Richard Koch and I, both Durango residents, spent two months in the fall of 2016 living in a small village in the middle of Italy’s Amalfi Coast between Positano and Amalfi. Praiano is beautiful, a quiet fishing village surrounded by rocky cliffs and wild profusions of olive trees and flowers. It was once the favorite summer retreat for wealthy merchants from the ancient Maritime Republic of Amalfi.
Medieval stone towers still guard the town, ever alert for marauding pirates. The Sentieri degli Dei, “Pathway of the Gods,” winds above the town before tumbling down toward Positano. Despite the beauty of the Amalfi Coast, our most lasting memories are of the people we met “along the way.”
Communication lessons on the Amalfi CoastThe shopkeeper in the hardware store looks uneasy as he waits for me to speak, but my mind goes blank and no words come out of my mouth. I can’t remember how to say “fifty” in Italian.
We are in southern Italy on a splendid two-month stay in the village of Praiano, nestled high and low on the cliffs between Positano and Amalfi. Armed with useful sentences and words painstakingly learned in an Italian language class, I had been confident I could handle any situation, but that is not turning out to be true.
Oddly, I can remember obscure things like: “Vai sempre dritto e al’incrocio giri a destra.” (“Keep going straight and at the crossroads turn right.”) Why remember something I’ll never use? But, life is strange and you never know when obscure becomes necessary.
We take the early 7 a.m. bus to Amalfi to hike the Ferriere Trail, which begins in the beautiful Valle d’Mulini (Valley of the Mills). Amalfi is quiet and empty of tourists at this early hour; the smell of freshly baked pastries and cappuccinos greets us as we pass the Paper Museum and make a sharp left onto Via Madonna d’Rosario.
The valley opens before us, misty and green. Rustic farmhouses with stone wells are dotted here and there in the groves of lemon trees, which rise up the mountain slopes like gumdrops among the rocks. A mule calls out, his complaint echoing around the valley.
The cobbled lane turns into a dirt track and around a bend is the Cartiere Lucibello, the first of the many eerie remains of once bustling paper mills. It is overgrown with ferns and wild purple orchids. Tall grasses sway inside the ruins and pink cyclamen tumble down from cracks in the stones. Farther along there are waterfalls splashing into shallow pools, clear and inviting, the only sound in an otherwise quiet wood. It is a dreamy sort of place, an ecosystem so rare that in 1859 a German naturalist named Ernst Haeckel came to study and catalog the plants, including the rare “Gigantic Bulbous” ferns”and a carnivorous plant called Pinguicola Hirtiflora. In the more isolated areas of the valley are rumored to be wild cats, badgers and peregrine falcons, but I am not fortunate enough to see them this day. But, there are iridescent green salamandria d’occhiali (salamanders with glasses) darting across the rock faces before disappearing.
Another, sunlit trail to the right beckons – a sign says it goes to Pontone and Ravello, and on a whim, I turn right, walking past curious small buildings with beautiful brickwork with the sound of rushing water beneath them. I can also hear something else – angry voices, incongruous in all this quiet beauty. A young couple stumbles out of the woods. After a rush of Italian, none of which includes any words I have learned, he switches to English. He says they want to be on the trail I have just left, the Ferriere Trail. Together, we look at my map, and I point to the trail. It is not far, but he doesn’t understand and points to the wrong place somewhere near the sea and Amalfi.
The woman looks at him through slitted eyes, more irritated than before. Then it hits me, light bulbs go off, drums roll ... “I can use the sentence!” Savoring each word, albeit privately, I say “Vai sempre dritto e al’incroccio giri a destra!” I am so delighted with my language skills that I don’t immediately notice that they didn’t catch that wonderful sentence. Did I get it wrong?
Back to English, I say if they keep going straight down the trail we are on, they will get to a crossroads where they should turn right. But they still have the same blank look I had earlier in the week at the hardware store. Using a gesture learned from a friend in Praiano, I flipped my fingers backwards under my chin (“It’s nothing”) and pressed my palms together as though in prayer, moving my hands up and down toward them (“What can I do about it?”). “Follow me,” I suggest, giving up on my plan to hike to Ravello.
Together, we walk down the trail to the crossroads. I point to the right and pantomime happy, relieved hikers finding the trail they wanted. We wave goodbye, happy I think to be rid of each other. I turn left to go back to Amalfi to meet my husband on the steps of the Cathedral. On the way through town, however, I stop briefly to look for the footprint I had accidentally left in soft cement near the Paper Museum the week before. There it is, nicely dry now. I like knowing I am in Amalfi in perpetuity.
Saints abound on Amalfi CoastSt. Gennaro’s day starts badly. Blustery winds and rolling thunder punctuates the lightning that is going sideways from cloud to cloud. Such wild weather here in the village of Praiano by the sea in southern Italy. And then it’s over just in time to enjoy the festival of San Gennaro, a Neapolitan bishop who died a martyr on Sept. 19, in the year 305.
After the church ladies have swept and polished the inside of the church, there is a concert by the Brass Orchestra of Minori. At first, the orchestra leader is nowhere to be seen and the music begins without him, with the four most famous musical notes in the world, the TUM TUM TUM TUM of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Then il maestro appears and raises his baton for the first drumbeats of Ravel’s “Bolero.” Seconds later he furiously waves everyone to a halt. He has been drowned out by the bells of San Gennaro’s. The orchestra stutters to a stop. The maestro turns his back to the church, the tuba player pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights up, and the trumpet players stand around talking and swatting away flies in the hot sun. The church bells ring for 10 minutes or more before finally stopping with a metallic echo.
In the early evening, the main event begins. I watch a group of men in black suits wearing red medallions around their necks walk up to a door behind the altar. They bring out the saint’s golden base and remove the winged cherubs attached to it. Then they gently lift the saint onto the base and put the cherubs back. People, some with infants in their arms, reach out to touch the saint’s cheeks.
Outside in the piazza, a growing crowd waits for the saint to emerge while inside little boys in red silk vests tumble around like bear cubs. The church grows quiet while the saint is lifted up with chestnut tree poles fitted into special slots in the base. More men arrive carrying a scarlet tent topped by ostrich plumes waving in the faint breeze in the church. The priest, holding a cross, gets into place in front of the saint and the procession makes it way down the aisle, through faint clouds of incense toward the now wide-open wooden doors of the church.
With a flourish of trumpets St. Gennaro appears in the doorway, triumphant and bobbing slightly as he is maneuvered through the doors. Trumpets blast their joy and the crowd applauds. he orchestra plays as he moves along via Capriglione where hundreds are gathered on the sidewalks, balconies and outside the cafés. Women shower rose petals on the saint as he makes his slow and dignified progress. The famed Amalfi Coast Road, scene of stupendous traffic jams every hour of the day and night, is, thus, closed to traffic on this day for over an hour.
It is St. Gennaro’s day, not the tourists’ day. The tour bus drivers understand and wait patiently. At the top of the street, where the shops and restaurants stop and the road falls down to the sea, the saint turns around, followed by the band and the people, including me. The priest says mass, rose petals continue to rain down, and believers kneel down with bowed heads in the street. Glowing in the soft light from the street lamps, he looks upon his people with love.
The next morning I can hear the Brass Orchestra of Minori practicing for another festival, this time for the St. Luke the Evangelist whose church is in the hills above the church of San Gennaro. The orchestra marches by, rehearsing the route for tonight. A carefree spirit is skipping behind them keeping time to their music. As I watch, she and the orchestra turn a corner and skip away out of sight. At 5:30 p.m., we walk in a steadily growing rain up to San Luca’s to find seats near the tuba players, who are resting their instruments against the confessionals.
St. Luke is covered in silver and gold and is now out of his hidden resting place, a closet near the altar. He is gazing with shining silver eyes on his flock, a large and growing crowd. After communion, the crowd fidgets and the atmosphere swells with anticipation. Six men lift the saint who is glowing in the low light of the church. An incense brazier swings to and fro as smoke slips out and up to the vaulted ceiling. A mitred bishop and the priest go down the aisle ahead of the saint toward the now flung-open doors of the church.
In the pouring rain, the saint stops and turns around to face a sea of umbrellas. The priest and the bishop turn around as well so that everyone is now facing the front of the church. The crowd surges and looks up just as the fireworks begin. They are magnificent. Boom! Flash! I turn to look at the saint, wondering how he is enjoying all this excitement and see the fireworks flashing on his silver and gold crown.
Then, what luck! I see that the bishop and priest are right behind me, their eyes cast heavenward. What a photograph I took of this lucky convergence of piety and fireworks! Umbrellas waver as the crowd gazes at rainy, sparkling heavens in honor of their saint. I think about the candle I lit for our dog, Molly, flickering inside the church, and we turn around to walk down the wet lanes to home.
Flora’s Beauty Salon in PraianoIt’s a beehive of ladies with hair in all stages of beauty – coloring, cutting, washing, tweezing. Metal devices protrude from all sorts of hair. It is so comfortable there. I am immersed in female bonding and shared female experiences which the language barrier doesn’t impact.
The salon is in the village of Praiano along the famed Amalfi Coast Road and right across from the butcher shop owned by Maria the grocer’s husband. The chairs are full of happy women. Conversations swirl around, everyone talking at once and no one listening. An old woman with swollen ankles sits contentedly in one of the salon chairs. I can’t tell what particular beauty treatment is being performed on her; something to do with her feet and involving a silver tool. Another woman is also having something odd done to the bottoms of her feet. A troubled looking young woman comes in to have the mustache on her upper lip stripped. Ouch!
It is a vibrant, bustling salon but everyone becomes still for a moment, riveted by the arrival of a dark haired teenage girl with her mother. An animated discussion ensues and everyone turns to Rosella for advice. She is in the doorway, ready to leave for the day. She gives some advice; I think about the formula for the color to use on the girl’s two-tone hair. Maria, who will cut my hair later, lifts a strand of the girl’s hair appraisingly. There is some kind of disagreement and the girl looks worriedly from Rosella to Maria to her mother. Finally, the color is mixed to everyone’s satisfaction and the salon settles down until it’s my turn.
I feel at home there but am worried about the bandage on my forehead from a fall the previous day. Rosella flips her fingers backward under her chin and says “Don’t worry.” She tapes plastic over the bandage and slowly and carefully applies the hair color she has mixed for me. When she’s finished, her aunt beckons and wordlessly escorts me to a sink where she and another woman wash my hair, careful to keep the bandage dry. I am partially sudsed up, then inexplicably they leave me alone with soapy bubbles all over my hair. I am sure there is a purpose to all this and wait patiently.
They come back in a few minutes and wash some of the shampoo out but not all, then leave again. Eventually, it is all done and finally, strand by strand, Maria gives me a fine haircut. Flora’s Beauty Salon must be what the “Sacred Feminine” is all about. I think if I were to open one of the cabinets there I would find a fertility goddess inside, perhaps Astarte, among the bottles, brushes, combs, capes, towels and lotions. It feels safe there; like we are all in on a secret only we women know.
Afterward, looking quite glamorous, I go for a walk in the upper part of town and find The Great Snail Hunter. He is a small man in a fedora hat wearing cloth slippers. He walks ahead of me, stopping every few feet to carefully study the rock wall, occasionally darting forward like a heron fishing in a creek to pick something out of the rocks. Is he a botanist, I wonder? He moves on and so do I, keeping a discreet distance. Finally, I can stand it no longer. I must know what he is doing and what exactly is in that sack he is carrying? I walk up to him, flipping my shining hair with my hand, and say “Buon giorno.” The sack is full of slithering snails. “Do you eat them?” (What I actually say is “Cucina?” which means “kitchen?” or maybe it means “cooking,” I don’t know.) “Si, con burro e pomodorini,” he says (yes, with butter and cherry tomatoes). I look again at the snails and decide to check with my friend Margherita about this situation. Margherita listens to my story and shakes her head in disgust. “He was joking. Nobody eats those snails. We just step on them.”
Esther Greenfield is the author of Tough Men in Hard Places, about the electrification of Southwest Colorado, and Reading the Trees: A Curious Hiker’s Field Journal of Hidden Woodland Messages, about arborglyphs in the region.