Story and photography by Barry Shlachter
Ravello, backdrop for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,”
turns out the perfect spot to enjoy over-touristed Italy
RAVELLO, Italy — The Amalfi Coast’s epic scenery is no secret, landing it on many a bucket list. The view from our nine-room boutique hotel, La Moresca, in the hilltop town of Ravello was an almost too-perfect postcard rendering that nonetheless changed each day, sometimes with crystal blue skies putting neighboring Minori in 3D relief, other days delicately framing it with fog and mist.
It was mid-April, the tail end of the offseason, and we didn’t know if the timing was smart. We were well aware that a crush of tourists had long afflicted the coastal towns during summer, making the curving, narrow highway connecting the towns a gridlock of huge tour buses, eight-seater van taxis, motor scooters and lost out-of-towners unable to find a parking space.
We had seen most of the major Italian tourist areas at least once, and neither of us had been to the Amalfi Coast. But where to stay? Some recommended Positano. It was there in 1949 that the novelist — and Fort Worth native — Patricia Highsmith caught a glimpse from her hotel balcony of “a solitary young man in shorts and sandals .… There was an air of pensiveness about him, maybe unease. And why was he alone?” She supposed he was an American tourist, and the image led her to conjure up a serial killer named Thomas Phelps Ripley, protagonist of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and four other thrillers.
We passed on Positano (and potential scheming murderers) and, by dumb luck, decided on Ravello. No regrets.
This romantic community of 2,000 provided enough inspiration in 1926 for D.H. Lawrence to start his masterpiece, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” while the novelist himself had a misbegotten tryst with his secretary in Room 243 at the Villa Rufolo. Greta Garbo had a better time with her lover, “Fantasia” composer Leopold Stokowski at the Villa Cimbrone. Before it became a hotel, Villa Rufolo also inspired a guest named Wagner to overcome a two-decade artistic block in 1880 to finish his opera “Parsifal.” A grateful town named a street after him: Viale Richard Wagner.
We knew we made the right choice each time we ventured to other must-see places — the town of Amalfi, the Isle of Capri and Positano. But even in mid-April, mass tourism was unavoidable, putting a damper on each outing. Exceptions were the taxi drive on Capri that sped us away from the madding crowds, and the ferry ride to the wee island and back.
Aside from bused-in day-trippers filling the main piazza from late morning to midafternoon, Ravello was generally tranquil and blessed with curiously winding back streets, superb and moderately priced trattorias and pizzerias, glorious gardens and surprisingly simpatico locals. Our only regret was missing the outdoor music festival in July and August, on a stage dramatically perched on a cliff. Aside from a piano bar at the Palazzo Avino Hotel, there’s scant nightlife; locals head to nearby Amalfi for discos and live music. We did run across a screechy busker in the main piazza who tried to emulate Sinatra’s hit “New York, New York” but ended up punishing it.
Walking back to our hotel around 8:30 p.m., the Piazza Vescovado was empty and the only business open was Caffe Calce, run by 87-yearold patriarch Alphonso Calce and praised for its pizza. A granddaughter back from her stay in Great Britain over the winter season (when most Ravello restaurants and shops close down) quickly put us on a first-name basis and arranged for me to watch an uncle make tray after tray of cookies and local pastries, then set up a gelato-making lesson from her aunt on another day.
We decided on a winery visit, too, but the one suggested by a local travel agent was more than $300 by hired car, with a small wine tasting and no food.
Instead, I discovered a small winery carved into the hillside that was open in the morning, Ettore Sammarco. The wines were superb, and the winery chief, Bartolo Sammarco, personally served us and told us about his approach to winemaking. He also introduced us to his 87-year-old father, Hector.
We bought some wine and headed to Atrani, a seaside town just below, with the recommendation of Sammarco’s favorite restaurant, Le Palme. There, we not only had a memorable pizza, but the owner invited us into the kitchen to watch how his brother prepared it.
On the lookout for art, we noticed the restaurant had a number of watercolors that didn’t look like slapdash renderings for tourists. Each had a small “for sale” tag.
We asked how much, and the owner said he’d call the artist, who turned out to be an Irishman named Leo Kennedy who lived a few blocks from our hotel in Ravello. A longtime resident, Kennedy would later serve us coffee and local pastry at his apartment/atelier as we sorted through his paintings, selecting two for the trip back to Texas.
The famous sfusato Amalfitano lemons are grown all over the region. They’re used in a host of pastries, various dishes and pastas and even a craft beer.
Profumi della Costiera is a small shop on the way to Villa Cimbrone that distills the famed lemon into limoncello and offers free samples of the sweet but potent (60 proof) tipple. Bottles and ceramic jugs come in all sizes and make excellent gifts for friends back home.
TWO HOURS IN POMPEII
Eight days earlier, we took trains from Rome to Salerno, with a difficult passage by bus and taxi to Ravello. Francesca, owner of the Chic and Fabulous wedding planning service and travel agency (around the corner from Caffe Calce), asked how we were returning to Rome for our flight home.
“Probably by train from Naples,” I replied. “Have you been to Pompeii?” she asked. Then she offered to arrange a car and driver to take us to the ruins before dropping us at the magnificent new train station Napoli Afragola (a modern masterpiece by architect Zaha Hadid), avoiding the crush in Naples. All this for the price of a taxi.
Our two hours gazing at Pompeii’s 1,900-year-old mosaics and frescoes capped a perfect sojourn. Mille grazie, Francesca.