“…the beauty that is the battle of duplicitous Amalfi, old and new, natural and man-made, if you just look close enough.”
Amalfi was the thing of dreams if you looked past the flash: plump, bright yellow lemons in baskets beckoning my insatiably curious, grubby American hands.
I didn’t buy them. In fact, I didn’t buy many souvenirs there: those commercialized tourist trap shops protected by weathered, paper-thin green and white striped awnings – the only glaring spots of age on the otherwise glossy veneer of slick, power-washed slate and crisp white linen aprons for sale with “Amalfi Coast” embroidered in Robin’s egg blue on the front. It was our first day here, and my neck already hurt from whipping left and right to catch the cellophane packaged pastas and dried fruits and hard candies wrapped in yellow ribbon, gorgeous bottles of amber-colored olive oil, thousands of gauzy pashmina scarves, chunky turquoise jewelry, leather shoes, handwoven totes, Mac machines impossibly tucked inside 10th century cavernous stone inlets, technicolor cubicle vending machines with sodas and snacks, cardboard Heineken logos dangling above bar doors, signs and misty scents boasting “Lemon this!” “Lemon that!”
The main plaza ended abruptly at the road, opening up to a postcard view: mid-afternoon muted sun playing off the shimmering blue sparkle of the sea’s horizon, deft waiter slinking through the ceaseless traffic jam to the restaurant’s seats in a gazebo across the road, fingers precariously balancing a tray with two glasses of prosecco on top, like expertly spinning a basketball. We traversed single-file on the narrow sidewalk, downhill towards the ocean, cabs and Vespas an inch away clogging the street, begrudgingly stopped for the hoards of capri and sneaker clad tourists filtering into tour buses, plastic bags of newly bought stuff and bottoms of drippy gelato cones in hand – just ahead, another eager-eyed round pouring out of a similar bus.
At the entrance to the pier, a group of local men in leather jackets swapped stories near shiny black, red and yellow convertible luxury show cars, ignored the foreigners convening around them, staking claim like giant bugs, perched on their domain of cracked hundreds-of-years-old pavement beneath. Despite the crowds, we managed to find a spot of concrete at the very end of the pier to face the sea or to turn around and take in the expanse of the town.
To put it simply, looking at Amalfi proper as a whole from the water, stunning in all its foreground to background glory, justified the unusual coastal May weather we were experiencing that day (overcast, low 60s, but chilly) and would experience for the remaining four days (gradually deteriorating into boiling charcoal clouds, low 40s, freezing cold rain and gumball hail).
I was grateful for my last minute decision to pack my cumbersome leather jacket, as our second day was, so far, not making any plans to warm up to anything reasonable. We traversed our way through the shockingly-modern-for-the-area pedestrian tunnel connecting Atrani to Amalfi, white stone from the mountain cleanly carved out like a vanilla ice cream scoop down its center, obscene fluorescent tubes of light spanning its entire mile or so, keeping pick-pocketing to a minimum and families safe. The tunnel’s end opened up to an empty courtyard save for a dedication of statues for folks long ago important, which we and everyone else surpassed to wearily make our way further into town through a paper cut path, slit through the stucco and sconces of locals’ domiciles, until the unsure path turned into steps and, finally, welcomed us into the main plaza under a dismal afternoon sky threatening rain.
Making a sharp left up another stone staircase toppling with crates of hot peppers, I stopped halfway at a charming fruit stand where the man behind the counter, desperate for customers shying away from the rain, beckoned me with a smile so wide, I decided I’d cater to my Instagram whims and finally purchase and photograph with my manicured hand an overpriced, local treat (akin to Polish water ices on the Boardwalk) of a shaved lemon granita with macerated frozen strawberries so strikingly red they looked fake, all jammed together in a plastic cup with a spoon/straw combination and about three days’ worth of sugar. I couldn’t stop there, so we landed at a vendor in the main corridor where there was always a line and shouted our order over heads for a paper cuoppo of salty, golden fried seafood with a wedge of Amalfi lemon on a toothpick in its center. It was expensive and worth every penny. On a tourist (or granita) high, I then bought my girl friends back home adorable mosaic wine stoppers with “Amalfi” written in curly script.
I finally finished my Americanized day tour of Amalfi by careening into any store the color of marigold on my search for lemon shortbread cookies similar to the ones we had at dinner the night prior in Atrani. I only found a cheap imitation, but it did the trick to satiate my cravings, shoving crumbly fistfuls into my mouth as a pre-dinner snack. We finished the day at Taverna Buonvicino, a classy little restaurant with white tablecloths where we discovered three things: (1) green bean pasta neither sounds nor tastes enticing, but I went for it anyway (turns out there is such a thing as a bad meal in Italy, but luckily only this one time); (2) I was going to spill a lot of glasses of (thankfully white) wine this vacation, that night being the first one; and, (3) nearly all restaurants have the same soundtrack, and that is smooth jazz instrumentals of popular 80’s songs. Green bean pasta aside, by this point, I had stopped keeping track of all the different crisp Amalfi white wines we drank, and I didn’t see the point. They were all good, all the time.
May 5th, the midpoint of our time on the coast, was our anniversary. We spent it exploring all Amalfi had to offer beyond the shops and restaurants. Up in the hills, so to speak, it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the labyrinth of winding steps carved into the mountainside and lush greenery that simultaneously went up, down, sideways, somewhere, and nowhere, like an M.C. Escher painting, leading to either someone’s home, a gated garden of lilacs and bushy stray cats, or an expanse of stone walkway for viewing, where if you were lucky, you were alone to scope out the town beneath you like old Italian nobility (I equated it to Cersei Lannister surveying King’s Landing).
We took the pedestrian elevator back down that we somehow conveniently overlooked, stopping for a quick lunch at a popular corner destination where I finally got to try (at, surprisingly enough, my gynecologist’s recommendation) prosciutto wrapped cantaloupe with a drizzle of balsamic, washed down with a very bitter Aperol spritz that did little in the way of refreshment but made for a pretty sparkly orange picture in the sunlight. We people watched those vying for space outside the impressive, grand cathedral with its intricate lacy golden trim, and witnessed no less than three separate wedding parties taking photographs in the square.
After lunch, we continued our journey inward rather than upward, leading us deeper into the beauty that is the battle of duplicitous Amalfi, old and new, natural and man-made, if you just look closed enough: a trellis of lemon vines and azaleas forming a canopy over lacquered dining tables, potted tropical ferns and strung summer lights, regional music from an unseen speaker somewhere above a colorful enameled depiction of a saint embedded into a wall, a restaurant’s full menu hand-painted in Old English font up some hidden walkway, permanently tattooed into the white stucco, and my most favorite tiny detail of all, the shiny instructional mosaic tiles the size of index cards, just barely noticeable, pointing you in the direction towards some casa or trattoria you didn’t know you needed until now.
That night, it turned chilly. We cursed the wind for being uncooperative with our vacation, and ourselves for inadequately packing only spring and summer clothes. The sky saw our curse and raised us an unrelenting downpour that didn’t let up until the following morning. I gave thanks to the ghosts of our haunted AirBnB for providing us with a few umbrellas. Stubbornly, I still wore to dinner a slinky black maxi dress and leather sandals (regrettably, the only shoes besides sneakers that I packed in our hiking backpacks), so I had to swath myself in an extra layer of sweater, leather jacket, and scarf, but none of it touched my cold bones. Thankfully, the steamy embrace of Taverna Degli Apostoli’s chambers, and a few glasses of wine, warmed us right up for our anniversary dinner, where we enjoyed unctuous octopus confit (!) in a jar teeming with rich olive oil, sprigs of parsley, and lemon, a fish of the day baked in, you guessed it, Amalfi lemon, with a scattering of kalamata olives, and light and airy strawberry and lemon tarts.
Our fifth and final night, after a long day of hiking to Ravello and back, we stayed on the edge of town near the pedestrian tunnel for our last meal, uncharacteristically opting for sushi at Shabu, a Japenese fusion restaurant where we had the best sushi we’d ever eaten in our life, a bottle of fizzy prosecco, and addicting chocolate cherry cheesecakes in little jars with lids. We walked back slowly to our AirBnB, hands on one another’s hips, not quite wanting to end our stay in Amalfi on such a quiet, cold note, but ready for a new place and, hopefully, some sunshine.
Back at number ‘6’, we sat shivering in the window with the shutters open, looking out to the empty sea, until we finally drew them shut for good, and it was then that I realized THAT was the Amalfi we were meant to immerse ourselves into, despite my initial (albeit, validated) expectations. Not bronzing skin on a nautical wide-striped lounger under an electric blue umbrella or exfoliating a bikini bottom with pebbly gray sand in the iridescent teal Mediterranean waters. Not wearing a dress the color of cherries, sipping wine spritzers on sun-scorched, blue skied patios. No – it was the ancient salt air prevailing, needling its way into every luxury car tire’s treads, creeping into each newly painted window frame, saturating all the flip-flops rudely sticking and unsticking themselves from the inlaid, worn-down brick of the main plaza; beyond, the imposing mossy mountain crags like shards of ice teetering, threatening to topple inward on all of it, like a guided map, red X marking a pinprick spot in a tangled, overgrown mess of centuries-old castle ruins and dense, overgrown canopies of lemon trees, mocking, “You are here.”
© 2020 Andrea Festa