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Watching Over Amalfi’s Legends

Torre dello Ziro Amalfi

There’s something captivating about an old watchtower, isn’t there? Even if it’s crumbling or half ruined, its very nature tells us that there are stories – something to be protected, something to be taken, conquests, danger, mystery. Sitting in the mountains above Amalfi is a watchtower that certainly has its share of mysteries and legends to protect. Called the Torre dello Ziro, this watchtower dates from 1480 when it was constructed on the ruins of a 12th century tower. When the tower was built, Amalfi was a wealthy feudal duchy that was run by Antonio Piccolomini, the first Duke of Amalfi. This takes us back to the time when the legends of the Torre dello Ziro began. Antonio ruled Amalfi until his death in 1493, when his son Alfonso Piccolomini succeeded him as the second Duke of Amalfi. Just a few years before, Alfonso married a beautiful woman named Giovanna d’Aragona, whose name will forever be hauntingly connected with the Torre dello Ziro.

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Postcard of the Torre dello Ziro and Amalfi from 1965 (Author’s private collection)

As the daughter of Enrico d’Aragona, half-brother of King Frederick of Naples, Giovanna d’Aragona brought royal family connections to her marriage and her role as the Duchess of Amalfi. However, it was a role she was destined to play for only a short time. Her husband’s early death five months before their son was born left her Regent of Amalfi. As if that wasn’t enough drama, Giovanna’s story continues as she rules the Duchy of Amalfi and looks after the education of her children, Caterina and Alfonso – the future Duke of Amalfi. Sounds fine, right? Well that would be until Giovanna fell in love with her steward, Antonio Bologna, who she later secretly married. Too much of a shock to the social rankings of the day, they kept their relationship, marriage and three children together secret. Or so they thought.

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Old postcard of the Torre dello Ziro with inscription about Giovanna d’Aragona (Author’s private collection)

When Giovanna’s marriage was discovered by her brothers, Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona and Carlo d’Aragona, Marquis of Gerace, her story comes to a tragic end. Antonio fled Amalfi to escape the vendetta of Giovanna’s brothers, eventually meeting his death in Milan. Giovanna was captured with her children, and local legend says that they were all killed in the Torre dello Ziro watchtower. And you probably thought Amalfi was all sunshine and lemons, right?

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Postcard of the Torre dello Ziro with photograph by Ernesto Samaritani (Author’s private collection)

With its royalty, power, loss, ill-fated love and tragic ending, Giovanna’s life and mysterious death have inspired many stories, starting with  Matteo Bandello’s Novelle from 1554 and later the better known Duchess of Malfi by John Webster in the 17th century. The legend of her stormy life and sad ending have lingered with the fate of the Torre dello Ziro. While searching for some vintage postcards to illustrate this blog post, I happened across the two above, likely from the 40s or 50s, that bear the inscription: “Amalfi – Torre dello Ziro ove nel 1500 fu rinchiusa ed uccisa dai suoi fratelli la Duchessa di Amalfi Giovanna d’Aragona.” (Translation: “Amalfi- Torre dello Ziro where in 1500 the Duchess of Amalfi Giovanna d’Aragona was imprisoned and killed by her brothers.” Over 400 years after her death the legend of Giovanna’s death was being sent around the world by visitors to Amalfi who perhaps had that family member or friend with a sordid sense of humor.

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If you’re curious to find out more about this fascinating tale, track down The Mystery of the Duchess of Malfi by Barbara Banks Amendola. This detailed book by writer, art historian and Amalfi Coast local delves into the life of Giovanna and the legend of her death.

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Despite its connection with Giovanna’s tragic ending, the Torre dello Ziro sits peacefully above Amalfi and offers an incredible viewpoint of both Amalfi and Atrani. While it cannot be reached from Amalfi, it’s an enjoyable hike from Pontone in Scala to the watchtower. Just imagine what that watchtower has seen in over 500 years of looking over Amalfi. How many secrets does it hold? What really happened to Giovanna d’Aragona and her children? Those are questions we won’t be able to answer and secrets that will remain in the Torre dello Ziro for centuries to come.

 

Italy Blogging Roundtable

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This blog post is part of a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Every month our group of Italy based writers takes on a new theme, and you can read about this month’s topic – Myths & Legends – at the links below. We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Please share the stores if you’ve enjoyed them!

At Home in TuscanyOf Starvation and Cannibalism in Pisa

Bleeding EspressoNatuzza Evolo: Calabrian Mystic

BrigolanteCommon Myths and Misconceptions Regarding Italian Culture Fostered by Guidebooks

Girl in FlorenceHow Not To Learn Another Language As An Adult

Italy Explained4 Italian Myths Debunked

Amalfi Coast Travel Basilca Sant Eustachio Ruins

Remarkable Ruins of the Basilica of Sant’Eustachio

Amalfi Coast Travel Basilica Sant Eustachio Scala

Along the stone steps between the sleepy villages of Minuta and Pontone in Scala, you’ll find something a little unexpected. Set in a commanding position on a promontory surrounded by terraces of olive and lemon trees sits the ruins of what was once one of the finest churches in the Republic of Amalfi in the Middles Ages. Following the zigzaging steps down, the remaining walls of Sant’ Eustachio keep coming into view, closer and closer, as you approach Pontone. Thanks to a locally run association, you can visit the ruins of Sant’Eustachio, which is beautiful stop on the walk from Scala down to Amalfi.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Church Pontone

This remarkable church was constructed in the 12th century during the peak of the powerful maritime Republic of Amalfi. While Pontone is a frazione, or hamlet, of Scala today, in the Middle Ages all of Scala was part of the Duchy of Amalfi. Pontone was home to the prominent D’Afflitto family who constructed this church and dedicated it to a saint important to them, Saint Eustace, an early Christian martyr in the 2nd century AD. When you step into what was once the nave of the church, it’s hard to imagine the original splendor of this church.

Amalfi Coast Travel Basilca Sant Eustachio Ruins

A pathway leads around the walls of the church where you can stand below the curves of the three apses. Here there are signs of the elaborate decoration, which has been restored in areas to reveal the original structural polychromy. Staring up at the traces of design and architectural details, it’s easier to see that at its height Sant’Eustachio must have been an absolute jewel.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Restoration

Although in ruins, it is one of the truest examples of the unique architectural style that existed in Amalfi during the Middle Ages – a blend of styles with touches of Sicilian, Arab and Norman influences to name just a few. From this spot high above Amalfi it seems a stretch to imagine traders hundreds and hundreds of years ago crisscrossing the Mediterranean. Yet they did and returned home to build beautiful churches and grand homes high above Amalfi.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Architecture

The setting for one of the finest churches on the Amalfi Coast was naturally chosen for its incredible view. The small promontory juts out between the Dragone and Canneto valleys that run down to Amalfi and Atrani. Peeking through the trees you can catch a glimpse of Amalfi down by the sea.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio View of Amalfi

From the tip of the promontory below the ruins the view is breathtaking. Directly below is Pontone, while down the valley to the right is Amalfi and down the valley to the left is Atrani. Look left and you see Ravello sitting high atop its own promontory while to the right is Pogerola, a frazione of Amalfi.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Stunning View

Whether you’re looking at the expansive view or peeking through a window of the ruins to a view across the valley of Ravello, you’ll spend plenty of time just taking it all in.

Amalfi Coast Travel Ravello from Sant Eustachio

Don’t miss walking down into the crypt, which was one covered with frescoes and was likely one of the most beautifully decorated areas of the church.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Crypt

One wall features a painting that is an architectural rendering of what Sant’Eustachio may have looked like originally. It’s helpful for kicking your imagination into full gear before heading back up to the ruins. Just how might the interior have looked originally?

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Architectural Rendering

Now there are only a few traces left to help us figure that out. But what remains is incredibly evocative, as is the entire setting.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Column

If you’re planning a hike on the Amalfi Coast, one of my favorite is the walk from Scala through Minuta and Pontone down to Amalfi. If you follow that hike, do plan a stop in Pontone to visit the ruins of Sant’Eustachio.

Amalfi Coast Travel Sant Eustachio Sign

Amalfi Coast Travel Duomo Campanile

Here’s Why You Want to Get Lost in Amalfi

Amalfi Coast Travel Tips Duomo Cathedral of Saint Andrew

Standing in the center of town and looking up at the Duomo, or Cathedral of St. Andrew, is an experience you simply have to have in Amalfi. Sure, it can be a bit crowded during the busy season. But, look, did you see that view? Going to Amalfi and not standing in Piazza Duomo is like going to Venice and not seeing Piazza San Marco or somehow missing the Colosseum in Rome. I personally love the people watching in the center of Amalfi, and if I have some extra time I’ll grab a spot on that grand staircase and admire the scene. The next thing you want to do, however, is get lost.

Amalfi Coast Travel Exploring Amalfi on Foot

Amalfi is wonderful place to wander and explore. Pack a comfortable pair of walking shoes and start climbing! You could head in any direction from the main Piazza into the maze of stairways and narrow passages and find something unique. I’m going to take you along on a walk I took recently that lead up above Amalfi to a gorgeous panorama overlooking the Duomo from the other side. Come along!

Amalfi Coast Travel Flower Windowbox

I started at the base of the steps of the Duomo and followed the small side staircase up to the left. Here’s my technique for wandering in Amalfi: If you want to explore, just keep heading up. If you’re worried about getting back to the main Piazza Duomo or shopping street, just head down and you’ll get there. My husband always tells visitors that they’ll end up on CNN breaking news if they actually manage to get lost in Amalfi. And please forget the map. You might miss pretty windows and little moments of daily life if you’re busy trying to follow a map.

Amalfi Coast Travel Steps and Walking in Amalfi

Just keep going up and soon you’ll start catching a glimpse overlooking Amalfi. It’s quiet when you get up higher since most tourists don’t know about this side of Amalfi or don’t take the time to get lost. Yes, there are a lot of steps, but there are also stunning views that not only make the climb worthwhile but are also great for stopping and resting.

Amalfi Coast Travel Hiking in Amalfi Duomo from Above

Now that’s a view of the Cathedral of Amalfi that not everyone sees! Did you recognize it? This was the view I was after on my walk since it had been ages since I had seen the Cathedral from above. I had this view to myself until a few locals huffed and puffed by with their daily shopping. Not a place to live up so high if you tend to be forgetful and have to run to store all the time!

Amalfi Coast Travel Spring Figs

I caught my breath from the climb by stopping to admire the little figs growing and the brilliant green of their tiny leaves. There was no hurry, just me and click of the camera shutter as I fiddled around with settings and took in the view.

Amalfi Coast Travel Fig Leaves

Although I was trying to get to an even higher spot in Amalfi, I must have taken a different turn, because soon the steps were going down again.

Amalfi Coast Travel Steps in Amalfi

Along the way I passed the most incredible garden. I peeked over a gate and saw a terrace of earth tilled in rows and little onions growing. But what made it so special was the panoramic view of Amalfi. Not a bad backdrop for a bit of gardening you could say.

Amalfi Coast Travel Hidden Garden Terrace

I love how nothing is the same in Amalfi. Every doorway, every entrance, every corner is different. It feels old and lovingly personalized at the same time. This curved hand railing with decorative cut out motifs caught my eye. I could imagine running my hand along its smooth surface on the way home.

Amalfi Coast Travel Entrance Steps

The ornate bell tower of the Duomo kept popping up in different places, which was so much fun to discover. Sometimes I’d see it perfectly framed through an arched passageway or turn a corner and find just the top of it peeking over another building. I wondered just how many views there might be of the bell tower in Amalfi.

Amalfi Coast Travel Duomo Campanile

Amalfi can still stop in my tracks so easily. Walking down a staircase with knees just a bit wobbly, I stopped and glanced up. What I saw was the sun sparkling on the sea until Capo di Conca – like it was right there in front of me within reach.

Amalfi Coast Travel Duomo Cross

Did you recognize that cross? Scroll back up and look closely at the first photo. At the very top of the facade of the Cathedral there’s a cross. This is the same cross but from behind! I ended up back in the main piazza and took a good look up at the facade of the Cathedral again. I love how a change of perspective changes the way you see.

Amalfi Coast Travel Duomo of Amalfi Saint Andrew

The next time you’re in Amalfi, I encourage you to spend some time getting lost. Even if you’re not up to many steps, you’ll find some interesting passageways and tiny piazzas to discover. The journey of wandering among the steps of Amalfi to find them is just the beginning of the fun!

Amalfi Coast Travel Faraglioni rocks from Monte Solaro

Finding the Height of Beauty on Capri

Amalfi Coast Travel Capri Monte Solaro View

A view you can get lost in from the top of Monte Solaro on Capri

What started my passion for writing and sharing about the Amalfi Coast is my love for this remarkable place in Italy. There is so much to see and discover, and I want every traveler to experience the stunning natural beauty for themselves. It was a joy to have the chance to write about two of my favorite places on Capri for the Winter 2014 issue of the NIAF Ambassador magazine. I adore Capri and get a bit peeved when I hear people talk about it being too touristy. It takes no more than a few moments from any place that might feel a bit busy to find utter peace and stunning views. In the NIAF article I took readers to the two highest points on Capri to get a nice vantage point. Oh, and some of those stunning views, too!

NIAF Ambassador Capri Article by Laura Thayer

The first stop was Monte Solaro, the peak high above Anacapri, which you can reach by a fun chairlift. (You can also hike up or down or both ways if you’re up to the climb!) Anacapri slowly drifts away behind you as the chairlift glides to the top. The view waiting for you when you alight and climb a short staircase is one you will surely never forget.

Amalfi Coast Travel Capri Chairlift Monte Solaro Anacapri

– Riding the chairlift that goes from the center of Anacapri to Monte Solaro

Atop the viewing area at Monte Solaro you can look straight down to the sparkling sea, across to the village of Capri and feel a refreshing breeze off the sea. There are areas to explore and wander around, a bar with a tremendous view for drinks or a snacks and plenty of photos opportunities.

Amalfi Coast Travel Faraglioni rocks from Monte Solaro

– Looking down from Monte Solaro to the Faraglioni rocks

From Monte Solaro you can see the second highest point on Capri as well. All the way across the island on the top of another peak you’ll spot a large villa. You can even see it in the photo below. That was once the home of none other than the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The peak is still named after him and is called Monte Tiberio today, and you can visit the ruins of the one splendid Roman villa.

Amalfi Coast Travel View of Villa Jovis from Monte Solaro

It’s a bit of a hike, but an absolutely gorgeous one, to reach Villa Jovis from the center of Capri town. If you thought the only Roman ruins to be found in the area were at Pompeii and Herculaneum, then you’re in for a treat. There’s a lot more to discover on Capri than you might think!

Amalfi Coast Travel Villa Jovis Capri

– Exploring the ruins of Villa Jovis

Villa Jovis was the opulent home of Tiberius and was completed in 27 AD. Even today it seems to remote, and it’s hard to image that he ruled the Roman Empire for 10 years from this very spot. Well, he certainly knew how to pick a good view! From Villa Jovis you can see straight across to the very tip of the Sorrento Peninsula. To the right is the Amalfi Coast and to the left the Sorrento coastline.

Amalfi Coast Travel View of the Sorrento Peninsula from Villa Jovis

Looking across to the Sorrento Peninsula from Villa Jovis on Capri

I hope the next time your travels take you to Capri that you’ll spend some time exploring, whether the high spots or the gorgeous coastline and beaches by boat, to see a different side of the island. Thank you to the NIAF Ambassador magazine for the chance to share two of my favorite spots on Capri!

Foto Friday | Amalfi Coast Garden

Amalfi Coast Travel Garden Terrace

Often when I’m out walking or hiking on the Amalfi Coast, I simply have to stop and marvel at the way of life that people have created here – often for generations. Way high above Amalfi, and nowhere particularly roads, you see terraces of lemons. And you know that to tend those lemon groves, make sure the nets are covering them when the weather turns cold and to harvest all those lemons when they turn their vibrant yellow means thousands upon thousands of steps each year.

While on a walk recently, I peered over a crumbly stone wall to see a gorgeous view of Amalfi sitting at the base of the valley. I also spotted two garden terraces. One had a trellis covered with grape vines while the other had rows of melanzane – eggplant. The way of living in these rural spots on the Amalfi Coast surely must not be easy, but few people can boast a view like that while gardening!