“I woke to the sound of numerous new-born babies mewling in their nursery and very soon two nurses came to our room, one of them carrying our Vincenzo. The first one turned to me with a big smile and said –‘Ah signora, last night you were so brave’ –‘Oh, thank you’. Her companion clearly did not like to hear that and when she was also told – ‘This signora is English and she was so brave last night, she didn’t even say ah’ that second nurse looked at me with total contempt, before replying ‘Well, it’s easy for her, she’s English. They don’t feel pain like we do!’.”
It always makes me smile whenever I remember that last comment and it taught me yet another lesson about the differences between my upbringing and that of everyone around me. In England, my generation was always expected to ‘not make a fuss’ whatever was going on. We would have been considered and felt, very ‘wimpish’ if we complained about pain or any other discomfort. In my new environment, not shouting with anger, crying with sorrow or pain, or perhaps throwing a heavy object, only showed a lack of feeling – not something to be admired; consequently, everyone seems to feel obliged to let those around them be left in no doubt of their depth of ‘feeling’.
I couldn’t change, but I’d learned something new.
“The best feature of this house was its spacious tiled terrace which looked straight across to the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello. When Andrea set out for work in the morning, I could watch from the terrace until his little blue Fiat 500 was far away down the road, then Rupert and I usually ate our breakfast in that magnificent open space, looking across to the Bay of Salerno, the rooftops of Amalfi below us and the sea stretching away to the horizon. When we first arrived, breakfast had been only bread or cornetti with butter and jam, but one day we were both delighted to find a shop that sold Kellogs’ Cornflakes and we were able to have a ‘proper’ breakfast at last”
What a view and how we loved it. In the morning it was a treat to have breakfast with all that beauty around us. Later, we’d walk down to the main piazza to take the bus to Amalfi, for lunch with my in-laws. At the end of the day, we’d come back in the car with Andrea, usually bringing pizzas which we’d eat sitting on the terrace wall, looking down at the sea sparkling in the moonlight and the bobbing lights of the fishing boats.
Sant’Andrea is patron saint of various countries, including Scotland, but perhaps best loved by the Amalfitani whose town he has saved from various disasters. Twice a year his statue is brought out from the Cathedral crypt to be carried through all the town, stopping for prayers at a number of improvised candle-lit altars before being taken to the beach to bless all its local fishermen. This is because he is also the patron saint of fishermen, as were both he and his brother Simon Peter. In this town, where almost every man will have at least three christian names (often the first being that of his grandfather), one of them will almost certainly be Andrea. Those for whom it is their first name will share November 30th, the most important day of the year for this saint, as one of great celebration, more important than their own birthday. Wherever they go on that day, they can expect to hear ‘Auguri’ (best wishes) from all they meet, as well as receiving free drinks, gifts and certainly a very special meal with family and friends.
Amalfi, home of the Sirens, one-time Maritime Republic with settlements throughout most of eastern Europe, in modern times one of the most desirable destinations for tourists and, more importantly, for many years my home. Its rich history is celebrated throughout the year in processions with participants wearing copies of brightly coloured medieval costumes and musicians playing ancient themes. For more serious, religious occasions, walls are lined with flaming torches in place of electric light, making the whole town appear once more as it did centuries ago. At night-time, fishermen’s lamps bob on the waves to attract local tuna fish whilst the days filled with sunshine invite everyone to lie on the beaches or take their boats out to sea, where they can perhaps snooze, read, or chatter quietly with their companions. The more energetic will be swimming, diving or even just paddling.
For those who prefer the countryside, there are the mountains bordering the coastline. Overlooking Amalfi from the highest nearby peak, is a delightful little community founded by the Romans and called Ravello. Despite its description in the famous writings of Bocaccio,this charming location was made famous by two British ex-pats – Norman Reid, a Scottish botanist and Ernest Beckett,the second Lord Grimthorpe, a Yorkshireman. Reid built a superb formal garden for his Villa Rufolo, which has become the setting for the now world famous Festival of Music in the town; Beckett brought English intellectuals such as the Bloomsbury Group to Ravello and also designed another incomparable garden. Both villas and gardens are a must to all visitors.
With the Island of Capri visible from the Amalfi Coast and the unique ruins of Pompeii only one hour away, the area offers a chance for serious study and absorbing historical facts. Add to this the once highly powerful position of Amalfi with the largest ship-building activity of its time, its ancient trade with distant lands, the delightful climate, excellent food, smiling, friendly inhabitants and beauty all around, it appears to have everything.
“Beneath my hotel balcony, cars are parked all along one side of the road, leaving room only for a single line of traffic to pass on its way to or from the port; to the left it stretches up the hill before turning right towards the ancient watchtower, some hundred yards away on the other side of the Bay. Alongside that road lies the wide tree-lined pavement where benches provide comfort and rest for those who want to sit in the sunlight gazing out to sea, gossip together or just watch the passers-by”
Yes, I’d fallen in love with Amalfi within hours of our arrival, but it was only when we finally found our own home there on the hillside, that my dream was realised. From those windows we looked down to the coast road, the beaches, all of the Bay of Amalfi, the open sea beyond and the hills of Cilento on the horizon. All of life seemed to pass there; horses pulled their carozze, people strolled, stopped to chat, ate their ice-creams, sat to take in the views and note who was walking with who. My boys could play with all our neighbours’ children on that ‘private’ road with almost no outside intrusion. Our neighbours became such good friends, always with a smile, always ready to help. Every day was a good day.
“On the floor below us lived Don Biagio with his wife and four children. Every morning he set out for his work as a guide to the island of Capri. In those days there was only one ferry to take passengers from Amalfi, but how impressive it was! This long, white-painted boat called the ‘Faraglione’ came from Salerno and would loom into sight around the curve of the Bay, giving a loud salute to the town from its siren before sailing majestically into the port. There were always onlookers at various windows, waving hankies to greet this familiar visitor, who was an old friend to many of the townspeople, but a figure of mystery and adventure to some old- timers who had never ventured on the hour-long cruise to Capri.”
You’d never find so much as a cigarette-end on this road, swept and scrubbed every day and when it was freshly washed no-one was allowed to walk past until it was dry.
“On the east corner of the bay, in front of its own 16th century watchtower, is the Hotel Luna. This was originally a monastery, founded as long ago as 1222 by Saint Francis of Assisi and built directly into the steep rock face. There were numerous small cells for the monks and a still-present cloister in the centre of the building where St. Francis meditated and prayed. It was in the 1800s that the Barbaro family bought it for their own home and they still own and run it today. Now we know it as the Hotel Luna Convento, slightly confusing to English speakers as it was in fact a monastery, not a nunnery. In 1857 the arrival of a road to take traffic made the Barbaros realise that where there had previously been very few visitors to the coast, there were bound to be many more now that it was accessible and they set about establishing what was the first hotel in the area.”
……and what famous names have been written in their guest book – Wagner and his wife who rode mules from the hotel up to the Villa Rufolo in Ravell, Henrik Ibsen, who wrote part of his ‘Dolls’ House’ at a desk in what is now known as the Ibsen Room and even Mussolini, who wrote a very kind letter thanking his hosts for his wonderful stay.