June 11, 2011
Everyone was gone. But the villa was still ours until tomorrow and we had the whole day before us. The sun was blazing, the skies were clear. And we were on the Amalfi Coast!
Even though Gino would have preferred to spend the day on the upper deck of the villa by the pool, I cajoled him into hiking up to a gleaming white building that I had spied way up high on the mountain facing the sea. Our map indicated this was the church of Santa Maria a Castro and an abandoned convent. I knew the views would be stupendous and I couldn’t wait to see.
We started along the trail, trudging upwards until the path turned to dirt. Trees offered some shade along the way, but mostly we were exposed to the blazing sun. As we ascended, we met no one. Several rustic benches placed along the way provided periodic resting points and we welcomed the smooth wooden seats more than once.
The tiny white convent and church drew closer and closer. A small grotto appeared around a corner, a statue of the Madonna tucked inside. A religious scene in painted tiles was framed into a whitewashed block on the outside of the grotto.
As we finally reached the convent, a small terraced vineyard came into view. Although it appeared to be well-tended, there was no sign of life. Wide stone steps led us alongside the church and into a small tree-lined courtyard.
The door to the church was open so we went in. No one was about. Inside, it was cool and quiet. We poked around, peering at the misshapen wooden altar distorted from time, and the faint 15th century frescoes that adorned the crumbly walls. Bits of refuse littered the floor, but despite the disarray, the sanctity of this ancient church was palpable in the pervading stillness.
This precipitous site has been used for religious worship since the area’s first human settlements. Over time, the church of Santa Maria a Castro was built, and later, the Convento di San Domenico. Monks abandoned the convent in the 1800’s, but this spot is still venerated as a spiritual gathering point at certain times of the year. Today, we had it all to ourselves.
We found a drinking faucet and refreshed ourselves. While Gino sat under a tree to rest, I walked over to inspect a majolica sign commemorating the foundation of the convent in 1599. In doing so, I spied the continuing trail, heading farther up the mountain. Of course, I had to follow it, at least for a bit, especially when a wooden arrow indicated that the Path of the Gods was not far off.
Beyond the convent, the trail became quite rocky. I scrabbled around boulders, careful not to let my camera bang as I strained upwards. Out of nowhere, I came upon a lemon grove. Way up here? I paused on a rocky outcrop to look back on my progress and spotted Gino far below. I waved, and he waved back.
But the path had become precarious, and reluctantly, I abandoned my climb. As I carefully picked my way back down to the church, I stopped more than once to stare in disbelief at the dramatic sweep of La Costiera Amalfitana stretching out as far as I could see. The town of Praiano was a teensy speck below. I felt like I was flying, but without having left the ground.
Gino and I took last gulps of water before starting our descent back to town. As we passed the small vineyard again, we were surprised to see a woman working amongst the vines. We greeted her and plodded down the dry trail, finally emerging onto the main road of Praiano.
It was time for a rest. Bar del Sole was open, so we sat on the outside deck and ordered Spritz al’ Aperol, a refreshing, slightly bitter aperitivo made with prosecco, Pellegrino, and with an orange-colored liqueur called Aperol. Delizioso!
Back at the villa, we lounged on the upper deck awhile, luxuriating in its spaciousness, but wistful of its emptiness. We wandered from room to room, remembering the great times we had all shared over the past week. Sadly, we packed up for our morning departure.
For dinner that night, we went to Hotel Margherita one last time. Sitting at a cozy table at the edge of the rooftop terrace, we gazed out at the deepening sky, blurry where it met the sea — a muted watercolor come to life.
But something was changing. It appeared the weather goddess was unhappy that our group had disbanded: a breeze kept extinguishing our candle. In the fading light we could see faint clouds gathering in the distance. It was time to move on.