Stretching from Sorrento to Salerno, in the Campania region of southern Italy, the legendary Amalfi Coast is an area of such scenic beauty that in 1997 Unesco certified it as a World Heritage Site. Its charming small villages that seem to defy gravity; its steep, terraced, verdant cliffs; its turquoise-blue water; and its mild climate have made Amalfi a favorite stop for those seeking a refined taste of Italy's "dolce vita." (Courtesy of Campania Regional Administration)
Europe's glitterati discovered the Amalfi Coast in the 1850s, turning it from a string of small fishing villages into a world-class resort. British aristocrats, celebrated actors, writers, musicians and dancers had it almost to themselves until the 1950s, when it entered the general tourist consciousness and became one of Italy's most sought-after destinations. (Courtesy of Centro di Cultura e Storia Amalfitana)
The ferries that make regular runs to Amalfi from Sorrento, Salerno or Naples give a superb look at the rugged cliffs and the small towns that sit in the hollows of the green hills. The alternative is the coastal road, infamous for its hairpin turns, so narrow that traffic crawls and buses seem about to fall into the sea. Not for the faint of heart (in 1953 the author John Steinbeck wrote in "Harper's Bazaar" that he clung to his wife during the entire journey), the road is a good way to see the various villages without visiting all of them. (By Land or by Sea)
Amalfi, the town that gives the coast its name, sparkles with whitewashed buildings clinging to the cliffs as if for dear life. Narrow streets lead to hidden lookouts and piazzas—harboring hotels, restaurants, coffee and ice cream shops. The Emerald Grotto, two-and-a-half-miles away, offers an exceptional sight, including stalagmites rising from the seabed. From Amalfi's beach area you can take a ferry to another world-class destination: the Isle of Capri. (Courtesy of Campania Regional Administration)
The center of the town of Amalfi is the piazza at the foot of its imposing main cathedral, the Duomo, founded in the ninth century and rebuilt over the next several centuries. During the summer, it is inundated by tourists, but the beauty of Amalfi is that the locals have not changed their way of life. Laundry hangs out of balconies, fishmongers and butchers rub shoulders with souvenir shops and the greeting "Ciao Bella" can still be heard. (Tourism, Italian Style)
The town of Positano has long had a reputation for posh visitors, luxury hotels and elegant boutiques, many of them selling the breezy clothes and sandals that have become associated with the town. Steinbeck called it "a dream place." But be warned—charm comes at a price. Positano is a vertical town, with steep steps that take the place of streets. (Courtesy of Campania Regional Administration)
At the height of the season, there isn't a table to be had in Positano's elegant restaurants. Fresh seafood reigns, often served in a broth called "acqua pazza" made with garlic, oil, parsley, white wine and small tomatoes, washed down with wine from grapes cultivated in the terraced vineyards that line the cliffs. (Courtesy of Campania Regional Administration)
The view from Ravello has been described as the most beautiful in the world. Harder to get to than most of the other Amalfi Coast towns (it's 1,148 feet above sea level), Ravello's privacy has attracted movie stars and cultural giants. Composer Richard Wagner is said to have found his inspiration for the enchanted garden in the opera "Parsifal" in the multi-colored gardens that overlook the sea of the Villa Rufolo. Each year the world-famous Ravello Music Festival is held there. (Courtesy of Azienda Autonoma di Cura Soggiorno e Turismo di Ravello)

Snapshot: Amalfi Coast

A virtual vacation to southern Italy's historic and charming seaside

smithsonian.com

Read about southern Italy's Amalfi Coast below, then click on the main image to begin a slideshow about the region.

Origin: Inhabited since the earliest times, in A.D. 840 Amalfi became the first of four maritime republics on the Italian peninsula and the first to codify maritime law. In its heyday, the 11th century, Amalfi traders were known throughout the Mediterranean, bringing great riches back to the coast. The republic went into decline in the beginning of the 13th century as it lost its eminence in trade and fell prey to pirate raids (defensive watchtowers still pepper the coast), and in 1643 lost a third of its residents to the plague.

The appeal: The Amalfi Coast is a unique combination of nature and comfort, old and new, with a good dose of authentic Italian life. Visitors can shop in the trendy boutiques, swim from the little coves that dot the cliffs or trek through the unspoiled Lattari mountains among the flowering plants, vineyards and olive and lemon groves. They can walk along streets that haven't changed in a millennium, enjoy a limoncello (a regional drink made with lemons and alcohol) on a terrace overlooking the sea or eat a gelato on the beach.

Interesting historical fact: The piazza in the port area of the town of Amalfi is named after Flavio Gioia, a 14th-century Italian naval captain from this area, sometimes credited with inventing the magnetic compass.

Famous sons or daughters: The coast is known for its illustrious visitors—British aristocrats; popes; movie stars from Greta Garbo to Paul Neuman, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; artists like Klee, Picasso and Cocteau; dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn; and writers of great note, including John Steinbeck, André Gide, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence and Gore Vidal.

Who goes there?: More than 400,000 people visited the Amalfi Coast last year. The British are the most numerous, followed by the Germans, the French and the Americans. Amalfi tends to attract people interested more in scenic beauty than excitement.

Then & Now: Fishing is now an occupation in only a very few towns, tourism having become the mainstay of the coast. The fortifications that once guarded against pirates have been turned into restaurants, hotels and residences. The advent of middle-class tourists has led to a greater choice of accommodations—not just the luxury hotels that traditionally have catered to the very wealthy.

Dina Modianot-Fox is a regular Smithsonian.com contributor. She took the photographs except where noted.

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