And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. – Pico Iyer
One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
What if you lived in a villa overlooking the sea?
And what if this sea was not just any old sea, but the Tyrrhenian Sea. The sea that the mythic Greek hero Odysseus sailed through on his way home from the Trojan War. The sea that housed the ancient island home of the Sirens. The sea bounded by tall and craggy cliffs where the divine Aeolus, Keeper of the Four Winds, lived.
And what if this little villa was in a small sleepy town, perched high on those famous cliffs, and only reachable by 66 steep stone steps? A villa in a home owned by three generations of fishermen. A villa overlooking the local parish church, built in the 15th century.
And what if this villa had an expansive terrace, quiet and private, but open to the sun and the breezes? And this terrace led to your own lemon grove, where giant Italian lemons hung swaying in the sweet breeze? And next to that lemon grove was a little pen with chickens, who produced fresh piccola eggs each morning?
And what if every night you could sit on this terrace, watch the sun set behind the cliffs, and hear the local children playing in the piazza below?
What if you didn’t need a watch in this town, because the church bells outside your terrace rang out the time every 15 minutes? No alarm would be needed, because the sun streams in from the open floor to ceiling windows each morning, accompanied by the church bells and the sounds of Italian children entering the parish church school below.
And what if you had to walk down many, many steps to the local market, with the smell of honeysuckle surrounding you, and always, ALWAYS a view of the sea – and then tote back your precious purchases, all uphill this time? But it’s perfectly fine to stop and catch your breath, and take in the local art and mini shrines to Mother Mary, while resting your legs. There’s really no hurrying here.
What if you finished every night with a glass of homemade limoncello, crafted by the 87-year old patriarch of the villa? And drank it nice and SLOW, savoring all the flavors, while you watched the lights of houses on the cliffs twinkle in the darkness?
What if every morning you got up early to sit on the terrace and listen to the little town slowly come to life around you, the rooster crowing and the sound of the fishing boats leaving from the harbor? And each of those mornings, you were greeted (in Italian) by the patriarch of the villa, who came to tend to his chickens and his vegetable garden?
And what if just a few miles down the road, you could walk among Greek and Roman ruins, with the shadow of the mighty Mt. Vesuvius always looking over your shoulder?
I could go on and on. The Amalfi coast of Italy was a dream. A shining, glittering, utterly fantastic dream. And I didn’t even mention Capri, probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, just a short boat ride away.
I know we visited at the perfect time – late May. So yes, we hit it just right. I hear it gets cold and wet there in the winter, and really hot in the summer months of July and August. And those ubiquitous steps could get to be a real bitch, if you had to trek them every day for twelve months of the year. But that is the life here. No wonder these people are all healthy and mobile, even the 87-year old patriarchs. You adapt to the terrain and to the pace. There is no other choice.
We actually did get used to the steps, but that was only because we had that terrace to come home to each night. That terrace was to die for. These people live OUTSIDE, whenever possible. But who wouldn’t want to, with that view?
Our host Annamaria, the daughter of the patriarch, Antonio, has lived here all her life. She was born in Sorrento, because there is no hospital in Praiano. The villa is called Casa Bianca, after her mother. Her daughter is named Bianca as well. She and her family, as well as her father Antonio, live in the apartment below ‘our’ villa. Every piece of furniture and every beautiful thing in that villa (and there were many) had to be carted up those 66 steps – there is NO road that goes to this house. You walk or you don’t get there. Just think about that for a moment.
We recycled our own trash – every evening sorting through it to separate paper, aluminum and plastic and glass to put in a separate bin. Each day there is a different pick up, down near the piazza, by a tiny little garbage truck that just fits on those very narrow roads. We didn’t even mind. It was just what you did.
We only bought enough groceries for a day or two – fresh and sold by the local market proprietor. Who wants to carry more bags than are necessary up those daunting steps? Some of our most memorable interactions were in those local markets. Markets where even two people could not stand side by side, but overflowing with fresh fruit and produce, fresh buffalo mozzarella brought in each day, and meat cut to order, if you were willing to wait. We usually made a significant dent in their wine selection – they smiled when they saw us coming.
We washed our clothes and hung them out to dry on racks on the terrace because there was no dryer. In their opinion, that is what the sun is for.
The villa had air conditioning but we never used it. The high ceilings and floor to ceiling windows did the job just fine. And who would want to shut the windows when there was that view and those sounds from the piazza?
In the week that we were there, we saw the Piazza San Luca host the nightly old mens’ checker game, a children’s birthday party, and a funeral. Everyone in the town came out for the funeral procession, slowly walking behind the priest and the coffin bearers, the little altar boy bearing the swinging incense container.
It was a slice of a VERY different life. A life that is intimately connected to the land and to the sea, to family, church and community. A life that is modern (no lack of internet and texting), but a life that is still slow and physical. A life filled with movement, breath, and frequent pauses for history, beauty or reverence. All in a day’s work.
I don’t know if the Italians in this small town take all this for granted or not. Maybe their awareness is dimmed by familiarity. But, somehow I don’t think so. Each day fresh flowers just appeared in the little niche shrines to Mother Mary. And each morning Antonio slowly and lovingly swept our terrace.
The author Anna Quidlen said, “The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only life you have.”
THIS is why I travel – to be transformed, to return to a state of rare mindfulness and receptivity. To be undimmed by familiarity. To live a new and strange life for just a bit, and to fall in love all over again with the world. To be reminded that life can – and should be – a love affair that never, ever ends.