My Italian memory starts with a train journey from Sorrento to Pompeii at the age of eight. It was a packed and rickety train, winding its agitated way from Sorrento, as hot as a Neoplitan pizza oven. A short, stout and rather ancient-looking Italian man decided to pinch my mother, Shelley, on her jean-clad posterior. He was about half her size, and unable to contain himself at the sight of this tall, American blonde, more Marilyn than Sofia, but clearly quite delectable. I still laugh when I think of the ecstatic look on the man’s face as Shelley started screaming at him, hurling insults in a Texan version of Italian.
In Sorrento, my parents and I were guests at the Imperial Hotel Tramontano for two whole sun-baked weeks. Shelley chose this hotel as her namesake, the poet Percy Bysshe, had also sojourned here. He was in good literary company, the hotel having been visited by Byron, Goethe, Keats, Ibsen, and as legend would have it, even Milton. To eight year-old me, it seemed the most romantic seat on earth, a place where Lucy Honeychurch of Room with a View would surely have honeymooned with her love, George Beebe. I longed to return.
Last week, my daughter Clarissa invited me for a piccolo Grand Tour of the Amalfi Coast, staying at the Santa Caterina Hotel in Amalfi. The Amalfi Coast is a picturesque, cliff-hanging landscape of whitewashed and pastel-coloured buildings,and azure blue water, where it’s sometimes difficult to see where the water ends and the horizon begins.
The drive from Naples airport to Amalfi may be one of the most beautiful in the world, but it’s also one of the most terrifying. If you suffer from vertigo, well just hang in there, as it’s worth every nail biting dizzying moment. Italians drive with serious swagger, never batting an eyelid at overtaking on cornice bends from which you could easily fly straight into the big blue. I was looking forward to getting to the hotel and on terra firma.
As I arrived at the Santa Caterina, I felt as if I had wandered straight into an E.M Forster novel or into a Slim Aarons photo shoot (see my post, The Beautiful People). It’s a citrine-infused experience, with the perfume, the taste and the colour of lemons permeating every moment of your journey throughout this grande dame of a hotel. With spectacular views from every window, terrace and alcove, it’s no wonder previous hotel guests include Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
This dish at the Santa Caterina restaurant, Al Mare, was so yummy I had to have it twice: fusilli con zucchine e fiori di zucca (homemade pasta with zucchini, parmeggiano and pumpkin blossom).
Amalfi ti Amo
On Tuesday, Clarissa and I took the hotel shuttle to the quaint town of Amalfi, a mere five minutes down more rollicking cornice roads.
Amalfi once reigned supreme as a trade superpower, exchanging timber and slaves for gold and spices from the East. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it became an obligatory stopover on the Grand Tour. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Amalfi is now a bustling town full of restaurants, bars and shops. It’s famous for all things lemony, the production of local handmade paper (bambagina), and John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, which was recently staged at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London.
I could wax lyrical about Amalfi lemons all day. They are used to produce the sweet, lemon-infused Limoncello, a traditional liqueur distilled from lemon peel (sfusato amalfitan).
An open-top bus ferried us from Amalfi to Ravello, perched 365 metres above sea level. This haunting, mythical and totally seductive town is a mecca for art and classical music lovers, having provided Wagner with the inspiration for Klingsor’s garden in Parsifal. The Villa Rufolo is the setting for the world famous annual Ravello chamber music concerts.
I’m a big fan of the late playwright, novelist and intellectual Gore Vidal, and I was excited to come and see his home town for 33 years. Vidal entertained a colourful bunch at Villa Rondinaia, with a roster of guests including Orson Wells, Humphrey Bogart, Truman Capote, Jackie Kennedy, Rudolph Nureyev and Tennessee Williams..
Here are some of my favourite Gore Vidal quotes:
“Write something, even if it’s a suicide note.”
“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”
About Villa Rondinaia: “It is a wonderful place from which to observe the end of the world.”
The Immortal Guests
Perched next door to Villa Rondinaia is Villa Cimbrone, a medieval palazzo now turned into a hotel, and with gardens designed by its previous owner, Lord Grimthorpe, who took over the villa in 1904. It’s an Englishman’s folly, featuring an extraordinary collection of wisteria, rose gardens, fountains, statues, temples and pavilions.
We strolled down a grand pathway towards the Temple of Ceres, and landed on of the most beautiful, breathtaking panoramic views imaginable: the Terrace of Infinity. Gore Vidal referred to this as “the most beautiful view in the world.”
Clarissa and I needed some refreshment, so we meandered into the Villa Cimbrone terrace bar. A headless mystery guest joined us for our coffee, and we stepped back in time, wondering if some of the ghosts of Villa Cimbrone were sitting with us: Winston Churchill, E.M Forster, Diana Moseley and T.S Eliot. Villa Cimbrone was also the rendez-vous of choice for the Bloomsbury Set, and it also inspired D.H Lawrence to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
We both agreed that George Beebe and Lucy Honeychurch would have approved of the Villa Cimbrone,. It’s the perfect setting for a wedding, a honeymoon, for some Parsifal or for Kiri Te Kanawa to reverberate Chi il Bel Sogno Di Doretta across the horizon.
I sealed this infinite view in my mind’s eye, concluding that the Amalfi is the coast with the most.
“I have a theory that there is something in the Italian landscape which inclines even the most stolid nature to romance.” E.M Forster