Ravello, heaven on earth

Ravello is a small, beautiful town that has attracted thousand of visitors over the centuries.

The history of Ravello, doubly tied to the vicissitudes of the Maritime Republic of Amalfi, tells of a beauty that has always fascinated those who happened to be passing around here. One of the first to be amazed by its beauty was the writer Giovanni Boccaccio, who mentioned it in his Decameron. It was 1350 A.D. and since then many international celebrities, from Winston Churchill to Virginia Woolf, have been enchanted by the beauty of the place. The city was built around the eleventh Century on top of a hill which divides the valley of the river Reginna from that of the river Dragone, and it hosted several noble families who were dissidents of the Republic of Amalfi, and in open opposition to the Doge.

Those families had built magnificent villas and elegant, two of which have survived: Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone, the two pearls of Ravello. Villa Rufolo appears as a place out of time, that embodies centuries of history. The structure of the villa is unique in terms of architecture and decoration, and has never failed to arouse the surprise and amazement of travelers who have visited it over the centuries. The complex is a collection of buildings in Arab-Sicilian style of the second half of the thirteenth century and it was built by the noble family Rufolo in order to symbolize its wealth. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, after years of neglect, Villa Rufolo was sold to the Scot Sir Francis Neville Reid who undertook a general restoration, living to the complex today's appearance.

Access to Villa Rufolo is to the right of Piazza Vescovado, where there is a square tower that is the entrance; after that a short driveway leads to a wide space dominated by the Torre Maggiore, the moorish Cloister, and some other rooms converted to a museum. But the main attraction of Villa Rufolo are the two terraces overlooking the Amalfi Coast and the Gulf of Salerno, hosting extraordinary gardens in bloom for most of the year, which every year in July are the background to the concerts of the Wagner Festival, an important and awaited event of classical music. It was here actually that the famous musician Richard Wagner in 1880 composed much of Parsifal, and the garden of Klingsor described in the second act of the opera is dedicated as a tribute to the gardens of Villa Rufolo. The magic of this place reaches its peak on the Belvedere which offers a breathtaking view of the Gulf.

The site of Villa Cimbrone, as well as its name, is also ancient: it was a large piece of land owned by the noble family Acconciagioco, on which a vast rustic farmhouse stood. The property went through different families, and then it fell into neglect. In 1904, following a similar fate to Villa Rufolo, Villa Cimbrone became the property of the English Sir Ernest William Beckett, who later became Lord Grimthorpe. Beckett, assisted by Ravello tailor Nicola Mansi, was able to construct a building that mixed ages and styles from around the world, ethnic and cultural elements, antique finds and souvenirs from exotic journeys. The only part of the villa that can be visited today (the villa has now been converted into a hotel and is not open to the public), are the crypt with Gothic arches and the cloister in Arab-Sicilian style, decorated all around the walls with marble fragments, pottery, carvings and wooden statues. The environment was built in the likeness of the ancient cloister of the church of San Francesco in Ravello.

Similarly, many other parts of the complex are taken from famous buildings and monuments, of Ravello and other places, in an unpredictable miscellany. On the contrary, the lush gardens of the villa, a mix between the wild style of English gardens and the formal style of Italian gardens are open to the public. In the gardens there are scattered statues, temples, inscriptions, fountains and natural caves. Worth of mention are the Poggio of Mercury, the Temple of Bacchus, the Cave of Eve (a natural cave with a marble statue of Eve), the Terrace of the Roses, a bronze statue of David, the Hall of Tea, the Temple of Cecere, the Rondinaia and finally the Belvedere, a large balcony decorated with marble busts called "Terrace of Infinity" for the unsurpassed view that extends even to Paestum. The famous writer Gore Vidal, who lived many years in Ravello said that the view from Villa Cimbrone was "the most beautiful in the world", while Greta Garbo visiting the villa exclaimed: "Now I can die, I saw heaven".

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