During the tourist season, 4.55 million people visit the Amalfi Coast. From October to March, however, it is quiet, cozy and quaint.
Visiting Italy’s sun-soaked Amalfi Coast has long been a travel dream of mine. I want to dip my toes in the Tyrrhenian Sea, an arm of the Mediterranean off the southwest coast of Italy, and sip cappuccino at a café overlooking the vineyards of Ravello. I want to immerse myself in the Italian language and feel the pleasant idleness of Italian culture. Basically, I want to have the quintessential Amalfi Coast getaway: sunshine, pasta and the breezy Mediterranean lifestyle.
Unfortunately, I am not the only one with the idea. This stretch of coastline south of Naples from Sorrento to Salerno has been a popular summertime destination for American travelers since the 1960s. Positano, Amalfi’s poster child, had its moment in the Hollywood spotlight in the movie adaptation of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. The town of Ravello was once a favorite of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and writer Gore Vidal, and more recently for celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Bruce Springsteen. And not far off the coast is the famous island of Capri, which has attracted jet-setting stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Mariah Carey. Each summer season, millions of tourists visit the Amalfi Coast, and the sheer volume changes the atmosphere of each town.
I decided that to have a genuine Italian experience, I’d need to trade in my summer sandals for a cozy wool sweater and go in the offseason. Between October and March, tourism numbers plummet, as do hotel prices and traffic. And although rain and cold weather are a possibility, travelers are paid off handsomely in one-on-one time with Italy. In pursuit of my travel dream, I headed out on a December road trip with husband in tow.
Getting around is easy by bus or ferry, but part of the Amalfi experience is driving the treacherous narrow roads yourself — a considerably easier task in low season. We rented a pocket-size Fiat to take us from Naples to the tip of Sorrento and along the dizzying zigzag road to reach three popular towns: Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. But before we hit the coast, we stopped at one of Italy’s ancient landmarks: Pompeii.
There are many ruins from the Roman Empire, but Pompeii is one of the most interesting because it is so well preserved. The blanket of burning ash that Mount Vesuvius poured on top of the city in A.D. 79 protected it from destruction or weathering. In fact, it wasn’t even discovered below the soil for nearly 1,700 years. Now you can wander the city sidewalks, go inside its homes and businesses and see plaster casts of Pompeii’s citizens while staring at the somber silhouette of the volcano that destroyed them.
Our first stop along the official Amalfi highway is Positano, which is as beautiful as I had imagined. The colorful buildings cascade from the tops of the cliffs like a waterfall, all leading down to a black-sand beach and the Tyrrhenian Sea. During the summer months, the beach overflows with umbrellas and bedazzled tourists. In December, however, we walk on the sand without another person in sight. We hike through the maze of near-vertical staircases and bougainvillea-laced alleyways listening to only the quiet voices of Positano’s citizens.
Farther down the coast is the port town of Amalfi, the region’s namesake. Amalfi was once one of Italy’s most dominant maritime powers, along with Venice, Genoa and Pisa, but now it is best known as a vacation spot. Behind St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the main square is a web of piazzas and side streets surrounded by dramatic cliffs — equally stunning but so different from Positano.
We arrive in town just before golden hour — that electric time before sunset when the waning orb illuminates everything in a golden-bronze glimmer. After a late, lazy lunch of young clams and perfectly al dente spaghetti in the sleepy Piazza dei Dogi, we take in the last gulps of sunset from the edge of the dock, then get back in our Fiat to find our final and most anticipated destination: Ravello.
The medieval mountaintop sanctuary of Ravello is one of the few popular places on the Amalfi Coast that doesn’t sit right on the water. But what it lacks in beach umbrellas it makes up for in UNESCO World Heritage sites, tiered vineyards and lemon groves. Piazza Vescovado, the main town square, as well as the manicured gardens of Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone, bring tourists to Ravello in droves. Luckily, we are the only guests at the two-room, family-run Auditorium Rooms Bed & Breakfast. Instead of sharing the property’s view with other tourists, we share travel stories with the owners, twin brothers Pasquale and Marco. “Italians don’t come here in the summer,” says Pasquale. “They come here for a weekend in the winter.”
Emiliano Amato, the director of Ravello’s newspaper, Il Vescovado, speaks proudly of everything there is to see year-round. He leads us on a walking tour of the town’s most important landmarks, including several historic hotels and the city’s cathedral, the Duomo di Ravello. “It’s very quiet in the offseason, but you can still hike the trail to the town of Minori and visit local wineries,” he says. Even at night, we feel the community spirit. A group of friendly local sports fans invites us to watch a soccer game in the bar at Hotel Parsifal — an invitation we would surely miss during a crowded summer.
But it isn’t the hospitality or the medieval charm of Ravello that makes me fall in love with the Amalfi Coast. It is the words of a woman who passionately describes the culinary identity of her home. Chiara Lima, one of the three master chefs behind Mamma Agata’s cooking school, charms me with her smile and her love of the local cuisine while we chat on our final day on the Amalfi Coast over a piece of Mamma’s famous lemon cake. “I want them to feel the real taste of Italy,” says Chiara about the school’s mission. Together with her mother, “Mamma,” and her husband, Gennaro, Chiara teaches cooking classes at their beautifully renovated Ravello home from March through December. They also published a cookbook of the family’s favorite recipes that is sold only through the school and their website.
Chiara’s cookbook is the only item I bring home as a token of my trip. It represents the lesson I learned while visiting a popular tourist destination at its quietest time of the year: When a place is as inspiring as the Amalfi Coast, perfect weather doesn’t matter as much as the experience. To put it in Chiara’s words, “When you have good ingredients, you let them speak.”
If You Go …
Auditorium Rooms Bed & Breakfast
Duomo di Ravello
Maggiore (car rental)
Mamma Agata cooking school
Walks of Italy
Vesuvius & Pompeii Full Day Tours
Annie Shustrin is a travel writer and a blogger who has written about her neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, N.Y., and vacationing in Costa Rica for American Way.