Unassuming Amalfi

There was a very specific reason for choosing Amalfi to spend these two nights in the region. And it had not been an easy choice; my heart kept hearing the siren’s call of picture-perfect Positano. I had dreamt of sitting high above the endless sea, on a bougainvillea-shaded terrace with a magnificent view, sipping overpriced white wine and watching the well-heeled beautiful people walk by… and all that said Positano to me.

But the decision to go back to the Amalfi Coast was driven by one thing: hiking the Sentiero degli dei (Path of the Gods). A path that runs along the coastal clifftop from the town of Agerola high above Praiano to Nocelle in the outskirts of Positano.

From what I read, it is a fairly easy hike (8km ~3hours) as long as you keep to the path and walk in the downward direction. I had seen the pictures and at every bend of the path there are magnificent views of the coast and towns below.

And the best way to get to Agerola was on a bus from Amalfi.

Still, choosing Amalfi felt like when I almost bought a super sexy Acura ZDX but instead drove out of the dealer with a Honda CRV. It was the smart choice and I love my car, but it entirely lacks the excitement factor. I have been cursed with an unhealthy dose of common sense.

So I had it all planned: stay in Amalfi, catch the early bus to Agerola, spend the morning walking the path to Nocelle and taking a gazillion pictures, have lunch at Ristorante Santa Croce or La Tagliatta, take the bus to Positano, spend the afternoon wandering down through town, and take the ferry back to Amalfi in time for dinner.

It was the perfect plan. A thing of beauty.

But two things interfered with it: first, C was feeling his hips (and all muscles) from the previous day’s UNPLANNED and UNNECESSARY hike with luggage from the Positano ferry dock to the Sita bus stop on top of the town.

He might have sucked it up and done the hike just to please me (he is a good husband like that). However, there was no denying Reason #2: The weather was not great. He might have been praying for that the entire night.

The wind was still blowing, it was not very warm (which would have been ok for hiking), and the sky was that indeterminate shade of whitish gray that could go either towards monsoon or simply disappear as the day heated up.

We went up to the B&B’s terrace for breakfast and just one look up confirmed the fact that this was not going to happen today; the hilltop was completely enshrouded in fog.

On one hand, I was pretty sure that it would clear up around noon, but on the other was C’s complete lack of enthusiasm for this hike on this particular day. And we still had a LOT of trip to go which would require a LOT of driving on his part. I was going to have to let this go too.

Foiled again. The two main drivers for this leg of the trip: visiting the Blue Grotto in Capri and hiking the Path of the Gods. Neither happened.

So we lingered over breakfast and went wandering around town. There is also a hiking path, starting behind the town through the Valle dei Mulini (Valley of the Mills), but we didn’t make it very far, just until we reached the Museo della Carta because there was a little misty rain.

I did not expect Amalfi to that good for wanderings…

Next up on Plan B was a visit to Atrani. After a few failed attempts at finding the ‘pedestrian’ path to the next town, we eventually realized that it referred to the tunnel blasted for the multistory parking behind the Piazza dei Municipio (Town Hall).

I think that Atrani might be even slightly prettier than its much more famous neighbor. But once you step aside from the main street, it is a maze of staircases and courtyards. I wanted to make it into the upper town but, even with our very good sense of direction, we failed miserably.

We actually walked past one of the restaurants I had triple highlighted during my research, A. Paranza. The menu looked amazing, but it was early and I was stuffed from breakfast. Up and down, trying to find a way to the big church, just to find ourselves down to little Umberto I piazza by the sea.

C was on the verge of getting cranky with all those staircases, so it was time for damage control. Plunk down at the first bar out of the wind and on the ‘sunny side’ and get something to drink. Yeah… 2 Aperol Spritzes at not even noon… day drinking is not really day drinking when you are on vacation, right?

As we seat there the waitress brings out a plate of lasagna to the table next to us. I will admit that it smelled good. C was instantly drooling. ‘I have been hankering for a lasagna since even before we came to Italy…’ he said forlornly. Really? Could have cooked you one, dude!

Okay. ‘Well, have one’, I said (remember, this is the man that did not want to go to northern Italy). But it turned out to be a vegetable lasagna (still, smelled really good) and that was not what he wanted. He picked up the menu and scrutinized it for the next five minutes.

‘Could you add some meat sauce to the vegetable lasagna?’ He asked the waitress. She looked absolutely horrified but just said she would inquire in the kitchen. Keeping a straight face tested the limits of her professionalism, but she managed. I did not do as well as she did.

So he got his lasagna. The one and only of this trip. It was swimming in a Bolognese sauce and then he drenched it with parmesan cheese to soak it up. It was a mushy, gooey mess and he loved it. Can’t believe I didn’t take a picture of it.

Lesson #1, ask for what you want. They want your money and most likely are willing to accommodate. There is no need to impress them.

Lesson #2, If you want regional food from the north of Italy, go to northern Italy.

I was still not really hungry (I did have a few bites of the gooey lasagna) but when we decided to go back to Amalfi, it was time to satisfy MY craving for the bowls of seafood I had seen the day before. We stopped at Trattoria di San Giuseppe, in a small courtyard right before our hotel.

OMG. That mixed seafood on broth was just as delicious as I had thought! Mussels (cozze), clams (vongole) and a few other tidbits including a few razor clams. This was served with bread grilled on fire and drizzled with olive oil. We dipped every last crumb until we wiped that plate clean. It was heaven on a plate.

I must mentioned that nowhere in Italy did waiters ‘balk’ or give us ‘stern and dissapproving’ looks when we placed small orders. For lunch we often shared an appetizer or primi. Of course we got charged for two coperto, but that is only to be expected.

For dinners we often shared the first course as well and then each had our own secondo. The kitchen would even split the first course and serve it already portioned.

After the much needed restorative naps (all that lounging around and eating was accompanied by drinking) we were ready for another walk through town.

We made our way up to the beautiful cathedral, with its relics of Saint Andrew.

The real treat is the Romanesque façade, the inside is a more modern, and somewhat disappointing and generic baroque. On the other hand, the Cloister of Paradise is a gem of medieval cross-cultural influences.

The Basilica del Croscifisso is the oldest part of the cathredaline complex, dating from the 6th century. It was later ‘absorbed’ into the current cathedral. It is quite interesting to see how the builidngs were integrated.

I was entirely unprepared for the lavish display of Late-Mannerist frescoes and stonework. Wow! This is where the tomb of Saint Andrew the Apostle is, and it is the heart of the cathedral. Not my personal favorite style, but certainly worth the small admission price on its own.

 

In the afternoon we had made reservations at L’Abside in the early afternoon to make sure we got a table on the small inside. This was a good choice, though it had looked at the time like the weather was going to be nice enough to eat outside. It was not! As the evening progressed the inside was full, even with diners moving in mid-meal when the availability came up, and everyone on the outside was bundled up and cozying up to the heaters.

Any meal that starts with complementary Prosecco has a definite advantage. Menus seem to be much more interesting while sipping bubbly. And the house white wine (open) was so good that we never switched to a ‘nicer’ wine as we had planned.

For primi we had very similar plates, a zuppetta di cozze (mussles in broth) and a sauté frutti di mare as our shellfish craving had not yet been satisfied (took a few weeks, if ever). Both were outstandingly fresh and flavorful. The one I had for lunch might have even been a little bit better, probably because of the bread.

For secondo, C struggled a bit. He wanted the risotto with shrimp but he dislikes having to deal with unpeeled crustaceans, so he passed. His choice was Paccheri dell’ Orto, the local short pasta in a light vegetable sauce. The taste was excellent but once again, he did not enjoy the doneness point of his pasta. I do like my pasta al dente, and I still agreed, this pasta was hard. Even snapped a little when bitten.

Maybe we are being country bumpkins over this, but we were served a lot of dishes throughout the region in which the pasta was too hard. We even began specifying ‘bien cotta’ (well cooked). Now that got a few raised eyebrows. Not that we cared.

We first encountered this trend in Rome. We do not remember having pasta that stiff during our previous trips or in the north. The further south we went of the Amalfi coast, the pasta was cooked longer and closer to my understanding of what ‘al dente’ should be.

I do not know if this hard pasta is truly the preference of regular Italians because when we went into less glamorous eateries (truck stops, roadside restaurants, country grills, mom and pop trattorias) the pasta was cooked much longer.

This ‘raw pasta’ did become an issue for C as the weeks went by to the point where he stopped ordering pasta dishes altogether.

But back to the secondi at L’abside, I had the Risottto Sfusato Gamba al Limone, lemon infused risotto with shrimp. It was heavenly and one of the best rice dishes of the trip. The smell! They should patent it; Ocean and Lemon, the distilled essence of the Amalfi coast.

We should have asked because the shrimp were peeled; C would have enjoyed it very much. I even let him finish it when I got full instead of pigging out.

Coffee and complementary limoncello at the end rounded up perfectly the meal. The tab was €79 for a great meal, aside from the pasta doneness; but that is personal preference.

Amalfi gets more and more interesting as the tourists start to leave. It has a very special kind of quaintness to it. Yes, it is full of kitsch: one souvenir stop after the other. Junk galore, enough to fill out the landfills where all those corkscrews, keychains, and magnets will soon wind up.

But the town is also the real thing, people live here. The Republic of Amalfi was a serious maritime power in the 10th-11th century Mediterranean. Their wealth was driven by their trading fleet and then by the manufacturing of paper. Their fortunes may have changed but the Amalfitans will never forget the time they were a force to be reckoned with and they carry themselves with the same gravitas as the Venetians.

Nothing about Amalfi says ‘love me because I’m pretty’. Amalfi IS. Like an old courtesan; she knows that her primetime is past, but she also knows she has been blessed with timeless beauty… and a trick or two that will keep her man coming back for more time and time again.

They do not assume. They know they still have it.

After that we were done with Amalfi. It had not gone to plan, but it still worked out beautifully. The joys of travel.

Notes from Day 7: Thursday, May 4th

 


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