Spa baths and sonatas

The he­do­nis­tic Amalfi coast has also in­spired great artis­tic achieve­ments

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - PETRONELLA WY­ATT

THIS is not an ar­ti­cle about he­do­nism. Oh, no. Italy’s Amalfi coast may be the favoured his­tor­i­cal play­ground of the bad and the beau­ti­ful — from Tiberius to Sophia Loren and Gwyneth Pal­trow — but my theme is cul­ture.

What is it about this rocky stretch of south­west Italy that has drawn such dis­parate artists as Wag­ner, DH Lawrence, Turner, John Stein­beck and Gore Vi­dal? Heck, you win. Let’s have some he­do­nism first.

I am sit­ting, bub­bling nicely, in a Jacuzzi that, through the pic­ture win­dow be­side it, looks over the town of Posi­tano as it runs down to the sea. The Jacuzzi, in my mar­bled bath­room in the Lead­ing Ho­tels of the World group’s Le Sirenuse, comes with an un­der­wa­ter HD screen and a bot­tle of cham­pagne, or rather the room does — per­haps to con­sole one for hav­ing to re­mort­gage the house to pay the bill.

It is quite a Jacuzzi. Around me are the emer­ald hills of Posi­tano, its brightly coloured lit­tle houses and shops full of Bul­gari trin­kets, gleam­ing like gems set in the sil­ver of the waves be­low. In the dis­tance, a sin­u­ous is­land rises from the wa­ter re­sem­bling a woman with three breasts. As Aris­to­tle Onas­sis once re­marked, ‘‘If you take a woman to the Amalfi coast and fail to se­duce her, you are not a man at all.’’

But what’s a girl like medo­ing in a Jacuzzi like this? Re­search­ing the cul­tural legacy of the coast. Or that’s my ex­cuse. For­get five-star ho­tels, home­made tagli­olini and all those bella fig­uras — in­clud­ing Jackie Kennedy, Paul Newman, Madonna and Miss Loren (who has a villa here) — who have walked the cob­bled streets. What in­ter­ests me is why men of ge­nius were drawn here like iron fil­ings to a mag­net. It can’t have been Jacuzzis.

The unique fea­ture of the Amalfi coast is its unadul­ter­ated nat­u­ral beauty, honed, but un­spoiled, by the touch of man: it is il­le­gal to build here. Deep down I am pretty su­per­fi­cial, but this blessed plot in­duces a state of ir­re­sistible reverie. Look to the right and a son­net be­gins to form, to the left a con­certo.

Nearby are the gar­dens of the Villa Ru­folo in Ravello. Richard Wag­ner once said he would never have com­posed Par­si­fal had he not been in­spired by its beauty.

With­out the bay of Posi­tano we would have fewer Turner seascapes. Ten­nessee Wil­liams penned Cat on a Hot Tin Roof af­ter hear­ing the story of a dys­func­tional lo­cal fam­ily. Vi­dal re­marked that the majesty of the view from his house in Ravello spurred him to write Lin­coln. With­out the coast’s amethyst sun­sets, a lo­cal song­writer called Ed­uardo di Ca­pua would never have com­posed O Sole Mio. Where would Cornetto ice-cream ad­ver­tise­ments and the Three Tenors have been with­out that?

So I re­it­er­ate, this is not an ar­ti­cle about deca­dent trivia. I emerge from the Jacuzzi, slip into some­thing less com­fort­able to catch the evening bus to Ravello. There are large groups of tourists, even in the win­ter months, and the sun seems to shine ev­ery day, warm enough for sit­ting out­side in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary, grow­ing balmy and then scorch­ing in the spring and sum­mer.

Ravello is 400m above sea level, and many of its houses are built into the hills, punc­tu­ated by ravines re­veal-

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