- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

RAVELLO, Italy — Here along the Amalfi Coast, dramatic panoramas of rocky cliffs hanging over the sea are everywhere, but the views from Ravello feel like a shortcut to paradise.

Getting to Ravello, which has a rich history dating from the sixth century, is an adventure in itself. The town is perched above the Gulf of Salerno and remains virtually untouched by the swarms of tourists who visit nearby Capri and Ischia. Perhaps it is the hairpin bends that drop off into ravines that keep away all but the most determined.

Also, the town is closed to traffic. Cars must be left in parking lots near the main square.

Still, visitors find their way here to relax, sample limoncello liqueur in local cafes or listen to the outdoor concerts that are offered each summer as part of the Ravello Festival. Over the years, the town has hosted many celebrities, including Richard Wagner, Arturo Toscanini, Joan Miro and D.H. Lawrence.

Cobblestone alleys, steep lanes and staircases lead to breathtaking views from terraced villas, such as Villa Cimbrone, a well-known local attraction that also is an upscale hotel. Here statues, temples, fountains, an ancient cloister, natural grottoes and exotic flowers and trees lead the way to the breathtaking Belvedere of Infinity.

The view from the balcony is so wide that American writer Gore Vidal, who owned a nearby villa, once defined it as “the most beautiful in the world.” White-marbled statues guard you as you lean out, looking over the coast. The place is incredibly quiet even in the high season. Just a few tourists, speechless, take photos of each other as the sea and sky merge on the horizon.

Centuries-old Villa Cimbrone is a fascinating mixture of styles and epochs, ethnic and cultural elements and antique finds. An Englishman, Lord Grimthorpe, bought the villa in 1904, and it quickly became a meeting place for English visitors to the Amalfi Coast, including London’s famous Bloomsbury set.

A nearby villa, La Rondinaia, was built in 1930 by the Grimthorpe family and for many years was owned by Mr. Vidal.

La Rondinaia, which means “Swallow’s Nest,” was built into the side of the cliff, with six stories and multilevel terraces wrapped around it in a labyrinth of stairs and balconies.

Mr. Vidal , who has had a prolific career as a playwright, essayist, scriptwriter and novelist, did much of his writing here. Celebrities who visited the villa over the years included Tennessee Williams, Rudolf Nureyev, Paul Newman, Hillary Clinton and Brad Pitt.

La Rondinaia is owned by Vincenzo Palumbo, who bought the property from Mr. Vidal for a reported $17.8 million. Mr. Palumbo, who also owns several local hotels, is renovating the property and said he plans to turn it into niche lodging for jet-setters. The details were still being worked out, but Mr. Palumbo said he hopes to rent out the villa in summer. With six bedrooms, including suites, two studies and five fireplaces, he said it will accommodate 12 to 18 persons at a time.

Mr. Palumbo added that the studio where Mr. Vidal did his writing will remain untouched and will be part of a small museum inside the mansion.

La Rondinaia is not open to the public, but I was offered a peek inside on a recent visit to the Amalfi Coast with my parents. We found the gate in the corner of a narrow alley, anonymous, with no sign or plaque.

The black gate was half-open, beckoning. We silently entered the wild garden and wandered past umbrella pines, olive and cedar trees. Paths branched out in every direction. The scene, with no sound other than our own steps, was dreamlike. We walked past an empty swimming pool and a natural 230-foot-long cave, and there it was, the stunning, almost gravity-defying villa, towering above the sea and clinging to the side of the mountain.

Mr. Palumbo, who grew up in the area and visited La Rondinaia as a child, waited for us at the main door. Inside, the living room still seemed to echo the sounds of the parties held there, with its three balconies, four armchairs, cushions and a fireplace.

Old magazines, a dusty sofa and an old typewriter in the studio are suggestive of the many nights Mr. Vidal spent shaping novels such as the historical “Burr” or the polemical “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.”

Mr. Vidal took some furniture and many books back to the United States; otherwise, everything in the study gives the sense that he just left.

We followed Mr. Palumbo to the terraced mansion’s upper floors through an opulent staircase. The first terrace seemed to drop off into nothingness. Peeping out over the edge almost feels like flying.

It’s a sensation that I have never quite felt anywhere but in Ravello, where the views are so expansive you almost feel that you can touch the heavens.

• • •

For information on Ravello, visit www.ravellotime.it or call 39/089-857096.

The Ravello Festival — orchestras, chamber music and other outdoor concerts and performing arts — runs June 30 through Sept. 30 at Villa Rufolo, an ensemble of 13th- and 14th-century buildings. Visit www.ravellofestival.com.

Ravello is 40 miles from Naples International Airport (closed June 4 through 6 for runway maintenance). By train: Salerno station, then a SITA bus. Panoramic route by car: From Salerno take exit Vietri sul mare and then follow directions to Costiera Amalfitana. The road is busy with traffic, especially on weekends and holidays. If you go to Ravello by car, hotels will arrange parking. Fare by taxi from the station outside Ravello to Amalfi is about $15 per person.

Villa Cimbrone — www.villacimbrone.com or 39/089-857459 — rates from about $400 to $1,100 per day, depending on room type and view.

Vincenzo Palumbo, owner of La Rondinaia, operates three local hotels: Hotel Giordano, www.giordanohotel.it; Villa Eva, www.villa-eva.it; and Hotel Villa Maria, www.villamaria.it.

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