Snapshot: Amalfi Coast | Travel | Smithsonian
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Snapshot: Amalfi Coast

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

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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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