As its summer season recedes, the astonishingly beautiful Amalfi Coast has a very special quality, finds Kate Wickers
"I have bad news. My naughty fat cat ate the last portion of spaghetti and meatballs," Enzo Manniello said, teasing my son, Freddie. "But don't worry. I'm cooking the cat."
We're were in Sorrento at Restaurant O' Parrucchiano (restaurant of the parish priest), which was established in 1868 by Enzo's great uncle, a seminarist, who was also the creator of cannelloni. It is the oldest of Sorrento's restaurants and Enzo's affable manner and delicious pasta both endure through autumn and winter, as elsewhere on the Amalfi Coast the beach clubs pack away their sun loungers and the tourist boats dock. We sat in the vast garden amidst lemon, pomelo and orange trees strung with fairy lights.
During colder months diners can sit inside in one of three striking rooms, including a turn of the century iron-framed glasshouse, known as the veranda hall.
Long before Covid-19, as the leaves turned from lush green to bronze and yellow last October, we travelled along the Amalfi Coast - and learnt that autumn brings an entirely different flavour to the region, compared with the frantic summer months.
Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, which opened in 1834 and has long been family-run, sits grandly on the cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Naples to Vesuvius. With an immaculate interior of period furniture, 19th-century frescoed ceilings, polished marble floors and potted palms, it's a glimpse of bygone luxury travel. The photographs in vintage frames of Luciano Pavarotti posing on the terrace and Sophia Loren strolling through the grounds say it all.
After a breakfast of lemon sponge cake and pistachio tart, we headed out in our rented Fiat along the scenic coast road, with its 1000 white-knuckle bends and zig-zag views, the mountains jutting out like the buttress roots of colossal trees. I'd last taken this route 10 years before and spent four miserable hours staring at the back end of an Italian tour bus, watching the kids on the back row giving me the umbrella gesture (look it up, it's rude). This time we zipped along abbandono - unrestrained and free - all the way to Ravello. No question that Ravello is classy, with its genteel Piazza Duomo, luxuriant gardens and decadent villas. By autumn the wisteria has gone, but there is still bougainvillea, and the ivy and vine leaves were turning a rich crimson as we strolled through the cliff-side gardens of 13th-century Villa Rufolo and 11th-century Villa Cimbrone (now a luxury hotel), both with knockout coastal views.
In other months, you might be forgiven for skipping the nearby sleepy town of Scala, which looks down on Ravello from 400m above sea level and was founded by shipwrecked Romans en route to Constantinople, making it the oldest inhabited settlement on the Amalfi Coast. The Lattari Mountains that soar up above the town are awash with chestnut trees, and D H Lawrence, who hiked here in 1928, credited this sensuous landscape as his inspiration for Lady Chatterley's meetings with her lover.
In autumn the local marrone chestnuts - with their thin skin, white flesh and one flattened side - are cooked on huge braziers set ablaze in Piazza Municipio next to the 12th-century Cathedral of San Lorenzo, and aproned men sit in circles, sharing jokes, as they prepare the fruit to be roasted, scoring an X shape into the marrone's flat side. The Italian saying, cogliere in castagna (to pick a chestnut), means to catch someone red-handed. We bought chestnut and chocolate truffles and tartufini castagne, a cake rich with chestnut paste. There was also torta di castagna (a rich red wine and chestnut pie), and chestnut and pork sausages, and simply roasted chestnuts that we juggled from hand to hand to cool.
Next day, from the hill-top town of Agerola, we walked the 8km panoramic Sentiero degli Dei (God's Pathway), down to Positano, where the majolica tiled dome of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta shimmered in the late-season sun. I prefer Positano from this height, away from the town's narrow tourist-clogged streets, but it's not a walk for those with vertigo. The views fall away down steep ravines and tug you towards cliffs that drop steeply down to a sea that foams over rocks like a shaken bottle of prosecco. We passed a few other walkers, and a smiley goat herder with his ever-bleating charges, who straggled like naughty school kids along the path.
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That evening we dined at Michelin-starred Terrazza Bosquet where chef Antonino Montefusco, whose influences include Heston Blumenthal, uses surprise and humour as key ingredients. "Oh no, chef's forgotten the ravioli," comes the anguished cry from the waiter, as we're presented with a dish of tomato pasta sauce. We get the joke a few moments later when he hurries back with a small box upon which is written "Ready Ravioli". Inside we find piping hot parcels of pasta, which we slide into the sauce. It is mouth-wateringly good.
The Excelsior Vittoria has a private lift to whisk guests from its elegant terrace to the port, where we caught the ferry to Ischia, then on to Procida, the smallest island in the Bay of Naples. It's the antithesis of Capri - no designer boutiques, no overpriced restaurants, hardly any tourists - and yet is a beauty, with the lemon-yellow church of Santa Maria delle Grazie surrounded by sugar-cube houses (painted brightly so that fishermen can identify their homes from sea) that spill down the hill to the fishing port of Marina Corricell.
Our last few hours were spent swimming in the Excelsior Vittoria's outside pool under the immense canopy of an Italian stone pine, which, through filtered sunshine, looked like a great big beautiful green cloud. It was still wonderfully warm, and sun-filled moments in autumn such as these are to be savoured, as full of delight as Chef Montefusco's ravioli.