Italians, we all know, are masters of art, food and supercars. But they are also some of the foremost exponents of non-verbal communication. An Italian can have a whole conversation without opening his mouth.
So it is with Roberto Esposito, when I ask him (again): Do you live in the most beautiful place in the world?
As his shoulders rise into a half-shrug, his mouth turns down slightly at the corners while his eyebrows climb in disbelief… all |simultaneously.
It’s an expression that says it all: It’s not for me to say; how can you even ask a question like that; and, finally – please, just look around you. And I do look around me – at the simple red and white tablecloth on the table of the seashore restaurant; at the navigation lights of the boats bobbing in the little harbour and out to sea; at the jagged cliffs that plunge straight down into the water; and at the chilled glass of limoncello in my hand.
Sorry, Roberto. It’s a stupid question.
Here, on the Amalfi coast of southern Italy, floating in limbo between heaven and the not-so-deep Mediterranean Sea, perched on the edge of the dramatic Lattari Mountains, I face the reality: if there is a more beautiful place on earth, |I have yet to see it.
It is easy to believe the legend that Hercules chose this, the most enchanting spot on earth, as the place to bury his beloved, the nymph Amalphi.
When you add the summer sunshine, the friendly people, the history (which goes back more than 1 200 years) and, most of all, the food and wine, then you have la dolce vita (the good life).
It’s no wonder people from all over Europe, and the world, come here to chill and experience good old-fashioned romance or that many return again and again.
The Amalfi coast stretches 40km from the Sorrento Peninsular (not far from Naples) almost as far as the port of Salerno. The town of Amalfi – the original site of the maritime kingdom of Amalfi – is in the middle. At the northern end is the picturesque town of Positano, which some regard as the most vertical town in the world because hundreds of houses, restaurants and hotels are built into and on the mountainside and getting around is down to your legs, because no vehicles (other than small electric-powered cargo movers) can get into the steep, twisty, narrow streets.
Don’t be misled by a map. What’s marked as Via (road) can often turn out to be endless flights of steps.
Positano is a former fishing village (catches are still landed there, but it is mainly a tourist harbour these days) that has a wide – for this part of the coast – main beach, fringed with shops and restaurants.
It’s where you’ll find Roberto and his wife, Maddie, and brother, Stefano, running the family business, Cassiopea-Positano Cruises.
Roberto offers options such as trips along the coast, sunset cruises and day outings to Capri island.
Book a romantic sunset cruise for two (for just e150, or R1 500) and you’ll be taken out just before the sun goes down. You’ll swim in the limpid azure waters, then toast each other with Prosecco (Italian bubbly) as darkness envelopes your surroundings.
It’s a must if you’re embarking on a first (or second) honeymoon. If you like, Roberto will arrange supper in a fishing village along the coastline.
With a Master’s degree in geology, Roberto returned home about 10 years ago to set up the business and follow in the wake of his father, who ran a similar enterprise when Roberto was small.
As we cruise slowly along the coast, Roberto points out proudly that this part of the shore and adjacent interior have been declared a world heritage site by Unesco and that there are strict restrictions on building, to preserve the beauty and character of the area.
We drift across to three chunks of rock known as the Li Galli islands – Three Sirens – and look at the island once owned by ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, where promising young dancers were nurtured and trained in a studio for years, in beautiful isolation.
Later, we pull into coves in the eroded rock at the water’s edge to experience the wondrous changing colours of the sea – a range from indigo through to turquoise – accentuated by the sharp red of the corals growing on the rocks just at the waterline. It is enchanting.
You’ll find yourself using such words and superlatives frequently when you’re travelling on the Amalfi coast. (And with these vistas truly deserving the accolade “unbelievable”, you’ll be very careful how you use that word in the future.)
Roberto’s business associate is a South African, former ad agency boss Dawn Klatzko, who runs a company specialising in tours to Positano and the Amalfi coast. She says the area is a prime destination for honeymooners. She has also arranged weddings there. Again there is no question that this place has to be at or near the the list of the world’s most romantic destinations.
In all the towns and villages along the coast, you’ll find little restaurants with views that could only come from a postcard. And the food is superb.
Despite the number of tourists, there is still a refreshingly unspoilt atmosphere – as we discover one night when we join the locals at the Fish Festival in Praiano.
Various restaurants in the town offer their specialities to visitors, who can chose from a host of fish dishes, served in disposable containers. I tried the mixed grilled fish (you don’t see such variety even at top fish shops at home), then pasta and squid. All excellent, and the mainly locals tucking in indicate this is no tourist trap.
Last stop on the festival “route” is a walk up the cliffside path to the nightclub Africana, one of the most dramatic disco settings I’ve seen, a cavern carved out of the limestone, decorated in a mix of Italian and Moorish styles and bathed in blue and white light.
The next day we hop on a bus (the only way to get around – don’t bother hiring a car) to Ravello, which American author Gore Vidal once described as the most beautiful place on earth.
The town is in the hills high above Amalfi, the biggest settlement in the region. Because of its height, it is slightly cooler – and utterly charming.
At the Villa Rufalo, you can feel the blend of different cultures – from Arab to Victorian – that have influenced its size and shape but have not changed the dramatic view from the terraces.
Further along the coast, after a ferry ride to Salerno and a short taxi trip (you can also do it by bus), Dawn reveals one of her favourite places, the little town of Cetara.
The main reason for the visit is to drop in to Acqua Pazza, a fish restaurant near the beach that she reckons offers some of the best cuisine.
The owner, Gennaro, takes time to show us the pride he and his staff take in their cooking, especially in preparing colatura di alici di Cetara (salted anchovy sauce from Cetara).
From Positano, Praiano or any of the towns, you can take a host of trips, depending on whether you want culture and history or dramatic landscapes.
The area is not so far from Mount Vesuvius, which still grumbles volcanically every now and then, and you can visit the ruins of Pompeii.
But, after a day exploring, as the sun sinks into the sea, and finding one of those restaurants, take your first sip of wine as you break the |focaccia bread and breathe slowly – in and out.
Absorb the perfection of the place and the moment. Life is good.