One of the best things about living in central-southern Italy is that you’re never more than about three hours in any direction from some of the most awe-inspiring and diverse natural scenery on earth.
Finding ourselves with an extra day’s holiday at the beginning of March, we decided to celebrate the end of winter by driving down to the Amalfi coast for a long weekend.
This particular trip also had one key challenge: we had to find somewhere to stay with a dog who needed to accompany us everywhere and doesn’t like crowds. Not the easiest ask for one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, even in the off season.
Luna the dog likes holidays as much as the next person. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Luckily for us, after some brief online research, we found Pontone.
Pontone as seen from the neighbouring town of Ravello. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Pontone is a small village located halfway up a hill above Amalfi. With one tiny piazza playing host to a solitary bar, it’s easy to imagine that the village is peaceful even in the height of summer, but in March it felt close to deserted.
Pontone’s church on the main piazza. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Occasional groups of children played with a ball and pensioners congregated by the olive trees in the main piazza, but most of the time we had the place almost entirely to ourselves.
Pontone’s piazza with a terrace overlooking the valley below. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Despite what the local online tourism guides say, Pontone’s village centre doesn’t have a view over Amalfi itself, but it does overlook a lush green valley that leads directly down to the town via 750 stone steps hewn into the mountainside.
The view over Amalfi from halfway down the steps from Pontone. Elaine Allaby/The Local
If you can’t use the steps, Amalfi is just a few minutes’ car ride by road, and you can catch the occasional public bus.
But if you are able to use them, it’s worth making the trek at least once. The steps weave between residents’ homes, under archways and overhanging cliffs, past lemon groves and drying laundry.
Laundry hung out to dry on the steps from Pontone to Amalfi. Elaine Allaby/The Local
You’re also likely to encounter at least one donkey, as livestock are still used to cart goods up and down the hillside.
An archway over part of the walkway from Pontone to Amalfi. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Before you’re even aware it’s happened, the hill has merged with the town and you’re in Amalfi itself.
An view over houses in Amalfi from the walkway from Pontone. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Amalfi’s strategic position on the coastline and its role as a key trading partner with Egypt and Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul) made the city one of the most powerful commercial hubs on the Italian peninsula in late antiquity.
In 839 Amalfi liberated itself from the control of the Duchy of Napes and become one of Italy’s four main maritime republics, along with Venice, Genoa, and Pisa, until it was captured by the Normans in 1131.
In recognition of its dominance over the area, Amalfi is the only town along the coast to boast a cathedral. The Duomo di Sant’Andrea was built between the 9th and 13th centuries, and claims to house the relics of Saint Andrew himself.
Entrance to the cathedral itself is free, and you can explore its cloisters and crypt for a fee of €3.
A Limoncello shop at the foot of the steps leading to Duomo Sant’Andrea. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Churches are one of the few places in Italy that you can’t enter with a dog, so we admired the duomo’s reconstructed Arab-Sicilian façade from the bottom of the steps leading up to the entrance, browsed the displays outside the many shops selling products made from the coast’s famed giant lemons, and strolled along the rocky pier that extends out from the shore.
Looking back at Amalfi from the pier. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Amalfi is usually photographed under the dazzling glare of an August sun, but the town is no less beautiful blanketed in soft cloud, the filtered grey light turning the sea a steely blue.
Amalfi from the beach. Elaine Allaby/The Local
At the time of our visit both of Pontone’s two restaurants were closed, so on our first evening we made a short trip down to nearby Atrani. The staff at the small family-run Ristorante Savò off the main piazza were more than happy to accommodate both us and the dog.
We had some of the freshest seafood we’d ever tasted, and when we protested that we were too full for dessert our hosts insisted on plying us with on-the-house homemade lemon biscuits, sugared almonds, and limoncello.
Restaurants and bars of the central piazza in Amalfi. Elaine Allaby/The Local
The next morning we made a trip to the hilltop town of Ravello, just around a bend in the road from Pontone.
Visiting the Amalfi coast during the off season has the same pros and cons as visiting any famous place during the off season. One downside is that many business and restaurants have closed up shop for the period. The plus side is that most museums and sites of interest are open, and almost no one else is around.
This makes March an ideal time to visit Ravello, as the town is overrun with visitors during the summer months.
The main piazza and church in Ravello. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Ravello has a long-established popularity among northern Europeans, especially Brits, down in part to its mountainside location which exposes the town to a gentle breeze that tempers the worst of the Mediterranean summer heat.
Over the years it has been a favourite haunt of EM Forster, DH Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf, as well as the Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Lawrence is believed to have written Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Ravello, while Forster wrote his novella Story of a Panic while staying in one of the town’s villas.
The entrance to Villa Rufolo in Ravello. Elaine Allaby/The Local
But Brits haven’t just visited Ravello: they’ve also exerted a heavy influence over it.
In the mid-1800s the Scottish botanist and nobleman Francis Neville Reid bought Ravello’s Villa Rufolo, a crumbling Arab/Norman castle dating back to the early middle ages, restored the structure, and landscaped its gardens.
Inside Villa Rufolo. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Reid’s legacy lives on in the gardens today, which have a distinctly British orderly layout and are filled with traditionally English flowers such as pansies, irises, and wild daisies, as well as the more Mediterranean palms and lemon trees.
Palms inside Villa Rufolo. Elaine Allaby/The Local
The villa costs €7 to enter, and free entry is permitted to all dogs not deemed “large” by the ticket office operator, provided you keep them on a leash (our probable pitbull/lab mix was waved through).
The entry fee allows you to climb a medieval watchtower and explore an elevated courtyard in the Spanish and North African Moorish style of Islamic architecture, reminiscent of the famed Alhambra palace in Granada.
A tree in the central courtyard of Villa Rufolo. Elaine Allaby/The Local
But most importantly, it gives you access to the villa’s garden terrace, which looks out on a sweeping vista stretching from the Lattari mountains in the east to the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west.
“LA PIÙ BELLA PANORAMA DEL MONDO!” – “The most beautiful panorama in the world!” – one Italian visitor boomed to his friends as they approached our spot on the terrace, and we’d have been hard pressed to disagree with him.
The terrace gardens at Villa Rufolo. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Our companion wasn’t the first visitor to have been enraptured by the gardens.
Upon viewing the landscape on a visit in 1880, Richard Wagner was reportedly inspired to compose the second act of his opera Parsifal, a project he’d been stuck on for the previous two decades.
Wagner’s rumoured epiphany in turn inspired the foundation in 1953 of the Ravello Music Festival, a now world-famous orchestral celebration that takes place annually between June and September, when the town is filled with tourists and music lovers. In March, however, we had the gardens almost completely to ourselves.
The view from the Villa Rufolo gardens. Elaine Allaby/The Local
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From Rufolo we headed to the other must-see site in Ravello: Villa Cimbrone, another property taken over by a British aristocrat.
The entrance to Villa Cimbrone in Ravello. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Much like Villa Rufolo, Cimbrone was initially built in the 11th century, but its current incarnation, which incorporates an Arab cloister, a gothic Victorian tower, temples, pergolas, and Greco-Roman statues and busts, is the result of major renovations made by the wealthy Lord Grimthorpe who bought the villa in the early 1900’s.
The view through the wooden doors at the entrance of Villa Cimbrone. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Villa Cimbrone is now a luxury hotel, but visitors can wander the gardens for the same entry fee as Villa Rufolo, and dogs are also allowed in.
An Arab cloister at the entrance to Villa Cimbrone. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Walkways lined with trees and amphorae that seem to stretch on forever lead eventually to sweeping gardens and terraces.
A walkway in Villa Cimbrone in Ravello. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Its most famous feature is the “infinity terrace” that looks out over the ocean, so named because on a sunny day the blue sea below is said to be indistinguishable from the sky above.
The writer Gore Vidal, who lived in Ravello for 30 years, wrote in 1976 that the view from the balcony on a bright winter’s day was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen in all his travels.
The infinity terrace at Villa Cimbrone. Elaine Allaby/The Local
On a tier below the infinity terrace is a sprawling lawn which in summer serves afternoon tea, and which has views over Pontone and the neighbouring hill towns.
A terraced lawn in Villa Cimbrone with views out over Pontone. Elaine Allaby/The Local
After spending several hours wandering around Ravello, we judged that we could fit in one more stop before an early dinner.
We decided to visit the Capo di Conca, a watchtower perched on the tip of a promontory jutting out from the tiny fishing village of Conca dei Marini.
The gate at the entrance to the path was shut when we arrived, but it gave way when we pushed against it, and once again we found ourselves completely alone at a tourist site in one of the most visited spots on earth.
The Capo di Conca. Elaine Allaby/The Local
Following the sloping path down a hill and back up towards the fort brought us to a viewpoint looking out over the moss green hills and azure blue ocean of the coastline, including Conca dei Marini’s Emerald Grotto.
We ran out of time to visit the grotto itself, a hidden sea cave discovered by chance by a fisherman in 1932 that glows green with the reflected light that filters through its small openings, but the cave can be reached by boat, stairs, or lift at fixed times, and costs €5 to enter.
We were more than content to stay at the capo and to soak in the views of the coastline and the sun until it started to go down.
A view of the coastline from the fortress at Capo dei Marini, Elaine Allaby/The Local
Finally, we were ready for dinner.
The Amalfi coast is rightly famed for its seafood, but if you have the time, it’s worth going slightly inland and paying a visit to the commune of Tramonti for some pizza.
Tramonti is said to have been the birthplace of fior di latte mozzarella, and the town is famous for its characteristic pizza dough.
The town itself isn’t much to look at, but the pizza at Pizzeria Vaccaro, whose owners opened especially for us at 5.30pm (truly, a travesty for Italians), was deserving of the trip.
Four cheese pizza at Pizzeria Vaccaro in Tramonti. Elaine Allaby/The Local
The next morning we left with our bellies full and our curiosity satisfied.
The Amalfi coast may be one of the most visited tourist destinations on earth, but if you visit in March, you’ll feel like you’re the first person in the world to have discovered it.
The view of the path leading down to Capo di Conca. Elaine Allaby/The Local