Hey, Neigh­bor

On Italy’s Amalfi Coast, Mak­ing Friends Is Easy When You Be­come One Of the Vil­lagers

The Washington Post Sunday - - Travel - By Ni­cole Cotro­neo

Maybe I was too ex­cited by the on­line pho­tos of the villa’s rooftop ter­race, with its un­in­ter­rupted views of the Tyrrhe­nian Sea, or the de­scrip­tion of Pra­iano as a dreamy lit­tle fish­ing vil­lage on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Or maybe it was the rel­a­tively af­ford­able rental price. Some­thing must have dis­tracted me from the part about the steps — end­less, un­re­lent­ing steps — that I’d have to climb to gain en­trance to my private piece of the divine coast.

It was right there on the Web page: “This apart­ment lies in the up­per part of Pra­iano, in a tran­quil and very panoramic area with a view of the gulf of Posi­tano. You get there up a flight of about a hun­dred steps . . .”

I am toned and fit. I go to the gym. I wouldn’t let a flight of steps de­ter me from rent­ing a villa in which I planned to spend one week of un­par­al­leled re­lax­ation.

Three thou­sand six hun­dred steps later, about 36 trips up and down the stairs lead­ing from the street to my villa — two with lug­gage, sev­eral with gro­cery bags, all un­der the heat of a late June sun — I am a more hum­ble per­son . . . with tighter buns.

I ended up in Pra­iano for two rea­sons. I wanted to be in a town away from tourists, where I could ex­pe­ri­ence town life by liv­ing it

in­stead of watch­ing it; and I wanted to cook. I had been trav­el­ing through south­ern Italy for two months, a jour­ney that was near­ing its end, and I wanted a wind­ing-down pe­riod af­ter all the mov­ing around — and a cel­e­bra­tion of all the good food I’d eaten along the way. I also wanted my Amer­i­can friend Phil, who was join­ing me for this last week on the coast, to un­der­stand and ex­pe­ri­ence a cul­ture that had imbed­ded it­self in my heart.

Be­tween Sea and Sky

The hu­mid­ity ruf­fled it­self into a vo­lu­mi­nous pale gray haze and set­tled over the Tyrrhe­nian Sea, softly ob­scur­ing the hori­zon and mak­ing a shadow of the dis­tant is­land of Capri. At times the sky was in­dis­tin­guish­able from the sea, and Pra­iano seemed to be float­ing some­where in be­tween.

When nearby Amalfi was the seat of a pow­er­ful mar­itime repub­lic dur­ing the 10th and 11th cen­turies, the dukes made their sum­mer res­i­dence here. They chose Pra­iano for its beauty and its pri­vacy. Eye level with clouds and birds in flight, they must have felt like gods in this place.

The lo­cals say the wealthy and pow­er­ful still come to Pra­iano, but only the dis­creet ones. The town calls it­self “il cuore della Costiera Amal­fi­tana” — “the heart of the Amalfi Coast” — but that is only true in a ge­o­graphic sense. Its bun­dle of white­washed vil­las, churches, ho­tels and restau­rants clings to the bluffs nearly equidis­tant from two of the most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions on the coast: 3.7 miles east of Posi­tano and 4.3 miles west of Amalfi. If you want to see or be seen, ei­ther of those towns will do nicely.

Sip­ping cof­fee in the morn­ing at Bar del Sole or slurp­ing a gor­geous, peach-col­ored, fresh-fruit smoothie in the af­ter­noon, Phil and I watched tour buses hulk through town, their re­frig­er­ated pas­sen­gers some­times asleep against the win­dows. The buses never stopped. There wasn’t even a park­ing lot in which to stop. Pra­iano wasn’t a des­ti­na­tion. You were sup­posed to drive through it, ad­mire the lovely blue-and-gold ma­jolica dome of the cathe­dral ded­i­cated to San Gen­naro, and move on. A tragedy for them. De­light­ful for us. Pra­iano is peace­ful and real. It is a place where peo­ple live.

Al­i­men­tary shops out­num­ber re­tail shops. Tourists are so few that they stick out with their pale skin and rub­ber flip-flops. Across the bay in Posi­tano, how­ever, there are so many at this time of year that it’s the lo­cals who stick out.

If you want to shop for ex­pen­sive ce­ram­ics or bou­tique cloth­ing, you take the bus to Posi­tano. When you get your fill of high­priced drinks and crowded streets, you re­turn home to Pra­iano.

Amer­i­can or Bri­tish?

Pra­iano is a ver­ti­cal town con­nected by long, steep flights of stone steps and long rib­bons of slop­ing roads. Ev­ery res­i­dent we met ad­vised us to rent a scooter, but Phil and I didn’t lis­ten. The nar­row, wind­ing roads with their stom­ach-churn­ing curves and sheer precipices were daunt­ing enough. The prospect of ma­neu­ver­ing them on a glo­ri­fied bi­cy­cle while play­ing chicken with mo­tor­coaches was not our idea of tak­ing it easy. We would hoof it or take lo­cal buses.

Af­ter two days we had it all fig­ured out. If we wanted to go to the lower part of Pra­iano, where the restau­rants, shops and a beach are lo­cated, we usu­ally walked down Via San Gi­u­liano, a “street” made of a gazil­lion steps that con­nected lower with up­per. Down was easy. Re­turn­ing to the villa was an­other mat­ter.

Our first evening in town, our heads dizzy from sev­eral cups of es­presso and a few glasses of limon­cello, we made the climb from Via G. Capriglione — es­sen­tially Main Street — to the top of Via San Gi­u­liano, stop­ping at each land­ing to give our burn­ing thighs a rest, to bring our breath­ing down from a wheez­ing pant. Af­ter that, we vowed never to climb those steps again.

Pra­iano folds it­self around a ver­ti­cal ridge that ex­tends up­ward from Capo Sot­tile (Thin Cape). To the right of the cape is Pra­iano proper, mostly a res­i­den­tial area with some ho­tels and restau­rants. To the left is Vet­tica Mag­giore, a ham­let of Pra­iano, al­though I only heard res­i­dents re­fer to it as Pra­iano. Life on the Vet­tica Mag­giore side con­verges at Bar del Sole. Though bars in Italy usu­ally serve cof­fee, this one also serves al­co­hol. It’s in front of the cathe­dral so you can first con­fess your sins, then skip across the street to com­mit them.

Dur­ing the 2006 World Cup soc­cer tour­na­ment, it was the place to watch the games. Our first evening in Pra­iano, we en­joyed an ex­cel­lent fish din­ner at La Brace, a restau­rant perched over a phar­macy, then walked down the street to the bar for es­presso and a night­cap. The place was alive with peo­ple gath­ered around the television, cheer­ing, shout­ing and wav­ing their hands at the screen. It was a match be­tween Italy and the United States.

“Okay, if the U.S. loses, we’re Amer­i­cans,” Phil said. “If the U.S. wins, we’re Bri­tish.”

The next morn­ing, when I walked into a nearby gro­cery store called La Euro Frutta, man­ager Sal­va­tore De Lu­cia asked me if I’d watched the match. The game had ended in a tie, so I de­cided it was safe to be Amer­i­can.

Sal­va­tore, in his early 30s, is mar­ried to an Amer­i­can and speaks English quite well. I walked to his store ev­ery morn­ing. It was down the road from my villa, past a bronze statue of Padre Pio (a pop­u­lar Ital­ian priest, can­on­ized in 2002) that I saluted ev­ery morn­ing, and just around the ridge on the Pra­iano side. That first day, as I looked over the veg­eta­bles, Sal­va­tore ad­vised me to hold off be­cause he’d re­ceive new veg­eta­bles to­mor­row — th­ese were from yes­ter­day.

That kind of gen­er­ous hon­esty was com­mon in Pra­iano. When I was peer­ing into the frozen fish bin at Maria Sor­rentino’s butcher shop, she told me about the fresh seafood mar­ket in town. Like many shops, it had no sign out front. You had to fol­low your nose

or ask a friendly per­son where to find it.

On the Rocks

My kitchen was small, with a gas stove­top, an elec­tric-blue re­frig­er­a­tor with match­ing toaster oven and, hap­pily, a dish­washer. The rest of the villa far ex­ceeded my ex­pec­ta­tions.

La Sovrana looks as if it has been there for cen­turies, yet it is only a few years old. Sep­a­rated from own­ers Luigi and Ana Pane’s house by a small court­yard with a lemon tree, it has tile floors, lovely ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails such as crown mold­ing and sweep­ing arch­ways, and an open floor plan. The bed­room’s French doors open to a flag­stone pa­tio, where we drank es­presso in the morn­ing un­der the shade of an olive tree.

Terra cotta stairs lead to the private ter­race roof with its flow­ered per­gola, chaise longues and an out­door shower to cool our bronz­ing skin. And the views con­firmed that no pho­to­graphic trick­ery had been used on the Web site. The moun­tain sloped be­low us. We could see the cathe­dral and a stone watch­tower where the land dropped off into the sea. Capri peeked out from be­hind the Sor­rento penin­sula. To our right, across the bay, was Posi­tano’s pic­turesque jum­ble, chang­ing color in the shift­ing light as the sun rose from be­hind Capo Sot­tile, arced across the sea and sank be­hind the bluffs.

Si­lence reigned, ex­cept for the sound of church bells or the slap­ping of a speed­boat far be­low. Some­times, around lunchtime, we could hear the clink­ing forks and muf­fled voices of a fam­ily in a house above us.

One af­ter­noon when we were leav­ing the villa to catch the bus to Ma­rina di Praia, a lit­tle beach rec­om­mended in our guide­book, we met Luigi in the court­yard. He was com­ing to of­fer us zuc­chini from his gar­den. When we told him of our plans, he rec­om­mended that we in­stead walk to “nos­tra spi­ag­gia” (our beach), La Gavitella, which gets sun all day. Ma­rina di Praia is sunny only in the morn­ing, he said.

We fol­lowed the tile signs “alla spi­ag­gia” (to the beach) down flow­ered al­ley­ways be­low the cathe­dral and a se­ries of steps (nat­u­rally), then an­other 10 min­utes to a tiny strip of rocky beach. We rented two lounge chairs and an um­brella and joined the hand­ful of lo­cals ly­ing around. The wa­ter was translu­cent and emer­ald green, warm and salty. Chil­dren piled onto the tremen­dous boul­ders and took turns div­ing into the sea.

Across the bay in Posi­tano, the sandy beach was car­peted with peo­ple. La Gavitella was a hideaway beach. We didn’t have sand be­neath our toes, but the dra­matic set­ting was like none I’d ever seen.

There’s a restau­rant just above the beach that was rec­om­mended to us on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. But af­ter that first night, we never ate out­side our villa, ex­cept for drinks or dessert. I made a spicy sausage ragu over mac­cheroncini from sausage Maria the butcher had made fresh that morn­ing. I cut Luigi’s zuc­chini into thin disks, cooked it in gar­lic-in­fused oil and served it over spaghetti, as I’d had it in Posi­tano a month ear­lier. I squeezed fra­grant lemons picked from the tree out­side our door and mixed the juice with ice and sugar for a thick, re­fresh­ing drink.

I wres­tled an oc­to­pus, too. The fish­mon­ger had cleaned the ink out of its pouch, but it was my job to cut the tan­gled beast into pieces when I got home. The prob­lem was that the sharpest knife in the kitchen was a but­ter knife. Phil fi­nally tamed the oc­to­pus with scis­sors, clip­ping each slimy ten­ta­cle into lit­tle pieces. Af­ter all that work, though, it turned out to be the only flop in my week­long menu. Ev­i­dently saute­ing oc­to­pus is not the way to go.

More Than Land­lords

One of the chal­lenges of rent­ing an Amalfi Coast villa is the lan­guage bar­rier. Of­ten the own­ers of the vil­las don’t speak much English. Nev­er­the­less, hav­ing the own­ers on the prop­erty was a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence. Luigi and Ana were al­ways avail­able, of­fered to drive us to get gro­ceries, helped us nav­i­gate around town and gave us zuc­chini and green beans from their gar­den.

They also of­fered us friend­ship. It is a priceless ex­pe­ri­ence to walk around a town in a coun­try so far from your own and en­counter a friend. We met Sal­va­tore one day at the fish mar­ket. We met Ana out­side the cathe­dral with a bag­ful of petals, on her way to dec­o­rate the pi­azza for her son’s Com­mu­nion cer­e­mony. Then, on our last af­ter­noon in Pra­iano, we bumped into Luigi on our walk from the bus stop back to the villa.

He told me he had some­thing im­por­tant to ask me, and I an­tic­i­pated it would be about the money for the fi­nal clean­ing or the hour when we would va­cate the villa the next morn­ing.

“Zuc­chini,” he said ur­gently. “My wife wants to know if you want more zuc­chini.”

It is heart-wrench­ing to leave a life in which mat­ters of money yield to those of fresh pro­duce. I find that I am left with a per­sis­tent long­ing for that way of life, like a peren­nial hunger pang for some­thing sim­ple and de­li­cious. Per­haps young zuc­chini, cooked slowly in gar­lic-in­fused olive oil. Ni­cole Cotro­neo is the au­thor of “NY Girl Eats World,” a food and travel blog. She last wrote for Travel about New York’s Hud­son River Val­ley.

© SE­BAS­TIAN — ALAMY; ABOVE RIGHT, BY NI­COLE COTRO­NEO

From lounge chairs on the beach or hill­tops in town, Pra­iano of­fers views of the sea.

PHO­TOS BY NI­COLE COTRO­NEO

Tour buses pass through Pra­iano, but only those who stop and stay awhile dis­cover its charms, in­clud­ing a statue of Padre Pio, above; the cathe­dral of San Gen­naro, left; and friendly mer­chants like gro­cer Sal­va­tore De Lu­cia, top left.

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