I was by the door of the tiny kitchen where Maria prepared the evening meal for guests. During the four days I stayed at Villa Maria, I got into the habit of stopping by the kitchen when I returned from the day’s explorations to chat with her and her helpers. On this day I arrived just as she was starting to clean a couple of fish – one of the few things we guests were served that didn’t come from the property.
I always enjoyed our chats, which mostly consisted of me asking a question now and then and Maria telling me about what life was like from the locals’ point of view. This evening however, I wanted to ask her about something that was bothering me. A rare, unpleasant incident that had occurred that day. On a bus.
I’d had a lovely day exploring a fishing village east of Minori (Post to come) and, after stopping by what seemed to be the village’s only Tabaccheria (tah-back-care-ree-uh), was waiting for the bus.
One of the many surprises for first time travellers to Italy is that, even if you don’t smoke, you’re probably going to end up at a tobacco shop at one point or another. This is where, in addition to cigarettes, bus tickets are sold.
The other thing to be aware of is that you do not give your ticket to the bus driver, nor do you deposit it in a container under the bus driver’s watchful eye. (This goes for trains as well as buses.) Bus drivers, the thinking presumably goes, already have enough on their hands, without having to deal with fares as well. Obviously this creates a problem. You may be the most guileless person on the planet and yet I doubt it would fail to cross your mind that, under such a system you could save quite a bit of money simply by expanding your recycling activities to bus tickets. That thought of course also crossed the mind of the people who set up the system.
When the bus arrived, I got on, ticket in hand. The driver watched me as inserted it into the little yellow machine and we heard the clicking sound that means the ticket has been properly time stamped. Then he said, ‘You are not allowed to use that ticket’. I stood there, staring at him, vaguely aware that I was blocking all the other people who had been waiting at the bus stop from validating their tickets.
By this point I had accumulated quite a collection of tickets. For the train from Rome to Naples, for the Circumvesiana from Naples to Sorrento, and over a dozen for the SITA buses that went back and forth along the Amalfi Coast. Apart from the Rome-Naples ticket, all the others were for various lengths of time. I had two purple ones which cost €6.80 and were good for 24 hours, but the vast majority were red. They cost €2.20 and were good for 45 minutes.
When I first arrived in Minori I had been a little annoyed to find out that each time I took the bus to Amalfi – a distance of 4 km – it was going to cost me the equivalent of $3.50 Canadian, especially since you have to change buses in Amalfi if you want to go anywhere further along the coast and by the time the next bus arrives, your 45 minutes are pretty well gone. So I was quite happy when the young man at the Tabaccheria sold me a ticket for €1.90 which was good for 100 minutes. Unlike the others, this ticket was quite plain. I assumed this was because it was a tiny shop in a village few tourists visited. Obviously they saved the ‘fancy’ tickets for the more touristy areas. I was right. Sfortunatamente. (Remember what happens when you put ‘s’ in front of a word?) It was one of those rare occasions where my fluency in Italian was a liability.
The bus driver informed me that the ticket I was holding was for locals only and that if a Controllore were to get on the bus and catch me with this illegal ticket, I would get a big fine. I spluttered something about not knowing anything about any of this. I had gone to the Tabaccheria, asked for a ticket, been given a ticket and then paid for that ticket. How was I supposed to know there were two types of tickets? And why would someone, whose job was to sell these tickets, so therefore clearly knew about the two tiers, sell me the wrong kind? I was getting worked up – which is surprisingly easy to do in Italian. The driver shrugged his shoulders. A signora sitting nearby, who had overheard all this, leaned over and suggested I tell the wretched Controllore, should he make an appearance, that I had moved here recently.
Maria confirmed that there was indeed a two-tier ticket system, although she hastened to add that she felt it was wrong. Everyone, transient tourist or permanent local, should pay the same in her opinion.
I agreed, and comforted by the thought that not just one, but two, respectable locals were on my side, felt somewhat mollified.
By this time it was still a couple of hours from supper. The day before, Maria had told me about a lovely walk just east of Villa Maria. An ancient path that linked Minori to Maiori, the next village along the coast. She had taken it many times and assured me it was very gentle, nothing like the path to Ravello. If I didn’t go all the way down to sea level, I would be there and back in an hour, an hour and a half at most. Just in time for a pre-dinner aperitivo.
Along the costiera there is always one more bend, one more mountainside to climb to see what lies beyond. I have a feeling it could become addictive.
I never tired of the walk between Villa Maria and the main road – OK, maybe I huffed and puffed a bit on the way up, but that’s a different kind of tired.
And since I wasn’t in any kind of hurry, I could have a good look at the orto on the terrace below my room. I might even discover where the giant squash vine sprawling across the top of all the other plants ended up.
There were a few olive trees, but most of the terraces had been planted with lemon trees. Some were covered with netting, while others had been left open to the elements. The growers no doubt had good reasons for this, but it was a mystery to me.
In some places the path was dark, almost claustrophobic, and then just around the corner it was brilliant sunshine and the most glorious, open views.
There was such an ugly jumble behind this fence I didn’t realize right away what was going on. Almost walked right past it. But of course, like the cemetery, if you don’t have much flat ground to work with, the only way to go is vertical. Another surprise, for someone from Toronto, where ‘baby this and ‘baby that’ is all the rage, veggie-wise, was the obvious care taken to let these zucche (zoo-kay) go big. Really big.
In the same way a big rosa is a rosone (see ‘The Queen of Flowers’, May 4, 2014) a big zucca is a zuccone (zooc-co-nay). But you don’t want to go throwing that word around – it also means fat head, slow-witted, pig-headed or…blockhead.
I shouldn’t really have been surprised at the size of these squash. One day when I came back to Villa Maria I had watched as one of Maria’s helpers patiently grilled endless slices of what had obviously been an enormous specimen. The slices were so thin – not much thicker than a toonie – I wondered how they had done it and kept their fingers intact. By this point I had seen a lot of surprising things, so the idea that they had somehow sliced the beast by hand did not seem all that far-fetched. When I asked, they laughed. In the corner was a very modern slicing machine.
Then I noticed the signs? What were they all about? They were nothing like the professional notices I was used to seeing back home after an area had been sprayed with toxins, but that wasn’t what surprised me. Amidst all the ad-hoc alterations and additions that had been made over the centuries to these terraced gardens, the amateurish style didn’t seem at all out of place.
What was surprising was that they used toxins at all in a region where there was so much pride in fresh, healthy, locally grown products and so much suspicion of anything that came from ‘elsewhere’, where who knows what questionable horticultural practices were used.
I asked Vincenzo about this at dinner. No, no, no! Nobody used any kind of pesticides or toxins of any kind on their gardens. The signs were put up to scare away a few mascalzoni – young scoundrels who had nothing better to do than hurl lemons at each other – and the squash. I couldn’t help wondering how many of those mascalzoni would be taken in by the crude signs.
Along one section I was surprised to see a philodendron in flower. Up until I saw one in bloom in Allan Gardens a couple of years ago, I didn’t even know the philodendron had a flower. And even if it had occurred to me that of course it must have a flower – how else would it reproduce? – I certainly wouldn’t have expected it to have a flower designed for shenanigans on such a grand scale.
‘Philo’ is Greek for love and ‘dendron’ means ‘tree’. That just about sums things up.
The rather suggestively shaped flower consists of a band of fertile female flowers and a band of fertile male flowers. For some reason, on its evolutionary journey the philodendron eschewed self-pollination. To prevent the unwanted incestuous activity, it created a stretch of infertile male flowers to keep the fertile female and male flowers apart. But it still needed to get itself pollinated, so it devised a method of attracting other agents to assist it. Not unlike members of the human species, it sends out pheromones -plant perfume – to attract the desired partners. For the philodendron this means male and female beetles, which are also in the reproducing mood. I have never come across one in flagrante delicto, but botanists have caught single flowers hosting orgies of up to 200 beetles.
I continued along the path, maybe ten minutes or so past the love tree and the quattro gatti, until I could see Maiori far below. I’d gone by the village several times, on this trip as well as on previous trips, and each time was surprised by how unlike any of the other villages it was. How unattractive. There was none of the quirky charm of the other villages along the coast. It had a weirdly modern look. For one thing, all the buildings were arranged in straight lines.
From high up on Lemon Path #7 , it didn’t look any less unattractive. I found out later that a catastrophic flood in 1954 had destroyed the entire historic centre. No doubt the new, urban plan has made life much easier for the locals – I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to deal with grocery shopping, arranging deliveries, let alone making repairs to byzantine electrical and plumbing systems that are inevitable in places that were first settled in the Middle Ages – but from the viewpoint of an outsider who didn’t have to deal with those day-to-day challenges, something seemed to have been lost in the rebuilding of this village. Are there really only two options – preserve unique and fascinating heritage sites or adopt the sterility of modern efficiency?…
I started back towards Minori.
A plaque on a tall, new-looking building on the seaward side of the path caught my attention. Who was this nonno Aldo? Perhaps a local who, like so many, had left to seek his fortune in America and came back every year. One day, while I was waiting for the little white bus up to Villa Maria, I started chatting with a couple who were also waiting for the bus. I had trouble understanding them at first – they spoke a mix of Italian and a rather odd English. The signora was from Minori and had left for England, where she and her husband – he was even harder to understand – had lived for the last 30 years. They returned every year for a couple of months to visit with family and grandchildren. The bus came and we never introduced ourselves, but I wondered…
The path back to Villa Maria was mostly downhill and I was soon walking along the terrace with the big squash. Maybe because for once I wasn’t exhausted at this point, I happened to look up and saw a sign I hadn’t noticed before.
If you want to arrive at our place, you cannot give up right away; paradise has to be won and is worth the view.
I forgot to ask about the initials.