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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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Amongst their lesser-known specialties, the translated menus in Amalfi offer a delicious hash of mistakes. I nearly ordered “pork with lemon coast,” “pens with four cheese,” and “broiled custard to the filberts.” I was more wary of “beef with activated carbon” and “grilled stick.” Other signs are equally surprising. “Dancing tearoom” offers one; “Middlenight to sunlight” promises another. The automatic candy machines at coastal railway stations are emblazoned “Self Bar.” Perhaps at these founts of narcissism, you can obtain your just deserts.

To those who would rather walk off their desserts, a word of warning: steps. The Amalfitanis must have some of the strongest knees in Italy. This is not a holiday destination for anyone who likes to wear high heels. In these parts, ill-advisedly mowing the lawn in a cape could turn you into Icarus. It is worth, however, climbing up to the necropolis, a striking line of neoclassical arches on the hillside above the harbor.

Here, the former denizens of Amalfi are stored in tall marble filing cabinets, with all the leading families at the front. The ladders you need to reach the topmost cabinets and change the floral tributes are so steep that I wouldn’t be surprised if some people met their end in situ. The flowers are astonishing in their profusion and variety. But the dead, smiling from their photographs on each tomb, are not. The names—the Pansas, the Franceses, the Cameras—are the same as those you will find on the shops in the piazza below. 

The cemetery provides an interesting lesson about Italian society. People move on—but not far. Less than 15 percent of married Italian children live more than 30 miles from their mamma. And people move up—but not without help. Power is concentrated in old families. If you want something here, whether a job, a contract, land, or legal permission, the official route, like the coastal road, will be tortuous. You need to find the steps.

The gap between rich and poor in the mezzogiorno is stark. Arrive at Naples railway station and you might as well be in a third-world country. The ground is littered with makeshift stalls and piles of objects that call to mind the aftermath of a bombing: an old handbag, a broken toy, a single shoe. On the train, I was accosted by an itinerant sock vendor whose own feet were bare. By contrast, if you take the precipitous road from Amalfi up to the beautiful clifftop destination of Ravello, you find yourself on millionaires’ row. During the off-season, I was able to wander around the empty terraces of palaces whose grand salons were covered in dust sheets, wintering like frost-shy plants. One palazzo whose gardens are always open is the Villa Cimbrone, a whimsical mixture of English and Italian historical styles created by Ernest Beckett, a Yorkshire-born Victorian aristocrat who ran away from home but never quite escaped it. It has an Avenue of Immensity, a Terrace of Infinity, and a tearoom.

The chief reason, however, to visit Ravello is to go on a dragon hunt. The town’s plain-faced church conceals a marvel: a pulpit supported by snarling marble lions and decorated with elaborate mosaics in red, black, gold, lapis lazuli, and turquoise. Writhing and roaring in the color of their glorious scales is a coil, a conflagration of dragons representing the beginning and end of the world.

Twenty miles inland from Amalfi lies the ruined Roman city of Pompeii, and this is one destination you should visit at all costs. Pompeii has changed my understanding of antiquity more than any other historical site, because it is an immersive experience. Like plunging below the waves to view Atlantis, exploring Pompeii allows you to become lost in the totality of the past, to consider it not as a discrete monument but as an infinite, three-dimensional space.

The first thing to say about Pompeii is that it is huge. Think of a town with a population of about 20,000—you could not see more than a fraction of its houses in one day. You can amble about the site, imagining yourself into the world of 79 a. d. as you shop the bakery, admire the amphitheater and the public baths, raise an eyebrow at the brothel, and step inside the homes of vanished inhabitants such as the banker Lucius Jucundus or the fish-sauce magnate Aulus Scaurus.

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