Name dropping in Italy
RAVELLO is a town of name-droppers. The bigger the names and the louder they're dropped the better. It's practically a civic duty. In the Viale Richard Wagner (clang!) aside from the street sign itself, there are two plaques. One commemorates a film that was shot here in 1953, John Huston (ding!), Humphrey Bogart (dong!), Gina Lollobrigida (plink!), Peter Lorre (plonk!), Truman Capote (tinkle!) and Robert Capa (crash!) woz all here. Joining in, on the opposite side of the street, another plaque confirms the Dutch optical illusion artist MC Escher (boing!) woz also here. Celebrity validates Ravello.
The stars of the 20th century rained down on this small town clinging to a ridge overlooking the Gulf of Salerno. The shower was particularly dense in the 1950s and 1960s, giving Ravello, and the whole of the Amalfi Coast, an afterglow of glamour that lingers on. They came for the weather; they came for the lifestyle and, above all, they came for the expansive (and, indeed, expensive) views.
The views are promiscuous - shameless, demanding attention, teasing and seducing. You would be hard pressed to find a square inch of Ravello's seaward flank that does not command the eyes to luxuriate and the poetic heart to soar. The super-luxe Hotel Caruso occupies one of the most breathtaking positions. The infinity pool at the apex of the ridge gives the delirious sensation of flight, inviting swimmers to follow the swallows that swoop and skim the surface of the water over the edge into the void between tumbling mountains, sea and sky. This is a pool for gods - gods with deep pockets admittedly, but if it's a taste of omnipotence you're after, this is a good investment.
Lunch at the poolside is a caress of the senses. Fresh buffalo mozzarella sourced from Paestum across the gulf, pezzogna (sea bream) from the ocean below, and crisp white wine from the vineyards across the valley. Does life get any better? It does.
The maitre d' cannot contain his excitement. They have a famous Englishman here today, a footballer he thinks, and nods to a figure jabbing urgently at his iPhone on the other side of the pool. I look across and see Gary Lineker (kerrang!). I struggle to explain to the maitre d' that Mr Lineker is so much more than a mere footballer - he is an icon of blokey sporting punditry; he is the purveyor of crisps to a grateful public. I try, and fail, to translate the concept of National Treasure. Nevertheless, the rest of lunch, now bathed in the glow of celebrity, takes on a heightened smugness.
Lineker is following in well-trodden British footsteps. You could argue the Ravello of today is, in part, created by Brits. The gardens of the Villa Rufolo and the Villa Cimbrone are credited respectively to Sir Francis Neville Reid, a Scottish aristocrat, and Ernest Beckett (later Lord Grimthorpe). In both cases, the romantic ruined properties of ancient noble families were rescued from neglect and reinvented.
Villa Rufolo's gardens are famously said to have inspired Wagner while writing Parsifal and it is one of the venues to host the Ravello Festival. I arrive a few days too late for this year's events, but misty-eyed locals recall the Dawn Concert that began at 5am on 11 August in the open-air auditorium.
The temporary stage is still set up, hovering seemingly on thin air over a sheer drop into the wide blue yonder; even without the music, the site induces goose bumps. You don't need much imagination to conjure the emotional impact of Mozart, Mahler and Schubert offered up as night gives way to the dawn breaking directly behind the stage - the mountain tops catching fire and the sea beginning to shimmer. It must be magical.
Villa Cimbrone on the western spur of the town is even more impossibly romantic. The architecture can be described as eclectic if you want to be kind, or a jumble of nonsense if you don't. It is the gardens though that demand respect. Designed with input from Vita Sackville-West and influenced by Gertrude Jekyll, this is a playground for faeries and poets.
The Bloomsbury Set frolicked here. The long and stately "Avenue of Immensity" leads, with metaphysical inevitability, to the "Terrace of Infinity". The view here is, if anything, bigger and more panoramic than any other. Lovers and newlyweds line up on the balcony projecting from the cliff face to be photographed. Unbeknown to most, they are standing above La Rondinaia, the Swallow's Nest, the former home of Gore Vidal. Here he played host to Rudolf Nureyev, Tennessee Williams, the Jaggers, Lauren Bacall, Princess Margaret and Paul Newman, among others. There - why fight the impulse? Name-dropping is contagious.
There is a simpler, less glittery side to Ravello - which requires only a pair of decent trainers and sturdy knees. The mountains are cross-hatched with stepped trails that were, for many centuries, the only means of access between the mountain villages and the fishing ports on the coast. From the terraces of the Hotel Caruso, the Monastero di San Nicola is clearly visible, standing proud on top of the hill across the Minori valley. Getting there involves turning your back on tourist Ravello and heading uphill through the sections of the town that the residents have reserved for themselves - the houses are less manicured; there are quotidian grocery shops and humble little churches.
It takes about half an hour to reach Sambuco at the top of the valley. Though picturesque enough from a distance, it has the purposeful feel of a working community - the steep mountainsides are laboriously carved into lemon groves and vineyards. The trail passes through chestnut and oak forests, gradually ascending to a saddle, where the views back to Ravello are as spectacular as they are revealing.
I get a proper glimpse of the auditorium the municipality commissioned of Oscar Niemeyer (the 103-year-old Brazilian architect) in a bloodrush to their collective head. Maybe they were flattered by the attention of a world-ranking architect, but to my surprise all the building does is succeed in locating my inner Prince Charles. It looks as if someone has drawn a huge sloppy graffiti rendition of Edvard Munch's The Scream on the unsuspecting alleyways and terraces of the medieval town. It is a carbuncle by any other name.
Face the other way and you could be in any century you choose. I encounter just one walker throughout the afternoon. The St Nicholas Monastery at the top of the mountain is not inhabited these days and that simply accentuates its isolation. Those monks knew how to pick a spot. The heat is rising on currents that are aromatic with wild herbs and pine resin. It is a 1,500ft drop to the sea from here, crashing down to the coastal town of Maiori on the left and Minori on the right. For a moment, it does seem as if the world is perfectly pivoted and arranged for my well being.
In theory, the descent should be the easy part. Getting down to Minori involves thousands of steps and every one of them is an angry jolt sent up my tibia by the unforgiving earth. Halfway down, I am in trouble. My crocked knees are threatening to fold at every step. And every step is followed by hundreds more. Down through the forest, down through the steeply tiered orchards, the steps become more insistent, they multiply and increase in frequency, they have horns and sharpened pitchforks which they jab eagerly at my kneecaps. And still they come - every corner reveals hundreds more of the little devils.
By the time I stagger into Minori people are staring at me as they might if Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, had walked down from the hills. On the seafront, the passeggiata is in full swing. I collapse at a bar and, after a restorative beer, watch enviously. Children run, old folk shuffle, a wedding party ambles, the entire population of Minori is out strolling, taking the evening air, enjoying the promenade. I am convinced I will never walk again.
When I move on to the next hotel, the Santa Caterina in Amalfi, I am determined to find less challenging means of exploring. The hotel seems to grow out of the cliff and has another of those jaw-dropping views that are fast becoming routine. The hotel pool, set on a concrete platform just above sea level, can be accessed by a lift that teeters down the cliff wall. The vertical plunge of mountain into sea characterises the Amalfi Coast stretching westwards towards Positano and beyond. There is nothing cosy about this rugged landscape and the best way to appreciate its severe beauty is from the water.
Captain Flavio Paladino knows every inch of the Costiera Amalfitana. From his boat, the Amalfi Drive - the coastal road running along the side of the cliff between Amalfi and Sorrento - looks like an optical illusion that MC Escher might have dreamt up. The road is carved from the sheer cliff in some stretches; it pierces the wall in others and is cantilevered out from the rock face in others. Mussolini, according to Captain Flavio, ordered his engineers to make the Drive into a viable modern road - until then the track had been supported by a rickety wooden substructure. It remains a vertigo-inducing scare of a drive, but before Mussolini it must have been a helter-skelter of terror.
Captain Flavio is getting warmed up, and as we make our way up to Positano he launches into a well-rehearsed spiel. Here we go again. Over there is the house and helipad of Sophia Loren (splat!); here is the discotheque frequented by Frank Sinatra (thud!), and we are just passing the beach favoured by Jacqueline Kennedy (kerpow!).