The Amalfi Coast is probably one of the most treasured vacation spots in Italy. It takes its name, of course, from the town of Amalfi, which sits just south of Positano and north of Ravello on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It may seem odd now, but this seemingly small, hidden away city was once one of the strongest, most powerful ports on the Mediterranean. That’s why it has such a huge, grand cathedral: the importance of the church matched the importance of the town.
The casual visitor, however – the busy tourist making their way down the Amalfi Coast towns by bus in a single day - most likely sees nothing more than the beach and the two main streets filled with tourist shops and cafés that lead away from it toward the cliffs. “What more is there?” you ask?
I asked myself that, too, the first time I visited this beautiful little seaside town. Where do all the people live? Is there more to Amalfi than what you see when you get off the bus, or does it exist just for this trickle (or flood, in the summer months) of tourism?
In December of 2013, I returned to Amalfi for the second time, this time with my parents. I was posing these idle questions to my mother as we walked down one of the main streets in front of the duomo when she stopped and pointed at a wooden sign posted on the wall of an alley we were about to pass by. It read, “The Ancient Staircases.” “Let’s find out,” she said.
So we did. We climbed, and we climbed, and then we climbed some more (Need a sure fire way to stay fit? Move to Amalfi!). In the narrow, winding streets that were shaded by the tall, pastel-colored buildings on either side, we passed homes with toys left by the front door and laundry hung from the windows, a dentist and several other offices and even a public recreation facility. Sometimes the walkway became a tunnel. It went sideways and up and around and down again. There were places where all you could see were the buildings around you and others where the majestic cliffs that protected the city for centuries suddenly loomed above you when you turned a corner.
We wandered the back streets of Amalfi for a while without seeing anyone before finally descending once more to join the tourists buying limoncello and olive oil soaps near the beach. I had discovered my favorite part of the town, though, in the narrow alleys hidden away behind the well-tread main thoroughfares.