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Most travelers to Italy’s Amalfi Coast ooh and aah their way along the spectacular cliffside drive without ever discovering the pottery paradise of Vietri sul Mare.

Tour guidebooks barely mention Vietri, and those that do fail to note that the town is the origin of those gorgeous dishes, flowerpots, vases and tiles found in restaurants, hotels and homes throughout the Amalfi area.

Vietri sul Mare, or Vietri on the Sea, is the last or first town on the Amalfi Coast, depending on whether you begin at Sorrento or Salerno. The town likes to call itself “The First Pearl of the Amalfi,” claiming that the Amalfi begins at Vietri, which is just west of Salerno.

“We’re in a strategic place,” said Ava Willburger, who works at the tourist office amid the ceramics shops with her daughter, Antonia, the tourism manager. “We don’t have a very big marketing campaign because we don’t have much money, but the tourists come and buy.”

A good number of those tourists are Americans living in the Naples area who usually learn by word of mouth about the vivid hand-painted, sometimes whimsical and always creative ceramics and tiles that spill out of shop after shop in the compact town center.

Because each piece is an original that takes days to complete, you’re guaranteed of unique, quality ware. And prices are one-third to one-quarter of what you’d pay at the fine department stores and exclusive Web sites that import and sell ceramics from Vietri, which also bills itself as the “City of Ceramics.”

For example, the same large dinner plate that sells for 7 euros in the shops goes for $28 on one Web site, and an oval platter that costs about 24 euros goes for a whopping $78 on the site.

The selection at the shops is boggling: sets of dishes, vases of varying sizes and styles, soup tureens, large pasta bowls, antipasto dishes and trays, wine coolers, umbrella stands, candleholders, lamps, wall plates, casserole dishes and bowls of every size, serving plates, wine goblets, chicken pitchers (see more about these on Page 7) — and it goes on and on.

The other specialty of Vietri is tiles, ranging from small ones painted with numbers and letters with which you can make address or nameplates for your home, to borders for bathrooms of kitchens, floor-size tiles or entire Amalfi landscapes or scenes to make tabletops or wall hangings.

“You can find the ceramics of Vietri in Hollywood and New York,” Willburger said. “Movie and theater stars like to design their bathrooms with our ceramic art. And if you don’t like what you see in the artists’ collections, you can make your floors with your own ideas, your plates with your own ideas.”

Crazy about crockery

“I’ve been coming here off and on for many years,” said Petra Meyers, a teacher at Naples Elementary School whose husband, Capt. John Meyers, is stationed once again in the country they both love. “The first piece I bought from Vietri was probably 25 years ago.”

Meyers had come this time with longtime friend Leslie Reppard, a teacher’s aide whose husband, Dave, works for Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Naples. The two women met in 1972 when they were young newlyweds and their husbands were on the same ship. They kept in touch over the years but eventually lost contact.

“Then the weirdest thing happened,” Meyers reminisced in one of the ceramics shop. “Here we are at the same duty station and our husbands are both getting ready to retire.”

The drive from Naples to Vietri on the autostrada is only about 36 miles, so Meyers said she comes three or four times a year — “too much,” she confessed with a laugh as she studied shelf after shelf of items ranging from dishes to lamps to those popular chicken pitchers.

“Today I’m looking for an umbrella stand and an antipasto dish. Gifts mostly,” Meyers said. “We come down here to buy gifts and we bring visitors down. They love the stuff here.”

The variety of items and the designs available are astounding. The shops sell such an array that the choices can be dizzying. But as you meander through them on the main street of Corso Umberto I and on Via XXV Luglio in the town center near Piazza Matteotti, you’ll notice that each shop is different. They may all sell dishes and wall plates and flowerpots, but the designs and colors will vary because the artisans try to set themselves apart.

The colors are predominantly brilliant Mediterranean colors, such as cobalt blue to reflect the sea and bright yellow to represent the grapefruit-size lemons that grow in the Amalfi region. Some of the designs depict Amalfi folklore or the four seasons in Amalfi.

A history of quality

Vietri, pronounced vee-AY-tree, has been a ceramics-producing town since the 15th century. Today, there are about 40 “mom and pop” ceramic producers in town, most of which have been handed down through families for generations, along with the techniques, Willburger said.

Vietri also has three or four large operations that produce factory-made ceramics, she said.

Visitors to Vietri tend to opt for the handcrafted ceramics because of their uniqueness. In fact, a recent national law was passed to provide a DOC branding, or designation of origin, for Vietri ceramics to protect their image and production. It’s the same kind of law that allows Italian wines grown in certain regions — such as Chianti or Soave — to boast a DOC, which designates “a quality and renowned product,” according to the Italian law.

Thus, each original piece from the town is required to have painted on its bottom the word “Vietri,” along with the name of the artist or shop.

Another way to tell that a piece is handmade is to look for the tiny imperfections and for the circular grooves that are part of the potting process, advised Rosetta Scennepieco, who runs the shop Ceramica Giovanni along with her husband, the potter, and her son, the painter.

“If a piece is all smooth, it’s not handmade, it’s factory made,” she cautioned, showing visitors how to look for the rings inside a vase and to feel the texture of a piece to verify its originality. “Some stores will tell you it’s handmade when it’s actually factory made.”

If you’re looking for a set of six matching plates, for instance, you may notice some minor variations in the size of the plates or some slight differences in the design or color. These don’t detract from the value of the items and shouldn’t be considered imperfections. Rather they are marks of handcrafted work and emphasize their individuality.

The tableware dishes are lead-free, dishwasher safe and microwave safe.

All in the family

Scennepieco and her husband, Vicenzo, have been running their shop since 1978, when his father, Giovanni, bought the building. Now their son, Alessandro, 22, is part of the business.

While Rosa, as she is known, minds the store, Vicenzo sits all day in a poorly lit room in another part of town. Plastic-wrapped blocks of gray clay are stacked near the door and rows of shelves filled with pottery drying in their early stages crowd the room.

Pedaling the foot-powered potter’s wheel, Vicenzo slaps a slab of clay in front of him and the circular work top starts spinning. He dips his hand into a plastic bucket of dirty clay-splattered water and slaps some water onto the clay block to make it supple. Deftly, he starts molding the gray mass into a pitcher. An assistant carefully removes each piece from Vicenzo’s side table and puts them onto a shelf to dry in the open air.

In a day’s worth of work, Vicenzo can turn out 300 to 400 wine goblets. Then the next day he goes back and refinishes them — meaning he checks each one for any bumps, bubbles or rough spots that need fixing.

In another building across the street, Stefano Turco, 35, and Alessandro sit on kitchen chairs and paint each piece, which has since been baked in a kiln and dipped into a chalky finish. Alessandro, who has been painting ceramics since he was 10, creates the designs for the shop.

Both Alessandro and Turco, who has been painting for 11 years, had art school training, but they started in the ceramics business long before they got the diplomas. Each seems to take it for granted that they would end up here.

“This is the area of ceramics. Everybody does it,” Turco said matter of factly.

Vicenzo has been in the business “a lifetime,” he said. He went to school, too: “Yeah, to fifth grade,” he added with a wry chuckle. “Either you have it or you don’t. Either you have a passion for it or you don’t. They can’t teach you that at school.”

Rosa and her family have had a special tie to the military for years, filling orders from various Navy organizations for custom-made souvenirs for balls and celebrations. Right now the shop is making 400 plates for a submarine ball in La Maddalena next April and wine carafes for a Naval Support Activity Chapel Community party. And you’re likely to see her with her wares at various bazaars in Naples, Gaeta and La Maddalena.

“I love the contact with people, especially Americans,” Rosa said. “They are good-hearted people.”

Like most of the shops, Giovanni’s can replicate designs from drawings or fabrics or pictures for special-made items. For example, one American brought Rosa a picture of some fabric and wanted a set of dishes with horses to match her curtains. The strangest request she had was for a complete set of dishes painted with green spiders.

She shrugged and smiled. “Everybody has different tastes,” she said diplomatically.

If you go ...

The quickest route from Naples is the A-3 toward Salerno; Vietri is about 36 miles from Naples. Exit at Vietri sul Mare and then go to the centro. The scenic route is to take the Amalfi Coast drive: From Naples, head to Sorrento and follow the signs to the Amalfi Coast. The 20-mile route from Sorrento to Vietri can take two hours or longer because of the dizzying hairpin road on the cliffs overlooking the sea and the congestion in the small towns that you have to go through. During summer season, forget about it.

Find the shops

Most of the shops are clustered along Corso Umberto I and on Via XXV Luglio.

Where to park

For convenience and proximity, park in the lot on Piazza Matteotti in the centro. There’s only one lot, so you can’t miss it; it’s on the main street of Corso Umberto I and smack in the middle of the ceramics shops, which makes it handy to drop off purchases and head off for more shopping.

The parking lot operators are masters at squeezing in an unbelievable number of cars in the small lot; it might look to you as if there are no spots, but they usually can find one. You leave the car keys with them, though you can lock the car. Cost ranges from a couple of euros to about 5 euros, depending on how long you stay and the season.

Store hours

During tourist season (June through August), shops are open from about 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. or later. During the rest of the year, they generally follow typical Italian hours: Shops generally open at 10, close for lunch between 1 and 3 p.m., and reopen until about 7 p.m. But some shops remain open through lunch. And since this is Italy, hours are not always rigid: One shop might not open until 11 a.m. and another might not open at all, even though the posting on the door says otherwise.

Tourist office

Officially called Centro Turistico Acli a Vietri sul Mare, or CTA. Located just off Piazza Matteotti at the junction of Via XXV Luglio and Via Costiera. The staff speaks English, and can assist with hotels on the Amalfi Coast as well as in town, asrrange special tours and provide information about the host of cultural events the town participates in or sponsors during the year. The e-mail address is; the phone and fax number is (+39) 089-211285.

Bank machines

Several ATM machines are handily situated between ceramics shops on Corso Umberto I and just up the street from the parking lot.

— Deborah Absher


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