by Villa Specialist Bill Chittick
Late last May, fellow Villa Specialists Suzanne Goulart, Jean Drewes and I were whisked away by limo to the Land of Enchantment–Italy! As clients are now starting to consider summer’s plans, I thought we’d take you back to where it all started…
We flew into Rome, where Jean arranged a Mercedes with Europcar, and we began our drive on the Autostrada for the three hour drive to Naples (the jumping-off point for traveling to the Sorrentine peninsula and Amalfi coast). The highway just kisses the base of Vesuvius, by the way. Once on the “old” road, the views of the Bay of Naples, and the isles of Ischia and Capri, were absolutely captivating!
Within minutes, urban congestion gave way to picturesque beauty as we approached the Amalfi Drive and the southern shoreline of the Sorrentine peninsula. The steep, beguiling town of Positano, with millennia-old footpaths in place of streets, and a backdrop that would kill, was our home-away-from-home for the next three nights.
View of the city of Positano, with fishing boats on the beach.
We stayed at the Covo dei Saraceni hotel right on the water, with innumerable bougainvillea-bedecked balconies terraced up the hillside. Unbelievable setting! Views of cliffs, town, and water all competed for attention—it was hard to get a visual grip as everything was aesthetically overwhelming. I guess you could say “drowning in beauty”. Hotel staff, by the way, was the most personable, friendly and attentive I’ve experienced anywhere. We’re happy to arrange hotel stays for clients if they’d like to do a tour of various Italian regions.
My dinner that evening began with an appetizer of octopus with thyme potatoes, followed by tagliolini (pasta) with walnuts, lemon, shrimp and asparagus.
After dinner, Suzanne and I did a little walk-through of Positano, which essentially means climbing Mt. Monadnock; we befriended a cute little dog named Nerone who belonged to no one and everyone—no matter where we went the townspeople knew him!
Our little friend Nerone (on right, thank you very much)
Tuesday brought plenty of warmth and sunshine. Suzanne and I went for an early swim at the Covo dei Saraceni’s heated pool, and the view was spectacular! Perfect way to work off the a.m’s prosciutto, salami, eggs, fruits, yogurt, cheese, cereal, fish, sausage, mushrooms and herbed potatoes—oh, and that was just table one…the second buffet table was set up with every conceivable chocolate-crème-filled confection, pastry, cake, muffin, tart, candied/jellied fruit and croissant known to man…and the third table, well, you get the drift…
The sugar having worn off, we rolled downhill all of twenty seconds to the boat dock at the foot of our hotel, where we pre-arranged a boat to take us to our first villa, the 8-bedroom Torre di Positano (BRV POS). This superb property was originally constructed in the 1400s as a defensive castle against the marauding Saracens. Imaginative use of art, mosaics, tunnels, lighting, setting and ambience defined this villa as one of the unique offerings in WIMCO’s Amalfi Coast collection. Our suave boatsman, Lorenzo, could’ve easily been an extra in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Once back in Positano after seeing the Torre, we picked up our rental car and met up with our host, Antonietta (Toni) in the eastern, “Arienzo” section of Positano. Toni took us to 4-bedroom Villa Alta (BRV ALT) which, although occupied, had a spectacular position overlooking the Mediterranean and the town of Positano. The public Arienzo Beach is 120 steps below the villa. Incidentally, all access in and around Positano—whether to a villa, to sites of interest, or simply from points A to B—involves walking up and down scores (and sometimes hundreds) of steep stone steps. No exceptions! The upside are the dripping bowers of bougainvillea, jasmine, geraniums, roses, lemon and nasturtium which garland the steep paths and relieve the mind—and calves!—of any potential discomfort.
Located in the smaller town of Praiano, about a five minute drive from Positano, our next villa, Regina Bianca (YPI REG) offers awesome views, spectacular pool area, and olde world charm (emphasis on ‘olde’).
Villa Regina Bianca (YPI REG), Praiano
Praiano is a cool little hillside town, with the same steep mountain backdrop as Positano, same mesmerizing views over endless blue horizon, but with a position high up the slope well away from the water. Architecturally notable are the double domes of Praiano’s parish church, with dazzling avocado-and-yellow tiles punching the sky. Color is taken to full advantage everywhere we went.
Little hamlets pepper the Amalfi Drive in and around the Praiano and Amalfi area, although at the pace we were traveling, all we could do was ooh, aah and point as we sped through. Among the villages, Atrani is an especially beguiling hodgepodge of 18th and 19th century buildings that have answered to sun and water since before any of us were born—simply timeless; Fiordo di Furore is another gem—albeit tiny—that is now awakening to the buzz of tourism.
Villa Carla (BRV CAR) is one of our nearby villas, and is newly renovated as a modernist home—sleek and seductive. The hill town of Ravello is just a mile or two away.
The largest town in this area is Amalfi, and, like Positano fifteen miles to its west, it is one of the two principal bookends of the Amalfi Coast. Ubiquitous plantings of intensely colored flowers dominate the landscape, along with mottled stucco walls, terracotta roofs, and dark green shutters.
There are some very cool villas in the Amalfi area, and Stella (BRV CRO), Tramonto (BRV TRA) Simona (BRV SMO) were outstanding.
The view from Villa Tramonto (BRV TRA)
Simona is modern, 1954 vintage, and sees adaptable use as either a private villa or B&B—stylistically and location-wise a winner in every regard. Suzanne and I walked the 150 or so steps down to water’s edge, where a boat may be arranged to take guests to a seaside restaurant nearby. One of the things Simona’s manager told us was that all the myriad footpaths and steps that pepper the Amalfi Coast (even at the “newer” villas) were all ancient paths dating from the 10th and 11th centuries, and constructed by the early inhabitants to go from the highest hills (where they lived) to the water (where they fished). The relatively modern concept of fishing village was anathema to these early settlers due to fear of marauding enemies from overseas who terrorized the coast.
Our final villa of the day could’ve easily been the final villa of our lives had we been in less than Olympic shape: yes, Positano’s Villa Dorata (BRV DOR) with the 720 (or 600, or 1,000) steps, depending on whom you asked or whom you believed. But man! Was it ever worth it! I didn’t regret any agonizing inch of our trek there! It’s difficult to explain the design idiosyncrasies and architectural complexities of Dorata, but suffice it to say that the edifice, built by an archbishop or pope or monsignor in 1716, had a living room opening via an archway to a smaller living room, which itself opened through its fireplace (!) to yet another seating area with, yes, another fireplace. All telescoped one into the other. How on earth? All this with incredible oils that I could swear were in the Isabella Stewart once upon a time (just kidding, folks, I meant the Tate).
Villa Dorata (BRV DOR), Positano
On our way back downhill to Positano town, we befriended a kindly old gent who showed us his garden, his little gatto (cat) and the stupendous view from his humble house. Such is the friendliness we encountered everywhere in Italy.
Wednesday dawned sunny and warm (they all did, really), and after a refreshing swim and hearty breakfast at the Covo dei Saraceni, we met our next host for the day.
We visited with the owner of 5-bedroom Villa Giada (BRV GIA) which was a peaceful oasis smack in the heart of busy Sorrento! Simple in décor and style, Giada is nonetheless a very popular property as it sits amid fabulous gardens and overlooks a monastery – all you can hear are the sounds of birds and the breeze rustling through the palms. Sorrento has every activity, shopping, restaurant and historic sight to keep guests entertained for days on end. It’s also the dropping off point for ferries and boats to Capri, Ischia, Procida and other ports in and around the Bay of Naples and the Amalfi Coast.
Villa Sorrento (YPI SOR), in its namesake town
Villa Sorrento (YPI SOR) is just a few minutes drive above its namesake city. This villa is quite modern and offers proximity to everything in Sorrento, and features views of the Bay of Naples (Vesuvius can be seen through the region’s iconic umbrella pines).
Back in Positano, villa Il Sogno (YPI SNO) is a very cool 4-bedroom villa with modern touches, wine cellar, well-tended gardens, and steps (many of them) to the Arienzo “beach” just east of town.
Our last evening’s dinner in Positano was at Il Palazzo, a gem of a restaurant off the main walkway just above the town church. Dripping in vines, bathed in subdued lighting, and otherwise oozing in Mediterranean atmosphere, the restaurant was a fitting place to cap off our stay in Positano.
Restaurant Al Palazzo, photo courtesy of Al Palazzo
The next day was a transit day between the Sorrentine Peninsula and Capri. The fast-ferry crossing from Sorrento was a mere twenty minutes and couldn’t have been smoother (when I was first there in 1985, it was an hour and a half). Capri is still, after all is said and done, one of the most beautiful spots on Earth. It’s unbelievable how much pure beauty is packed in one sitting. I remarked how it actually hurt. It’s like being punched at every turn with all manner of aesthetics: flowers, color, landscape, water, topography, architecture, aromas, food – it just doesn’t quit! There’s a point where you have to say “Enough!” but alas, it falls on deaf ears. The island is synonymous with lemons – lemons everywhere, more than you can count—and in fact, the drink limoncello was first concocted around 1900 at our hotel in Anacapri, the Casa Mariantonio, by the great-grandmother of present-day owner, Pierpaolo.
Anacapri (whose name means Above Capri) is a delightful, ancient town that is just off the main road in the high part of the island—on my previous two visits, I assumed the “town” of Anacapri was merely the row of tourist shops lining the road. Little did I know there was a whole medieval village with narrow streets and fantastic architecture just a block away! Less crowded than its downhill (and more self-conscious) neighbor, Anacapri is a gem: historic churches, museums, public squares, unique shops. Highlights were the chairlift up to the summit of Monte Solaro (highest point on the island), the Casa Rosso museum, and Villa San Michele, a museum-cum-botanical garden set in one of the most beguiling spots in the Mediterranean.
Best of the best in terms of restaurants was the Trattoria Il Solitario, a true find tucked away in a garden off a series of alleys in Anacapri. I had fettuccini with rabbit and sheep’s cheese sauce, Suzanne a pasta with swordfish and pistachio sauce, and Jean the prawns. Dessert was a lemon cake (what else!) with crushed walnuts.
We also visited villas on Capri. First was villa Laura (LDG LAU), a 4-bedroom home overlooking Capri town. Lots of charm, although it’s a simpler, less deluxe property than others we saw. Villa, Eremo (LDG ERE) was an artistic delight overlooking the picturesque harbor of Marina Piccola as well as Capri’s iconic sea rocks, the Faraglioni. Eremo likewise has 4 bedrooms and is a much-sought-after property, in part because of its location within walking distance of both town and harbor.
Villa Laura (LDG ERE), Capri
To round out the island experience, we stayed the last two nights in Capri town, at the Regina Cristina hotel, a simple property right next to the famed Grand Hotel Quisisana. Location, location, location! (No internet, no internet, no internet!) But we made up for this in taking a round-the-island boat tour, including entering the Blue Grotto, a mysterious pitch black sea cavern with dazzling, iridescent azure water. I mean, how can you top this?
… well, by climbing the Phoenician Steps (Scala Fenicia), of course!
A “mere” 1000-step narrow path plastered against the side of a precipice, the steps were built in the 7th-8th century BC (by, as it turns out, the Greeks, not Phoenicians). Until the “modern” carriage road was built in 1874, the Scala Fenicia were the only way to get from Capri to Anacapri. Mindboggling.
Entering the Blue Grotto
By now, I’m sure you’re all wondering what we had for dinner after such a strenuous hike: OK, appetizer of filo pastries filled with sausage, artichokes & mozzarella on a bed of tomato puree; then green pasta (sciaterella?) made with rucolo (aka rocket/arugula), along with baby mussels and porcini mushrooms, followed up by Baba au Rhum. Suzanne, poor thing, had to settle for the Lemon Chantilly crème cake.
So there you have Capri and the Land of Lemons! Hard act to follow, truly.
See villas from the Amalfi Coast here. And be sure to check back for part two of Bill’s trip, when the group heads to Tuscan wine country…