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Vacationing Italian-Style

If life gives you lemons, make Limoncello. Or lemon granita, or lemon pasta, or ceramic lemons, or lemon Christmas decorations. Italy’s Amalfi coast, stretching some 30 miles between Sorrento and Salerno, is one of the most stunningly beautiful places on earth which, of course, is the main reason you go there. But you can’t help but admire the remarkable Amalfi lemons, some almost as large as grapefruit, and the ingenuity of the local population for finding so many uses for their abundant crop. Its moderate Mediterranean climate encourages the growth not only of lemons but also limes and oranges. A wealth of other produce and the freshest seafood make it a gastronomic paradise as well as a scenic wonder protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Amalfi Coast Photo: Giuseppe Milo

You will be astonished by the jaw-dropping cliffs plunging down to the sea and wonder how in the world the locals managed to build all those pastel and terra cotta-colored villas appearing to dangle off the mountainsides.

Sorrento and Positano are the main jumping-off points for ferries to the magical island of Capri. Visitors tend to have a favorite town for a home base although travel is relatively quick between on the SITA buses which rival the thrill of Disney’s Magic Kingdom rides as they wend their way along the narrow coastal road. Gore Vidal so loved Ravello he stayed for 30 years. I preferred the tiny village of Praiano between Positano and Amalfi because it has no mass throngs of tourists. Its San Gennaro church, with its majolica tiled dome, is one of the loveliest I’ve seen in Italy and yet it rarely has visitors. It has the most remarkable floors with inlaid tiles featuring peacocks and golden sunbursts.

Capri Photo: Nicola Simeoni/Shutterstock

“Oh yes, my father did the tiles,“ says Domingo, a manager at the Tramonto d’Oro hotel, my home base for a few days, which actually felt like home because of the friendly staff. Domingo added, “My father is the brother of Carmela” (the hotel owner). Some evenings Carmela might have her elderly mother Teresa in tow or Domingo’s wife will show up with their infant underlining the homey atmosphere of their 72-year-old familial enterprise. Head waiter Giuseppe has been on staff for 45 years. And Gennaro the bartender makes glorious cocktails such as an Aperol Spritz garnished not only with an orange slice but also an imposing orange leaf and he likes to get creative sometimes flavoring a gin and tonic with basil instead of lime. (note to Gennaro: stick with the limes.)

Tramonto d’Oro Hotel Buffet

The hotel has 38 rooms, each different. Those with the best and fullest sea views naturally command the highest price. A staircase of 400 steps (yes, 400!) leads down to the beach. The restaurant is world class and its breakfast buffet replete with pastries, cakes, and fresh fruits is fit for a king. It offers cooking classes as do many of the hotels in the region. There are a handful of other restaurants and hotels in the tiny village of 2,000.

One makes day trips to Amalfi to tour its Limoncello factory or visit the magnificent cathedral, to Positano for its charming labyrinthine streets filled with lemon themed ceramic shops, smart restaurants, and fashionable boutiques. Or to Ravello for its beautiful gardens and villas, imposing duomo, and renowned classical music festival. You might also want to visit the nearby ruins of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

The area is a paradise for serious hikers who like to walk the 4.7 mile Path of the Gods or climb from seaside Amalfi to Ravello “on top of the world” or descend from Ravello to Minori where Stanley Tucci interviewed the pastry chef concocting lemon delights with piles and piles of lemon infused cream in his “Searching for Italy” series.

There is also some water taxi service available and private boat tours are easily arranged. The ferry to Capri can sell out if not booked early. April and May as well as September and October are considered the best months to visit although it was still a bit chilly in late April and not yet swimming weather. Crowds of tourists were already overwhelming the square in Amalfi and there was frequently standing room only on the packed buses. At the end of the day, I found it refreshing to retreat to quieter Praiano by Aperitivo time. Aperitivo is a charming Italian custom for setting aside time in the early evening for a cocktail, such as an Aperol spritz (equal parts Aperol and Prosecco with a splash of soda) and a snack before a later evening meal. Olives, potato chips, little chicken or Caprese skewers, cheese or cured meats are among the most common snacks.

Le Sirenuse – Positano Photo: Brechenmacher & Baumann

The closest point of entry with international flights is Naples and many visitors plan a combined Naples/Amalfi Coast vacation. (It’s also possible to visit Rome for a week instead.) From Naples, it’s most expedient, although expensive, to hire a car service. It is possible to get a train to Sorrento and take a bus or car service from there but rather cumbersome with luggage. Only the most intrepid are brave enough to rent a car and drive themselves. Whatever it takes, make sure you go. The special coastline along the Tyrrhenian Sea has been captivating visitors since ancient Roman times.

In the meantime, have a shot of Limoncello.