A Dreamy Little Fishing Village: Praiano or Bust
19.09.2009 - 19.09.2009
We skipped breakfast in favor of swimming (I mean, if they weren’t going to give me any cheese, what was the point?). Instead, Matt ran up to the dining room and came down with a steaming tray of espresso and cappuccino.
“I wasn’t sure which one you wanted….” He said.
How about BOTH???? Yummy. The espresso was like liquid chocolate it was so smooth. The cappuccino was warm and foamy, just like I liked it. Now that I was totally jacked up on coffee, we walked down to the bathing platform below Villa San Michele. It was early but the sun was already bright and warm in the sky.
The sea on the Amalfi Coast practically glows…an unearthly blue that grows deep and cobalt in the depths and shifts to turquoise in the shallows. The water looks cold and clear, dark and full of secrets. We plunged in. We swam away from the shoreline and the water was so blue it was almost black. I looked back at the coastline and saw the mountains rising up in the distance, gardens and villas clinging to their slopes in a riot of golden hues, flowers and lemons contrasting against the green foliage, then melting into the kaleidoscope of turquoise, indigo and emerald of an ever-changing sea.
Truly, this place must be the most beautiful on earth.
We spent the morning splashing and sunning, listening to the water gently lap, lap, lapping against the rock beneath our feet, watching the morning sunlight dance lightly on the waves.
Eventually, we had to rouse ourselves from our sunlit stupor, clean up, and head out. We were leaving Villa San Michele to head back down the coastline to the small fishing village of Praiano. I had chosen to spend our last 5 nights in Praiano for several reasons: First, I had found the most beautiful villa imaginable….set right on the beach of Marina La Praia; Second, Praiano is described as sleepy, quiet, unlike it’s sister cities of Amalfi and Positano, few tourists wander into Praiano; Third, it calls itself "il cuore della Costiera Amalfitana" -- "the heart of the Amalfi Coast" –because geographically, it sits near the center, affording easy access to the rest of the wonderful coast. It seemed like the perfect location for the second half of our trip.
We couldn’t check in until late afternoon, so we chose to drive up to Ravello for the day. We had fallen in love with Ravello. She had spun her web and we had been caught in it. High on the mountain, eye level with the misty clouds and birds in flight, spending time in Ravello was like borrowing a few moments in heaven.
First, we drove down the coast and stopped to check out the towns of Minori and Maiori, just past Castiglione going toward Salerno. We turned around and headed up to Ravello.
In Ravello, we did some shopping…a set of dishes had caught our eye before and we wanted to look at them again. Still unwilling to dish out the $75 per piece price tag, we looked, we lusted, and we left. We went into a small store selling limoncello and our new favorite, Liquore Crema Melone, to buy a couple of bottles to take home. Matt, curious about Grappa since he kept seeing it everywhere we went, finally gave in and decided to try it, with a little pressure from the shop owner.
“Tastes like moonshine,” he said. I smelled it. It smelled like moonshine. Or lighter fluid. Must be an acquired taste.
We declined to buy the grappa.
Each time we’d been to Ravello, I had seen the same white cat, terribly thin, pitifully ragged, hanging around in the piazza, hoping for a bite to eat. We’d seen lots of strays on this trip, a staggering number of them really, but for the most part, they all seemed reasonably well fed and self sufficient. This cat, however, just wasn’t making it. I told Matt I wanted to go buy it some food.
“I may not be able to save it,” I told him, “But I can make sure it has a really good day today.”
He agreed, being a bigger softie than I am.
We went into a little market, strewn with fresh loaves of bread, its counter stacked haphazardly with cheeses and meats. An enormous block of parmesan cheese sat behind the counter. The smells were delicious. I bought a can of tuna and he bought a few slices of ham for Aisha.
We found the cat easily and it didn’t take very much persuasion to get it to come to me and eat. My heart aching for this broken little creature, I rubbed it’s crusty ears (admittedly wondering if I had any hand sanitizer in my purse….) and then said “Goodbye” wishing that my small gift maybe put a glimmer of hope in its sad and lonely eyes.
We took Aisha her ham and Matt said “Goodbye” to her, knowing he wouldn’t likely see her again on this trip. I swear, I think he misted up a little! While he was furtively sneaking ham in through the fence, I stood watch, positive that at any moment, some little round Italian Mama would come running out into the yard with a broom, yelling things that only she and the dog could understand.
We decided to have lunch at Cumpa Cosimo in Ravello before heading to Praiano. Although it’s a highly recommended restaurant, I had decided against it simply because I didn’t expect to be in Ravello enough times to actually eat there. This was a pleasant bonus. It’s a fairly unassuming little place, modest by the standards of some of the other Ravello restaurants with their expansive terraces and sky to sea views. We were the first lunch patrons to arrive (this was a trend…no doubt a product of my new piglet status that didn’t allow me to wait very long in between meals) and were taken into the warm little restaurant.
Having skipped breakfast, swam and shopped, we were HUNGRY. For starters, we ordered the melon with prosciutto, hoping it would be as good as the one we had in Sorrento. It was. That was followed by the pasta course. Matt had cannelloni and I went for the Pasta Mista: 6 pastas on one plate. There was cannelloni, pasta with basil pesto, pasta with caramelized onions, a little pouch that was filled with creamy cheese and ham, pasta with tomatoes, and pasta Bolognese. Holy Ravioli, it was good. We then split an order of sausage with provolone (which yes, looks kind of perverted in the photo), and a side plate with tomatoes, salad, fried potatoes, and zucchini.
While we were eating, a really nice couple from Texas that had been seated next to us struck up a conversation. It was fun being able to talk to someone that 1) spoke the same language we did and 2) were just as excited about being here as we were.
After lunch, Mama Netta, exactly what you expect an Italian Mama to be, came out with a plate of grapes and proceeded to pretend to dicker with Matt over the bill, acting as though she wasn’t sure what we had eaten or what it costs. She laughed a rich laugh and patted him on the shoulder, giving us the actual bill which wasn’t much considering all that food!
We drifted out of Ravello and headed back down the Amalfi coast toward Praino. We drove along the twisting road, past Amalfi, past the tiny pocket of Furore, and we neared Praiano.
It was about this time that I pulled the rental agreement out and took a look at it.
“Please call at least 3 hours prior to check in.”
Uh-oh. We were only 5 minutes away.
I frantically began making calls to the numbers provided, but the cell phones were worthless in those mountains. No reception. I began to panic, as is customary for me, and Matt just said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll stop at the market and you can use their phone.”
We pulled up to the Tutto per Tutti market in Praiano and while Matt grabbed food, I tried desperately to communicate with the elderly gentleman behind the counter. He spoke no English. I spoke no Italian. He handed me his phone and I attempted to dial, but there were, like, 15 extensions on each number and I was too ignorant to even figure out how to dial! What an idiot.
I went back to Matt in a fluster.
“I can’t get through. What if the numbers are no good? What if we can’t reach anybody? What if we don’t have a place to stay?” OMG…we were going to be homeless in Italy!!
Right about then, the sweet gentleman that worked there nudged me and handed me over to a young man who spoke English and motioned for him to help me. Pasquale helped me dial. No luck. Finally he said,”I know these people. You can’t get through because they are down at Marina di Praia and no cell phones work down there. Just drive to the house. They will be there. If they are not, you come back here and I will help you find them.”
Have I mentioned how warm and gracious the Italian people are?
I took him at his word. We piled our bags filled with grapes and pears, bananas, juice, bread, salami, cheese, tomatoes and olives into the car and headed toward the villa. It was easy to find because it’s literally the only villa at the Marina di Praia beach.
We pulled into the one parking lot and a young man working the lot walked up to the car. We explained we were supposed to check into Villa Michelina and didn’t know where to find the people who were supposed to check us in.
“That is my villa,” he said. “My mother will check you in. Let me get her for you.”
Moments later I was being embraced and kissed warmly on both cheeks by a beautiful Italian woman who then walked us down to the most perfect little villa imaginable.
Villa Michelina was everything I hoped for: A beautiful villa, draped with ivy, shuttered windows and doors thrown open to the sea, surrounded by multiple gardens and terraces. The inside was filled with bright white rooms, ceilings delicately arched and large windows and doors letting in the bright sunlight. The furnishings were beautiful and fresh flowers filled each room. Beautiful artwork, pottery, and glassware filled the rooms – all from her private belongings. The kitchen was my favorite room. Decorated with beautiful tiles, a large wood burning fireplace sat at its center. Fresh basil and flowers were arranged on the counter and a doorway opened to an outdoor garden. Pink lilies filled the house.
The owner, Michelina, gave us the royal tour and then sat us in one of the gardens. She brought us plates of cookies and cakes that she had made for us and poured us all glasses of her homemade orangecello. She sat there and drank with us while she told us about her family and her home. She still lived nearby and promised to check in on us.
We got settled and took a walk to explore our new home base. Marina di Praia is a tiny pocket beach on the lower part of the village of Praiano. In ancient times, it was where the villagers made fishing nets, built boats, and prepared cured fish and where boats from distant lands came to shore. It sits at sea level, well below the Amalfi Coast Road and is surrounded on 3 sides by towering cliffs and on the 4th side it borders the clear sea. It is home to several quaint restaurants, a smattering of colorful wooden boats, and several stray cats. There is a walkway carved into the cliffs that winds around one side, allowing you to walk to several more restaurants that are perched on the mountainside.
That night, a storm blew in. We grabbed an umbrella and walked the short distance to one of the restaurants that sat in our little slice of Praiano. There were several restaurants to choose from, but Alfonso a Mare won that night because it was the only restaurant that had indoor seating!
We chose an appetizer that had the English translation “fritters.” Expecting something fried, we were reminded that menu translations required a little flexibility. What arrived was a crostini covered with seafood, and squid. We slipped the parts we didn’t like discreetly under the table and fed them to the cats. Our first course that night was gnocchi for me and a spaghetti with shrimp for Matt. For our second course, I had ordered the swordfish, which came cooked in black olives, tomatoes, and capers (which seemed to be the way all my fish came!) and Matt had the grilled swordfish. We also had a side plate of mixed peppers. For dessert, we ordered something we never knew the name of, we just saw it on another table and resorted to grunting and pointing and nodding. When it arrived, it turned out to be cake, gelato, and chocolate sauce.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle and we walked slowly back to Villa Michelina for our first night in Marina La Praia.