Ravello Gardens: Villa Rufolo

Despite that face this was our favorite meal in all our travels. Those poor people in the way back are hoping for a table.

Here is a great tragedy. The best meal of the trip and I have no idea what the place was called. All the food in Italy except for the world’s best pizza was well made, fresh, and delicious but it was all almost exactly the same. Every menu had the same fish dishes, the same pasta dishes. I must of eaten pasta alla’Amatriciano four times. Then there were pizza. I love pizza. I love bacon. If I had to pick a meal it would be like asking me to tell you if my Little Grandma’s risotto was better than my Big Grandma’s meatballs. I couldn’t say. It was all the best. Also, it’s not like we ate out every meal. We were hiking and eating cheese, salami, and crackers at lunch many days and then home cooked meals for most dinners. Then finally, as we were nearing the end of our Amalfi area stay, we were in a town at lunch by ourselves. We could fit in anywhere. Needing to seat eight at a meal drives you to a certain type of restaurant, too.

After our tour of the gardens at Villa Cimbrone we were hungry. The route back to the main plaza follows a narrow two person wide walled pathway for about a kilometer. There are probably side routes but I was learning to stick to the way I knew. Along the way we passed a couple of cafes with the usual pizza, pannini, and pasta offerings. Nothing looked interesting until we found an art gallery/cafe. They were offering simple open faced sandwiches and salads. There were four tables, one waitress and a cook. Burt was suspicious of the atmosphere. I insisted. It was splendid. We split two open faced sandwich plates, one meatball and the other a goat cheese with caramelized onion. Thick toasted slices of bread supported mountains of meatballs and cheese. There were some fresh salad greens in between. It was less than $20. We were fortified for a couple more hours of touring.

Our last sightseeing in Ravello was the Villa Rufolo. We were burned out by this point. We’d been looking at the Bay of Salerno for a week. Yes, it’s gorgeous. Yes, those are nice ruins. Whatev….The Villa Ravello would have been more interesting on day one. The tower offers fantastic views of the coast. You can tell there’s some burnout because your blogger hardly caught a photo. We made a half hearted attempt to enjoy the gardens but peak flowering was over and we’d just come from the more interesting Villa Cimbrone. Then we spotted the stage. Now we have a mission.

Ravello is the site of a world famous music festival called Ravello Festival. People from all walks of life and all styles of music have played at this festival. Originally it was started ate Villa Rufolo with Wagner’s operas. Now it has events all over town and the coast. At Villa Rufalo there is a stage that hangs out over the cliffs with the mountains and sea as the backdrop. The Gypsy Carpenters want to play that stage. If we can’t do that we want to build that stage in Portal. I’m thinking we can do it at that house nobody likes on the cliff above town. Put it to some civic use. The stage left us with a burning desire to practice and get good enough that last all of 45 minutes. There’s no hope really. We watched a movie of the history of the festival (our favorite part of the Villa Rufolo tour) and realized we didn’t have a chance of joining the company of Sting, Pavarotti, and Malcovich. But Portal….

The movie on the music festival’s history was highly entertaining. Footage starts in the 1930s. Nobody is smiling. The women are heavy and tightly wrapped.  It looks like it was very unfashionable to enjoy life. The music is all Wagner Opera. Then the 1940s are conveniently not mentioned and footage resumes in the early 1950s. People look a lot happier. Princess Grace, Alfred Hitchcock, Gore Vidal, Frank Sinatra all make appearances in the audience. Clothing is less cumbersome. People have teeth. Other styles of music start to be performed on the floating stage. It all looks very grand. I’m pretty sure I’m not even going to be able to be in the audience here. Oh well. I saw the movie.

Art in our favorite cafe
Entry to Villa Rufolo.
Entry tower to Villa Rufolo.
Tower at Villa Rufolo.
Tower at Villa Rufolo.
A light show uses technology to bring the painting back to life. Villa Rufolo.
A light show uses technology to bring the interior paintings back to life. Villa Rufolo.
Search Ravello and this is the scene they show. Villa Rufolo.
Search Ravello and this is the scene they show. Villa Rufolo.



Ravello Gardens: Villa Cimbrone

Cimbrone Gardens

Our last day in the Amalfi area was spent touring the gardens of Ravello. Burt and I walked over again via the Mugger’s Way path through shrubs and litter from Scala to Ravello. The looks on the local’s faces when we would pop out of the underbrush was worth the anxiety of being rolled.

First up was the garden we would see from Villa Minuta. Towards the sea from Ravello is a shockingly large expanse of flat land that is uninhabited. From our vantage we could discern that it was not wild land but somewhat manicured. The large trees appeared too symmetric to be nature grown. It turned out we were looking at the Gardens of Villa Cimbrone. The villa was built in the 12th Century. A cimbronium in Roman times was land where timber for ships was produced. This pieces of real estate was so valuable for timber, grazing, and farming that it was never built upon. The Amalfi nobles knew it was more valuable in production than as a residence. Besides, it was safer living inside walled towns. This spot was very desirable for much of the areas history but by the end of the 19th century Italy had been replaced as a manufacturing giant (See history of the U.S.) and the land was neglected.

This land was abandoned until it was noticed by Ernest William Beckett, Lord Grimthorpe, a grieving widower following the way of the Grand Tour. Naples, with Pompeii and Vesuvius was frequently the final stop in the Grand Tour. Here is how the New York Times in 2008 described the Grand Tour:

Three hundred years ago, wealthy young Englishmen began taking a post-Oxbridge trek through France and Italy in search of art, culture and the roots of  Western Civilization. With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent.

— Gross, Matt., “Lessons From the Frugal Grand Tour.” New York Times 5 September 2008.
Friends had encouraged the Lord Grimthorpe to visit Ravello and he fell in love with the place. In 1904 the Lord bought the Villa Cimbrone with the intention of bringing the land back to life and making it the most beautiful place in the world. Nicola Mansi, native of Ravello, helped make the dream come true. What remains today is a jumbled mix of architectural styles from different eras and regions of the world. Greek and Roman gods and goddesses reign side by side in English rose gardens and Persian tea houses. Eve is relegated to a bare cliff side cave. As the official brochure describes it is a ‘reinterpretation of a “roman villa”.’ The place is lovely and fun. I can almost here then restoration team saying, “And over here we’ll put David, no not that David, the other David.” The brochure and map is the best piece of tourism literature we found in all of Italy, and Spain for that matter. Each sculpture and garden is well marked and had a blurb.
Just below the Terrace of Infinity is a coffee shop. Burt and I sat in the shade at a wrought iron table. He had a coffee and I had a thick Italian-style hot chocolate. We enjoyed the view and the quiet. I imagined a noble woman living here in times gone by. Women of high birth were essentially prisoners of their status. They couldn’t go anywhere alone. See previous post. They would spend days wandering their gardens. It was a very pretty prison but I would still want to escape.
Presently the land and villa are privately held. The villa is used as a hotel. The expansive gardens are open to the public for a reasonable fee.
Statue of Ceres
Statue of Ceres with the Terrace of Infinity.
Mercury. The sandal looks decorative at best. I’m leaning towards S&M.
Bacchus and a satyr. Bacchus is the kid.
Eve’s Grotto. The glass is to protect her. We can’t get any closer than this due to a fence. You can see the bars in the reflection.
David and Goliath. Imitation of Verrocchio.
Detail of Goliath.
I was peeking.
Rose garden
Not in the guide. Or maybe, Flora, goddess of flowers and spring.
David, again, copy of Donatello.
The crypt view towards the Mediterranean.
The crypt makes a good scene for a duel or wedding. Both? For a period of time the villa was a monastery.
View from the Terrace of Infinity. This spot is considered by some to be the best place in all the world.

Finally a walk in Ravello

Short Cut to Ravello
Short Cut to Ravello

After the four mile morning hike Burt and I enjoyed a swim in the Villa Minuta pool and a nap. That evening we dined with the family. Time was slipping by quickly. Half way through our stay on the Amalfi coast and we hadn’t been over to explore the town we thought where we thought we would be living. Despite our sore feet I convinced Burt to walk to Ravello with me that evening. It was practically the solstice so we had a lot of day light left.

Like most of the enclaves on the Amalfi coast that seem so close today but before cars and good roads were actually very far apart, Ravello was founded in the 5th century as a safe place against the ‘barbarians’ of the north who came streaming in with the fall of the Roman Empire.  By the 9th century Ravello had become an important town. It was a part of the republic of Amalfi. Ravello was famous as a producer of wool and was a trade center for the next 300 years.  In the 11th century tensions arose between Amalfi and Ravello (now it seems hilarious, they are less than 5 miles apart) and Pope Victor III split the two by designating Ravello a diocese of its own, separated from the Archdiocese of Amalfi. Divide and conquer worked for the popes, too. I’ll bet these two towns are archenemies on the soccer field today.

Ravello was very rich and had a lot of nobility. Like other cities of former wealth it leaves us today with a lot of big building nobody can afford to heat or clean. These buildings are fun to see. Italian republics were always fighting among themselves and eventually the Republic of Pisa came and destroyed the community. The population dispersed to Naples and the other nearby flat lands. e Now we have lovely tourist town that retains its ancient feel. Steep terrain prevents urban sprawl and suburbia. Much of the beauty currently on display was restored at the turn of the 20th century by the rich wanderers of Great Britain. More on that later.

Burt and I had a choice of routes to get to Ravello. We could walk around at a gentle downhill grade for about a mile and a half and share the narrow road with vehicles. Or, we could follow footpaths and stairs in a steep up and down but slightly shorter route with no cars. We opted to follow the footpaths. It was clear right away that once upon a time a governing body had tried to promote the paths. There were light fixtures and handrails but there were no light bulbs in the light fixtures and vegetation was encroaching on the walks. A local gave a us a funny look when we popped off the street and headed into the shadowy and heavily over grown path. I told Burt she knew how many people had gone in and never came out. Burt and I moved rapidly and chatted nervously. I wondered why I had agreed to take the road less traveled as dusk. Under all the leaves and vines I could make out the infrastructure or an urban park. Put this spot in NYC and you would know it was home to hookers and addicts and avoid it if you could. If we had been mugged we would have only ourselves to blame. We climbed out as fast as we could.

Ravello was lovely as the evening came. Burt and I looked out over the sea and found the roof of our villa across the gulch we had just traveled. We did some shopping. I picked out a pair of blue suede loafers (Thanks, Dad) and a star covered woolen shawl (Thanks, Burt) as my birthday presents. We had some gelato. This was where hazelnut overtook pistachio as my favorite flavor of gelato. And we explored the Ravello Cathedral.

Ravello has a large piazza with the obligatory church. Since the pope did that thing way back when the church is actually a cathedral. The Ravello piazza is open on one side with views off to the Mediterranean. Opposite the view sits the cathedral. From the outside the church is bland. It was built in 11th Century. The latest restoration was ill-conceived and left the exterior looking like a shiny white box. Inside is another story. First you pass through giant bronze doors by Barisano da Trani. The doors were added in 1179. There are only a few examples of this style of door left in Italy. This particular one depicts scenes from the New Testament and Saints. I remember learning all about this style of door from in art history class. Here’s a link to a famous feud over more recent doors. The link for Barisano da Trani also has an interesting story and nice detail photos.

The interior of the church has undergone many restorations over the centuries. It has medieval and romantic effects and also shows Moorish and Greek influences.  On either side are two works of art from the Middle Ages. On the right is a what I have seen called a pergamo and a pulpit. Pergamo means fortess. I think it refers to the pulpit being like a fortress. The pulpit was created by Niccolò da Foggia in 1272 and is covered with intricate mosaics and supported by six spiral columns on top of marble lions. The lions are male and female. The females are clearly in estrus. I’ve tried to find out more about da Foggia but it is all in Italian. Click on the link for more detailed photos. It is an incredible piece of art.

On the other side of the church is something some sites call an ambone and others call a pulpit dating from 1130 with mosaic decorations showing Jonah and the Whale. I thought it was a confessional. What do I know? Regardless of what you might call it, I am smitten by the whale. I liked that it had feet and wings and it reminded me of the land whale fossils with feet. Burt reminded me that early version of the bible called the whale a sea monster. Here in a sea-faring region the sea monster story would have been very relevant. I am particularly charmed with how calm and well fed regurgitated Jonah appears.

Burt and I, of course, knew none of this at the time of our visit. There were, as usual, no interpretive signs. I compild all this today while trying to figure out what we saw. Despite our ignorance of the facts and history we were savvy enough to be amazed about the art we encountered in the cathedral. I say visit Ravello. I’ll give you more reasons soon. Afterwards we walked home by the same deep, dark path. Burt’s fear of cars beat our my fear of muggers.

Bronze Door at Ravello Cathedral
Bronze Door at Ravello Cathedral. Saint George, upper left. Archer and Fighters. About St. George, Pope Gelasius said, “He is among the saints whose names are justly revered among men, but whose actions are known only to god.” That’s pretty funny. P.S. the Catholic church says don’t take the dragon literally. Here it looks like a snake with rabbit ears.


Detail on the door at Ravello Cathedral
Detail on the door at Ravello Cathedral. Elijah. He’s too complicated a character for me to sum up.
Inside the Ravello Cathedral
Inside the Ravello Cathedral. This structure is called a perganum. Not to be confused with pergola.
Somebody’s in heat.
Regurgitation of Jonah
Jonah being eaten.
Regurgitation of Jonah?
Regurgitation of Jonah.
Our walk home through Scala at night.
Our walk home through Scala at night.

Amalfi Arrival

Looking at Ravello
The view towards Ravello. It’s only a couple hundred yards away. If you’re a bird.

The eight person Zazzali family had split into two groups for the Vatican tour. One group of three and the other of three. Sometime after lunch we all reconvened at the Trastaverde apartment. Christian ran off on foot to get our euro-style family van while his wife and daughter went shopping. Van collecting was more efficient than expected and we wound up waiting for the shoppers to return home. No biggie. Burt, Dad and I played pinochle. Chris waited at the rental place and Matt and Parker continued with on-line activities. I only mention it because the delay caused us to arrive in Amalfi after dark.

The drive from Rome to Minuta is about three hours by the most direct route. You can choose to follow the seaside highway but you add three more hours and only a few more miles of showy Mediterranean views. Chris’ plan was sound. The timing was a little off. Darkness adds a degree of difficulty and it further slowed our progress as we tried to navigate. I was monitoring via GPS from the back seat when things suddenly shifted and rerouted and roadsigns were impossible to see. We did some backtracking thinking we were lost when in fact we’d been on route the entire time. Add some teenaged sarcasm. It was not as bad as it could have been but people were getting carsick. Too dark to see and too many faces pointed at screens and every screen telling us a slightly different way to go. Now add difficulty getting through to the person opening the villa for us. Our planned early evening arrival was headed towards midnight.

I now realize the vague address and instructions for how to arrive were so people planning a trip would not discover that Minuta Villa was nearly a kilometer from the road. Imagine if you Google earthed the location and saw it was a several hundred yard walk down steep medieval stone stairs? This might convince some people to look elsewhere for accommodations.  We found this out at 11:00 PM. Signora Pina met us in the public parking area and in Italian conveyed that the car was to be parked yet a few more hundred yards away after we discharged our luggage. That was quite a trudge down into the walls of the Minuta village to find our beds. Only mild grumbling could be heard. Mostly we were shocked. Everyone was fit enough to make the expedition. I think Chris had to do it twice to get the families stuff in. Little did we know more lessons were coming.

Chris booked Villa Minuta because it promised 5 bedrooms and even more bathrooms with wifi, pool, kitchen, beautiful gardens, and access to Amalfi and Ravello. In fact, we thought we would be pretty much in Ravello. Well…Ravello was 40 minutes away on foot, but it was a nice walk. Burt and I got very good at it.

Morning came and with the light we could see the places we thought we would be walking to for food and entertainment. Well we did walk to them. It just took a lot more time than expected. Even if we wanted to drive, parking is so terrible that you only saved half the walk. About 10:00 AM the English speaking Lydia came to explain the house rules and collect the damage deposit. I was the only member of the entire entourage willing to listen or at least sit and nod politely as if I was listening. This became a point of contention when nobody else knew what was happening and it turned out I hadn’t really been paying close attention.

Right away we realized we had a problem. We were a ten minute walk from the car and a twenty minute walk from a restaurant that wasn’t always open. It was a holiday and we were very far from any grocery stores. The only stores Lydia mentioned for staples were actually bodegas where a bottle of wine was $25 and pasta for 8 would have broken the bank, never mind cleaned out the shelves. We tried to figure out how to get food. It would have been helpful if they had mentioned to bring food from the other side of the mountain. We’d driven through a town right before heading over the pass that would lead to our tiny cliff top abode.

We hatched a plan to go to Ravello and look around. We’d drive. Chris dropped Kernan, Burt, Dad, and me off at town’s edge. He went to park the car. Forty minutes later we had found no store and Chris was only just making it back on foot from his parking spot. On the up side, I found a bakery and bought some food for breakfast. Brilliant Burt said let’s drive back over the mountain and find a real store and get some real supplies. So we did. It took 2 hours of driving and 45 minutes of shopping but it all worked out in the end. Dad and Chris thought we’d bought too much food but they were wrong. For $250 we fed the whole family for almost the whole week. Only two dinners were professionally prepared. The wine was $2 a bottle instead of $25.

With the food stowed and bellies full Burt and I headed out to explore. That’s what we did for the next seven days. We walked up and down from Villa Minuta and saw all we could see on foot. The van was nearly useless for routine errands because parking was impossible. The bus only stopped a couple of times a day and was a twenty minute walk away. We could practically walk to town by the time we figured out the bus schedule and made any arrangements to meet it. So we walked.

Details on our walks to follow.

Villa Minuta from the gardens
Villa Minuta from the gardens
Looking to the Mediterranean
Looking to the Mediterranean. Another pleasant walk to town. 1500′ below.
Villa Minuta entryway
Villa Minuta entryway
The Minuta Villa gardens
The Minuta Villa gardens
Chicken and eggplant parmesan
Chicken and eggplant Parmesan.