Last updated: 09:00 PM ET, Fri October 28 2016

Living on the Edge: Italy’s Wild Amalfi Coast

Destination & Tourism Noreen Kompanik October 28, 2016

Living on the Edge: Italy’s Wild Amalfi Coast

Photos by Noreen Kompanik

Mesmerizing, intoxicating, breathtaking. These are just some of the words describing Italy’s Amalfi Coast. But, when we visited for the first time, we were more than awed; we were speechless.

We lived in Italy for three years; in Naples, actually.  But, the Amalfi Coast was always one of our favorite places to visit. It bewitched us with its medieval crusader watchtowers, sheer, craggy coastline, mysterious grottos and mountains plunging into the sea. Its stunning, majestic beauty showcasing pastel-hued villages terraced into its steep hillsides and expansive vistas over turquoise waters lured us in. Luxuriant gardens exploding in rich colors of red and coral drew us into its spell. It was amore — love at first site!

The magnificent Costiera Amalfitana, as the Italians call it, is widely considered Italy's most scenic stretch of coastline. Its legendary beauty has inspired artists, writers and musicians for centuries. This is the mythical home of the sirens whose haunting songs lured ancient mariners to their demise.  The Amalfi coast beckons and beguiles.  And its unforgettable vistas are even better in a convertible!

Thirty plus miles of famously winding, narrow, S-shaped curves, tunnels and hairpin turns make for a white-knuckle drive.  Offering one of the more exciting excursions in Europe, daring Italian drivers tempt fate with their behind-the-wheel bravado, passing us with literally no room to pass.  Buses on both sides of the roadway pull their mirrors in to avoid side swiping.  Literally riding on the edge of cliffs with sheer, drop-dead views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, we pull over to the side of the road to hyperventilate.  The Mediterranean twinkles merrily below as if to say “no, today is not your time to die.”

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On our recent return to Italy, we decided to add a visit to the Amalfi Coast in our travel itinerary. But, we asked ourselves, would it hold the same magic for us as it once did? Realizing time would not permit us to see each of the thirteen charming towns that encompass the entire 30 plus miles of coastline; we chose instead a sampler platter; our “antipasto misto.”

Our adventure began in Sorrento, considered the gateway to the Amalfi Coast.  Perched precariously atop cliffs separating the town from the marinas below, Sorrento looks out over azure blue waters to the Bay of Naples and the island of Capri. A brooding, menacing, Mt. Vesuvius looms in the distance. The aromatic scent of lemons in the air reminded us that Sorrento is the birthplace of limoncello, the crisp, mildly sweet, lemon-infused after-dinner liquor. The color of liquid sunshine, limoncello has been popular digestivo in this citrus-growing region along Italy’s Amalfi coast for more than a century.

Surrounded by lush, colorful, fragrant Mediterranean gardens, the historic Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, built in 1834, is located in the heart of Sorrento.  It’s not difficult to understand why, according to Italian legend; the Roman Emperor Augustus chose this very site for his own villa.  The architectural elegance of the Excelsior Vittoria’s classic period interior décor is only exceeded by the sheer natural beauty of Sorrento’s coastline viewed from its terraced balconies.

Sorrento is a shopping mecca of high quality Italian handicrafts. Most renowned for its beautiful, intricately carved inlaid wood products, furniture, and cabinetmaking, Sorrento’s tradition of fine art craftsmanship dates back to the 14th century.

Positano is arguably the most picturesque and photogenic of Amalfi Coast’s charming towns. A perfect lunchbreak stop as we meander our way to Marina di Praia’s picturesque beach and harbor below the town square. The historic church of Santa Maria Assunta with its central dome clad in yellow, green and blue majolica tiles is one of Positano’s distinctive landmarks. This 10th-century structure is built on the site of a former Benedictine Abbey.

Santa Maria’s iconic “Black Madonna” located above the church’s main altar is believed to have been part of the plunder of a Saracen pirate ship that stranded off Positano’s coast in a storm. Legend tells of the pirates hearing Mary cry out “posa, posa” (lay me down). Interpreted as a sign that the Virgin Mother wanted to remain in this seaside town, the ship’s commander complied, sending the Black Madonna ashore. The storm subsided, and the Black Madonna forever remains part of Positano’s lore.  

Narrow alleyways meander their way through the town and up the slopes between the sea and mountains in the town of Amalfi, the ancient maritime republic after which the coast was named. Perched atop a grand staircase in the town center, the 9th-century Cathedral of Sant’Andrea Apostolo with its striped Byzantine facade is one of Campania’s architectural jewels. The Duomo, as the locals refer to it, is the religious, cultural and historic heart of Amalfi. Within its medieval bosom, a lavishly decorated crypt provides a suitable resting place for the relics of St. Andrew the Apostle.  

Terraced houses clinging perilously on steep cliffs tower over the town square.  Quaint Italian shops and merchants surround the perimeter of the main plaza. Noisy vendors selling their wares barter with excitable locals who consistently and loudly proclaim “troppo caro”! (too expensive)!

The scent of garlic-infused dishes wafts through the air. Laundry dries on lines strung high overhead from upstairs balconies. This is Italian life in its fullest and we drink it in its essence, hoping it will remain with us forever. And lastly, before leaving Amalfi, we relished in a sampling of gelato; Italy’s silky-smooth, flavorful, and utterly divine version of ice cream before heading to our last stop.

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Capturing the vibrant azure blue of the sea, striking green of the forests and golden oranges of its citrus groves, the small town of Vietri sul Mare (Vietri of the Sea) has been producing beautifully handcrafted world-renowned ceramics since the 15th century.  Charming shops carry products ranging from tableware, biscotti jars and vases to large wrought iron tables fitted with individually painted tiles. This final stop on the coast was a must, if only to add yet another unusual piece of ceramic to our collection.

One of the most fascinating ceramic pieces in Vietri is the “Rooster Pitcher” or “Chicken Pitcher.” Its origin dates back to Florence’s early Renaissance period when a powerful landowner plotted to assassinate a leading member of a rival family, the Medicis. Retiring for the night after a hearty feast celebration, Medici was saved when crowing roosters awakened the family, thus foiling the assassination attempt. In honor of the roosters, the family commissioned artisans to create colorfully designed ceramic wine pitchers where wine is poured directly from the rooster’s mouth. Gifted as a good luck charm and protection against danger, the Italian tradition continues today as a must-have housewarming gift.

Driving back to Naples, we marveled once again at the breathtaking charm and stunning beauty of this incredible Mediterranean coastline. We answered the siren’s call, yet managed to survive the wondrous, death-defying Amalfi Coast, confirming once more its enchanting hold on us.

“La vita è bella”- Life is good.