Tuesday, 31 July 2018

A Paean To Praiano

PRAIANO, Amalfi Coast /  The destination.

I can order gnocchi, say saluté with a loaded glass of rosé and perve on Pasta Land's finest skippers with a ‘ciao Bello’. That’s the sad extent of my Italian linguistic skills. But as we manoeuvred our way up the perilous cliffs of Amalfi’s insta-infamous coast, I didn’t really need to understand the lingo to appreciate the glory of my surrounds. The same goes for the fantastic clichés they casted, like the man in the seat next to me who repeatedly drew a cross on his body with his right hand. Hand to forehead, hand to left shoulder, hand to right shoulder, hand to chest, and finally punctuated by a hand to his mouth - a kiss. After it happened two or three more times, I wondered what or who he was praying for, until swiftly coming to the conclusion that it could very well be our sardine-packed bus of tourists teetering on this cliff-face. 

Amalfi’s grandiose vistas are one thing. Navigating your way from Salerno to Praiano, however, is a trajectory fraught with gesticulation warfare and probably a lot of guttural Italian swearing. A ghastly toot of a bus horn sounded at every bend, and there are a stupid amount of bends. Quickly, the man’s apparent plight for a moment of reverence made sense somewhere in the debauchery of it all. Around each corner lies a new hazard: vespas, buggies, tour buses, people sauntering by with a gelato in one hand and a death wish in the other. It’s a minefield of chaos and disorder, somehow completely fascinating and utterly terrifying all at once. 

Despite (or maybe because of) all of this, my adrenaline was invariably high for the hour-or-so commute. On my left was a ridiculous blanket of royal blue. Expanses of unparalleled beauty sprawled for miles, replete with rooftop terraces and sun loungers and bougainvillea. It was littered with good looking holidayers, probably marinating in noxious cocktails of Aperol and Reef Oil. The glass windows separated me from all of it, and I couldn’t help but feel that I was still looking through the conduit of Instagram Places or Google Images, especially with so many Aussie accents comprising the score of the trek.

Then on my right, 'Italy' felt a lot more tangible. As I craned my neck around, I was engrossed by the locals and their rainbow of crumbling balconies, spanning terracotta to sherbet yellow and every hue imaginable in between. Some nursed makeshift clothes lines and others pedestaled Italian stallions. They’re the retired locals who purvey their kingdom below like suburban Popes in boxer briefs, brandishing cigars and aperitifs with hands equally sun-ravaged as the cobbled streets below. 

Ravines of lemon trees and green spliced the calamity with calm and inevitably paved the way for roadside stalls that led our tooting unit through the Italian citrus trade.

I was actually admiring the sheer audacity and fearlessness of our driver just moments before we crashed into the cliffside. Ha. It was only two of the large panels of glass on the rear-end and righthand side of the vehicle, and nobody was injured in the slightest. The avalanche-esque moans of rocks crumbling did incite a few gasps though. My heart palpitations and a firm grip of my friend’s forearm were the final extent of my trauma, and eventually gave way into some sardonic, nervous, ‘we-kinda-almost-died’ laughter. In all fairness, if we did roll off the top of that hill, the gates of heaven were only a donkey’s trot up the road. 

Our arrival in Praiano was imminent after a quick 20-minute stopover on the side of some random stretch of restaurants, ceramic-stores and more lemons. It was an unplanned but semi-welcomed photo opportunity while the bus driver shat his pants, aged 25 years and sweat A LOT.

Arriving at our veritable private beach / home for the next 5 days was a please-pinch-me moment like no other prior in my 20 years of life. After wrangling our suitcases in true tourist form for a few hundred k’s down the hill, we were in what I could only describe so tritely as paradise. A Mother Mary statue is perched at the peak of it all in a state of perennial observation. 

Praiano is Positano’s less-known, less-claustrophobic, less-expansive cousin with somehow so much more to offer, validating that time-old idiom. It’s slightly removed from the tidal crowds sweeping Posi’s sands, and has an incredibly intimate, localised feel. You almost forget your origins in surrender to that senses-assaulting Italian splendour. Am I a local yet?, you ponder while hoovering a bowl of gnocchi and breaking bread on one of the Maria di Praia’s 3 restaurants. Gracie mille, you spit triumphantly, fumbling over the ‘r’.

The fairytale collapses when you look at the hazelnut skin of the eight-year-old patting a feral cat on the table adjacent to you. It’s heartbreaking yet inspiring after spending an eternity on a $20-hire-out sun lounger sans brolly and giving the sun permission to absolutely COOK you. Alas, you remember you don’t tan, even on the mediterranean. And you also have no f*cking clue how to say ‘can I have the bill?’. 

One of the many treats the Praiano (and majority of Italians for that matter) locals give you in exchange for a service fee (still grrrrr) is a sample of some wildly rich dessert liqueur. Some days, it’s heady and dark chocolatey and tastes like you’re drinking cake batter mixed with vodka. Others, it’s a classic limoncello and you squint your eyes shut really tight at the pang of those first few sips.

Alfonso A Mare hotel is at the helm of Marina di Praia Beach, run by an extremely Italian familia operating with tradition and heart (and stellar buffet brekkies when compared to continental hostel counterparts). The muted, red facade is all vine-riddled and heart-wrenchingly charming, with the water biting at its toes only 50m or so away. We were housed in a humble, rather luck-lustre bedroom on the right wing of the domain. Not that it mattered. The inside of the room was seen only for sleep, aloe vera application and bikini line shaves. A canopy of vines shrouded the stroll from room to reverie, and gave way to a view that overwhelmed me every.single.time. 

In Praiano, the notion of holiday runs rampant in a relay of cocktails, pasta, grotto waters and exceptional people watching. It even dovetails into the everyday, and soon novelties become banalities. Akin to limoncello, this place should be savoured and licked in small doses, before you have a chance to even slightly take it for granted. Living La Dolce Vita so distilled as it is on this shoreline must be revered in sojourns.  


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