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Italy's Ravello a quiet paradise

RAVELLO, Italy - Here along the Amalfi Coast, dramatic panoramas of rocky cliffs hanging over the sea are everywhere. But the views from the town of Ravello - perched above the gulf of Salerno - feel like a shortcut to paradise.

RAVELLO, Italy - Here along the Amalfi Coast, dramatic panoramas of rocky cliffs hanging over the sea are everywhere.

But the views from the town of Ravello - perched above the gulf of Salerno - feel like a shortcut to paradise.

Getting to Ravello, which has a rich history dating to the 6th century, is an adventure in itself. The town remains virtually untouched by the swarms of tourists who visit nearby Capri and Ischia. Perhaps it is the hairpin bends that drop off into ravines that keep away all but the most determined. The town is also closed to traffic. Cars must be left in parking lots near the main square.

Still, visitors find their way here to relax, sample limoncello liqueur in local cafes or listen to the renowned open-air concerts that are offered each summer as part of the Ravello Festival. Over the years, the town has hosted many celebrities, including composer Richard Wagner, conductor Arturo Toscanini, artist Miro and writer D.H. Lawrence.

Cobblestone alleys, steep lanes and staircases lead to breathtaking views from terraced villas, like the one at Villa Cimbrone, a well-known local attraction that is also an upscale hotel. Here statues, temples, fountains, epigraphs, an ancient cloister, natural grottos and exotic flowers and trees lead the way to the breathtaking "Belvedere of Infinity."

The view from the balcony is so wide that the American writer Gore Vidal, who owned a nearby villa, once defined it as "the most beautiful in the world." White-marbled statues guard you as you lean out, overlooking the coast. The place is incredibly quiet, even in the high season.

Villa Cimbrone dates back centuries and is a fascinating mixture of styles and epochs, ethnic and cultural elements and antique finds. Its name derives from the rocky ridge on which it stands, which is known as "cimbronium."

An Englishman, Lord Grimthorpe, bought the villa in 1904, and it quickly became a meeting place for English visitors to the Amalfi coast, including the famous London Bloomsbury set. A nearby villa called La Rondinaia was built by Grimthorpe's daughter and for many years was owned by Vidal.

La Rondinaia, which means swallow's nest, was built into the side of the cliff, with six stories and multilevel terraces wrapped around it in a labyrinth of stairs and balconies. Vidal, who has had a prolific career as a playwright, essayist, scriptwriter and novelist, did much of his writing here.

Celebrities who visited the villa over the years included writer Tennessee Williams, dancer Rudolf Nureyev, actor Paul Newman, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and actor Brad Pitt.

La Rondinaia is now owned by Vincenzo Palumbo, who bought the property from Vidal for a reported $17.87 million. Palumbo, who also owns several local hotels, is renovating the property and said he plans to turn it into a niche lodging for jet-setters.

The details were still being worked out, but Palumbo said he hopes to rent the villa out later this summer. With six bedrooms, including suites, two studies and five fireplaces, he said, it will accommodate 12 to 18 people at a time.

Palumbo added that Vidal's studio, where he did his writing, will remain untouched and will be part of a small museum inside the mansion.

La Rondinaia is not now open to the public, but I was offered a peek inside on a recent visit to the Amalfi Coast with my parents.

We found the gate in the corner of a narrow alley, anonymous, with no sign or plaque. The black gate was half-open, beckoning. We silently entered the wild garden and wandered past umbrella pines, olive and cedar trees. Paths reached out in every direction. The scene, with no other sound other than our own steps, was dreamlike.

We walked past an empty swimming pool and a natural, 230-foot-long cave, and there it was, the stunning, almost gravity-defying villa towering above the sea and clinging to the side of the mountain.

Palumbo, who grew up in the area and visited La Rondinaia as a child, awaited us at the main door. Inside, the living room still seemed to echo the sounds of the parties held there, with its three balconies, four armchairs, cushions on the ground and a fireplace.

We followed Palumbo to the terraced mansion's upper floors through an opulent staircase. The first terrace seemed to drop off into nothingness. When you peep out over the edge, it feels like you are flying.

It's a sensation that I have never quite felt anywhere but in Ravello, where the views are so expansive you almost feel like you can touch the heavens. *