For Whom The Bella Tolls
Robert Clayman travels to the Amalfi coast to visit its cultural jewel and stay at a very, very respectable family operation.
Lollo or Loren? For anyone who loves the majestic illusion of Italy’s post-War Dolce Vita, there can be only one and you have to pick a side. Sophia Loren – the bodacious bella from Rome, the hot-blooded queen of neo-realist 1950s dramas and the woman who broke (half of) Cary Grant’s heart – or feisty Gina Lollobrigida, Lazio’s finest export, all feline eyes, supine neck and perfect bared teeth. As a boy, I would watch repeats of Trapeze, featuring Lollo poured into an impossibly tight leotard and dangling from a wire, bait for the affections of embittered acrobat Burt Lancaster and his hot-tempered pupil, Tony Curtis. I had picked my side. When I discovered her lasagne was also celebrated across Italy, that pretty much sealed the deal.
So imagine my very deep-rooted joy when, as I gambol through the lustrous gardens of Palazzo Avino, high on the Amalfi Coast cliffs in the medieval town of Ravello, I find a plaque in honour of the hour-glass-shaped one. Commemorating her first English language film, shot in this very spot, it features her sultry visage in situ. Beat The Devil was considered a second-tier movie, John Huston parodying his own Maltese Falcon and starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Robert Morley as ne’er do wells and smugglers living it up in this particular slice of 1950s heaven. Truman Capote would tell folks he only worked on the script so he could get a free ride to the location, making the film up as the shoot went along. Truman Capote was no fool. Ravello is worth every cheesy word expended on it and Palazzo Avino the perfect place to experience it from.
Most destinations are great to write about and then scrub off the bucket list. This hotel and its location are in that rare category – places that make me wish I’d worked harder/been nicer to rich relatives so I could come back here regularly. If you have worked harder/been nice to rich relatives then well done you. You can join an illustrious club of artists, aristocrats, writers and composers who have been beguiled by the area’s topography and serenity.
Let’s roll out that roll call: Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein and Mstislav Rostropovich all found musical inspiration here. Wagner and Grieg both used locations here as backdrops to operas – the former using the 13th-century gardens of Villa Rufolo as the backdrop for the magic garden of Klingsor in Parsifal. Spanish artist and ceramist Mirò, the Dutch master of the never-ending staircase MC Escher, Turner, and Ruskin all depicted Ravellian scenes.
Room with a View author EM Forster scribed here, along with Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury set, while DH Lawrence wrote numerous chapters of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal all made their summer homes here, and for history fans, the Italian surrender of World War II was signed in the Bishop’s house by King Victor Emmanuel III. Furthermore, a season of concerts, including a Wagner festival, occurs both in the aforementioned gardens or in their auditorium designed by the late giant of modern architecture, Oscar Niemeyer.
I could wax lyrically about the historical sights and sites here for the next 500 words, but you really should know about my superb base, talking of history. Originally built as an aristocratic pile with Moorish allusions in the 12th century, the building has had more mixed fortunes than an English cricket team on tour. Occupied by various noble families until the mid-18th century, it lay abandoned for another 50 years until it was converted to a hotel. This state of affairs, under various names, lasted until 1978 where once again it was left to the elements. In 1997 Mariella Avino’s family bought the property and restored it beyond former glories as the historical Palazzo Sasso.
In 2013, with Mariella as proprietor and general manager, the family stopped being shy and put their name above the door. They have every reason to do so proudly. As sophisticated and understated as the boss herself, the hotel is the epitome of romantic Italian style. A sympathetic conversion means that the very large rooms of cool white are merely accented with touches of colour. Delicious beds swallow you up at the end of every sense-filling day, which can be filled at their bijou spa or at one of their three restaurants.
Their Lobster Bar offers a Martini list with more than 65 different Martini cocktails, while the Terrazza Belvedere allows al fresco dining and the chance to wish you never gave up oil painting. A 15-minute drive down the serpentine roads towards the sea gets you to their refined beach house, nestled in sheer cliffs. No actual beaches here – you dive off the rocks into warm sea and then reward yourself with a pizza straight out of a wood-fired oven. Just when you’re beginning to feel that you’re in your own 1950s movie, they up the ante.
Rossellini’s (named after yet another famous cinematic guest) is a seasonal restaurant that features the sublime and refined cooking of Michele Deleo, lately of Le Gavroche, and worthy of its Michelin star. A degustation menu that shows how high-end food can still be hearty and honest takes in witty reconstructions of Italian classics as amuse bouche (a cold jelly parmigiana is delightful) and then makes protein a thing of beauty. Rabbit, quail and pork are all divided into multiple expressions, each one more heady and mouth pleasing than the last. Get there before November to avoid your mouth being severely disappointed.
All the history and sensual stimuli wouldn’t be as resonant without Palazzo Avino’s secret weapon: sublime service. There are great hotels with great front office managers – but they probably aren’t quite as great as Antonio Ferrara, a man born in Northampton, who makes things happen as seamlessly as a shoe elf. Stefano Amato runs the restaurants like a precision watch and the entire staff are faultless to a T. There’s only one problem. After this experience, Mariella Avino might have to replace Gina Lollobrigida as my ultimate Italian lady. I wonder what her lasagne’s like?
Palazzo Avino is a stunning five-star deluxe hotel on Italy’s famed Amalfi coast. Address: Via San Giovanni del Toro 28, 84010 Ravello. Call + 39 089 81 81 81 or reserve your stay online at www.palazzoavino.com.