A Guide to Conca dei Marini

A Guide to Conca dei Marini

Conca view.jpg

If you ask any Neapolitan about Conca dei Marini, they will enthusiastically tell you that the sfogliatella pastry was invented there.  Like many pastries of the middle ages, cloistered nuns invented the sfogliatella.  It seems that while the cloistered men made alcoholic tinctures to maintain their independent cash flow, their sisters of the cloth were busy making sweet treats.  And so was the case of the sfogliatella.  The Santa Rosa Convent soaring above the tiny port of Conca dei Marini is where the ricotta stuffed and amarena cherry studded shell shaped pastry was born. 

For centuries, Conca dei Marini was a quiet fisherman’s borgo that occasionally suffered pirate attack and storms.  With the convents and monasteries nestled in her hills, Conca enjoyed generally quiet obscurity.  The most sensational thing here until 1956 was the tonnara- an ancient emporium for trapping blue fin tuna.  And then in the summer of 1962, Jackie Kennedy paid a visit to Conca while staying with her stepbrother Gore Vidal at his Villa Rondinaia in Ravello. 

The tonnara is long gone.  And so is Jackie.  But the smudge of jet-set glitterati has since transformed Conca from a quiet fishing village into a bonafide luxury destination.  In recent years, Bianca Sharma, the widow of an early Microsoft founder, bought and renovated the beloved Santa Rosa Convent, turning it into a five star hotel.  That in a pastryshell is the history of Conca.  From early Etruscan fishing outpost, to pastry hawkers, to Jackie O to finally a stately getaway for the world’s fortunate classes. 

 What to Do

 1)   Saint Pancrazio Church

The prominent church overlooking Conca dei Marini is dedicated to Saint Pancras, an early Christian martyr and patron saint of children, jobs and health.  He also protects against cramps, false witnesses, headaches and perjury. While that alone might be sufficient to prompt a visit to the church dedicated to him in Conca, the view from the esplanade here is what inspires more earthly awe.  You can enjoy an even more spectacular view from the church’s iconic bell tower.  Inside the church, you will find numerous paintings that document the ex-votos for the miracles attributed to Don Gaetano Amodio of Conca dei Marini.  A native son of Conca, Don Gaeatno was a local historian and priest who, according to local legend, could accurately foresee impending dangers including pirate attacks and shipwrecks.  While he died in 1772 (and has yet to receive sainthood despite many local petitions), the fishermen of Conca still invoke his name to protect against storms. 

San Pancrazio Bell Tower

San Pancrazio Bell Tower

 2)   Grotta dello Smeraldo

This Emerald Cave is named for the green lighting effect that occurs when sunlight enters this natural chamber and comes into contact with the dark salt-water lake below. Unlike the Blue Grotto in Capri, which must be reached by skiff from the Marina Grande, this cave can be reached by an elevator off the main road that connects Positano to Amalfi. For a 5 Euro admission fee, visitors enter the cave through a mad made tunnel and then take a small boat to the Emerald Cave. Visit the cave early in the morning (opens at 9AM) to avoid crowds and enjoy the surreal hew of green that dapples the rocky chamber. 

 3)   Capo di Conca

While the beach clubs of Amalfi and Positano can become easily overrun in the summer months, Conca dei Marini offers welcome respite from the human chaos. Capo di Conca Beach Club offers full service beach accommodation with showers, pool access, boat rentals and a restaurant. One can easily spend the day here.  It is also a fun evening spot with romantic dining that transitions into a sort of impromptu beach party around 9PM from June until September. 

Where to Stay

1)   Monastero Santa Rosa Hotel & Spa

If you want full five star luxury, then Santa Rosa is the only suitable option in Conca.  Bianca Sharma lovingly restored the facility, making it the newest addition to the collection of five star hotels on the Amalfi Coast.  The infinity pool here is stunning.  But perhaps the most famous thing here is the breakfast, featuring house made sfogliatella as the nuns invented here years ago. 

 2)   Locanda degli Agrumi

For a more relaxed seaside inn, head to Locanda degli Agrumi.  Run by a couple from Agerola, the bed and breakfast is well appointed and not particularly expensive.  In the off-season it is possible to stay here for less than 150 Euro per night, which is virtually unheard of in other parts of the Amalfi Coast.  Clean and no frills, this is a viable option for a somewhat affordable (by Amalfi Coat standards) family vacation. 

3)   Hotel La Conca Azurra

Perched into the cliffs just above the Emerald Cave, this four star hotel boats predictably stunning views.  It too hosts an excellent morning breakfast buffet featuring the native sfogliatella.  A nice happy medium between the luxury drenched Santa Rosa and the no frills Locanda degli Agrumi. 

 What to Eat

1)   Ristorante Tonnarella

In a former Roman era tuna emporium, Ristorante Tonnarella gives off rustic local beach vibes but with some seriously excellent dining.  In the 1960s, the Lauritano family opened this eclectic little beach club serving local seafood dishes on the beaches of Conca.  Jackie O famously enjoyed a plate of spaghetti and zucchini here (it is still on the menu).  Other notable dishes included pezzogna fish all’aqua pazza, in tomatoes garlic and basil and sea urchin spaghetti. 

The abundant portions of Ristorante Tonarella

The abundant portions of Ristorante Tonarella

2)   Le Bonta del Capo

A more formal restaurant on a terrace overlooking the sea caves of Conca, Le Bonta del Capo is ideal for a romantic dinner.  The Criscuolo family who runs the restaurant, offer just the right balance of warmth and cordiality to the vacationing couple—and no, this is not an ideal choice for young children.  Wine list is excellent and features local wines from Ravello, Furore and Tramonti.  Live music in summer months energizes the terrace around sunset. 

 What to Buy

 1)   Sfogliatella!

While it is no longer possible to buy sfogliatella at the Santa Rosa convent where they were invented (unless you are a guest of the hotel in which case you will enjoy them everyday for free!), you can head to Bar Santa Rosa in the morning and enjoy a caffè and sfogliatella. You can also take a box of these delicious pastries to go.  You may have to eat it before you depart, but the only suitable souvenir from Conca dei Marini is the hand made sfogliatella pastry. 

The Santa Rosa style sfogliatella pastry

The Santa Rosa style sfogliatella pastry

Calamari e Piselli (Squid & Peas)

Calamari e Piselli (Squid & Peas)