Ravished by Ravello's sweet setting

In the Fifties and Sixties, glamorous Romans would seek sunshine on the Amalfi coast, but far more intriguing is a dramatic village just inland, as Stephen Bayley found

I have just been to Ravello for a personal Dolce Vita retrospective. La Dolce Vita has been a preoccupation of mine since I could pronounce "Gina Lollobrigida". I guess I was five. Simultaneously, I acquired another sort of lust for a Riva Aquarama boat. I suppose gorgeous curves and glorious finish, not to mention an Italian accent, are what the vessel and the woman have in common. Plus a commitment to pleasure.

Anyway, the sweet life. Most of the images which capture the essence of this glorious, mad moment when all Italian culture was focused on the slick packaging of sex and celebrity and machinery, were taken in Rome – after all, this is where "paparazzi" first appeared – but a lot of the film's action actually happened in the south where the Cinecitta studio mob decamped in summer.

Positano and Sorrento? Of course. These are the postcard images. When the world had Sunday painters, they would paint Positano's tumbling ochre townscape. Its reputation stretched into the Seventies when Positano Yellow, the sort of colour a bilious dog might leave behind, was popular on Minis and MGs. At the time, it seemed sophisticated. Face it, Franco Zeffirelli chose to live here.

But always more interesting was Ravello, a large village set back high above the Amalfi Coast, with its astonishing and frankly terrifying road cut into the mountains by Benito Mussolini. It is a ledge ... with all that that implies. If you ever wanted a practical demonstration of the philosophical propinquity of the beautiful and the sublime, go for a drive here. Better still, get someone you trust to drive you. Glimpse the blue sea and think of squealing tyres and watery oblivion. Terror is the best sauce.

But the charm of Ravello conquers fear, or mostly does. The Grand Tourists came here. Turner drew the mountainous journey from Naples; the sketchbooks are in Tate Britain. And it was in the era when the 18th-century Grand Tour was ready to be translated into the gran turismo motoring concept that Pantalone Caruso established a locanda with the very best views in Ravello. And this in a place where Oh-My-God views are commonplace.

Today, the often photographed infinity pool of the Caruso is, for amateurs of La Dolce Vita, a global reference point. The timid may be comforted to know that beyond the apparent abyss is a wire net to catch you and, if you miss the mesh, you will only fall about 50ft on to a grassy terrace. This nicely abbreviates the further 950 or so feet where gravity then threatens to lead you.

The lovely thing about the Caruso's pool is the view across the bay to Salerno and the mistily invisible, but nonetheless tangible, site of the great Greek temples on the coastal plain at Paestum. These were one of the most southerly objectives of the old Grand Tourists. In the middleground, the spectacular coast where – with a glass of Marisa Cuomo's fine local Furore on the go – you can sadistically gloat in twilight at the red brake lights queueing and lurching fretfully far below.

The less lovely things are the other surroundings. Detach yourself from distant prospects, range left from the infinity vista and you see a lot of ugly modern Italian townscape clustered around a hill. And on anything other than a hot day, it can be uncomfortably chill and windy up here. But this is like complaining that they don't have a recycling collection in paradise.

The Caruso is one of the monumental Italian hotels acquired by Orient-Express. The group is now rebranded Belmond, but essentials familar from the Splendido in Portofino or the Cipriani in Venice, the Villa San Michele in Fiesole, or the Grand Timeo in Taormina, remain, at least for the moment, unchanged. One: a superlative property on a unique site. Two: diligent, polite and helpful staff. Three: a very high level of amenity in the rooms. Terrific beds, for example, although, being a fetishist, I find the muddle of Penhaligon's and Bulgari unguents causes a bit of cognitive dissonance. Four: nice touches such as a jug of fresh lemon juice in the lobby. Five: amid the hushed comfort and efficiency, a certain sterility in style and decor. (The Caruso's cocktail terrace looks as if Donald Trump had decorated a retirement home while tranquilised). Six: an inclination in the signature ristorante – the Belvedere – to a certain fussiness, perhaps designed to flatter target customers with exciting illusions of sophistication.

Personally, I'd prefer a grilled fish with one of the lemons that grow here like weeds. While admiring the quality and execution of the Belvedere's food, I preferred eating in the poolside bar which does honest Gragnano spaghetti with clams and good pizza from a wood-burning oven.

The Caruso is a quiet and delightful five-minute stroll from the Piazza del Duomo, Ravello's modest mid-town. To remind you that it was in Ravello that he discovered Klingsor's Garden in Parsifal, the route takes you down the cobbled steps of a street resonantly named "via Richard Wagner". They don't, I think, yet have a "via Truman Capote" or a "via Gore Vidal", but the two of them were also drawn here. It's that sort of place. Here and there plaques record the passing trade of M C Escher, E M Forster, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston. Boccaccio mentions Ravello in The Decameron.

Yet, artistically speaking, Ravello is undemanding. The fine Romanesque church is nicely plain and there is no art to make the journey worthwhile. Things to see are the Saracenic Villa Rufolo where, staring into the gloomy pozzo, Wagner found his inspiration and, a little further out, the magnificent Villa Cimbrone.

At the time it was acquired by Lord Grimthorpe in 1904, the old Cimbrone was abandoned. His Lordship brought in Edwin Lutyens, Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West to make what he intended as "the finest place in the world" as well as to attend a continuing socialite after-party which set The Dolce Vita agenda. Let it be noted that, in this interpretation, the finest place in the world includes a Temple of Bacchus, a Tea Room and the stupendous Terrace of Infinity. Here, weather-beaten, sun-bleached, time-eroded busts of emperors, set imperiously above a heart-pumping drop, excite speculation about vanity of desire, the passing of time and, in my case, how soon is lunch.

Carlo Petrini's inspirational Slow Food Movement – with its trinity of locality, seasonality and authenticity – was established in Bra, Piedmont, in the industrial north. Here, in the wilder south, there is less sophistication. The rich northerners can afford to be picky about the provenance of their provolone and the pedigree of their pasta, but in Ravello, even in the smarter restaurants, you are closer to notions of subsistence.

It's not easy to eat well when away from the good hotels. People make fun of the designer imperative which dominates restaurant culture in London and New York, but I found myself wishing for just a little more of it in Ravello. Trattoria Vittoria is a featureless box with brown furniture that squeaks on funereal marble floors and, in one of the most picturesque places imaginable, no windows to speak of. Salvatore ("da 1958") has a fine terrace, food that combines tradition with cleverness and a view worth paying for. Decoration is, however, dire: ultra-hideous modernismo mixed with restaurant-trade-shop-fitting, mismatched table cloths, hospital lighting, swirling drapes designed to catch flies and grease ... all of this and a cross African grey parrot. Cumpa Cosimo is the established landmark trattoria and has a framed photo of a very bronzato Michael Winner embracing the "character" proprietress to prove it. I'll not eat there again. And nor, of course, but for different reasons, will Michael Winner.

I kept on reverting to pizza. Here, the Hotel Caruso was more than usually helpful since a pizza-making course is offered to guests. One showery afternoon I decided to try my hand with the forno, paddle and toppings. Of course, once you have established the primary need for ferocious heat (ideally provided by burning fragrant wood) the essence of a good pizza is the dough. You need to understand the mysterious alchemy of flour, water, oil, salt and starter. Instead, I was simply invited to bash balls of dough into discs, apply tomato sauce in a spiral pattern and decorate the composition with pre-diced mozzarella cubes. Amusing, but not very authentic.

In that pizza anecdote there's a truth about Ravello trying to escape. Or so I thought while ambling along the via San Giovanni del Toro the next morning. A young man was lounging against a wall in the Italian style. I gave him a subtle, but courteous nod, and he surprised me by saying in elegant estuary English: "I like your shoes!" Turns out he had been a City Boy in London and New York, but 2008 had driven him home to Campania. My shoes were Dolce Vita-period Gucci horsebit loafers. He was in Prada trainers. Who's to say which costume is more appropriate for Ravello today?

Getting there

Stephen Bayley travelled with Italian specialist Citalia (0843 770 4443; citalia.com), which offers five nights in Ravello at the five-star Belmond Hotel Caruso (hotelcaruso.com) from £1,425pp. The price includes five nights' B&B, transfers and BA flights from Gatwick. The closest airport is Naples, served by British Airways, Meridiana and easyJet from Gatwick; easyJet also flies from Stansted, Bristol and Liverpool. Monarch flies from Luton and Manchester.

Eating & drinking there

Vittoria (00 39 089 857 947; ristorantepizzeriavittoria.it).

Salvatore (00 39 089 857227; salvatoreravello.com).

Cumpa Cosimo (00 39 089 857 156).

More information

Italian Tourist Board: italia.it/en

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Pro-Russia rebels guard a train containing the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 crash in Torez, Ukraine
i100
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
News
people
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Rock to play DC character in superhero film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Damon Albarn is starting work on a new West End musical
artsStar's 'leftfield experimental opera' is turning mainstream
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Paul and his father
artsPaul Carter wants to play his own father in the film of his memoirs
Sport
Ben Stokes trudges off after his latest batting failure for England as Ishant Sharma celebrates one of his seven wickets
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
Members of the public are invited to submit their 'sexcapades' to Russell T Davies' new series Tofu
tv
News
Sky's Colin Brazier rummages through an MH17 victim's belongings live on air
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
arts + ents'The Imitation Game' stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor