Conca dei Marini
“ ….Sweet the memory is to me of a land beyond the sea, where the waves and montains meet…”
H. W. Longfellow’s – 1875
In Lee Radziwill’s 2001 book of memories, Happy Times, she declares that when she thinks of paradise, she thinks of Conca dei Marini. If you make an overnight here, we’re sure you’ll agree. Long a favorite of the off-duty famous and rich, the town hides many of its charms, as any sublime forgetway should. Set on the most dramatic promontory of the coast, Conca dei Marini ( the name means “seafarers basin” ) was originally a province of ancient Rome called Cossa and later became an important naval base of the Amalfi Republic.
Much later, it became a retreat for high-profile types, including John Steinbeck, Gianni Agnelli, Carlo Ponti etc… You can see why: The green of terraced gardens competes with (and loses to) the blue sea, while the town’s distinctive houses flanking the ridges have thick, white walls, with cupolas, balconies, and external staircases, testimony to former Arabic, Moorish, and Greek settlements. Below, on Capo di Conca, a promontory once used as a cementary, a 16th-century coastal tower dramatically overlooks the sea. Coral is still harvested in the waters off the coast here, while boats fish for sardines and squid through the night, their prow lanterns twinkling as if some stars above had slipped into the sea.
On the outskirts of town, the Grotta dello Smeraldo (Emerald Grotto) is a much-touted stop for day-trippers. Steps and an elevetor bring you almost to sea level, but more delighful is to arrive by boat, which you can hire at just about any port up and down the coast. The karstic cave was originally part of the shore, but the lowest end sank into the sea when the peninsula subsided. Intense greenish light filters into the water from an arch below the sea level and is reflected off the walls of the cave, quite living up to emerald expectations. You wait to board a large rowboat with about 20 fellow passengers, and then you set off with a guide, gondolier fashion, through the smallish cavern filled with huge stalactites and stalagmites.
A tourist from Amalfi raved in a hotel log in 1858 that the cave “…can compete with Vesuvius”, but it was forgotten about for years afterwards until the grotto was rediscovered by a local fisherman in the 1930s. The light is best from noon to 3 pm. At Christmas there’s a special celebration conducted around the underwater crèche. (Apr.-Oct., daily 9-4; Nov.-Mar., daily 10-3). (from Fodor’s “Naples, Capri and the Amalfi Coast)
The urban area of Conca lies on two levels: the upper part is a glory of olive trees, bushes of prickly pears and flowers and plants growing on the rocks sloping down to the sea, to the villas and the fishermen’s houses. It is only 3 kms far from Amalfi and is the home of VIP’s like, Carlo Ponti, Sophia Loren, Mr Chandon, and Jackie Kennedy in the past. The sea has gained the Blue Flag, being absolutely pure and crystal clear, and the local restaurants are the favourite of residents and tourists.
It is possible to reach the “Fiordo di Furore” going down a path through the green vegetation of the coast. The Fjord is a deep canyon, hollowed out by the stream Schiato, flowing from Agerola. The footpath ends on an enchanting beach where a typical village of fishermen can be admired. The nature all around is wild and untouched, and precious endemic species live and thrive, amoung which the now rare peregrine falcon builds its nest.
Conca in excelsis has three stunningly sited churches. The first is neo-Byzantine San Pancrazio, set in a lovely palm-tree garden. From here head up to the Scalinatella San Pancrazio to the tiny town piazza. To the east along the cliff-side road is the sky-swimming church and Convento Santa Rosa (now a private property). In the 18th century the nuns of the convent created one of the great local dishes , Sfogliatella Santa Rosa (sweet cheese and ricotta pastry shaped like a nun’s hood). The mother superior distributed this delicacy free to the locals and savored , by local families and revelers in town. The convent church is now used as a regular venue for chamber music concerts laid on by the Ravello Concert Society.
Heading back to the piazza from the convent, take Via 2 Maggio and Via Roma to Sant’Antonio di Padova, an elegant white church spectacularly cantilevered hundreds of feet over the coastline on a stone parapet. The church itself is only open for sunday-morning services, but you might ask locals if someone can open the church with the key for a quick visit.