The Amalfi Coast Road

Oh dear – the editor wants me to write about the Amalfi Coast. But tucked away on the Amalfi Coast is one of my favourite places on the planet. Do I really want to tell anyone else about it? Why don’t I just talk about the rest of this glorious coastline and see if I can deviously omit to mention it? ,

The 43 mile stretch of Amalfi Coast starts just beyond Sorrento and swoops and soars along Homer’s ‘wine dark’ Mediterranean through Positano and Amalfi to Salerno. I’ve never been seasick at sea but the Amalfi drive has frequently left me feeling queasier than a cross channel hovercraft. And wondering whether my last sight of this world will be of tumbling magenta bougainvillea, languid jasmin, dark olive groves, Saracen watchtowers and mules carrying baskets of lemons down to sparkling white villages.

Positano is the first stop. American novelist and former resident, John Steinbeck, said of this chic little pink and white town that hugs the limestone cliffs, “You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or slide.” There are a few too many fashion shops for my taste but if you totter down the stairs to the sea, it’s a good place from which to take a boat to the nearby Emerald Grotto.

Another 50 tortuous minutes along the road is Amalfi itself . A heartier, earthier town, this was once great sea-faring republic but a tidal wave destroyed it in 1343. These days Amalfi is a tourist hub but with a stunning cathedral and good walks like the short stroll along the coast to the lovely unspoilt beach village of Atrani. If you are feeling really ambitious and fit you could make the big hike up to my personal favourite…no come to think of it stay in Amalfi and treat yourself to a sfogliatelle, the local breakfast speciality of puff pastry and orange flavoured ricotta.

Oh all right, here goes, I suppose I have to say it: A long hike or a fifteen minute bus ride above Amalfi, “suspended between sea and sky”, as French novelist Andre Gide once said, is the little town of Ravello. Attend a concert in the gardens of the Villa Rufolo that inspired Wagner to write Parsifal. Stroll along the headland to the ‘terrace of infinity’ and the Villa Cimbrone where Greta Garbo met with her lover, conductor Leopold Stokowski. Eat at the Cumpa Cosimo trattoria where Jackie Kennedy was once a regular. And after a while a strange buoyancy will come over you – a sense of euphoria from being constantly surrounded by absolute beauty. Ravello holds a magic that few other places on earth possess but please don’t say I said so. And whatever you do, don’t tell anyone else.

An Italian "Inspector Morse"?

No, he doesn't listen to Wagner, nor does he drive a sleek maroon jaguar although I suspect he might like one. Sicily's Inspector Salvo Montalbano has, however, attained a similar cult status in his homeland and, increasingly throughout the world. Montalbano is the creation of Andrea Camilleri. His crime novels have been translated into many languages. In Italy the tv series based on the books has attained such popularity that Italians now travel on literary pilgrimages to the setting of the novels in much the way that Morse fans regularly make their way to the Oxford settings of Morse's world.

Inspector Montalbano lives in the fictional town of Vigata - in reality Punta Secca in the southern Sicilian province of Ragusa. Every morning he swims in the aqua waters of the Mediterranean that laps the beach in front of his house. When a case is tough to crack, Salvo takes a stroll along the golden sand beach. So, a pilgrimage to this lesser-known province of Sicily is not exactly a hardship.

Southern Sicily - Baroque and Chocolate

They make a strange sort of chocolate in Modica - not smooth and unctuous - the sugar granules are not smoothed out so it tends to trip the tongue up as opposed to rolling off it. But once you get used to that it's delicious - dark, dark and comes in orange, lemon and hot chilli flavours. On a sunny Sunday morning in early March, I'm sampling chocolate in a shop on Modica's main street.

Modica's main street was once a river. Two rivers met in the heart of the city - the town was called a little Venice. A great flood soon took the romance out of that notion and the good burghers of Modica decided to pave over the rivers in a massive engineering feat. So as I walk along the bustling Sunday morning-after church street, I'm walking over an enclosed river.

Modica, like the rest of the Noto Valley had already encountered natural disaster. The 1693 earthquake had destroyed most of the towns in the region. But it also resulted in their being rebuilt in the glorious romantic new Baroque style. Along with Ragusa and Noto, Modica is a wonderful little town in which to explore this extravagant, slightly delirious, building style.
Look out for the 'mascherone' or gargoyles that populate balconies and rooftops.

The countryside around these towns is surprising - drystone walls and kelly-green fields would have you believe for a moment that you have arrived in an Italian version of Yorkshire. Unlike many parts of Sicily, the beaches here are the real thing- long stretches of sand lapped by a turquoise blue sea. One almost science-fiction aspect of the landscape is the ubiquitous greenhouse. Or rather hundreds and hundreds of them. Agriculture is in sharp competition with tourism as an industry down here. For the time being agriculture, all the tomatoes, zucchini and oranges that grow here and head for our Northern European tables, has the upper hand.