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Many of the ships cruising around Italy depart from the port city of Civitavecchia ("Ancient town") – a name that, when pronounced by an Italian, is one of the most euphonious in the language. Located about 60 kilometres north-west of Rome, Civitavecchia is actually much more than just a port: it's a seaside resort town worth a stopover in itself before boarding your ship for ports south in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The original harbour was constructed by Emperor Trajan between 103AD and 110AD, and it abounds in spectacular maritime monuments, from the crumbling Fortino di San Pietro to the majestic Forte Michelangelo, part of which was designed by Michelangelo. Among the modern-day delights are the seafood restaurants, which are kept stocked by the local fishing industry. Try specialities like fish soup, fettuccine allo scoglio, poached baby octopus, periwinkles and stuffed calamari.
Three hundred kilometres south of Civitavecchia is the ancient Campanian city of Naples, renowned for its colourful criminal connections to the Camorra along with its historic, world heritage-listed city centre, which is among the largest in Europe. Then there's the tailoring, shopping and shoes – and, of course, the pizza.
Naples is also within close proximity to Pompeii, Vesuvius and Capri – the latter just a short boat trip to the south. Glamorous visitors, wealthy residents, peerless literary connections, dramatic scenery, stylish street life … Capri has it all and qualifies as one of the world's must-see islands.
Upon arrival at the Marina Grande, it's your choice: cruise up the hill in one of the unique convertible taxis or take the funicular railway to Piazza Umberto I (or, as it's more commonly known, La Piazzetta). While this hub is a great place to get a coffee, a drink or a meal, and to take in some people watching, it's also to be avoided during peak tourist periods.
Meander (there are no cars up here) along the lanes towards the Grand Hotel Quisisana, one of the great places to sit and relax with a cocktail in hand and just watch. From the terrace here you can sit under the oleanders and observe the daily life of Capri, from those taking the evening passeggiata (walk or stroll) to the well-heeled holidaymakers shopping at Prada, Tod's, Bulgari and Gucci. Or shop for some local, unbranded goodies, like the famous handmade sandals, bespoke perfumes, or bottles of limoncello.
From here, the next stop is lemon-scented Sorrento, on the peninsula at the southern end of the Bay of Naples. The trip up the winding road from the port takes you to Piazza Tasso, which is lined with restaurants and is a good place to set off on a walking tour of the maze of winding lanes. These are full of small shops selling ceramics and marquetry (and lemons!), which take in glorious views of Naples, Capri and Mount Vesuvius.
For more intimate views of the street life, grab an outdoor seat at the piazza's Fauno bar and watch the locals going about their business, before getting back aboard for the short trip to the other side of the peninsula and the legendary cliffside village of Positano.
Positano's Marina Grande beachfront is a stretch of dark sand littered with boats and brollies and lined with restaurants and hotels, the most famous of which is the Buca di Bacco. During the 1950s, Positano's dolce vita decade, this establishment hosted a cavalcade of celebs seeking an alternative to Saint-Tropez.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Vittorio De Sica and Laurence Olivier were among those attracted to its beachfront location and view of the dome of the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta, the town's landmark church. Don't miss a visit to the much-loved Marina Grande seafood restaurant Chez Black, where the food is fab and the staff both welcoming and typically cheeky.
This is not, however, a town for the less energetic, as the lanes are steep and car access limited, so be prepared for some strenuous hill climbs in order to explore anywhere above the beach.
Fifty kilometres further east is Salerno, which compared to the other Amalfi Coast towns is positively sprawling. The port is large and easily accessible from the city; the waterfront is fringed by a large park with the main road behind featuring an endless array of restaurants, cafes and bars.
Behind this is a pedestrianised shopping thoroughfare, Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Along this wide avenue you'll find yet more outdoor cafes and restaurants, along with plenty of retail opportunities. The fashion here is, unsurprisingly, right up to the minute (it's Italy, after all). And, also because it's Italy, there are museums, churches and monuments on every corner.
After that, cruise on to Sicily – or, more precisely, Giardini Naxos. This port and seaside resort is close to the hilltop town of Taormina, where you should head for the Caffe Wunderbar. Perfectly positioned next to the Chiesa di San Giuseppe on the Piazza IX Aprile, the cafe is another prime people-watching spot. Taormina drips history and features steep mountains, views of the volcanic Mount Etna, the Ionian coast and ancient amphitheatres.
Having first become popular with tourists in the 19th century, Taormina was rediscovered by an array of photographers, artists and itinerant literary types in the 20th century, including D.H. Lawrence, Truman Capote, Greta Garbo and Cary Grant. No wonder it has remained on the tourist map ever since.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale February 24.