As the bells in several churches chime 11, Boris the mongrel slinks out to the piazza, high above the Amalfi coast. He is an ugly and wretched old mutt but in the midst of Ravello's astonishing beauty, he seems to be trying to pass unnoticed. The local taxi driver who occasionally feeds him shrugs: "The same thing will happen to you and me one day, signora." In the meantime, he suggests that if I am truly worried, I could invest in a can of dog food. I had planned to attempt some "proper" tourism and visit the Duomo, one of Ravello's three or four historic sights, but I turn my back on its plain white facade and on the two honey-scented lime trees that guard its entrance, and spend the morning trying to buy dog food from the grocer without him knowing just who it is for.
"Ravello is situated in the most beautiful of all Mediterranean settings - a fact that is not at first apparent." So says its long- time resident Gore Vidal. In fact, he says it again and again on each menu of the cafe San Domingo, where I am writing this. And he is right. The sublime beauty of the place is not immediately obvious. The piazza is quite plain on three sides, then, with typical Ravello drama, it drops off on the fourth to reveal terraced green mountains, clustered clifftop villages, umbrella pines and the blue haze of the sea.
I have come to Ravello for the Wagner week of its music festival. Wagner came here while he was writing Parsifal and each year the town pays him tribute by presenting one of his works. The performances take place in the open air in the gardens of the Villa Rufolo, on a platform suspended high above the Mediterranean. While Boris devours his dog food, Brunnhilde and Wotan wander across the square. In the heat and silence of the Italian afternoon, they are off for a costume fitting. Before he goes off in search of his eye patch and spear, Wotan pauses to recommend the penne alla contadina - pasta with aubergines, roasted peppers, and courgettes - at La Colonna trattoria. This is not a festival for the Wagnerian perfectionist. It is to be enjoyed for the combination of potentially glorious music, magnificent setting and excellent Mediterranean cuisine. Over the centuries, Bocaccio, Verdi, Andre Gide, DH Lawrence and Graham Greene have all crossed this small square. Greta Garbo came up here in the throes of an affair with Leopold Stokowski. Jackie Kennedy came alone. Ravello paid them little attention - the town has its own concerns.
On 27 July the town celebrates the feast of its patron saint, San Pantaleone. Brunnhilde is soon followed across the square by two gorgeous young Italian men carrying a large portrait of the Madonna off down an alleyway. "Anywhere else and they'd be picking up girls on their Vespas," I murmur. But for the rest of the afternoon the beautiful young men string fairy lights across every rooftop in town. For her feast day, Ravello will sit at the top of her mountain, sparkling like a cruise liner in the sky. It is the only time the town ever works at its looks. But the beauty is never twee. If the view of the silent blue sea from the terrace of my hotel seems too sublime, the tiles on the balcony are worn and a little cracked; the waiter is a little shabby but benign. If the geraniums in the pots seem too uniform, then a morning glory will weave its wild way around their base. A couple of fine lawns in the garden are reserved for guests but they must share the paths with wheelbarrows full of courgettes and aubergines and knee-high basil destined for the kitchens. This is the busiest week of the year but the high season in Ravello looks like out of season elsewhere. I set out on the circuit recommended by Gore Vidal, along a pathway of bougainvillaea and honeysuckle. There is not a soul in sight. Only a mynah bird cries "Ciao!" out on the terrace of the Villa Amore, and a cook in the kitchen sings in a fine baritone. But, on the evening of the festival, the piazza fills up with people from as far away as Naples and Rome. The evenings get chilly on the hillside and some of them do not stay the course for Tony Palmer's fine production of Die Walkure. It doesn't matter. Their seats are taken by the taxi driver and Netta, the padrona of the excellent Cumpa Cosimo trattoria, and her team of waitresses. As they sit and listen attentively to Wotan's great farewell, I feel a heat around my cold legs: warm, mongrel breath. Poor old, ugly Boris has found his way into Wagner's enchanted world and snuggles down for a snooze as the orchestra plays its last notes.