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Everyone has seen pictures of Amalfi’s spectacular coastline—now a UNESCO world heritage site—that stretches from Sorrento to Salerno, south of the mountainous and fertile peninsular that encloses the Bay of Naples. Engraved with the remnants of bygone eras and steeped in heroic legends, a number of ancient and medieval ports cling to the sides of a sheer, rocky rampart upon which defence structures—typical of those times of political instability—religious buildings, or splendid residences, testifying to prosperous eras, are superimposed. Today, it is tourism and Italian cuisine that sets the pace in the steep and narrow streets of these hillside towns dressed in tones of white, yellow and ochre. The Palazzo Suriano is a genuinely period guest house, a haven of peace, and the perfect setting from which to discover one of Italy’s cultural treasures.
Old houses allow history to permeate the senses. © Palazzo Suriano
A Roman Bronze of Mercury the messenger—Amalfi. © Brenda Kean
If the first colonizers of these cliffs were the Etruscans followed by the Romans, it was not until the end of antiquity that these small isolated ports became urbanized. During the 5th century, the Goth invasions forced the Roman communities to find refuge in this virtually inaccessible landscape. It was at this time that Amalfi was established. It became one of the first fortified towns to be constructed on the coast, which up to the ninth century, enabled its inhabitants to resist Lombard attacks.
Amalfi and its extraordinary terraced agglomeration of houses. ©Aleksandrs Tihonovs
Amalfi’s conquest in 838 by Sicard, Prince of Benevento was short-lived, and the region, weakened by Neapolitan attacks (then a Byzantine province) and Saracen pirates, fell into chaos. Amalfi took advantage of the situation by declaring itself an independent republic, a statute that, long before other maritime republics such as Genoa, Pisa, or Venice, allowed the town to develop a large network of trade routes throughout the Tyrrhenian Sea and to dominate Italian maritime commerce until the 11th century. Its mercantile fleet ensured a link with Levantine ports, which accounts for the oriental imprint in the region’s coastal architecture. It was a prosperous period—Amalfi was even elevated to the status of Duchy—which was cut short by the Normans who progressively took control of southern Italy.
Amalfi and its port today, between waves and cliffs © Leandero Neumann Ciuffo
Amalfi’s next-door neighbour, Salerno, was the capital of the Duchy of Benevento under the Lombards. Its princes ruled over a vast area, and they were determined to dominate all southern Italy. But Muslim attacks and internal rivalries weakened their hold, and Salerno and its possessions fell into Norman hands. The Kingdom of Sicily, founded by the Normans, was also subject to many conflicts. The armies of German emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, those of the Duke of Anjou, the King of France’s brother, as well as The King of Aragon’s forces, would successively sweep across the region in an attempt to subjugate the kingdom’s sovereign. Under the rule of the Sanseverino princes, Salerno tried to maintain its power, but lacking allies it soon lost ground to Naples. In the centuries that followed, Salerno remained in the control of the princes, but at the beginning of sixteenth century, the last prince of the dynasty, Ferdinando (Ferrante), objecting to the inquisition, came to blows with the viceroy of Spain, which led to his family’s downfall and the decline of the town.
Salerno has been renowned for its medical school since the 9th century
During the 19th century, the Italian peninsula was shaken by international conflict and political insurrection; but despite this, the Amalfi region found new prosperity due largely, to the textile industry and the huge movement towards nationalism and Italian unification (Risorgimento). Many famous artists, seduced by the magnificent scenery, sojourned on the coast.
In the 19th century, communication between towns was easier by boat: On land, there was only a small road cut into the hillside that linked the towns. Amalfi Coastline (1867) by William Stanley Haseltine
The small port of Vietri sul Mare was first established by the Etruscans and then inhabited by the Romans, and during the Renaissance enjoyed an economic comeback with its production of ceramics for which the town is still famous. Much of its popularity was due to its privileged situation as it is on the road to Salerno and Naples (the railway included) and serves as the departure point for all the other Amalfitan coastal towns.
Unique view on Vietri sul Mare and the Bay of Salerno © Elicus
The area gained renown in 1943, when King Victor-Emmanuel III, threatened by the pro-German insurrection in the north of Italy, stayed there after fleeing Rome.
Villa Guariglia, whose principal structure dates from the 19th century, played host to King Victor-Emmanuel III for part of the Second World war. © Agostino De Maio
The Palazzo Suriano was built in the 18th century and the view from its terraced grounds that stretch between the beach and the mountainside, is breathtaking. Its drawing rooms, finely decorated with their original (or repainted using traditional methods) frescoes and friezes with ornate arabesque motifs, are reminders that the first owners would have been part of the town’s elite. First mention of the Suriano family dates back to the fourth century in Sicily and many references to them can be found in the Italian public archives. At the end of the 18th century, Giuseppe Suriano was one of the first Italians to battle for independence.
Set up behind the old port of Vietri sul Mare, the Palazzo Suriano is a landmark that can be seen from all along the coast. © Palazzo Suriano
© Palazzo Suriano
Some of the five bedrooms still boast their original decor. The floors are made up of beautiful, coloured majolica tiles that are typical of the local ceramic production. Paulo Valente, the present owner, who will captivate you with his genuinely warm welcome, has taken particular care with the furnishings; period furniture mingle happily with ancient books, gramophones, statues and metal beds.
The gardens with their old wells, their flower beds, shady spots under huge old trees, and the outlook across the Tyrrhenian Sea are unforgettable. The Palazzo Suriano with its historic guest rooms is ideally placed from which to explore the region.
The library, preserved in its original period style with its baroque, trompe-l’oeil frieze, is one of the most beautiful rooms in the house. © Palazzo Suriano
Wherever you are in the Amalfi peninsular, every staircase rising up the hillside and every little alleyway, will offer up a surprise—old residences in pastel tones, carved reliefs and old coats of arms, fountains, and tantalizing glimpses of the Gulf of Salerno. In Vietri sul Mare the Villa Guariglia museum has a fine collection of locally produced ceramics or faienza, an ancient traditional craft that flourished particularly in the 19th century. The dome of the San Giovanni Battista church is entirely covered with glazed tiles.
The Vietri sul Mare ceramics are well known for their original colours, especially the famed Vietri yellow.
Beach fans will want to explore the ancient Cresterella watchtower, which is one of the remaining 16th-century fortifications built by the Spanish. A little further along the shoreline are the ‘two brothers’ rocks—legend has it that two shepherds were turned into rocks as they tried to protect their flock from a storm.
© Giorgio Minguzzi
Vietri sul Mare is the ‘gateway’ to the Amalfi coast, and just a few kilometres away you will discover the town of Amalfi and vestiges of an important medieval republic whose port monopolized trade to the east. The Sant’Andrea cathedral dating back to the 9th century, and its beautiful, Moorish ‘cloisters of paradise’ (chiostro del paradiso) alone, are worth the trip.
The Sant’Andrea cathedral in Amalfi is an interconnected complex of religious buildings. © Peter Visser
Whether at sea level or higher up, all the Amalfitan towns are enchanting—particularly if you visit them out of season. Ravello and Positano are the most frequented tourist spots, and wine buffs should make the most of their stay by visiting a few of the terraced vineyards such as Costa d’Amalfi.
The 13th century Villa Rufolo in Ravello has fired the imagination of many creative artists, and inspired Richard Wagner’s opera, ‘Parsifal’. © Mentnafunangann
Cathedral of Salerno © Paul Barker Hemings
Salerno will also carry you through the gates of its long history. You will be plunged into the Middle Ages when you visit the ancient town centre at the foot of the Arechi castle. The stone mosaics set into its cathedral and the Baroque architecture of the San Giorgio church is quite remarkable. The Archaeology museum has a fine collection of antique artefacts: In Italy, Rome is more that just an old memory …
Just 25 minutes away by car, your itinerary must surely include a trip to Pompeii at the foot of Vesuvius, the site of the terrible volcanic eruption of AD 79, which swallowed up the town and its panic-stricken inhabitants in an avalanche of burning ash. You will find the bodies (now moulds) that were fixed in place for centuries, the floors of that era, the painted frescoes, the sculptures, and everyday objects—you will see the effects of one shattering instant of Roman life—prosperous, carefree, refined, and sometimes trivial. Discovered in 1750, it was a major archaeological find and brought home the importance of national ‘heritage’ and the cultural identity of a country.
Nearly two thousand years old, the ancient thermal baths are hardly damaged and still glow with mystery from the past. © Aleksandr Zykov
To fully appreciate the period atmosphere of Palazzo Suriano, do not hesitate to enhance your stay by reading a few books (nothing beats a good historical novel to bring old stones back to life). Watching a film evoking the era or listening to some period music may also be a good way to transport you back in time… A few suggestions:
Books to savor during your stay
Films to be watched before arriving
The perfect setting for a little music
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Via Madonna dell’Arco 30
84019 VIETRI SUL MARE
Tel. +39 089 84 23 334
Fax +39 089 23 44 50
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