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Siren Call

The Amalfi Coast is a land of legends. According to Homer, it was on the islands surrounding the Amalfi Coast that Ulysses met the Sirens, those mythical creatures of the sea that seduced sailors with their lovely voices and then led them to their demise. But it’s no myth that the area has long been a siren call for the rich and famous, from Roman emperors to Sofia Loren.

This tiny peninsula, jutting out of the west coast of Italy somewhere around the shin of Italy’s boot, is shaped by a small mountain range running down its center. The mountains’ rocky outcroppings and sharp cliffs make for nice scenery but also very difficult travel. As a result, the peninsula’s earliest towns – many dating to the Roman Empire, or earlier – were built almost exclusively along the water, and the primary means of transportation around the peninsula was by boat. At least one town was settled by Romans who were shipwrecked off the coast and decided to stay where they washed ashore. Despite the difficulty of getting around, the peninsula was a popular vacation spot for Roman nobility, including emperors; they built villas on cliffsides and planted vineyards for wine and olive groves for oil.

In the middle ages, the towns on the peninsula became prosperous and powerful trading posts. But their location on the water also made them vulnerable to invaders and pirates, and the land changed hands many times. In the 1300s, the plague and a minor tsunami devastated the area and it reverted back into a sleepy backwater.

Fast-forward to the 1800s: French and English travelers on their Grand Tour of Europe rediscovered the beauty of the Amalfi Coast. Roads connecting the towns were built for the first time, and it’s been drawing tourists and writers and artists and celebrities ever since.

The roads winding through the peninsula make travel there only nominally easier. They are quite an engineering feat, with tunnels and hairpin turns and bridges clinging to the cliffs, hundreds of feet above crashing waves. Most of them are two lanes in name only, and navigating the curves requires a fair amount of silent negotiation among passing vehicles. That tour buses traverse these roads is both remarkable and terrifying. Of course, it’s hard to appreciate the genius and hard work that went into building them when you’re trying not to regurgitate your breakfast. These curves are not for the faint of stomach.

If you can survive the trip without losing your lunch, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views, charming towns, and some truly delightful hidden gems. In the tiny fishing village of Nerano, near the tip of the peninsula, there are two Michelin-starred restaurants and several other worthy contenders (and really nothing else). People will arrive by boat in the small harbor (boats still being the easiest way to get around, to be honest) just to eat at its many good restaurants. At one unassuming spot, we were assured we could have a simple lunch. Well, our “simple” meal was a feast of the most beautifully-presented seafood I’ve ever seen. It’s a mystery how this speck of land could attract so many excellent chefs; perhaps, like the Romans, they just washed ashore with the tide.

These kinds of destinations are impossible to discover with high-speed travel; you need time to reach them and time to appreciate them. And if you like to be constantly engaged with a steady stream of new museums and sights and activities, a place like the Amalfi Coast will drive you mad. But if you’re looking for a place just to be still – and to enjoy some outstanding food – follow the lead of the Roman emperors and head for the coast.

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