South-east of the anarchic flow of Naples and Vesuvius, a limestone Apennine shard called the Sorrentine peninsula juts into the Tyrrhenian Sea. At its wild tip, Punta Campanella, the inimitable island of Capri has been chipped off, while lofty Sant'Agata sui due Golfi sits astride the gulfs of Naples and Salerno. From here La Costiera Amalfitana (the Amalfi Coast) unfolds in dramatic cliffs and azure waters as far as Vietri. Man makes the most of a benign Mezzogiorno (southern Italian) climate and volcanic minerals here: defying the precariousness of life with stacked villages and cultivated terraces clinging to the rocks.
Before the 1850s there were no roads. A century later Positano and Amalfi's cobbled scalinatelle stairways began rustling with the seashell-studded sandals of arty-types and film stars after John Steinbeck holed up at Positano's Hotel Sirenuse. Overnight, a picturesque fishing village became more chic than Capri, and a once-glorious maritime republic resorted to peddling parasols and its past. Nowadays, the impossibly scenic SS163 "Amalfi Drive" and its pulse-quickening bends are clogged in the sticky summer months by slow coaches.
The tottering limestone topography means that isolated seafaring communities may have preserved centuries-old traditions, but as with Naples, a succession of foreign dynasties have left their marks. Invasions, catastrophes and hardships contrast with today's image of a jet-set playground. Positano may now be a pin-up destination where pastel-hued buildings piled around a hilly amphitheatre resemble a presepe napoletano nativity, but medieval Saracen Towers that scar the coast attest to constant threat of invasion.
Meanwhile, Amalfi grew from a prosperous Duchy of Naples port trading salt and slaves for eastern gold into a maritime republic to rival Venice, Genoa and Pisa between the 9th and 12th centuries. However, a tsunami and plague in the 14th century took the wind out of its sails. It was still on its knees in the 1860s when most Positanesi emigrated to the US as trade slumped.
The Amalfi Coast's back may be turned to brooding Vesuvius, but it owes its fertility to millennia-worth of volcanic debris. Lemon, grape and olive-yielding terraces attest to this natural bounty and the ingenuity of its inhabitants. In Greco-Roman times, the area was dubbed Campania Felix – "Happy Land". Reflecting this natural bounty, Epicureanism flourished in its purest philosophical sense, surviving in Herculaneum's charred papyrus scrolls and the traditions of the coast's resourceful artisan producers and cooks. The Mezzogiorno's once-dismissed cucina povera ("peasant cooking") – vegetables and fish dressed in oil – and the lauded "Mediterranean diet" – a term first coined at the University of Salerno – make the Campania region a foodie haven.
The mineral-rich slopes of Vesuvius yield fruits with intense flavours such as San Marzano tomatoes and crisommole apricots. Lemon plantation terraces fashioned using dry-stone walling dating from the 10th and 11th centuries produce the elongated, pointy sfusato variety, prized for their thick skins and sweet flesh.
Higher up on the iodine-rich pastures of the Monti Lattari or "Milky Mountains", Agerolese cows graze, their milk producing fiordilatte (cow's milk mozzarella) and Provolone di Monaco (aged curd shaped into ovoid balls). Tramonti – named after the mountain wind which blew Amalfi's ships – celebrates its fecund soil through events including Festival della Pizza in August.
Meanwhile, ancient grape varieties Falanghina, Coda di Volpe and Greco di Tufo are blended to make Lacryma Christi Bianco. Gran Furor Marisa Cuomo (00 39 089 830348; marisacuomo.com) in Furore offers tours of its vines and arranges tastings of its Costa d'Amalfi DOC wines, by appointment.
Nick Bruno is the author of the Footprint Travel Guide to Naples & the Amalfi Coast. To receive a 50 per cent discount (excl P&P) off any Footprint Italia guidebook, visit footprinttravelguides.com and enter Inde11 in the coupon code at checkout. Valid until the end of July.
Getting there and getting around
The main gateway is Naples Capodichino Airport, served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com) from Gatwick, Stansted and Liverpool. Seasonal charter flights are offered by Thomson (0871 231 4787; flights.thomson.co.uk) from Birmingham, Bristol, East Midlands, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle; and Fly Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406; flythomascook.com) from Gatwick and Manchester.
To reach the furthest curve of the Amalfi Coast, a car is vital but there are plenty of public transport services by ferry, road and rail. To avoid daredevil Neapolitan driving and tortuous bends, hire a driver with expert local knowledge, such as gentlemanly Umberto and son Giovanni of Benvenuto Limos (00 39 346 684 0226; benvenutolimos.com).
Seasonal hydrofoil routes connect the resorts on the Sorrentine and Amalfi coasts as well as Pozzuoli, Ischia, Procida, Naples, Torre Annunziata (for Pompeii), Ercolano (for Herculaneum), Capri, Salerno, Agropoli (for Paestum) and Palinuro on the Cilento Coast ( metrodelmare.com); SITA ( sitabus.it) runs buses around Campania. The Circumvesuviana railway ( vesuviana.it) circles the Bay of Naples terminating at Sorrento. In the summer especially, the most comfortable way of reaching Positano, Amalfi and Minori is to take a hydrofoil from the port of Napoli Beverello.
Stay the night
Among the Costiera's swankiest hotels is Positano's Le Sirenuse (00 39 089 87 50 66; sirenuse.it), pictured, where you'll pay €375 for a double and to sit under a pergola where John Steinbeck scribbled postcards. Guests at Villa Cimbrone (00 39 089 857 459; villacimbrone.com) in Ravello get the run of the backyard with a minimum two night stay for €660 per double. CV Travel (020-7401 1010; cvtravel.co.uk) has smart villas and apartments, while more down-to-earth agriturismi can be compared at En.agriturismo-on-line.com.
Near Naples' ferry port is newish Romeo (00 39 081 017 5001; romeohotel.it) with ultra-modern doubles from €190. Chiaia's smart shops and galleries are close to boutique hotel Micalò (00 39 081 761 7131; micalo.it) where doubles start at €165. Piazza Bellini (00 39 081 451732; hotelpiazzabellini.it) has contemporary doubles near Spaccanapoli from €80.
Must-sample seafood dishes include la frittura di mare (fried mixed seafood), spaghetti con le vongole (spaghetti with clams) and Cetara's impressive colatura: anchovy sauce derived from a Roman garum (fermented fish sauce) recipe .
* For the quintessential Campanian seafood dining experience hop on the water taxi from Positano to the elegant shoreline restaurant La Gavitella (00 39 089 813 1319; lagavitella.it) at Marina di Praia. Two seafood courses plus dolce and vino costs about €60.
* Rustic La Tagliata (00 39 089 875 872; latagliata.com) high above Positano at via Tagliata 22 has recently expanded its sublime terrace, where plentiful home-grown produce (meat and vegetables) is served by amiable Peppino and friends, who often provide music and quips. Expect to pay about €40 per person including wine.
* Michelin-starred restaurant Don Alfonso (00 39 081 878 0026; donalfonso.com) at Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi, on Corso Sant'Agata 11/13 is run by the Iaccarino family, which has its own organic farm at Punta Campanella. The residential culinary courses are a little beyond most budgets (five days for €1,250 excluding accommodation) but a day of tuition costs €300 through American Laura Faust's culinary holiday outfit Ciao Laura (00 39 01 615 426 1138; ciaolaura.com). The tasting menu costs €180 per head including wine.
* Anyone with a sweet tooth should try Neapolitan pastries such as Sfogliatella Santa Rosa – invented by 17th-century Conca dei Marini nuns. Flaky treats and drinks including limoncello, icy granita di limone and tangy frutti canditi can be sampled at historic Pasticceria Andrea Pansa 1830 ( pasticceriapansa.it), in the piazza next to Amalfi's Duomo. Meanwhile the chef Salvatore de Riso in Minori (Piazza Cantilena; deriso.it) is famed for his Delizia di Limone cakes.
Rising 350m above the Tyrrhenian Sea, some six miles up a twisting road is refined Ravello, a once independent principality whose serene air and gardens inspired Wagner's Parsifal opera. Here you can spend hours soaking up the sublime detachment from modernity of its Norman-Saracenic architecture and dreamlike gardens of villas Rufolo and Cimbrone. Beyond the pleasing proportions and interlaced arches of the Duomo façade and 12th-century bronze doors cast in Constantinople, is a light and cool interior, with six squat lions holding up exquisite pulpits by Bartolomeo da Foggia.
Built in 1270, Villa Rufolo (00 39 089 857669; villarufolo.it; admission €5) was restored by 19th-century Scottish botanist Francis Reid. For another fix of Moorish arcades and frond-framed terrace views, head uphill to Villa Cimbrone (00 39 089 857459; villacimbrone.com; admission €6) with its fantastical turrets with starry-eyed verses.
There is one glaring concession to modernity here – the futuristic new auditorium by Oscar Niemeyer ( auditoriumoscarniemeyer.it). Last summer, it became the home of the Ravello Festival ( ravellofestival.com). The leitmotif for the 2011 edition (8 July-27 August) of the classical music extravaganza is Il Viaggio: "Travel".
Those who'd like a Wagnerian dawn-chorus should seek out tickets for the Concerto d'Alba in August. For off-season, intimate concerts in and around Villa Rufolo consult Ravelloarts.org. I Suoni degli Dei (The Sounds of the Gods; isuonideglidei.com) stages chamber music and folk concerts around Praiano.
Walk with the gods, swim with the sirens
It's easy to escape the crowds by trekking the old trails and mule tracks, or hiring a boat to explore coves and grottoes. Local guide and map maker Giovanni Visetti (00 39 33 9694 2911; www.giovis.com) leads walks near his home in Massa Lubrense and further afield.
He recommends tackling the Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods) in the spring, heading westwards when the coast is coming into bloom. The route peaks at Colle Serra (580m) before passing grassy terraces grazed by sheep and goats, fields studded with chestnut, oak and fragrant macchia meditterenea scrub, and then exploring the pinnacles and caves of the Vallone di Grarelle gorge.
The circular Termini-Punta Campanella walk takes in views of watchtowers, Capri and fishermen wielding baskets to catch parapandolo: a rare shrimp with sweet flesh. Another of Giovanni's favourites is the 6km walk in the Valle dei Mulini following the Canneto river stone mills that drove lime and paper production.
Avoid the main beaches such as Spiaggia Grande at Positano and discover limpid waters, tiny coves and piquant tales on boat trips with Gennaro e Salvatore (00 39 089 811 613; gennaroesalvatore.it;from €50 per person). A favourite jaunt is to islets of Li Galli – "The Cockerels" – which according to Homer's Odyssey was where Ulysses filled his ears with wax to resist the Sirens' song. Rudolf Nureyev lived in a former Roman villa on Gallo Lungo, while at Vallone di Furore, a fjord known for the fury whipped up by wind and wave, a tempestuous fling between film director Roberto Rossellini and actress Anna Magnani was played out in one of the monazzeni cottages in 1948.
Pizza and pizzazz
Although neglected since the Italian unification some 150 years ago, Naples – the nearest transport hub to the Amalfi region – remains one of the world's most fascinating cities.
First buy an Arte Card (00 39 06 39 96 7650; www.artecard.it; from €12) for combined city and regional sights. Then take a walk around the Greco-Roman heart of ancient Neapolis, along Spaccanapoli (an artery that "splits" Naples) and parallel Via dei Tribunali to reveal some of the layers of its 2,500-year history.
Must-dos en-route include a visit to the majolica-tiled cloisters of Santa Chiara (00 39 081 552 1597; santachiara.info; admission €5); the astonishing sculptures and creepy crypts at Cappella di Sansevero (00 39 081 551 8470; museosansevero.it; admission €7); a caffè shot at Bar Nilo; glimpses of the underground labyrinths – including Emperor Nero's theatre – with Napoli Sotterranea (00 39 081 29 69 44; napolisotterranea.org). Then, of course, there's pizza napoletana DOC at either Di Matteo (00 39 081 45 52 62; pizzeriadimatteo.it), Sorbillo (00 39 081 446 643; accademiadellapizza.it) or Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente (00 39 081 210 903; ilpizzaiolodelpresidente.it) and a visit to the lavish Duomo to examine San Gennaro's phials of blood, which failed to liquefy recently. (When Naples' patron saint deems not to deliver a "miracle" liquefaction it's seen by the very superstitious as a bad omen for the city.) . Take it all in with an aperitivo at arty bar Intra Moenia (00 39 081 451 652; intramoenia.it) on leafy Piazza Bellini.
Ashes to Ashes
It's often overlooked in favour of sprawling Pompeii, but there is no better time to see Herculaneum (00 39 081 857 5331; pompeiisites.org), whose intimate scale means you only need a few hours to see this "time-capsule" of the ancient Romans.
This spring sees the reopening of the main drag, the Decamanus Maximus – after 20 years under wraps – to mark the 10th anniversary of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, a collaboration involving the Packard Humanities Institute, the British School in Rome and the local heritage authority.
Herculaneum was a wealthy seaside town of around 5,000 residents when it was buried to depths of 15m by the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius. The searing nature of the volcanic deluge carbonised and preserved roofs and organic matter (including boats, skeletons and papyrus scrolls) in a much better state than Pompeii.
Seek out Casa di Nettuno ed Anfrite – named after the vibrant glass paste mosaics studded with seashells – depicting a languid Neptune grasping his triton next to his scantily clad queen, Amphitrite. At the Casa dell'Atrio a Mosaico, buckled geometric designs reveal the seismic ripples of the eruption, striking an alluring yet unsettling note. Entrance costs €11 or €20 for all five Vesuvian archaeological sites (Pompeii, Oplontis, Stabiae and Boscoreale being the others).
Andante Travels (01722 713 800; andantetravels.co.uk) offers an eight-day tour of Campania's main archaeological sites around Vesuvius from £1,475 per person, including flights and B&B accommodation.