Saturday, October 24, 2009

Palazzo Sasso

The tiny town of Ravello sits in the hills above Amalfi and has views that Gore Vidal described as 'the best in the world'. Although I wouldn't go this far (being more impressed by wild landscapes), the view is certainly ravishing - the craggy limestone coast snaking hazily into the distance with numerous picture postcard Italian towns and villages, each with their own miniature duomo, nestling in the valleys below. Palazzo Sasso has some of the finest views in Ravello, and the beautifully landscaped terraces at the back of the hotel provide a relaxing backdrop to gawp at the scene below while sipping a glass of decent local vino.

The hotel ( has a Moorish look to it - high arched windows, geometric designs and numerous atria and open courtyards. Cars are banned from the centre of Ravello so the transfer drops you a few paces down the street: the first impression that you get walking down the narrow, stone-lined alleys is one of comfortable genteel decay. Numerous grand buildings and villas surround you, with just enough shabbiness that one might call it genuine character. This is definitely a good thing as Ravello feels comfortable with itself - and ruins of older villas dot the town, mixed with newer, though still ramshackle buildings - there is no aspic preserved part and it feels lived in, rather than spruced-up for the hell of it. The hotel looks rather unpretentious externally, but once through the door you fall headlong into a very discreet and commodious luxury.

Check-in was flawless, the staff helpful and friendly and we were quickly whisked to our room and a complimentary bottle of the local fizz. Rooms are decent-sized and ours had a small balcony that we could sit on with the full spread of the Amalfi Coast below us. The enormous bed came with not only a pillow menu (which seems to be becoming increasing popular in similar establishments), but also with a sheet menu, which included satin and silk. Rooms had wooden floors and were simply decorated, which gave them a real feeling of space and coolness, making them a good retreat when the the weather became too hot or muggy. Housekeeping was also seamless - incredibly discreet and efficient - we never once had to wait while our room was made - and room service was prompt and courteous at all times. Public areas of the hotel were tastefully decorated with subdued works of art and the ground floor was perfumed by pomegranate oils, which gave the whole place a rather indulgent air. The sound of running water from small fountains and waterfalls accompanied the view when sitting in the open air restaurant or on one of the terraces (there were several of these, one boasting an heated open pool).

One reason we chose Palazzo Sasso was that it's restaurant, Rossellini's, boast two Michelin stars and service claimed by Condé Nest to be among the best in the world. However, we found the restaurant to be a bit of a disappointment. In some cases food was similar in standard to that we have had elsewhere - my crab ravioli was competent and the turbot in black bread was interesting (though stu's tuna serving was tiny, if good) - but nothing particularly special and certainly not as exciting as anything we have had in other two star venues. Service was generally competent, if somewhat bland (particularly the maitre 'd, who seemed to have had a charisma by-pass), until near the end of the meal, when it went askew (it took over 30 mins to get our bill). The restaurant also doubles as the breakfast room and this mixing of functions didn't really work as the light airy look you want at breakfast doesn't really work at dinner time - the bright lighting, hard floors and pumped muzak (similar to that in your average shopping centre elevator) really destroyed any attempt at an atmosphere. As a result, we only ate there once and explored other places in Ravello when it came to dinner time.

Ravello itself is charming - perhaps the perfect idea of a small Italian hill town. The duomo is imposing if unusually plain, and dominates the central square from which radiates a small warren of narrow steep lanes. The town is very small and possesses only a couple of local restaurants, which do a roaring trade as a consequence. The town prides itself on its classical music festival (which we'd just missed), but does regular concerts throughout the year in the Villa Rufolo (famous for its gardens, which we didn't visit). We did manage a night time concert (a piano recital, tickets arranged for us very efficiently by the hotel), which was entertaining if not of the highest standard (I know this is snobbish, but living in London spoils you in terms of top-flight international performances). Aside from sitting in the town square with a cappuccino, we also tried two local restaurants. Cumpa Cosimo, a great family owned and run trattoria, presided over by a formidable and exceptionally entertaining matriarch, provided terrific charcuterie and pasta. On the opposite side of the piazza was Vittoria, where we had excellent pizzas and possibly one of the best meals I've had in Italy, a beef fillet flavoured with sharp blackberries and garlic (a surprisingly good mix).

We also spent some time out of Ravello - Amalfi is an exceptionally pretty town and well worth wandering around for a few hours. Pompeii is spectacular and the walk up Vesuvius allowed me to notch up my first visit to a famous volcano (plumes of sulphurous steam included). Unfortunately, without a car, it's quite difficult to get from Ravello to Pompeii (even though it's not too far: public transport takes around 3 hours each way), which means you have to rely on a tour (which we did), meaning limited time, or on a private car (hiring taxis was outrageously expensive, and made London black cabs look like they offer a subsidised social service). I'd suggest if in this part of the world and Pompeii is high on your list either visit it from Naples before heading to the coast or stay somewhere on the coast where public transport to Pompeii is easier (e.g. Sorrento).

Palazzo Sasso can certainly be proud of itself and earns everyone of its five stars - a beautiful venue with excellent standards. Sadly, Rossellini's did not live up to expectations, but even here a little more invention with the food and, in particular, a boost to the service and ambiance could really allow the restaurant to fly.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Welcome to the blog

In this blog I plan to review those hotels, restaurants and other establishments that I've been fortunate enough to visit as part of my travel around the world. Most of my journeys are work-related, but I'm also fortunate enough to have vacationed in a number of interesting and exotic places. My intention is to give a guide to those things I've enjoyed and cautionary tales about those things I haven't. I don't intend to act as a travel agent so I won't be providing reams of background information on each establishment or details of rates/how to book etc, though an up-to-date URL will be given where available. I hope it's of some help to you in finding nice places to eat and stay while you bustle around the globe.