Ascending and Descending In the Amalfi Coast
I knew I was in trouble as soon as I arrived in Praiano. Maybe it was the way this small commune in the Amalfi Coast appeared unexpectedly, nestled up high as we rounded the bend of the Lattari Mountains, offering the kind of views of nearby Positano that I’d seen in movies. Maybe it was that this place made me instantly contemplate an idea: what if we could move? Then again, it may have been the unexpected —a reminder that often the best part of even a well-planned trip, is the one we can’t foresee. Whatever it was, I knew that in my newly found joy there was also sadness; the awareness that I’d have to leave this place behind when the holiday was over. I was in trouble because I’d fallen in love.
As we ascended the two hundred steps up to our rooms in the Pensione Colombo, my family and I stopped on every one of the five landings, partly because we needed to catch our breath, but mostly to marvel at the view. Every patch of available garden was planted with ripe tomatoes, zucchinis and colorful flower beds, and lemon trees that had been vined and twisted into shady alcoves. A litter of tiny playful kittens meowed their welcome, and when we turned ’round we could see the town of Positano beckoning; from a distance, the white-looking homes stood out against the lush green trees and dark beige cliffs that surrounded them. But by far, the predominant color here was the blue of the sea and sky, every shade of it, I’d find out later, and all the other colors seemed brighter in contrast: the lemons more yellow, the pine trees greener.
Sweaty and tired in the afternoon sun after our nine hour drive, my teen-aged son and daughter, and my husband and I were greeted by the pensione’s manager on the large terrace where he said breakfast was served each morning. Offering us a glass of cold water, he inquired if we were there for the celebrations, and our blank stares answered. “Every year we celebrate Santo Domenico with the Luminaria,” the young man explained from behind his curly brown hair. “It starts tonight at nine,” he continued in good English. “You should go, it’s very nice. Every night there is something to see: acrobats, music, fireworks. It ends on August 4th.” We had made this our final stop of the Italian tour to celebrate my daughter’s 15th birthday, which to our happy surprise, was on the same day as the Saint’s. Also, Praiano offered us a chance to relax, we wouldn’t be checking off sights like we’d done in Rome or Florence. Instead, we’d adopt the rhythm of the place, bask in the summer sun, splash in the water, and perhaps venture on a hike.
A few more steps took us up to the bright, clean, comfortable connecting rooms and their shared private balcony, overlooking the same magnificent view we enjoyed from the steps. The four of us stood looking out, captivated. “Did you know this was gonna look like this?” my 16-year-old son broke the silence. “Not really,” I answered honestly. The internet photos paled in comparison to the mesmerizing vastness of mountains to our right and sea all the way to the far horizon. The view had this effect on us every morning of our stay so that once, twice, or three times a day you’d catch one of us staring. “It seems too beautiful to be real,” my husband said, rushing to unpack his carry-on, a ritual I equal parts love, admire, and make fun of. Unpacking for him is like getting permission to go out and discover. Meanwhile, the kids checked their phones, and I sat, pondered, and made mental notes of what it would be like to live here. Not surprisingly, most of my ideas would come to me while climbing stairs.
Like all the Amalfi Coast towns, Praiano was built vertically. There was one main road, the Amalfitana, that united all the towns, and a series of countless stairways and paths that headed down to the water and up to the mountains. During the days of celebration, the bells from the nearby Church of Santa Maria perched up high on the “Sentieri degli Dei” (Path of the gods) rang at sunset. As in animated conversation, the bells of the Parish of San Gennaro, in the center of town, answered back. Their echoes reverberated and lingered, making even agnostics stop to reconsider; there was something palpably divine here.
When evening fell, the mountains seemed to steal the muted dark blue tones from the Tyrrhenian Sea, as lights flickered on the tycoon yachts that lined the bay in front of Positano. Descending our steps to join the celebrations in the nearby town center was in no way an easier feat than climbing them. Besides my ungrateful joints, there was always the imminent threat of missing a step, twisting an ankle and rolling down the stairs to my death. The first day, I sought support from the white metal railings, but soon discovered they were covered in ants that used them as a highway of sorts. It took a couple of times forgetting about the ants, and having them use my arms as alternate routes, to teach me to stop using the railings for their intended purpose, and risk rolling down the stairs. But here was the thing, ants and all, I was not deterred; I just walked slower making mental notes about that possible future life in Praiano.
Besides the stairs, there was the Amalfitana. Venturing into this road, which simultaneously served as highway, main street, illegal parking lot and sidewalk, was a constant risk to our life. Day or night, its narrowness and the volume of busses, cars, mopeds and people walking in every direction was a menace. “We’ll go on ahead,” my 15 and 16 year old said, and even as I consented, I felt a pang of worry. “Are you sure?” I’d shout helplessly, watching them navigate their walk centimetres away from motored transportation, and still, something from within told me it was okay. This little town began and ended in a short radius of perhaps eight blocks all around, and unlike the surrounding towns, you could tell the majority of people here were locals. There was an everydayness about Praiano that made us all feel at home.
Anyway, one could survive the ants and the steps and the scary road to grow old here. I knew it the moment we got to the town’s square, favoured by a group of gray-haired men with healthy tans, who because of their age, made me think of my dad. They sat on wooden benches in lively conversation overlooking the Parish of San Gennaro, which is painted in creamy yellow hues and has a striking blue and white-tiled dome. I saw them every day of our six day stay. Where were the women?I wondered. Cooking over a hot stove in this summer heat? Or just catching their breath, like I’d found myself doing, on one of the many sets of stairs.
On the night of the Luminaria, young local teens dressed in red t-shirts went around in groups of twos lighting thousands of candles in front of the church and on the side verandas of the surrounding shops. The four of us sat at the bleachers directly across from the church entranced by what seemed like an ancient ritual, except it had the warmth and community feel of a summer carnival. Everyone was there. At the height of the event, a duo of acrobats danced gracefully above the candles with golden sparkle powder blowing out of their flowy sleeves, while over the loudspeakers we could hear mezzo-soprano voices rendering a perfect harmony of “Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé. On this, as in many other occasions, Praiano seemed to shake my senses awake, the layers of its beauty unleashing such a torrent of emotion that I’d catch myself smiling uncontrollably while my eyes welled up. My family felt no different; I could see it in their elated stares and the way we’d been left speechless, except for recurrent wows.
I had the same sentiment the day we hiked up the aptly named Path of the Gods. Even as I struggled up the one thousand steps at the start of the path, I asked myself, if I were a local, would I be able to climb these regularly? Could I do it in old age if I was already catching my breath now? I convinced myself that I’d have to. Alone and drenched in summer-morning heat, I watched my family hurry ahead. They do this often now, our kids, they like to test their strength and stamina against their parents’ and my husband likes the challenge. I’d catch up to them on intermittent stops, and we’d sit together sharing the water-bottle and the splendour of the cobalt-blue skies, and the droning steady buzz of the cicadas. Occasionally, church bells would ring in the distance, like a spiritual wake-up call, and I was forced to stop, hypnotized by the beauty all around.
Twice we rode the local bus that took us on an intrepid 15-minute ride to Positano; in fact, all rides were intrepid on the Amalfitana (aka SS163), but taking the bus was easier than driving and trying to find the rare commodity of parking. The local drivers were fearless. At every turn I found myself saying a silent prayer for survival. Was that it about these parts? Was it that it made me aware I could die at any minute? Was it the carpediamness of it all? Positano bustled with tourists. We descended till the water’s edge, through crowded winding paths with tiny shops selling cotton dresses or multi-colored ceramics. As we devoured refreshing sweet and sour granitas it seemed to me that this was the type of place I wished I could fit into a suitcase—pack it, in its charming entirety, and bring it home to recreate in our own space. Instead, my daughter settled for two cotton scarves, one of them in fall red tones that I convinced her to buy. “When it starts to get cold, you’ll put it around your neck and remember it was hanging out in the Positano sun one day, just like us.”
By sunset we were always back in Praiano climbing stairs again; at home, and it was there we spent the entirety of our last day, at the local Gavitella beach. I sat on a rock, squinting in the sun to find the three familiar dark heads that floated side by side intermittently like fishing floats pulled into water.
“You have to see the little fish!” my husband called out, excited to share. I joined him, and taking a deep breath as I held tightly to his hand for safety, I ventured into underwater Praiano, which like everything else about the place, was more than one could have imagined. The tiny fish that live near its shores sparkled like narrow silver gems, spreading iridescence.
I wish I could say that climbing the stairs got easier as the week progressed. It didn’t. But Praiano’s impractical perfection left a yearning inside that endures long after our return home. Among my photos, there’s one my daughter took of me on the terrace of the centrally located Bar del Sole. In it, my interlaced hands point toward the five elderly Praiano men in the background, hanging out at their usual spot. I had sent it to my dad with the caption, “Dad, if you were aging in Praiano, you’d be like these guys.” To which my father responded, granting me permission to go on dreaming, that it was wonderful to see my family and I looking happy in this beautiful location, and that perhaps, we should stay there, “until you are old enough to join the other retirees on their late afternoon bench.”
BIO: Adriana Añon is a teacher and a writer. Having lived in Uruguay, Japan, Canada, Brazil and the U.S., has given her an early awareness and appreciation of different cultures. Besides writing, she enjoys traveling and eating good food, she is always working on her running, and loves spending time with her family. Her work has been published in Teachers and Writers Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, The Globe and Mail, and Reader’s Digest Canada.