AMALFI COAST…Atrani, Amalfi & Positano

The Amalfi Coast is on the northern coast of a headland the stretches out into the Tyrrhenian Sea, the famous waterway that stretches between the west coast of Italy and Corsica and Sardinia. There are 13 towns and villages on the Amalfi Coast: Amalfi, Atrani, Cetara, Conca de’ Marini, Furore, Maiori, Minori, Positano, Praiano, Ravello, Scala, Tramonti, and Vietri sul Mare. It has been a famous playground destination for European nobility since the 18th century and an extremely popular destination for world travellers over the last century.


I have been lucky enough to have had two visits to this area, one in 2009 and another in 2015. On the first trip my daughter and I caught a train from Naples to Salerno and then a bus over the mountains to the small coastal town of Atrani, just around the headland from the main town of Amalfi. We were watching our budget and stayed in the Ascallanatella Hostel in Atrani, a single room with three beds and an ensuite. It was luxury accommodation compared to the hotel room in Naples where we had stayed the previous night.

The above image of Atrani from the sea gives a fair indication of a typical small village on the south-facing coastline of the Sorrento Peninsula. All the towns sit somewhere in either a small valley carved out of the nearby rocky cliffs or find themselves on a sloping face of the mountain with grand views out over the ocean. If it’s mountain and sea views you are after, combined with idyllic little villages with either beach or fishing access, this is the place for you. If you are also fond of lemons and lemon orchards, they are everywhere along this coast.

The photos of Atrani above and below reveal how lovely the walk around this little town (population 832 in 2020) is. On our first afternoon, we walked past the beautiful Church of Santa Maria Maddalena (see below) built on one of the headlands of Atrani, only the coast road between it and the sea. It was built in 1274 on the ruins of a fortress that had been built in 1100 to defend the citizens of Atrani from Norman aggressors from Sicily.

The origins of the town are unclear. However archaeologists in this valley have found that this area was also affected by the 79CE eruption of Mt Vesuvius. The volcanic debris covered the mountains and the local valley and ruins from that first century pivotal event shows that wealthy Romans were living here at that time. For visitors looking for Roman Ruins outside of Pompei in this area, they can take the short trip from Amalfi down to the town of Minori where they can visit an archaeological site revealing an ancient Roman Villa. They can also go to a newly opened museum in Positano to view another Roman Villa. Otherwise, the first historical document referring to Atrani came at the end of the sixth century when the local bishop received a letter from Pope Gregory I.

We explored the beach front and shoreline of Atrani and then headed back to our accommodation for the requisite afternoon nap; we had decided that we needed some rest before our walk around the headland to Amalfi where we would spend the late afternoon/evening.


The photo below was taken offshore showing the same landscape as the map above. It illustrates how beautiful the town of Amalfi is as it nestles into the end of the ravine that created the valley between the surrounding mountains.

Our walk took us along the sea-front and we were able to turn right in the centre of town and make our way to the crowded Piazza del Duomo in front of Amalfi’s major attraction, the Cathedral of St Andrew. The building of this amazing Cathedral began in the 9th century. It has been added to and redorated over the centuries but its main claim to fame (beside its beautiful  architecture!) is that it houses relics of Saint Andrew.

Whenever questions about Saint’s relics arise, there are always many background stories of how these important bones arrived in a particular church. St Andrew’s relics are to be found in a crypt below the Amalfi Cathedral and they arrived here in the year of 1208. The casual observer might ask if they were a gift ?(in this case, from a Constantinople Church); unfortunately the answer is ‘no’, they were the spoils of war when the Fourth Crusaders decided that Constantinople needed to be sacked in order for these soldiers to be paid their service money they had been promised. A side event happened when an Italian cardinal managed to get hold of St Andrew’s relics and bring them eventually to Amalfi, four years after the Crusaders had come home. Even the Pope of the time was so disgusted with these crusaders that he excommunicated them from the Roman Church. Even an eminent, Medievalist historian, Sir Stephen Runciman, referred to the Fourth Crusade in terms such as…”There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.” One positive to take out of this ghastly story is that more than a thousand years have passed and St Andrew’s bones have not been stolen from the Amalfi Duomo!

The Piazza del Duomo was very crowded with visitors and locals. We took the opportunity to have a look around the cathedral, it was beautiful both inside and outside. It also has a cloister attached to it on the left hand side out the back (see map above) called the Cloister of Paradise. This addition was built sixty years after the cathedral itself was built for the burial of prominent members of the Amalfi Community. In the Piazza in front of the Duomo there is a fountain dedicated to St Andrew, illustrating his most painful life moment, his crucifixion in the city of Patras on the Peloponnese in Greece. Like his brother the Apostle Peter who demanded to be crucified upside down, tradition has it that Andrew was crucified on an ‘X’ shaped cross, not the Latin cross that Jesus was crucified on as he felt he was unworthy of a similar death. With such religious imagery dominating this impressive fountain, I was surprised to see the local clergy also  allowed the use of a nymph’s naked breasts as one of the sources of the fountains waters!

It had been a very enjoyable visit to Amalfi, there was quite the buzz about the place. The walk home itself around the cliffs to Atrani was a great way to end a long day of Amalfi Coast touring.


Our plans for the next morning on the Amalfi Coast were to catch the bus from Atrani to Positano as the fame of this town has spread far and wide as the most photographed town on the coastline. For those interested, a quick look at the map at the start of this blog will show that the only road to Positano is the winding road along the coast. The photo below was taken from a lovely café high up in Positano and the added red arrow gives a sense of the slow bus ride we took that day; occasionally the bus went through tunnels in the headlands which were the only times I felt safe from falling off a cliff to my death in a packed bus. As we had caught the first bus of the morning, we also discovered that this was the time the tourist buses headed out to explore the Amalfi Coast and it was the first ‘Bus-Jam’ I have ever experienced. The image to the right illustrates a regular occurrence as two buses, going in opposite directions, had to sit side by side and wait for the traffic to move.

But the good thing was, we eventually got to Positano and enjoyed our stroll around the town. Below is a typically gorgeous photo of Positano that shows its buildings clinging to the slopes of its valley, almost one breath away from cascading down to the sea. These steep slopes as a place to live have not worried humanity ever since the valley was inhabited by folk back in Paleolithic times, perhaps for as long ago as 50,000 years ago. If they liked a swim in the Tyrrhenian Sea, they didn’t have the huge number of stairways to get them down to the water as modern citizens of this town have available. Excavations in caves in the valley showed that they were fond of molluscs so trips down hill must have been frequent.

In 2009 we spent our morning having a casual stroll around the town and dining in a café with a clear view of the gorgeous town. Such swift visits don’t do justice to places like this and if I get a chance to return, my first stop will be the Santa Maria Assunta Church that can be seen below in the photo on the left, down on the main road that sits above the grey sand beach. In 2009 all I had time for was a quick photo out of the bus window (right, below). The building began as a Benedictine Abbey and was transformed into a Parish Church over the centuries, particularly after the monks left. While the Amalfi Duomo is famous for its relics of St Andrew, this Positano Church is famous for its 13th century Byzantine icon of the Black Madonna. Unlike the dubious provenance of the Amalfi relics, this church has a lovely story of how the icon arrived in its church. Yes, the icon was stolen from Byzantium (Constantinople) by pirates but their ship was caught in a storm off Positano and they were forced to land and hand over the icon to the local church.

However a visit in 2022 to Santa Maria Assunta would be a very different one from what we would have seen in 2009. Presumably the Benedictine monks in the twelfth century chose the location for the abbey as it was the lowest site in town, just over from the beach. What these monks would have noticed was that they built their home over the ruins of a building that had been on this site for almost 1100 years. It was a Roman villa that had been damaged by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 62 CE and after repairs were almost finished, the volcano erupted again in 79 CE and with prevailing winds, dumped two metres of pumice and ash on Positano. Further volcanic material in the days ahead was dumped on this valley and eventually a volcanoclastic flow covered the valley floor and the Roman Villa with 20 metres of debris that solidified into Tuff rock.

Whilst the presence of a Roman building under the church was always known, it is only in the last 20 years that attempts have been made by archaeologists to investigate what remained under the church of the Roman Villa. It has been apparently a very successful process of revealing murals of similar quality to those found in Pompeii. In 2021, a museum has been opened under the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, that takes visitors down almost 10 metres under the church to view some rooms and floors in the villa that have been excavated.

We caught the bus back home from Positano to Atrani and we were lucky that most of the tourist buses had found somewhere else to be then on the coast road. Of course fate was insistent that I didn’t enjoy the Amalfi bus rides so our particular bus was packed and I had to stand up all the way back to Atrani. However we got back to our lodging and had a rest before heading out again.


In the image on the left below, what looked like a small chapel can be seen way up the mountain above the Church spire in Atrani. We set ourselves the challenge of seeing if we could find our way up the mountain to check out what seemed to be a small mountain chapel as well as taking in the views along the coast line.

We assumed nobody would build a chapel on the side of a mountain without ensuring there was a path to reach it. We did fairly well for most of the way; even finding our way through a pedestrian tunnel at the top of the town. We found ourselves on long stairways that took us progressively closer to our chapel destination. The photos below show how close we got to the white mountain chapel but alas we were stopped by a gate across the stairway with only 100 metres to go in our climb. Alas, it was all downhill from there.



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