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

By Nicole Cotroneo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 15, 2007

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 high-priced 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 week-long 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.

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