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April 17, 2009

The Divine Life

Italy’s most idyllic retreat reinvents la dolce vita.
Originally published on June 24, 2008.

There are two principal reasons why Ravello is the crown jewel of the Amalfi Coast. The first is the fortune of its geography: Removed from the tourist circuit of the coastal road and set back in the Salerno hills, the place remains (mostly) free from the mobs that swarm Amalfi, Positano and Vietri sul Mare. Second, the jewel-box town seems to have been frozen in time since the Middle Ages thanks to Ravello’s exquisitely restored Duomo, terraced palazzi, and cloistered gardens — one of which, Villa Rufolo, is home to the famed Ravello Festival, an open-air concert series from June 27 to October 31.

But now, change is afoot. Iconic Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who turns 101 this year, is still at work, racing to complete a new auditorium (a futuristic curve of concrete cradled into the hillside terraces), that will extend Ravello’s summer season throughout the year. Inaugurated in 1953, the music festival is now a four-month classical celebration with a special nod toward Richard Wagner, the artist most closely associated with Ravello.

Over the years, the town has also been a retreat for DH Lawrence, Graham Greene and most of the Bloomsbury set. Now, the former home of its most recent A-list resident, Gore Vidal, has been sold and is being turned into a luxury hotel, slated to open next spring. On a recent trip, globorati met with its new owner, Vincenzo Palumbo, who gave us a private tour of the fairy-tale villa that for 30 years was the writer’s full-time hideaway.

The setting of the seven-bedroom mansion is impossibly remote, suspended over a bluff facing the Mediterranean and accessed by only a private pathway winding up the cliffside hills. The house and grounds were the vision of Big Ben architect Lord Grimthorpe, who also built next door’s fabled Villa Cimbrone (one of Europe’s most romantic gardens and the love nest of Greta Garbo and conductor Leopold Stokowski). In homage to the last surviving giant of American literature, Palumbo plans to leave the ground-floor studio with Vidal’s personal library and artifacts intact. If it’s done right, Villa Rondinaia (Swallow’s Nest) will be the most exclusive address anywhere on the Amalfi Coast.

But that’s a big If. Ravello’s top two luxe hotels have already set an enviable standard. Palazzo Sasso is a 12th-century palace that put Ravello back on the map when it reopened in 1997. Its restaurant, Rossellinis, has two Michelin stars (menu highlights include fresh tagliatelle wrapped in paper-thin swordfish with baby squid), and is now angling for its third. Next-door neighbor, Hotel Caruso (pictured), meanwhile, is in a league of its own. Originally built in the 11th-century and reborn in 2005 as an Orient-Express property, the 50-room villa is in fact Ravello’s newest hotel. In an earlier incarnation, Caruso hosted Humphrey Bogart, Jackie Kennedy and Truman Capote. These days, the guestbook includes the names of Rod Stewart (who fancied a sing-song in the vaulted piano bar), and Alicia Keys, (who demanded a grand piano to be helicoptered to her suite).

Following its $30-million restoration, there’s even more history to Hotel Caruso now: new excavation work revealed medieval walls and 18th-century frescoes depicting the earliest paintings of Ravello. All of the suites have private terraces (ours, in room 205, was huge, lined with jasmine, lemon trees and white roses), and one boasts 360-degree views from the highest point in town (1,200 feet). But the real seduction is the heated infinity pool (pictured) that seems to spill over the terraced gardens into the Gulf of Salerno. Accessed by a gorgeous floral colonnade and dovetailed by a casual al fresco restaurant (it was good enough for Alain Ducasse when he honeymooned here last year), it’s not so hard to see why they call this the Divine Coast.

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read more: 02. Sleep | boutique | historic | romantic | secluded | villa | 07. Beach


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