer stretch of coastline in southern Italy overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Salerno. In 1997, the Amalfi Coast was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the rugged coastline with terraces of lemon trees, beautiful water, and colorful villages, each one with its own character.
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There are 13 towns and villages on the Amalfi Coast: Amalfi, Atrani, Cetara, Conca de’ Marini, Furore, Maiori, Minori, Positano, Praiano, Ravello, Scala, Tramonti, and Vietri sul Mare. Sorrento is somewhat of an honorary member of the coast. Although Capri is an island, when speaking about the area, it is typically included.
The coastal area is named after the village of Amalfi, which is its political and historical center. Of the 13 villages which make up the Amalfi Coast, there are three that are mainstays: Amalfi, Positano, and Ravello. I have spent time in all three and been through many of the others.
The process of making Bambagina is an old tradition in the region of the Amalfi Coast.
Geography and Products of the Amalfi Coast
I bring the geography and products under one heading because the regional products are based very much on the geography of the land.
The region is located on the extremely steep and rugged southern shores of the Sorrentine Peninsula. Because of this, the entire region is unsuitable for most agriculture. This terrain also makes it difficult to reach the area by land. Most people arrive by some type of water transportation. Though there is a 40-kilometer road, known as the Amalfi Drive, which runs between Vietri sul Mare and Positano.
Regional products include limoncello, a lemon liqueur made from the fruit of the trees that are grown in the terraced gardens along the coast. The good people of Sorrento argue that their limoncello is the best in the world!
Bambagina is a thick Italian paper. The art of making this paper is an ancient Italian tradition and historically it has been used for important/official documents such as revenue stamps, legal or court papers, and invitations for royal events.
Historically Bambagina was used for official documents.
Arriving on the Amalfi Coast
At first glance, the region of the coast is gorgeous like any other spot in the Mediterranean. It’s sunny, colorful, rustic, and authentic in appearance. Villages are hives of activity. Shops dot the streets offering limoncello and other local products. The aroma of the fresh catch of the day lingers in the air. The unmistakable scent and bright colors of bougainvillea overwhelm the senses.
And, yes, there are tourists; lots of them! Does this sound typical of the other villages of Italy? Yes, but not so fast! As a seasoned traveler, I have learned to withhold my first impression. That thought process has served me well.
I start with Positano, for selfish reasons. It’s my favorite spot in the region (and I’m doing the writing, so I get to pick)!
As with the entire region, Positano is set into the steep cliffs. It is known for its many staircases which lead you from one level to another; from the highest point down to the beaches. Maps are available in most shops. Even though Positano is relatively small, it’s a good idea to purchase one of these as they identify all of the staircase options.
The must-see in this lovely village is the Church of Santa Maria Assunta. Located in the center of town, the dome is visible from almost everywhere you are. The dome itself is outstanding in that it is made up of the most beautiful colored tiles of yellow, green, and blue. In the second half of the 10th century, the church had its beginnings as a Benedictine Abbey.
During the late 19th century, the village fell on hard economic times and many of the villagers left. By the mid-20th century, Positano had established the reputation of being a quiet seaside village with stunning views in every direction. It was because of this that artists, writers, and musicians began to arrive. The village became a popular spot for these talents not only to relax but to concentrate on their work without distraction.
What makes the Church of Santa Maria Assunta so unique is the legend it has carried throughout history! It seems that sometime in the 12th century, there was a ship that became stranded as the winds died. With nothing else to do but wait, that is exactly what the captain and crew did. An important part of the story is that the ship was carrying a massive icon of the Virgin Mary. But then, many of the crew as well as the captain, report that they heard a voice calling “Posa, Posa.”
After being stranded for days, the voice became louder and more urgent in its pleas. Finally, the ship captain realized the voice belonged to the Virgin Mary and was urging him to take the ship to Positano. Upon this realization, the winds picked up, the ship became unstranded and the captain safely navigated the vessel into the port of Positano. Today, that icon adorns the altar in the Church of Santa Maria Assunta. Because of this event, the people of Positano chose the Virgin Mary as their patron saint. The event is celebrated each year by a procession reenacting the arrival and the placement of the icon in the church.
Much like Positano, Ravello has served as the host village for many talented writers, artists, and musicians. A few of these talents include Richard Wagner, Virginia Woolf, Greta Garbo, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein, and Sara Teasdale. In the summer of 1953, in honor of Richard Wagner, the Ravello Festival became an annual celebration of talent.
The village has also been the location and inspiration of many movies.
A huge draw to Ravello is The Chiesa di San Giovanni del Toro which translates to “Church of St. John of the Bull,” with John the apostle being the patron saint. Personally, I love this church! The pulpit is made up of stunning mosaics. In one, Jonah is pictured emerging from the mouth of the whale. In another, an eagle holds the Bible and the page is, in stunning detail, open to the first sentence of the Book of John. The stairs leading to and from the sanctuary are lined with amazing frescoes depicting the life of Christ.
The Chiesa di San Giovanni del Toro Relics
Amalfi is known for its gleaming white building facades. Of all the villages along the coast, Amalfi holds the most historical significance. It served as a gateway port for maritime trade between the Byzantine world and the western world. Every June to this day, that important fact is celebrated with the Regatta of the Four Ancient Maritime Republics.
Amalfi is the flattest of the villages on the coast and therefore it is easier to get around. The main attraction is the Cathedral of St. Andrew or Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea. There are only 60 steps leading up to the cathedral. Once inside, you will be glad you took the time to visit.
Included in this celebration of the Apostle Andrew, is the crypt in which his remains have been laid to rest. The cathedral is also known for its beautiful crucifixes. One is made of the Mother of Pearl while another is an intricately carved wooden one from the 13th century. A sarcophagus of Peter of Capua who died in 1214 is also located within the sanctuary.
How Did the Amalfi Change Me?
I mentioned to you earlier in this article the quote made by John Steinbeck, “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”
The Amalfi Coast is a popular tourist area and frequented by global celebrities. It’s expensive, it can be crowded and again, at first glance, it just looks like another region in Italy that is stunningly gorgeous. As previously mentioned, I read the words of Steinbeck prior to my first experience on the Amalfi Coast. My initial impression of his words was ” only a writer would say that!”, “How artsy!”, “Maybe he had fond memories of a love affair?”, ” Maybe he hadn’t traveled much and had nothing to compare?” I suspect that not having been there, I just wasn’t ready to absorb the meaning of his words.
On my first trip, we visited the big three: Ravello, Positano, and Amalfi. I was fortunate to visit in early April before the large crowds descended. It was quiet, clean, and amazingly beautiful. We saw the prerequisite sites, bought the expected souvenirs, and sat for coffee in Ravello, the last of the three on that trip. We had anchored at Ravello and taxied to Positano. From Positano, we took a ferry to Amalfi. To return, we simply repeated our trek in reverse.
This Picture Screams “Peaceful!”
Sitting at the quiet seaside cafe, sipping my delicious cappuccino, I thought about the day and the places I had seen. It had been a good day. I had seen some beautiful churches, taken a ferry through the Tyrrhenian Sea, and indulged in fabulous gelato. Nothing special. Right?
The trip continued for another 15 days. Arriving home and settling back in, I began to go back through my pre-travel research and came across that quote! This time reading those same words, I felt haunted. The words continued to whirl around in my head!
My Lasting Impression
What was with that quote and why in the world would the words of John Steinbeck leave such an imprint in my soul? I’ll tell you why. Because he was right. The Amalfi Coast does seem just like another beautiful spot in the world, nothing more, nothing less—until you have gone home. I thought back on my time spent there. What was so special and why did I have this intense yearning to return? I looked at my pictures, and my journal notes, yet I couldn’t come up with an answer.
But then, one evening while sitting on my deck overlooking the wooded area that backed up to my home, it hit me. The Amalfi Coast, specifically, Positano, was an oasis of peace even amongst the tourists and the shops. The serenity of the scenery wasn’t just like another Italian village. You might say that Positano has a certain je ne sais quois; a quality that cannot be described.
The legends the region holds dear and celebrates hundreds of years later have meaning. They have a place in the everyday life of the locals. Those legends shape and define the area, unlike any other place I have had the opportunity to visit. As I contemplated this revelation, I could almost hear the words “Posa, Posa” calling to me.
It was at that moment I realized how fortunate I was to have the ability to travel, to experience the world in a way that many don’t get to do. From that point on, all future travel and experience took on a new meaning. The key to life, especially the life of a traveler, is immersion in the culture of your destination. It’s the key to asking “why?”; the key to learning how tradition defines a society; the key to not just existing but to experiencing the moments that life brings your way.
Since that initial visit to the Amalfi Coast, I have had the good fortune and pleasure of returning numerous times. And now, when I visit, I take John Steinbeck with me.
Until next time friends, remember “To Travel is to Live!”
© 2022 Dee Serkin