Friday, February 27, 2009

Bedrock Villa

It's been a rainy season on the Amalfi coast and with the constant water there are always the inevitable landslides along the road side. The land slides where boulders or rocks fall on to public ground mean road closure at the worst or alternative traffic at its best, often creating a physical barrier for the inhabitants of villages effectively blocked on both sides or upsetting routine for higher school students from Positano or Sorrento unable to reach their school in Amalfi. In winter going around by ferry is not feasible and so locals have no choice but to sit it out in their 'island' of isolation till the road is cleared and reparation done to the cliffs.

Boulders and rocks of course, aren't confined to falling on public areas. Fornillo, where we are, is a high risk area and our place will probably end up on the beach sooner or later. Dislodged rocks and large boulders decorate the pathway that cuts across the cliff to the Fornillo tower but up to now, no nets have been attached to catch them as its not a high priority tourist area.

When I first arrived in Positano twenty two years ago, we could walk along the cliff path, take a hop, skip and a jump over a low gate behind the tower then continue our way down to Remese beach in winter to see the sunset, otherwise only accessible by boat from Fornillo beach.

I tried taking this walk with my young son last Easter, but the steps were in such a dilapidated state and overgrown with tree roots and weeds, with the wall crumbling in parts, that I became concerned for his safety, notwithstanding that I was grasping him tightly by the hand and so we turned back.

This cliff walk begins behind a Villa described in this letter in Positano News . You'll probably recognize this area in the photo from a previous post (yes, they have that lady for a neighbour).

I had exclaimed my delight when I first saw this Villa from afar years ago with it's period decorations and romantic domed tower, and recall that my mother in law had then condemned the house as being dangerous because of it's position under the falling rocks. But little did I know of the extent of the damage till I read the letter.

The author of this delightful New York letter, whom I've not met despite the fact that she rented a house overlooking ours one summer with her family, described visiting this Villa with the intent of buying it twenty odd years ago and finding a hole in the roof and a boulder on the bed. The price was close to astronomical at the time (a bedrock is unique!) so they decided to forgo the dream and it was later sold to others.

Some dream it would have been, as it's damp position in the hollow of the mountain meant that lots of work and paint, paint and more paint was lavished on the Villa and I saw it up for sale again last year.

In hindsight, the writer admits that they were starry-eyed youth at the time and that they probably were wise not to take on the venture of renovating the Villa even though money had been the reasoning factor then. The letter reads like a story. Many have had a dream built out of ruins and have had the courage to persevere through the years little by little. But not everyone has had the wisdom to renounce from the start and not regret it in the long term...
Read it, it's wonderful!

Monday, February 16, 2009

You Know that You're in Positano if ...

Italy, the land of contrasts, where tradition and modernity mingle merrily...

You know that you're in Positano if ...

You get periodic phone calls trying to sell you Info Strada telephone subscriptions, Sky Satellite television and then also the region's specialty of fresh Mozzarella made from Buffalo milk
(all on the same day).
What do they try to sell you?

Credit: Ed.Vincenzo Carcavallo

An old postcard showing the ruins of Furore on the Amalfi Coast before they were reconstructed.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


'Do you think someone could put their hands in our mail box and pull out letters ?', my other half queried.

'Why would they want to do that?' I replied.

'Apparently the witch has other tricks up her sleeve now.'

Which witch? Fornillo, a historical part of Positano has it's own residential eccentric who lives a mostly nocturnal life. Her meandering barefoot, rain or shine around the stairs, roads and gardens of the area are well known to all. Not only does she save on shoes but she is nimble -footed and light-fingered to boot.

For many years she has taken over a narrow patch of terraced land which is not her own but public property and cultivates her orto (kitchen garden) under the menacing jutting boulders. She raises chickens and has at least two roosters who crow from four in the afternoon to five in the morning. From the way sound travels in the conch of the mountain, the noise seems to come from right outside our bedroom window. With time, we have grown used to it, so that its no more disturbing than the sound of the sea.

In summer, her impossibly green lettuces line the dangerously crumbling public path that leads across the Fornillo cliff face and her herbs and pumpkins spread vertically in pockets of compost ever downwards towards the villas below, reachable only by her makeshift steps.

That she is an creative and accomplished gardener there is no doubt. But it would be undermining her talents to stop here.

For this Strega (witch), as we have nicknamed her, dips her hands into other people's gardens as well. Vegetables awaiting the table of their owner's disappear overnight. Melanzane (eggplant), zucchini, tomatoes, just ripe for the picking are magically transferred elsewhere to the dismay of the rightful harvester.

It seems that she bears a long held grudge against us too.
Long ago, she asked my other half if she could cultivate our outside garden. My other half, having heard about her canniness had not given his permission, using the excuse that it is 'the wife's garden'. Obviously this didn't sit well with her, because our gardener began telling us of vegetables that he'd planted that had gone missing, apricots that he suspected were picked in his absence, and oranges and lemons which were taken.

'Eat the things in the outside garden first', he began telling us. 'They won't be there on your return.'

Many years ago, when we still enjoyed daily door to door rubbish collecting, I had woken very early in the morning to go to the bathroom parallel to the public stairs. In the very dim morning light, I just made out the shape of a shadow through the frosted window, climbing over our garden gate. I mentioned it to my other half on going back to bed thinking it was probably the rubbish collectors who had dropped something. My other half peered over the balcony railings to look at the stairwell. Then a moving shadow caught his eye in 'my' garden.

I suddenly heard a stream of Neapolitan cursing from him.

'What's up? ' I asked.

'She's crouching underneath the zucchini plants', he whispered back.

'Go down and tell her to get out', I said.

'No. She'd be likely to whack me !' he replied.

To make a long story short, after a good half hour of shouting ('Mariola' - Neapolitan for thief) at her immobile figure ducked under the immense zucchini leaves from the safety of our balcony, at the break of dawn she very quickly managed to scramble lightly up a neighbour's wall and take cover in their garden. I must mention here that she was close to sixty at the time!

On other occasions I had planted heirloom Mortgage Lifter tomatoes and was very proud of their size. I lovingly laid fresh compost at their feet and had thought that the pick of the crop would be perfect in the morning. Of course it was no longer there but the bare footprint was perfectly outlined on the compost next to it.

I've given up on growing vegetables out there, but it's still hit and miss with the fruit trees.

Her prowess is famous all over Positano.
One man related the tale of how he was unloading a van full of five-litre tins of olive oil for one of the shops. He had placed them on the roadside in order to move the van out of the way. Then he realised that the woman had picked up a tin, placed it on her shoulder and was calmly walking up the steep stairs to her house.

Another recently, while doing (unofficial) work to their house at 1 am at night, wondered why she had stopped and was just watching them .
Eventually he asked 'What are you doing here?'
'I want a lift up to Montepertuso' she said. She had a metal casing from one of the drain covers at her feet. It had been too heavy for her to carry. She now in her mid-seventies.

Her weathered face and stealthy gait still sends alarm bells ringing in my head when our paths cross unexpectedly in the alley behind our home, and I know now to avoid going in the early morning lest I should encounter her with her bulging plastic bags of vegetables.

Nor do I take the scenic walk along the cliff face under her garden in the times of the day in which I am likely to see her.

She'd probably mistake me for a thief...

This post is dedicated to Paul Anater who wrote of Positano:
"I saw more quirks and curiosities in that ancient little town than I thought were possible".

Post featured on ItalyTutto

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Itchy (green) Fingers

My fingers are itching to get out into the garden, tidy up and look for signs of spring.
In Luxembourg, we are still in sub-zero temperatures, with ground frost and snow. The only thing that seems to be growing is the city of mole hills spreading it's way across the lawn and into the garden beds. I can probably say goodbye to the tulip bulbs I planted.

In Positano, it's quite a different scenario.
The continuous rain this year hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of the roses which continue to bloom, nor that of the native white jonquils fragrant and invasive, sitting prettily under the orange trees and flowering in drifts along the cliff-side gardens down to the beach.

I am rarely in Positano at the right time for gardening, being chained to the school calender for trips. We are obliged to take on a gardener for seasonal jobs, rather than let the place run to seed.

But there is a thing about gardeners in Italy and myself. We don't quite see eye to eye about what is acceptable and what is not.

I revel in nature and the surprises it presents in different places. Italians like to control it or fashion it into tidy rows, with weed free straight lines and pruning everything to an inch of its life.

Several years ago, we were looking for someone to tend the garden in Positano in our absence. We had a few waiters-cum-gardeners-cum-painters-cum-handymen visit, after I had tidied the garden to what seemed to us to be a pleasing standard.

As I showed them around and waited for the compliments, all I heard was 'ahi' or 'ehi ' and an intake of breath.

You see my (unrealistic) dreams of a tropical paradise in the heart of Positano, with jungle vines vying for space with dilapidated dry stone walls, or a sort of mediterranean adaptation of an English Cottage Garden, has to contend with the Italian conception of 'bello'.

Or in other words this :

Our present gardener who prunes the grape vines and plants a few vegetables in our absence insisted that my husband take a photo of the fruit garden so he could show me his work.
Nada, Niente , nothing there. All cleaned up, dug under and clear of growth. And he was very proud of it to. What you can't see is the peas, broad beans and a few head of lettuce that he put in for our consumption in April. But otherwise this is it.

Our gardener Michele, from days long past, used to say that 'if you couldn't eat it, you shouldn't be growing it'. His only exception to this rule was a Calla lily or Dama in Camicia in the corner of the fruit garden.

I have convinced our present gardener that the ornamental plants are just as important to me as the vegetable part, but it seems that sometimes, I am talking to an (ivy clad) brick wall.

Our huge rose bushes were pruned literally to death and their replacements will take a long time to reach the height of the 30 year old giants.
I have to repeat each year that want the bougainvillea to trail down the wall so that he doesn't chop it back too drastically, and to let jasmine scramble naturally in the sun rather than tie it back.
I know Plumbago is rampant, but letting it sucker in the stone wall gives us privacy from the neighbours.
I don't mind that the blood red hibiscus in the corner looks old and forlorn because I planted it there the year I arrived in Positano. In it's hey days, it made its way into many a guide book's photos, the scarlet taken against the blue of the sea.

I'd like plants, please. Verdant and with flowers, scent and colour. Low maintenance, low watering and able to get along without my help for months on end.

I know, many of you will be thinking that a plastic plant will probably do the trick.

I am so unreasonable. I only have to go to Positano unexpectedly to see what a great clean up this gardener does to prepare for our stay.

A good dedicated gardener is now a rarity in these parts. That is, one that actually admires and tends ornamentals as well as the edibles. In the past, people in Positano would come and beg for work. Now it's considered too strenuous for most people who prefer to have a comfy hotel job, to the point that the neighbours come and beg the gardener to look after their houses too.

I'm tempted to take the ball and chain off my legs and tie it on his.