Finding the Authentic Amalfi Coast
"I want an authentic Italian experience." I hear this a lot. I have talked about it before. But what does that really mean?
Here in my Roman neighborhood, I can debate the merits of obscure coves on the island of Ponza with my butcher, I know what time of year to greet my Bangladeshi fruttavendolo with Eid Mbarak, Forgot my wallet at my local bar? No problem, they know I will come back and settle up.
These are authentic experiences indeed, but ones that can only be had because I live here. Because I interact with the same people every day. But what about the visitor who is in Italy for a week or two, trying to make the most of a short time? Maybe they are jet lagged or traveling with small children. Does this make the fourth generation restaurant owner in Amalfi who serves dinner at 6pm inauthentic? Can I fault the bar in Positano for selling bagels? No. They are responding to market forces. The businesses in the towns along the Amalfi Coast have a few short months in which to earn a years worth of income.
So back to the question. What is an authentic experience? What is your responsibility as the visitor to the authentic experience, particularly in a place that relies heavily on tourism? I have been mulling these questions over and have a few thoughts.
I spend a fair amount of time on the Amalfi Coast, but am hesitant to call myself an expert. Sure, I can tell you the best way to get there, where to park and a few of my favorite places to eat, but ultimately I am a visitor too, doing many of the same touristy things everyone else is doing. If the "authentic experience" is what you are seeking it is up to you as the visitor to do a little research. Maybe stay in one of the smaller villages on the coast. Find out about the place you are visiting. Not things like what the historic sites are or where to buy the cutest sandals, that's easy. But things like what are the daily rhythms of a place. (Hint, the Italians are not eating dinner at 6:00pm.) Stop by the local markets and see what is for sale. Those are things you should see on your restaurant menu (the Italians are drinking beer with their pizza, not Chianti). Ask the parking attendant, the pharmacist, the barista where their favorite beach is. It is the simple everyday interactions that will deepen your understanding and experience. And if you feel like a bagel for breakfast or boat tour to Capri, you know what, that's ok too. Relax. It's your vacation after all.
There are 13 towns of the Amalfi Coast. On my most recent trip I was shown many of the smaller places that people miss. Each one Authentic.
Conca dei Marini
Blink while you are driving the SS163 and you might miss this tiny little slice of a town. We had dinner at Ristorante Calajanara on a terrace set out over the sea overlooking the twinkling lights of Praiano and Positano. This town is home to the famous flaky pastry, sfogliatella, that was created in the 18th century by the cloistered Dominican nuns living in the nearby Santa Rosa monastery. Conca de Marini is also where you will find the dazzling Grotta dello Smeraldo (Emerald Grotto.)
I had never spent more than a few hours in Amalfi, usually on our way back to Rome. This trip I was able to spend the night. My stay began with a walking tour of the town. We visited the Cathedral and Cloister and learned about the long and varied history of this once powerful maritime republic. Our guide led us through alleys that felt more like arab souks than Italian cobblestone streets. I met the young daughters (begging for a sleepover at Nonna's) of my Amalfi hotel owner when we all ran into each other during the evening passeggiata along the lungomare.
If you love Capri, you will love Ravello. All polished and manicured and ridiculously beautiful.I knew a visit to the exquisite gardens of the Villa Ciambrone was on our agenda. Being greeted with prosecco cocktails and beautifully crafted snacks was an unexpected and very welcome surprise. We learned the long history behind the villa and the gardens, including the painstaking lengths to keep everything as the original owners had created it. This meant sourcing particular fabrics to be specially woven and commissioning artists from nearby Vietri to restore worn painted ceramic tiles. The villa is a step back in time to the era when foreign artists bewitched by the beauty of the coast made this place their home. The fabled Terrace of Infinity lives up to every superlative you have read about it.
I have long dismissed Maiori. I decided it was not for me after only driving through only a handful of times. I now have to say I was completely mistaking and the town completely charmed me. We didn't visit the longest beach on the Amalfi Coast but instead started with a leisurely morning stroll along the wide Corso Reginna to the Santa Maria a Mare church. We learned about viscous floods and sacred icons found in fishing nets. My favorite part was the visit to the museum underneath the church that hold relics of many saints. After spending a morning in this charming town I am now planning a visit for Feragosto (August 15) when the statue of Mary is decorated in a special dress and paraded through town and then raced up the steep steps back into the church and the towns festival dish of e' mulegnane c'a' ciucculata is prepared.
I love Cetara. We briefly visited here years ago on one of our very first trips to the Amalfi Coast. I have always wanted to have a meal at Acquapazza, but it had never worked out. My wish was more than granted this time. After navigating under the team decorating the town for a summer patron saint festival, we were ushered into a small tasting room with a cantilevered table and met with the thick tang of anchovies aging in wooden barrels. Flutes of crisp natural prosecco were poured and in rushed Gennaro who proceeded to lovingly and passionately explain the process of fishing for and conserving anchovies and producing colatura, a fermented anchovy sauce that is only made in Cetara. Genera then took us for a walk around his town stopping to greet just about every person we met along the way. Before we departed Gennaro made sure that we had a cold sweet lemon granita on the beach and that we climbed to the top of the towns Saracen tower.
Most visitors to the Amalfi Coast begin the journey in Naples, then taking a complicated trip of trains, buses and ferries to their destination. Starting in Salerno is much simpler. From the train station (just one stop from Naples on the fast Frecciarossa train) it is just 300 meters to the port where you can hop on a ferry to Amalfi, Maiori or Positano.
The town of Salerno itself is endearing. We wandered the quiet streets ducking into chic ceramic shops, historic hat stores, visited the cloister of the towns cathedral and spent a lovely early evening in the Villa Communale watching jacaranda petals fall, children on bikes and playing soccer and eavesdropping on mothers and Nonna's discussing dinner plans. Our Salerno dinner plans were quite extravagant. We dined on elegantly presented tiny roasted artichokes, gambero rosso, lemony risotto, and several courses or desert (including what might be the best sfogliatella I have ever had) at the Michelin starred Re Mauri.