The high life

Dis­cover the plea­sures of walking and sail­ing Italy’s Amalfi Coast

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - GAVIN BELL

THEYall came here, fa­mous writ­ers, artists and com­posers, se­duced by a balmy cli­mate and the ex­trav­a­gant beau­ties of na­ture. Hen­rik Ib­sen was in­spired to write part of Peer Gynt in Sor­rento, the Blooms­bury group de­camped to the moun­tain vil­lage of Ravello, as did Richard Wag­ner and DH Lawrence, and John Stein­beck eu­lo­gised Posi­tano.

The im­ages of a ro­man­tic idyll they left be­hind have been tar­nished by mass tourism, which is why I have never had any par­tic­u­lar de­sire to visit the Sor­rento penin­sula. A dra­matic coast­line and once sleepy fish­ing vil­lages have lit­tle ap­peal amid traf­fic jams and streets in­un­dated with tidal waves of tourists.

Yet there is a way to es­cape the madding crowds and dis­cover the charms that lured early vis­i­tors. The an­swer is to sail along the coast and walk in its hills.

My base for a week is Maria Gio­vanna, a 70-foot wooden ketch built for com­fort, with a gen­er­ous aft deck and ac­com­mo­da­tion in suites of gleam­ing ma­hogany for a max­i­mum of 12 pas­sen­gers.

I find the boat ly­ing in the Ma­rina di Stabia, a short train ride from Naples, be­neath the sleep­ing gi­ant of Ve­su­vius. The last time the vol­cano awoke se­ri­ously was on the morn­ing of Au­gust 24, AD79, when a cat­a­clysmic blast dark­ened the heavens with the fine ash and nox­ious fumes that de­stroyed Pompeii.

This is our first port of call, by pri­vate coach, and even with crowds swarm­ing among the ru­ins it is a mem­o­rable sight. Plas­ter casts of some of the vic­tims show how quickly death over­came them. One is a small fig­ure, a woman or child squat­ting on haunches, with hands to the face. An­other is of a man ly­ing face down, his hands cov­er­ing his eyes in a vain at­tempt to pro­tect them from the burn­ing gases that would kill him.

There may be no im­me­di­ate dan­ger of an­other erup­tion, but I amhappy a few hours later when we are at sea, sail­ing for Sor­rento. This is where south­ern Italy plunges into the Mediter­ranean in a suc­ces­sion of ver-


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The ketch Maria Gio­vanna off Amalfi

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