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Under the Volcano

Sun-drenched in the shadow of Vesuvius.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By SARA LODGE
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Terrace garden in Ravello

Terrace garden in Ravello

Behind the suburbs, a black giant throws its ominous shadow—its damaged lip, its raised shoulder—against an azure sky. This is Naples: a city where you never need to look far for trouble. I am headed south, to a destination that has always been difficult to access by land. You can’t go over Vesuvius, so you must go around the volcano. The purple slopes are netted with grapevines. Oranges hang like Christmas baubles on the trees.

In summer, the narrow road that winds hair-raisingly in and out of the Neopolitan coast, as if negotiating the teeth of a comb, is thronged with beach-goers. But in late fall, it is easier to enjoy the sheer views as the local bus sweeps perilously around a bend, narrowly avoiding a stand of garish ceramics, tooting its horn like the foreign legion. Because there is so little horizontal space to build on, villages rise vertically through whitewashed passages and stairs to grooved throats of limestone clad in cypress and umbrella pines, hundreds of feet above the shimmering expanse of sea. This is the scenery of gothic romance, of monasteries and bandits.

In and out the bus threads. Then you see it: Amalfi—a jewel stuffed into a crack in the rock like a hoard of pirate treasure. Barbarossa tried to capture it in 1544 but was (so local legend goes) driven back by the bones of the town’s patron, Saint Andrew, who made the sea boil and the ships capsize. Amalfi was once part of the Byzantine Empire. In the 11th century, it was a powerful city-state controlling some 70,000 citizens, its fabled wealth derived from maritime adventures and trade with Sicily and the Middle East. Now its size is that of a small seaside town. But the splendor of the cathedral which dominates the central piazza betrays its rich history. Checkerboard black-and-white arches ascend to a Byzantine jeweled façade decorated with stars and fabulous beasts, dazzling golden mosaics of Saint Andrew, and a bell tower dramatically festooned with turquoise and ochre tiles. 

I stayed in an inexpensive and well-appointed guesthouse, Residenza del Duca, up a flight of 80 stairs in the middle of town. Waking and looking down from a height, like Rapunzel, at the bustle of a small piazza was a pleasure: There were piles of bulbous tomatoes, artichokes, dogs, children, glaziers, workmen making much noise and little progress. Even in low season, Amalfi is lively. It’s a cash economy (a broad hint that no one is paying taxes), and the prices on the outside and inside of the restaurants are not always identical. Then again, this is a seismic region, and it would be unnatural if anything were precisely level. As Tobias Jones comments in The Dark Heart of Italy:

Linguistically, as in so much else, the country is based upon aesthetics rather than ethics. The judgment words most used are not good and bad, but rather beautiful (bello) or ugly (brutto). Bello is an adjective trotted out with such regularity that it entirely obscures a concept like “good.” .  .  . Thus immorality is less frowned upon than inelegance.

When a country is this beautiful, it’s easy to forgive. In autumn, tiny pink cyclamen carpet the woodland, blue mists settle on the lemon trees, and pomegranates blush on ancient terraces. It is still warm enough to sit out in Amalfi’s piazza, enjoying a glass of prosecco or a sweet cannoli stuffed with ricotta, bought from a pastry shop whose interior of gold, glass, and old wood glows in the twilight with the warm memory of spun sugar.

The best food here is simple. Spaghetti alle vongole: garlicky, with tiny brown butterfly clams, each with its own striated pattern. Chicken or veal in a lemon sauce: delicate, sharp, and sweet with meat juices. Pasta with artichokes and candied orange peel: just a memory of citrus among the fat ribbons. Pizza as thin as a politician’s excuse. And tomato salad, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and oregano.

After this repast you will likely be regaled with a free shot of limoncello, the local lemon liqueur. At the risk of having my passport revoked, I have to tell you that I think limoncello is revolting: syrupy, acidic, and 64 proof. I wouldn’t clean my windows with it for fear of attracting the wrong kind of fly.

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