Villa San Michele, Amalfi Coast.
It was 30 years ago that we arrived in Positano for our honeymoon and to celebrate our anniversary, Roger and I decided to take our three daughters to the Amalfi coast for a four day break.
With a punishingly early flight, we booked into the Radison Blu in Stansted (the bonus being that our parking was taken care of for the duration of our stay) the night before, allowing us an easy 5 minute walk into the terminal the next morning.
By 9.30am we had arrived at Naples airport where we picked up our hire car and set off for the Amalfi coast. The A3 is a good motorway and doesn’t involve too many of the dangerous hairpin bends associated with this coastline. In not much more than an hour we had reached our destination, the Villa San Michele, perched on a cliff top in Castiglione which is close to Atrani and about 1k from the town of Amalfi. Once again, we had chosen an Alastair Sawday recommendation and once again he didn’t let us down.
Despite the entrance being situated on the bustling main road, all the rooms and the dining and sitting areas nestle several levels below the road, almost clinging onto the sheer cliff face, and we could not imagine a more tranquil setting. All 12 rooms boast their own terrace and sea views overlooking the spectacular coastline. Boats regularly pass by ferrying passengers to and from the nearby towns as it is by far the easiest, quickest and least stressful form of transport.
The hotel is half board for the months of May to September and the meals are prepared by the owner’s wife Sinora Rosa. The evening menu offers a choice of two pastas (Primo Plato) to start with followed by a meat or fish option and a pudding or a plate of fruit to follow. There is a good wine list with local options at very reasonable prices. Breakfast is typically continental with freshly squeezed home-grown oranges, yoghurt and delicious croissants with fruit available on request – and of course cappuccinos on tap. Daughter #1 is gluten and dairy free and even though we failed to warn them in advance, the staff were extremely accommodating – perhaps partly because the owner Nicola is a celiac himself. The gluten-free spaghetti was delicious and bore no resemblance to the tasteless gluten free varieties offered in the UK.
Whilst lunch is not available until June we had fun dining out at various delightful trattorias helpfully recommended by a friend from the locality. In Amalfi, we enjoyed coffees and pastries at the wonderful cafe Andrea Pansa and observed wedding parties and first communicants ascend the steep steps to the impressive cathedral. Lunch at Lido Azzurro down on the harbour was a great find; here you are paying slightly more than the average tourist restaurant but for the peace, authenticity and ability to eat with the locals, it is worth the few extra euro.
Positano is indeed a jewel on the Amalfi coast; we all marvelled at the feat of architecture of terrace upon terrace of villas built into the mountains. The delightful narrow streets contain numerous tiny boutiques selling leather sandals and linen clothes occasionally interspersed with a handful of smarter designer shops. The cathedral was worth a visit as was the Palazzo Murat, now a 4* hotel and one we all decided we would love to stay in. We ate upstairs at Buca di Bacco, a place we recalled visiting several times on our honeymoon; the food was delicious and beautifully presented – see below.
The Amalfi coast is notorious for its narrow roads, sharp bends, manic Italian drivers and absence of parking spaces plus numerous buses and coaches which one must assume will exercise right of way. So we opted to walk into Amalfi; although that also seems treacherous at first as there are no pavements! But so long as you keep to the coastal side of the road and walk in single file, no one regards it as unusual or foolhardy, and you are compensated by the breath-taking coastal views that greet you at every corner. Word of warning: be prepared for a lot of climbing of steep steps whilst you are on this coastline.
We debated visiting nearby Capri by boat and Pompeii or even Naples but decided instead to concentrate on Amalfi, Positano and Ravello – a stunning secluded spot 5k from our hotel. To reach it you have a vertiginous climb which requires endless stopping to allow traffic to pass you by. When you arrive you understand why Greta Garbo (always a heroine of mine) chose to be a recluse here. Ravello, high up in the mountains is another world away from the Amalfi coast; it is quietly sophisticated with elegant hotels formerly palazzos and small attractive boutiques and the Duomo should not be missed. The Villa Rufolo gardens also merit a visit and if you have time go to the Villa Cimbrone. I can recommend lunch at Cumpa Cosimo where you will be welcomed by the proprietor, an archetypal Italian Mama who lovingly prepares her excellent dishes.
The region’s symbol is the lemon and a speciality is the giant sized lemon which almost look unreal. Terrace upon terrace of these oversized lemons are etched into the mountains all shrouded in black protective veil-like netting. Oranges also abound producing the most delicious fresh juice. Shops ubiquitously sell lemon products predominantly the sweet Limoncello favoured by many. Ceramics are another popular attraction and brightly coloured varieties greet you on every street corner.
Visiting this area in May is ideal: in high summer tourists proliferate and the coastal road becomes a car park, with coaches to avoid on every bend. Whilst the weather in Spring is changeable, it is for the main part a perfect climate. We enjoyed temperatures in the high 20’s so be prepared to sunbathe and even swim though the sea is still on the cold side. Layers are a good idea as the nights can be chilly.
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