Back on the Amalfi Coast there was one more stop on the boat ride I had signed up for – Amalfi, the village the coast is named after. Actually, we had stopped in Amalfi first and then gone on to Positano, so I’m not sure how I ended up writing about Positano first. Maybe that’s why I don’t usually do the group thing. It puts my brain into some kind of energy-saving mode. Like the last car I rented in France. Every time I put on the brakes, I thought it had stalled, but it was just some new-fangled eco feature.
In ogni caso, the stretch of coastline between Positano and Amalfi is my favourite part of the costiera. Apart from the scenery, which is of course bellissimo, an extremely pleasant way to while away the time is to play ‘spot the coastal road’.
Unlike Positano, Amalfi is spread out at sea level. This would have been convenient back in the 6th century when it was on its way to becoming a powerful, maritime republic – at one time rivalling the much larger Pisa and Genoa – but the low-lying location made it vulnerable to attack by various invaders from the sea – Normans, pirates, the King of Sicily and eventually Pisa. It also made it vulnerable to attack by the sea itself. In 1343, a tsunami created by an earthquake in the Bay of Naples, swept away most of the village.
When Amalfi was rebuilt, it turned its back on the sea. The heart of the village lies behind the more modern buildings strung out along the shore. To get from the ferry landing to the Medieval centro storico you cross the bus terminal and follow one of several narrow lanes to the main piazza. This is not always as easy as it may sound.
The narrow lanes of medieval towns and villages throughout Italy often give no hint of what lies beyond the next corner. The campanile, with its turrets and green and yellow tiles, is an obvious point of interest, but surprisingly, the crowds don’t seem to be giving it much attention.
It’s not until you round the corner of Antichi Sapori di Amalfi (Ancient Flavours of Amalfi – fabulous pastries and a great spot for people watching) that you see why Amalfi’s main piazza is called Piazza del Duomo.
The interior of the cathedral is as sumptuous as the façade promises – a fantastical mix of Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque, as well as a few modern embellishments cover just about every square inch of the interior – walls, floors and ceilings. But I’m on the Group Tour schedule and visited the church on a previous trip, so instead I head for the north end of town.
During the Middle Ages, Amalfi’s merchants became immensely wealthy trading exotic goods throughout the Mediterranean. Salt, gold, spices, precious carpets and silk formed the basis of their trading activities, but there was one more product, introduced to them by the Arabs, that was to have perhaps the most lasting influence on the village’s economy – the art of paper making. The Museo della Carta is a restored paper mill.
Up until then, the wishes and decrees of kings, popes and other dignitaries had been recorded on pergamena (parchment) which was made from the skins of goats, calves and sheep. The Arabs had discovered – or, more probably, learned from the Chinese – how to make paper with rags, which were much cheaper and easier to work with.
As I walked along the oddly named Via Genova – Genoa was once an arch rival – the crowds thinned until, by the time I reached the museum, there wasn’t a tourist in site. The young woman standing behind the cash register – whoever came up with the ‘entrance cum gift shop’ layout should have put a patent on it – was not at all put out at the thought of leading a tour for just one person – in italiano was absolutely fine with me, I told her. She just asked if I minded waiting a couple of minutes while she finished some business she had been working on. I could have a look around the store.
Just as we were about to head down to the museum, an English woman burst through the door, and trailing behind her was a group of seniors. The guide looked at me. The tour would have to be in English. She hoped that was OK with me. Of course it was. I could hardly insist she do a tour in two languages just because I find it much more interesting to listen to Italians speak in their own language.
For the best quality paper, only rags made of natural fibres from plants like cotton and hemp are used. Since the desired end result is a whitish hue, coloured rags are first soaked in animal urine which, apparently, contains ammonia, a natural bleach. Then all the rags are beat to a pulp – literally – by a series of beams that look like giant mortars. Or if you’re more mechanically inclined than I, giant pistons.
We weren’t given a demonstration of either of these steps. The first, because, well… and the second, the beating to a pulp, because the entire museum was in the middle of (yet another) power outage, so there was hardly any light down here – which is also why these photos are so grainy. I have to confess that on hearing this news, I was more concerned about my stomach, than grainy photos. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried – the power outage did not extend to the lower part of town where all the restaurants are. As for the photos…
Instead we skipped straight to the next step, which involved stirring the mashed-up rags in a huge, stone vat. Once they reached the right consistency, our guide handed a wooden tray to the lucky lady who happened to be standing closest to her.
I described the volunteer as lucky because, for her efforts, she got to keep the sheet of paper she had ‘made’. Now that is my kind of souvenir and I know I wasn’t the only one who was feeling a twinge from the little green monster, because when the guide handed it to her, there was a faint, collective sigh. I wondered if she shared her momento with the others.
My guess is that few leave that dark cellar without at least a marginally greater appreciation for a product we often use with such reckless abandon. Now it was time for lunch. I headed back to the centre of town.
Nowadays Amalfi’s economy is based not on paper, but on tourism. There are lots of simple trattorias and bars where you can get a pizza or panino, but I was in the mood for a treat.
Da Gemma is an upscale restaurant. It would fit in perfectly in Ravello or Positano, but here in the more down-to-earth, grittier Amalfi, it struck me as something of an anomaly. I had been tempted on my last trip, but given my usual suspicion of the lone high-end restaurant, in the end had gone for a place that was more in keeping with the overall feeling of the town. The food had been acceptable, but nondescript. I had vowed then, that if I ever returned, I would eat at Da Gemma. Go for the splurge. Anomaly or not. Besides, at lunch, when all I usually want is an antipasto and glass of wine, I figured it couldn’t be that much of a splurge.
There always seemed to be something going on. And it was vastly more relaxing watching from above than being in the mix. And then the food arrived.
I had ordered Pomodori a tre modi. Tomatoes three ways.
And after lunch I still had time for a leisurely stroll before it was time to board the boat and head west, back to Sorrento and closer to my next destination – Capri.