Boarding the ferry from Salerno to Amalfi are a smattering of Nonnas. True Italian Grandmas. God fearing, son loving, rotund and penguin-like as they waddle to their seats waving hand held fans which stave off searing heat from sun. Heat that, at home, ripens their lemons, an essential ingredient to life over here: lemon granita, cake, cordial, sorbet, veal and of course, Limoncello. The intense syrupy liqueur is more abundant, and cheaper, than fresh water on the Amalfi coast.
The ladies shuffle off the ferry and straight to church. Like lemons, Catholicism is omnipresent in Southern Italy. Today (June 27) is the festival of Saint Andrea. Andrea is said to have miraculously whipped up a fierce storm, which repelled invading Barbarossa pirates from the Ottoman Empire. Had Barbarossa succeeded, the Nonnas of Amalfi would be clinging to the Quran, not the bible, and Limoncello would be the beverage of infidels rather than locals.
As a tourist in Amalfi, I’m a little like an infidel (albeit, a common one), and for that, there is a small price to pay. My cab to the hotel cost me 40 Euro; the next day, 20 Euro. Then I discovered the bus - 2 Euro. Now, a couple of days into the groove, I pay nothing! That, by the way, might explain the parlous state of the Italian economy.
The destination of my cab and bus rides is worth any price. Ravello is as magnificent as the millions of photos before mine suggest. Five star views of Amalfi, Positano, Capri and beyond are produced after a perilous five kilometre climb on a road no wider than two outstretched arms. The town itself is charming, romantic and salubrious. And littered with celebrities.
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg dined at our table at the famed Palazzo Sasso. The restaurant boasts two Michelin stars, and I can tell you, the Facebook founder didn’t go hungry. Hollywood heartthrob Josh Hartnet was seen in an amorous embrace on the balcony of Hotel Rufolo, and the stars that have graced the hotel that I stayed in…well they deserve another paragraph.
“Gore Vidal, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Matt Dillon. They have all stayed here,” boasts Vincenzo Palumbo, owner of Villa Maria (and quite a bit more), as he proudly escorts me through a star-studded photo album of guests and friends.
“Ed Norton, he is a friend of my son. Edward is here now.”
True, I saw Ed at breakfast. I took some photos and tried to flog them to Entertainment Tonight. They weren’t interested. You see, there’s nothing unusual about the rich and the famous staying at Villa Maria: “they are here all the time,” says Vincenzo as he flicks through his photo album to reveal a picture of himself alongside someone most Australian’s wouldn’t know if they’d tripped over him. But in Italy, tripping over Giulio Andreotti is not advised.
“He had fantastic humour…he came here with the daughter of the King of Spain for a big party.”
According to Vincenzo, Andreotti was “the strongest man in Italy.”
He was, but his power didn’t herald from the fact he’d been Italy’s Prime Minister seven times. More likely his power, and his Prime Ministerships, stemmed from being one of Italy’s most notorious Mafia figures.
Charged and convicted (and later, acquitted on appeal) with murdering anti-Mafia journalist Mino Pecorelli and convicted of connections with the Mafia, I’m keen to know what Andreotti ate for breakfast? If he’d paid his mini bar? If there had been anyone or anything else sharing his bed – a horse’s head?
“Well, no one really knows… everybody kisses in Italy,” Vincenzo says, in reference to an infamous, secret meeting, at which, Andreotti was witnessed imparting the familiar salutation on the cheek of none other than the boss of the Cosa Nostra Mafia family – longtime supporters of Italy’s most powerful politicians and frequenters of only the best hotels.
The Mafia intrigues me. I have just finished reading Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily – a riveting read – but this is 2012, I am in Ravello and I really ought to rest my wild imagination and head down to Amalfi for a swim. I hail a cabbie who agrees to take me, and just as quickly, withdraws the offer.
Curbside, a lady waves her finger.
“He should know better, there’ll be trouble if he takes you, this is not his region.”
Intrigued, I lean into the taxi window for explanation:
“I can’t pick you up here, sorry.”
“If I walk 100 metres down the road, can you pick me up there?”
“Oh yes, good idea, you intelligent man… but go quietly.”
Discreetly, I scamper 100 metres down the road and sure enough, he picks me up and I ask him:
“Is this a mafia turf thing…?”
“As I said before, you, very intelligent man.”
Where there is smoke there is fire and unfortunately for Italy, the fire of Mafia influence remains. For tourists it is largely unseen, novel, and the stuff of books. For locals, it remains very real.
But enough about the secrets and shadows, let’s focus back on Vincenzo. He owns Villa Maria perched a-top Ravello, Hotel Giordano (another spectacular hotel two doors down from Maria), and he recently acquired the late Gore Vidal’s La Rondinaia. Dream real estate, costing 17 million Euros, carved into the side of a cliff. Multiple bedrooms, vertigo inspiring views and gardens which have hosted Bill Clinton and before him, Jackie Kennedy. It has provenance and Vincenzo wants to capitalise.
“We hope this will be a very exclusive private hotel and wedding venue.”
Why not? Everywhere you look in Ravello, couples are saying their vows in ancient churches, kissing on balconies and hosting receptions in manicured gardens overflowing with prosecco, prosciutto and the promise of wedded bliss.
“We can organise everything, we have a wedding planner – everything they need” says Vincenzo. I believe him. A couple nights earlier I attended a wedding at Villa Eva. Yes, Vincenzo owns this joint as well. It is every superlative and more, and, with the strength of the Aussie Dollar, a lot more affordable than ever before.
The price begins at $120 per person and climbs from there, as did the bride, as she scaled the steps of Villa Eva to look down to her newlywed like Juliet reaching out for Romeo. It was the dream wedding and visitor figures suggest Aussies are realising their fantasies in droves.
The province of Salerno (which includes Amalfi, Positano and Ravello) has seen a 105 percent increase in arrivals from Australians.
"You are all very welcome”, says the owner of Da Adolfo restaurant, Sergio Bella.
Hidden on a pebbly little beach a short boat ride from Positano, Da Adolfo is the perfect hangover cure to last night’s matrimonial excess. It’s a bare foot kind of place where everyone is equal – across from my table, there’s Edward Norton again.
It’s tough escaping celebrity on the Amalfi coast. Like Ed’s slurping on spaghetti and singing alongside a table of drunken Spaniards boldly celebrating last night’s win over Italy in the European cup. The atmosphere is festive; the food is simple, cheap and delicious. I return to Villa Maria with a belly full of Carpaccio, Vongole and crisp Rose.
My stay in Ravello is almost over but before I go, Vincenzo has one more thing to show me - the presidential suite. The doors open to reveal an expansive room with balcony and more priceless views, and as if that weren’t enough, Vincenzo adds: “Mussolini stayed here.”
Why not? If I were a dictator, I’d stay here too.