Summer 2006 in Amalfi and Sorrento (1)
When I got off the bus outside the station in Sorrento on September 3rd, it was early afternoon and I had been travelling since 4am. Somehow the prospect of getting on a bus for Amalfi didn't appeal. Another consideration was that I was carrying a heavy case full of small mounted prints of my paintings which I was to deliver to the shop of Giovanna Petagna, in the Via dei Cesari in the centre of Sorrento. Since it was now 2.30 pm most of Sorrento was napping after lunch and all the shops were closed until about 6pm. Petagna's didn't normally open till even later.
I weighed up the best plan and decided that I must stay in Sorrento that night at least. I would go to see if the Hotel Loreley (also known as the Hotel de Londre) had any rooms. This is a hotel positioned in the best spot along the cliffs of Sorrento, but I had discovered on my August visit that its rates were roughly half those of its neighbours. It had been fully booked then.
I trundled my case down the cobbles from the station to the Via A. Califano. The Loreley seemed deserted. Its peeling pink stucco was baking in the hot afternoon sun. In the open air bamboo roofed terrace fronting on to the road, a dozing cat lifted its head to eye me sleepily and fell back into its dreams again. The sea glittered below, where the whole of the Marina Piccola lay out in the heat of the afternoon.
There was nobody about in the shabby entrance lounge. Somewhere I could hear the murmur of conversation and a muted clatter of pans - the kitchen clearing up after lunch. I put my head into the tiny cluttered office of the entrance hall and as I did so I saw out of the corner of my eye a movement across the hall towards the chipped marble staircase. "Signora! Per favore..." - my faltering Italian began. The maid stopped, looked nervously at me and came back. I summoned up my small command of the language and she looked more at ease but went to find the receptionist. Did they have any rooms for the same night? This question seemed difficult to answer immediately but I agreed to wait.
At length I was accepted. I decided to take the room for three nights and to go on to Amalfi after that. After a phone call to Il Nido it was all arranged - three nights in the Loreley, then three nights in Amalfi, but I could not keep the room on the 9th and 10th September so I was to return to the Loreley for two nights and go back to Il Nido for the last two on 11th and 12th.
In the Hotel Loreley in the summer of 2006 you got what you paid for and no frills. No air con, no fancy little bottles of shampoo or shower caps, no big fluffy towels. What you got was a basic room and ensuite shower room with a balcony overlooking the most beautiful view of the Marina Piccola and the coastline stretching up towards Amalfi. You got a nice little terrace restaurant only marred by the traffic roaring past (the terrace stretches between the road and the edge of the cliff) with the same wonderful view. You got sleepy but pleasant service and an Italian breakfast of sweet rolls, cake and croissants with jam. You got a sadly run down little jetty/ beachbar area with sunbeds (you pay a little extra for this). It was ideal for me, with my limited financial resources.
Most people staying there seemed to be from other European countries, rather than the UK. There was a very friendly French couple in the room next to me, who talked to me about the drawings I did each day when we met on our balconies. She was a designer and suggested places that they had visited that would make good subjects for my work. They too were very happy with the Loreley. I overheard some grumbling from a rather overheated looking American couple but perhaps they had not expected to get only what they had paid for. I knew the value of the Loreley's view.
In the event I only paid for four nights at the Loreley, in money that is. I was flattered when the owner of the hotel, an elderly lady who spoke no English, asked me if she could buy a sketch I was making from the restaurant. I at first said "No" because I was not sure I could finish it properly and she didn't seem keen to pay what I would ask for it if I did finish it. At last I was persuaded to part with it for the price of one night in the hotel and we were both happy with that. Here is the sketch that Signora bartered for.
I admit to spending at least one day on the sunbeds of the "beach" at the Loreley. I also went to see the Petagnas in the shop where they make and sell prints and art materials. I had been flattered but taken aback in August when they had broken to me the news that they had used my painting of a Roman building, the Sedile Dominova, in a book that they had written and published, about the history of the Conservatorio di Maria delle Grazione. This is the convent that has its facade along one side of the Piazza San Francesco. (I had had some prints made at the shop back in the summer of 2005 and they had the image on their computer.) They gave me a copy of the book and I was pleased to see the full page reproduction of my painting on page 31.
They had also sold a number of my prints. I left them with prints of some of the work I had done during my August 2006 visit, including a view of the street outside their shop in August following Italy's World Cup win. I had painted this on the spot but then had to replace all the international flags which were really there with Italian flags, at Giovanna's request, for the local market's taste.
On the fourth afternoon of my stay, I took the ferry to Amalfi and the Hotel Il Nido. I stood at the stern, watching the foaming trail we left behind us as the coastline to our left became more and more rugged and scenic. Mountains and islands passed by like one of those panoramic scenes painted on the background of a museum dispay about geological formations. I was joined by two members of the crew, one of whom decided to be my tour guide, pointing out the island that Rudolph Nureyev bought, the funicular down the cliff at Positano, the Martello towers that protected the coast in the war. Finally, egged on by his fellow crew member, he invited me to go out dancing with him in Amalfi that evening. I gracefully declined, the more easily since he was about half my age. But I was certainly flattered - a state of mind that a stay in Italy during the holiday season often produces and that I have learned to avoid taking too seriously.
As the ferry arrives at Amalfi you can see the facades of the Hotel Residence and the shops along the quay, the cars parked up to the railings and the buses that wait to take you up to the towns above Amalfi or back along the coast road towards Sorrento. It's a busy place in the summer. One of the beaches is to the right of the jetties for the ferries and there are others round the point on the Sorrento side of the town. The streets lead stiffly up the hills to each side and in the centre of the town they run through a system of stone tunnels and steps that are like catacombs to the newcomer's eye. Every few yards the covered ways emerge on to a small landing that has the stairs up to the front entrances of houses leading off it, or out into a piazza with shops and open streets.
The Hotel Il Nido is a very well run family hotel, about a kilometre's walk from the quay. Nearby was a strange anomaly in this part of Italy - a bar run by Willy, a Lancashireman, along British pub lines, stocking Guinness and other exotic British drinks as well as local wines and snacks. Willy was large, friendly and a little desperate. I got to know the place when I paused on my trudge up the hill after a day's drawing in Ravello or on the beach. There was always a group of friends there: Australians on their world travels; American students on their summer break; young Italians enjoying the summer tourist influx and practising their English (though Willy spoke fluent Italian). The television was always tuned to Sky sport, usually football and Willy would distribute fliers on the beach, particularly when an English team was playing. Sadly, Willy's Bar was closing at the end of the season and Willy was going back to settle down in his home county. He was truly deserving of the title "mine host". Order a glass of red wine and it was refilled for the rest of the evening like one of those magic cups in a fairy tale. The final account was always clearly in the customer's favour. I hope that his next venture has worked out well for him.
The owners of the Hotel il Nido were grave, professional and dignified, always ready to help and provide advice when asked. Their hotel was spotless, as almost all Italian hotels are, and they provided a good breakfast of cereal, buns. bread and croissants and cheese and ham. There was a lovely view across the bay from the dining room, the sparkling sea dazzling in the mornings.
My room was large and spacious with intriguing pictures of the local area on the walls. The young man who was often the night receptionist was the son of the owner. He spent the night gazing seriously at his computer, below the high counter where he sat. I never found out whether he was playing computer games, surfing the net or doing some kind of work. In the morning he would still be in the same place, with his night's growth of stubble the only evidence that time had passed. He was very helpful and admired my paintings as I brought them back to the hotel, weary and pleased with another day in Ravello, at the Villa Cimbrone or the Villa Rufolo.
When, on my last evening at Il Nido, I asked the night receptionist to order a taxi at six in the morning to take me down to the quay to catch the first ferry back to Sorrento, he insisted on driving me down the hill in his own car, leaving the reception unmanned for a few minutes. I promised to return to Il Nido and to tell anyone who would read my blog about the service that I had received there.
Amalfi from the sea is backed by a rugged cliff scored with crevices and cracks, hung with stalactite like formations that run down to the road along the coast from Sorrento. There's a great shallow cave-like rock formation that frames the cathedral in some of my photographs, though in reality one is less conscious of it than of the intense blue sky above the dome. The cathedral (S. Stefano) is visible from most parts of the town, and especially from the beach in front of the ferry landing. Its green and yellow tiled campanile rises behind the white hotels and pastel washed buildings.
The Piazza Sant'Andrea in Amalfi is dominated by the facade of the Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Andrew. Its highly ornamented marble and brick facade and broad staircase leading up to the gallery along the facade are so often photographed that I was not inspired to paint the view from the piazza. Instead I composed this painting from the gallery itself, looking out on to the cafes and bars of the piazza. The most inspiring view of the facade was to be seen at night, when floodlights picked out the layers of decoration and paintings behind the arches. This view was hard to paint or photograph and I hope to master a technique for conveying the effect that I found so exciting, when I return to the area in 2007.
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Monday, January 7, 2008
Monday, April 30, 2007
This is the second half of my diary of my visit to the Amalfi Coast in April 2007. I was so busy in the second week that I had to wait until I got home to complete the written record.
In the middle of my first week of sketching in Positano and Praiano, I was offered an exhibition at the Buco di Bacca gallery, when the manager, Davide, saw my work in progress and looked at the sketches of the landscape and seascape that I had done so far. I was cautiously optimistic about this and was very pleased when in the following week Davide confirmed that they would like it to go ahead. Originally I was asked to arrange it for the month of June but I had to explain that I am exhibiting work at my own studio as part of Surrey Open Studios from 11th to 21st June. We agreed that I would come out to Positano immediately after that and that the opening day of the exhibition would be 7th July.
I surveyed the gallery space and decided that I needed 10 large new canvases (at least 1 metre along one of their sides before framing) and at least 8 smaller ones. These would be based on the sketches I was doing and the photographs I was taking on my present trip. They must all be about the Amalfi Coast. I already had six or seven larger gouache paintings that I could bring over and frame here so that they are the right size. I also had at least twenty small original works at home to select from, and some signed digital prints on watercolour which can be offered at a less expensive price than the originals (which are unique, of course).
I had some organisation to do now, too. I booked an apartment at very reasonable price at a pensione down the road from where I was staying now, for 6 weeks in June and July, and checked out the price of British Airways flights, which are always the best price and most useful timings to Naples (http:www.ba.com)
This all happened so quickly because of the encouragement I had from my friendship with Connie at the Miniaci Art Gallery (http://www.miniaciart.com ) in Positano. This is the Positano branch of a gallery that carries the work of internationally famous artists and has its main branch in Milan.
On Friday evening (20th April) Connie invited me to her home, down the road from where I am staying in Praiano, for supper. She has a very stylish but cosy little apartment and it really made me want to come and live in Praiano myself. (Perhaps, one day...) Connie had originally suggested Thursday for this meal, but we changed it because her little cat, Puskin, had to have an emergency operation on a tumour and needed all her attention this week.
"You must come and meet my little haggis!" said Connie on Friday, the day after the operation. That was Puskin, all stitched up and baggy after having the operation. We found her in pretty good spirits, though subdued. She managed a purr when I stroked her and became quite urgent about the fish that Connie cooked for her, in spite of a moment of suspicious sniffing as she caught a whiff of the antibiotic pill that had been mashed into it. Connie was concerned because Puskin was eating but not peeing or pooing, but a phone call to the vet set her mind at rest. (By today, Sunday, Puskin was leaping about as usual, and her innards had started to work properly again, Connie reported when I looked into the gallery that morning.)
As Connie began to cook us a supper of pasta with prawns and garlic, Elisa, her neighbour, looked in with a big basket of fruit that they had bought together - huge juicy oranges, enormous strawberries and organic apples. Elisa was invited to have supper with us and I was given a share of the fruit to take home, too. Elisa spoke no English. Connie is bilingual so we had one of those three-cornered conversations that I often have here at the moment. I can understand a certain amount of Italian and speak a little too, but a translator in both languages did speed the conversation up considerably.
We discussed accommodation costs for me in June and July and they both recommended striking a bargain with the owner of the pensione whiere I have now booked. I left at about 9pm, conscious that Connie had to work in the morning, after a really good evening with my new friends.
That was on Friday. On Saturday morning I got up early and walked down to the pensione that had been recommended to me. There I was introduced to Penelope, another artist who is arranging an exhibition of her paintings on silk, in Capri.
Penelope was waiting for a promised lift to Positano with her ten large paintings, which she had brought with her as hold baggage with BA a few days ago. The owner of the pensione is a very old friend of hers (she has known him since he was six years old, they both confirmed), and he had offered to help her to take the work to the jetty in Positano where they would be picked up by someone from Capriart, the gallery that was their destination.
Penelope certainly knows her way around Italy much better than I do, and speaks perfect Italian because, she explained, she had once been married to an Italian and had lived in Italy. She introduced me to Lynn, who is an Australian staying for the week. Lynn is spending six weeks travelling round Italy, as one of her biennial globe-trottings.
We all got on so well, we decided to meet up in the evening for a drink at the pensione. That turned into a meal in the restaurant next door, in a lovely setting overlooking the sea. I showed them my work and was really pleased and flattered when Lynn bought an acrylic sketch on paper, to take home as a souvenir.
We spent the evening laughing, beginning with Penelope's realisation that the restaurant was directly below her apartment terrace and if anyone took the trouble to look up they would look straight into her room. She hadn't realised the restaurant was there, because it is partly canopied over with straw.
"I think I may have been seen taking my bikini off on my terrace this afternoon" she said sheepishly.
Overhearing, the waiter gave a loud guffaw and confirmed "Yes Signora, I saw you undressed today!" Only in Italy, we decided, would a waiter be so indiscreet and unselfconscious!
We compared ages and found that we were all virtually the same age. (We agreed that we are not getting any younger but didn't care.) We got through two bottles of wine between us and I felt no pain at all as I walked back up the hill to bed.
I was becoming bored with sitting painting on the beach at Positano, though I reminded myself that I would look back in amazement at this statement after being back home in England for a few days. So on Monday 23rd I decided to get the bus to Amalfi and then up to Ravello. My plan was to go into the shop that had shown an interest in my work last October and see if the owner was there.
Folio in hand, I set off. I had forgotten what a beautiful road it is between Praiano and Amalfi. With the sea on your left all the way, you pass fantastically formed stacks jutting out into the sea, deep gullies (as at Furore, the next town after Priano) and the entrance to the Grotta dello Smeralda, a spectacular hollow in the coast line with a lift down to the caves below. You can go there by boat, too. I haven't done this because it really is too much of a tourist trap for my liking in the summer, but today it looked beautiful from above, the sea deep bottle green and purple in the shadows. I tried some photographs but without breaking my journey and getting out of the bus I couldn't achieve a good result. I resolved that when I came back in June I would explore that part of the coast road with my camera and sketch book.
At Amalfi I changed buses and was entertained by the beginning of World War III between a Geman and an Englishman about who should get on to the bus first. I was sitting smugly in a seat when this blew up. It got quite physical and the bus driver had to intervene - I felt rather ashamed for my compatriot, who seemed to be seriously over-reacting to the situation. (He calmed down when the German had to get off anyway because there wasn't room for the whole of the party that he was travelling with.)
The ride up to Ravello was even more spectacular than I remembered, even though it was a slightly hazy day. The road winds up the edge of a deep gorge. Looking down, you can see houses and chapels perched on ledges in the valley - I always wonder at the logistics of building in such terrain.
Above Amalfi are three villages - Pontone, which you can reach on foot by walking up from Amalfi; Scala, a peaceful unspoilt place where last year I took my favourite wedding photo ever when the bus stopped outside the church one day; and Ravello, very pretty, full of flowers, sophisticated restaurants and hotels and two lovely mediaeval villas with gardens overlooking the sea, many metres below them, the Villa Rufolo and the Villa Cimbrone. There is a pretty piazza with the Cathedral dedicated to S. Pantone, and the church and library of San Francesco is up the hill on the way to the Villa Cimbrone. This is the view of the Villa Rufolo looking back from that street..... The tower is the watchtower that I painted last October, when the creeper that grows up it was turning to shades of crimson and gold.
Having visited the shop in the via San Francesco and been told by Nicoletta that the owner would be there on Wednesday afternoon, I went on up the hill, intending to visit the Villa Cimbrone again. As I passed Villa Maria on my left, I glanced into the terrace and saw a fantastic view that took in Pontone and Scala and another settlement whose name I don't know yet. The view stretched right across the terraced mountainsides to the sea. The horizon was hidden in the haze.
I decided that this would be my subject for today and went and chose a table next to the railings of the terrace. The place was almost deserted and I was impressed to find that the waiters were tactful enough to let me start drawing without insisting that I commit myself to even a cup of coffee.
After a while I asked for the menu and ordered some delicious pasta (borboni) and a glass of wine. Music was put on at midday - a medley of Mozart and other popular classics - so restful!. I had the most relaxing and enjoyable day and completed two A3 ink drawings which will be the basis (together with photos) for an oil painting. I met a very friendly Danish couple at the next table, who were camping nearby, and at their request gave them my card - I didn't want to sell either drawing until I had used them, so I promised to upload them to my website to let them see them when they go back to Denmark.
I expected the bill to be high - I had a big dish of chocolate ice cream with a fancy flag in the top, and three espressos, as well at the main meal of pasta. But it was only average, and much less than in some much more mediocre restaurants.
Coming back to Praiano, the buses connected, the driver allowed me to get off right outside my hotel - it had been one of those good days!
The weather was becoming hazy and cooler, though it was still pleasant. On Tuesday I decided to go back to Positano for the last time on this trip (I wanted to go back to Ravello on Wednesday and would be flying home on Thursday).
Walking into Vettica I took some photos of the model village that an artist has set up under the rocks at the Grotta del Diavolo. These little installations are a common sight in the Amalfi area and the notice that accompanies this one speaks of the democratic right of the artist to set up his work in the natural surroundings of his homeland - or I think that's what it says. The model layouts always include the church. In this one it is tucked behind a special gate at a slight remove from the main model. Passers by usually stop to peer in reverently.
I caught the bus to Positano without problems and got off at the stop nearest to Sorrento, where I knew I could buy a very reasonably priced mozzarella and ham roll for lunch. I found another alternative route down to the beach area, avoiding the road entirely and descending past the pastel washed houses and wrought iron balconies on the other side of the beach, nearer to the jetty where the Capri and Sorrento ferries dock. I took photographs as I went, planning the collage that I might make with the prints, to form the basis for a painting.
I came out on the beach near the other big cafe-restaurant there, Le Tre Sorelli. I realised that I had become a local character, temporarily, when the waiters there greeted me and asked me what I was painting today. (I have never eaten there or spoken to any of them before. I think that my "English lady" hat has a lot to do with this status. I wear it to protect my hair from fading in the sun and it has become something of a trademark, I think). There was a cry of "Jan! Lovely to see you" and there was Lynn, looking very chic, with several shopping bags from her trip round the boutiques. We agreed to meet that evening at the Continental. For the rest of the day I intended to draw and Lynn was in shopping mode.
For this last day in Positano I tried again to encapsulate the extraordinary heap of Moorish style buildings that is the town of Positano as seen from the beach. The artists of Positano have found ways of doing this and perhaps it's unwise, as well as unnecessary, for me to attempt to do it. Nevertheless, I laboured for two or three hours over an ink drawing in my sketch book, reasoning that the more familiar I become with the problem, the greater my chances of pinning it down. But it didn't happen for me, not this time.
I said "a' rivederci" to Pasquale, Andrea and Domenico as they painted on the piazza outside the Buco di Bacca. Pasquale told me that he would help me to arrange the exhibition by taking me to the framer's and art suppliers when I come back in June. Then I went up to the Galleria Miniaci to say goodbye to Connie. She was finishing her day and offered me a lift back to Praiano. I accepted gratefully.
It was still early evening when I got back to Vettica Praiano and the soft haze hid the horizon. The church of San Gennaro stood against the haze, opposite the stop where I had often waited for the bus. I realized that I had not properly explored San Gennaro and I took the few steps down towards the sea that brought me to the Piazza San Gennaro, a wide platform in front of the church, perched above the sea. The piazza was full of families and young people, playing football and chatting in the twilight. It was too dark for a good photograph. I had neglected the most important view in Praiano. I would have to correct this huge oversight in June.
I went up to the Trattoria San Gennaro which is between the road and the church. Its small terrace has tables that overlook the sea and also the roof of the church. It's in a lovely position, on eye-level with the carvings and tiles, with the green and yellow dome just above. Another mental note - drawing here would be an interesting project. I had a supper of anchovies and a salad which was reasonably priced but rather oily, then walked back, feeling very tired.
Wednesday 25th April was my last full day in Italy for a while. It was Liberation Day, a bank holiday. Not a good day to travel but I wanted to go to Ravello again in case Nicoletta, in the gallery in the via San Francesca, had been right when she said that the patrone would be there today. It did seem unlikely and in the event he was not. The weather was unsettled and the buses were crammed with passengers. Arriving in Amalfi to pick up the connection to Ravello, I saw that there was almost no queue, so I had obviously just missed a bus. I went down on the beach, with the bus queue in sight, and settled down to sleep in the interval of sunshine that broke through the cloud. An hour later I surfaced to see a queue of respectable length had formed for the Ravello bus and as I went to join it the bus turned up.
I was disappointed that the owner of the gallery was not there, and disillusioned with Ravello which looked almost tawdry on the bank holiday. The piazza was crowded with day trippers and the gift shops all seemed to be full of the same decorated ceramic ashtrays and limoncello glasses. (Nevertheless, there are some beautiful things made in glass and ceramic in Italy, which sell at very high prices and are to be found in the shops away from the main piazza in Ravello.)
It was only about 3pm but I was tired and decided to cut my losses, go home and pack for my flight next day. I waited only a short time for a bus, then two came along - very unusual in Ravello, I thought. The bus I was on then passed two more parked by the roadside in Scala and picked up the driver of the other bus that had arrived with ours - he had parked his bus too. At a guess, this strategy was to bring all the buses up to Ravello ready for the exodus at about 5.30, when everyone would be going home down the hill to Amalfi.
This is the view from the bus stop in Ravello.....
I was surprised and grateful when the driver of the bus from Amalfi to Praiano, which connected immediately I got off the Ravello bus, let me on. It was so packed that I had to stand on the step into the bus and was almost leaning on his driving arm for a few stops. I regard the bus drivers of the Amalfi Coast as heroes, especially on bank holidays.
In the evening I walked down the hill to the hotel where I had met Lynn and Penelope. Penelope had finished her business with Capriart and gone back to Surrey. Lynn was in Praiano until Saturday, then she was taking the train to Florence via Salerno. We spent the evening with the brothers who own the pensione and two German ladies, long-term patrons of the pensione and friends of the brothers. We had a conversation in English, Italian and German about a number of matters, including as I remember, art, the Norman conquest of England and the phiology of the English language. As none of us (especially I) was an expert in either history or philology, this was only possible through the lubrication of the excellent white wine. It was a good evening to round off my trip and I said goodbye with regret.
My trip home next day was uneventful. Now my work begins.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
If you've read my other diaries you'll know that I've been intent on photographing and painting my impressions of the Amalfi Coast towns for about three years now. Each time I go there I understand a little more of what I love about the place and its inhabitants. I meet tourists like myself as well, from all over the world, and my diaries are a way of keeping all the experiences fresh in my own mind. I write daily notes for an illustrated article that I publish here when I get back to my computer. This is the diary of my trip to the Praiano and Positano areas in April 2007.
There are 422 steep stone steps between the main road from Amalfi and Sorrento, and the beach at Vettica, Praiano. I trod those steps six times in the first two days of my holiday.
I discovered the beach when I went out to get some shampoo on my first morning in Praiano, on Thursday, and was diverted down the Via Russolo by curiosity. Led further and further on by signs "alla Spiaggia", I found myself at the bottom with no materials or camera, confronted by a fantastic view of deep emerald and purple sea, distant islands, limestone cliffs and a Martello tower perched romantically at the edge of the little bay. So up I went again, and a little while (and 844 steps up and down the cliff) later I was settled on the concrete platform which Praiano calls its beach.
That day I completed two small colour sketches in acrylic paint on Bockingford paper. I was joined by Rudi and his wife, who took a kind interest in what I was doing and in the afternoon introduced me to a party who had been to Capri on the boat driven by Mario, the owner of the hotel that I had included in one of my pictures.
The Bellavista Hotel is well named. It's perched on the very edge of the cliff that I had painted and Mario was delighted to see it featured in my painting. He invited me to dinner at the hotel that evening and made a great fuss of me and my work. He offered to buy the sketch from me, which made this a perfect day.
The Bellavista caters for German tourists in particular so I was forced to use my dreadful Italian and even worse German language skills to be sociable. All the staff speak German rather than English - though most of the guests spoke fluent English too. The next day, Friday 13th, I was to go to Capri on Mario's boat as a paying customer. Unfortunately I was five minutes late and in efficient German mode, the boat left without me. Luckily I hadn't paid in advance, so I thought I would go on the public boat, another day. I was looking forward to it, because Capri is so crowded in the summer that when I went last, in August 2005, I couldn't see anything very much and was forced to hold my camera above my head to take photos of the places and buldings.
So I sat down on the beach again - I wasn't going back up those steps empty handed - and settled down to make a painting on the little canvas I had packed in readiness for Capri.
As I worked I heard a whistled tune coming from somewhere out of sight. After a while I heard "Ciao!" and looked round to see a camera trained on me by a girl carrying a great sheaf of leaves and flowers. Her face was very brown and she was grinning widely. This was Angela from Bulgaria.
I have never met anyone so skilled in making friends as Angela. She was the most charming companion from the first "Come si chiama?" ("What's your name?") to the end of the day by which time we were using the familiar "tu" and had had a really good laugh about all kinds of thing. This was despite the fact that she neither spoke nor understood a single word of English - and my Italian is nearly as bad.
Angela arrived, whistling tunefully through her teeth, laden with plants and flowers she had gathered from the gardens on the way down the steps to the beach, and made friends with me in a most purposeful way that was, nevertheless, utterly disarming.
Angela is Bulgarian but she has been in Italy for about a year. She told me that she had been in Praiano before that, though, and had worked for the Bellavista Hotel before going home to Bulgaria for a while - my Italian was not up to understanding the reason.
We spent the whole day in creativity and conversation. Our conversation was conducted mostly in bad Italian and sign language, with a little French. My Italian was marginally better than her English - which was nonexistent - but we were both very good at sign language. In sign -language we agreed on many things, ranging from politics to art to men to life in general.
We agreed that we both liked the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. Angela rummaged in her memory for an English author and came up with Gerald Durrell - who is, actually, one of my favourites from the past.
Angela was of the opinion that men named Mario are bad news and she had a photo to prove it - the Mario from Amalfi that she showed me certainly looked "bruto" as she described him. She expressed her feelings by taking her lighter and burning the corner of Mario's picture - "Pauvero Mario!"
She spoke very differently about the man who phoned her several times on her mobile, obviously concerned to check that she was safe. This was Francesco Mangieri, a ceramicist and sculptor who has an exhibition in Amalfi now. She gave me a card with his photo and address and asked me to publicise his address: 7 - Piazzetta C. Console, 7 - 84011 (Tel. 089-871929).
Angela was clearly an artist herself and what she made with the plants that she brought back from her periodic "shopping" trips (her term) would stand comparison with the best florist's - or land artist's - work. She obviously preferred the life of a land artist and she decked the cliff behind her with examples of her art. She collected pebbles, seaweed, flotsam and jetsam and even crabs, to add to her display. When we left the beach the fishing boat that was beached there was Angela's exhibition space.
Angela wove crowns of aromatic plants for herself and for me, and we laughed at ourselves and each other as we modelled them like children. We took photos of each other and I chronicled her work as it progressed. Angela kept us both sustained with sachets of acacia honey which she produced from her big orange bag. She had a supply of information in the bag, too: cards from galleries and hotels and brochures and pamphlets on all kinds of subjects. Some she gave to me, and I received them gratefully.
Luis, the fisherman attached to the Bellavista Hotel, arrived on the beach in the afternoon and he and Angela had a long serious conversation in Italian which I couldn't follow. He obviously admired her work and I photographed him with sections of it.
I wanted to write about Angela because she seems to me a model of a free-spirited but vulnerable woman who (apart from stealing a few flowers from private gardens) is quite without guile and yet strong and capable of surviving in a difficult world. I wish her as much success as possible in this life. I'm glad that I missed the boat to Capri - if I hadn't, I wouldn't have had the pleasure of meeting her.
Having enjoyed two hot days I was disappointed to find it raining and cold on Saturday. I decided to go to Sorrento on the bus, to say "Ciao" to my friend Giovanna in her shop in the Via dei Cesari and to buy a new adaptor plug because the one I had brought with me was damaged. As usual, I also took my folio, including some spare paper, and some drawing materials, just in case the weather cleared.
This was not a successful day. I found that Giovanna had not sold any more of my prints. The weather stayed cold and wet. I lost my umbrella and had to buy a new one for 3 euros (the one I lost had cost me 12 GBP at the airport, though). I spent 39 euros on a rainproof jacket that probably looks as cheap as it was.
I did manage to make an ink drawing in a break in the showers, down at the Marina Grande. I did find a cheap internet point. And I didn't miss the last bus back to Praiano. So on balance, this was not an unsuccessful day either.
The following day, Sunday, on the other hand, was great.
After the cold and rainy yesterday, the weather was perfect and I decided to go to Positano where I had made some friends last month. I took some drawing paper and a little canvas with me, and a few of my pieces of finished work, and set off into the village of Vettica Praiano to catch the bus. My pensione is about 10 minutes from the centre and though there is a bus stop in between, I wanted to do some things in the centre first.
I found a crowd of German holiday makers from the Bellavista Hotel waiting for the bus and within a few moments we realised that this was going to be a long wait. A car announcing the progress of a cycle race from Amalfi to Sorrento drove past, followed by two very fit racing cyclists, then a long pause.
We were all quite excited when a whole crowd of cyclists sped past, and we began clapping and cheering them on. It soon became clear that there were hundreds of competitors, strung out along the mountainous coast road, and that no buses would be coming by for quite a while.
We accepted the inevitable and settled down to cheer them all on as they went flying - or in some cases, toiling - past. We felt obliged to encourage all of them, especially the back-markers, some of whom looked too old or too well-fed to be cycling at 45 degrees up hills.
They responded variously by calling back "Grazie", waving an arm, taking both hands off the handlebars and looking very bouncy, or just gritting their teeth and trying to conserve their energy and breath (which is what I would have done in their place).
Eventually the bus arrived, an hour and a quarter late, and we were on our way.
Positano was in full holiday mode - quite a difference from the last time I had been there. That was on March 6th, when the streets were more like waterfalls and the sky was leaden. It was a cheerful sight this Sunday, down at the beach, where my artist friends greeted me warmly and asked me what my latest work was like. Pasquale Volpe, whom I had met two years ago, remembered me and was very encouraging about the pieces I had brought with me. He had some beautiful watercolour paintings of the town, which I admired. Pasquale has taken an art history course in England (Sheffield I think) and is full of praise for the English art education system. This is Pasquale...
And this is Domenico....
I went and found some boats on the beach because I'd decided to paint seascapes this week. I was soon involved in the painting. The sun was hot, the atmosphere was relaxed, and I was very happy. The colour sketch turned out reasonably well - rather impressionist, as might be expected.
Today I was using acrylic paint and it was drying almost as fast as I could dip the brush in it. Not an easy medium in the sun, but more convenient for carrying about, than oil paint, I found myself on a learning curve; I hadn't used acrylic paint for several years before this holiday.
At about four o'clock I decided to take a break and went to the restaurant on the beach that has an internet point and very sympathetic waiters. When I had finished my coffee, I asked the head waiter if I could draw the scene in the cafe. (I have been asked to paint a cafe scene by someone who visited my stall in Walton on Easter Monday and I thought the sketch might give me a starting point)
As I drew in pen and ink, adding customers and details as they came and went, I was encouraged by the attentions of a lot of people, of all ages. As often happens, an intense young person attached himself and watched my technique with such interest he seemed to be taking notes. He was about 12 and I was very glad to have his attention. I hope he will be a better artist than me one day.
There was talk of an exhibition of my Amalfi Coast work, at the art gallery attached to the restaurant, suggested by the manager of the restaurant. Watch this space, I thought, but don't hold your breath - there's many a slip twixt cup and lip as my grandma used to say.
It was very late when I left the beach restaurant and I was afraid I would miss the last bus home, so I called into the gallery where I had met Connie last month, because she lives only a few hundred yard from my pensione in Praiano. I helped her to pack up the display for the night, and she gave me a lift home when we finished at midnight. It was a long day, but a thoroughly enjoyable one.
Monday was hot again. I spent it on Praia beach, at the old Roman settlement. My technique with acrylic paint that dries in about 5 seconds flat was definitely improving. A small canvas, more boats, more rocks and another Martello tower, this time the one which is converted into a nightclub called the Afrikana Club. A very peaceful day, surrounded mostly by fishermen mending and painting their boats.
The weather next morning, Tuesday, was what in England we would call "iffy". It wasn't cold but there was a mist lying across the whole landscape so that the colours were muted and grey. The sky had blue patches but suspicious looking cloudy bits, so that it was hard to tell if it might or might not rain later.
I decided not to stray too far from the Casa Benvenuto, where I was staying, in case it rained, and as the light was very flat, without glare or deep shadows, I thought it would be a good day to draw the fantastic rock formation that I pass each day when I walk into Praiano village.
It's on a bend that goes round a deep cleft in the cliff called the Grotta di Diavolo. You emarge from a tunnel through the rock and to your left is the Devil's Grotto in a sheer sided inlet in the cliff; to your right is a huge formation of stalactites, like two enormous upturned crowns of thorns. Within the outer rings of spikes are inner rings, like teeth growing from the roof of huge open mouth. This is difficult to photograph without getting mown down by the traffic coming round the bend.
There's no pavement and little space at the sides of the bend when (as happens all the time in the holiday season) two buses are passing in opposite directions at once. I took my life in my hands, though, and installed myself. I had a morning of hooting traffic - not directed at me, but routine hooting as the drivers approached the tunnel and the Z bend.
I didn't finish the drawing because the sun came out at 11 o'clock and the light changed completely. For this drawing, in ink and white paint on a mid-toned paper, I needed consistent light. I thought I would be back there tomorrow morning. when the cliff was back in shadow.
So in the afternoon I perched on the wall at the other end of the tunnel and painted the beautiful view up the coast towards Amalfi. More hooting as cars and buses approached the tunnel. An Italian couple out for a day's outing stopped to photograph me and the painting so I asked them to take one on my camera too.
The painting is very high toned and I'm starting to worry that I shall run out of white acrylic paint . I'd forgotten how much is needed (even more than in oils) Perhaps I'll have to find out where the art suppliers' shops are in Naples before long.
On Wednesday it was too sunny to sit in the shade and draw rocks so I set off for Positano, intending to sit on the beach. While waiting for the bus, I had a pleasant chat with two German ladies who were newly arrived in Praiano. One of them said she had last been in Positano thirty years ago, when it was as quiet and unspoilt as Praiano. We agreed that it's probably the absence of a wide beach that saves Praiano from too much commercialisation.
Praiano is the only place where I don't mind hanging about for ages waiting for a bus. Unless I've got a plane to catch or it's pouring with rain, that is - and neither of those things was happening this morning. The sun was just exactly hot enough - not sweaty - I had nice people to talk to, and a stream of small incidents to look at.
The man who collects the litter with three donkeys, up and down the steps to the beach and above the road, came past and drove the poor creatures straight up the steps - they didn't hesitate, but I feared for their thin legs. (He carries a broom to clear up their litter behind them.)
Various small dogs came by, with and without their owners, and yelped in Italian dog language to each other. The old ladies across the road had a long conversation, about food (as usual.) The men stood in groups talking about cars (as usual).
Three cyclists came past waving (for a moment I feared another cycle race was following behind them, but they were just practising.)
When the bus came, the driver was one that I have seen in a furious temper before, but today he was friendly and patient when I put my ticket into the machine the wrong way up. It was one of those (good) days.
At Positano, I began to walk down the hill towards the beach, but I'd only gone a hundred yards down the hill when I found a perfect spot for a painting of the whole town, from the opposite direction from the one I had chosen last year. There was a wide pavement and I set up my easel and began.
Five hours later I was still there. The painting is only A3 size, but the view of the coast and the piled up houses is so complex that it needed a lot of concentration and an accurate drawing to begin with. The acrylic paint has to be applied in several layers if it is to work like oil paint, and I've complained before about the way it dries as I apply it.
Several people stopped to talk to me, including Debra from Vancouver who promised to write to me after we had been talking for a while. She doesn't use computers and I do hope I hear from her - getting "real" letters (or snail mail) is an old fashioned pleasure that I still enjoy. An American tourist asked me if I was selling my work. He was interested in paintings of the buildings, and I was surprised and pleased because painting buildings is something I enjoy but I thought seascapes would be more commercially successful.
At last I packed up and went on down the hill to the Buco di Bacca restaurant. It was late afternoon. Pasquale and Andrea were still painting on the beach and Domenico was watching his stall of prints and cards of his paintings. Pasquale's watercolours are very beautiful. He said he was selling well today and I wasn't surprised. He also told me where I might be able to buy white acrylic paint in Positano and offered to find a friend who ight be able to pass some on to me.
In the evening I went to the Internet cafe under the Buca di Bacca, wondering whether to splash out on a meal there or to go back to Praiano. There, at eight o'clock, I could buy a plate of chips or salad, a deep-fried veal or chicken cutlet and a bottle of Peroni from the "Oasi de Gusto" van that is parked and open every night at the Grotta di Diavolo. My apartment had a living room as well as a bedroom and bathroom, and most evenings I enjoyed using the place to the full, with a prosciutto and mozzarella roll, usually reading "Dune" (by Frank Herbert) which I had borrowed before I left.
The lovely weather continued in Italy as well as in England. On Thursday morning I decided to go into Positano again and to sit on the beach. I also wanted to see if I could get some more white paint. Connie at the Miniaci Gallery had said there was a shop near where I had stayed in March that kept some paints.
This time I waited for the bus at the stop nearest to the Casa Benvenuto, and got on a local Praiano - Positano bus, an orange one, as opposed to the blue or green Sita Amalfi - Sorrento one.
I found myself in the middle of a shouted conversation between the driver and two ladies of about my age, which to an English ear sounded more like the prelude to a fist fight but in fact was just three friends bantering with each other. Always courteous, one of them broke off mid-shout to fire a "Buon' giorno" in my direction and then continued her barrage of words without drawing breath.
Both ladies got off at a turning where the bus veered uphill in the centre of Priano and then the bus did what local buses tend to do everywhere - went on a tour of the entire village and arrived back at the stop where I had originally got on. This was fine, except that the traffic back into the centre was at a standstill.
We waited for ten minutes without moving, then the driver contacted the traffic warden who relayed back a message that there were five coaches trying to get past the parked cars that line both sides of the road through Praiano. Sure enough, one by one the five private buses came past us after who knows what fiendishly tricky manoeuvres had been accomplished round the corner in the village.
The rest of the journey was uneventful except for the normal near-misses as huge coaches, some with rear-view mirrors that stuck out in front like fighting bulls' horns, approached our puny bus at an unforgiving speed on the bends until the insistent hoots of our bus's horn made them pause for thought.
The shop in Positano only sold children's paints so I went on down to the beach. I wound down the hillside on the stepped streets, pausing at lovely views to take photos of the vistas of mountainside and sea and the pretty houses with wisteria and bourgainvillea beginning to come into full flower.
On the beach I found Pasquale and Domenico, who greeted me like an old friend. I had told Pasquale about my problem over running out of white acrylic paint, the day before, and he had said then that he would see if he could find someone who had some for me. (He is a watercolourist himself.) To my surprise and pleasure he had done that and I was able to buy a big pot of polymer titanium white from him. He would only accept 8 euros though it was a 10 euro pot, because it was open and some had been used. I promised to buy him a drink in return, and also to translate his flier into good English for him (he was aware that it needed doing).
I spent the rest of the day on the beach, near the sea, looking up at the heaped pink and yellow buildings, the green and yellow domed cathedral and the hunched crag that rises behind the town in an echo of its domes and arches. I was out of the way of most tourists, but there were a lot of families and young people on the beach.
At one point I was surrounded by students who were having a fine time on the beach - they were very considerate, refrained from having their water fight too close to where I was working and showed a genuine interest in my work until I had to tell them that I couldn't talk any more, I had to get on with the work. Another spectator was a charming lady from Oregon called Debbie, who was spending a few days in Italy while accompanying her son home from his French course in Switzerland. I didn't quite finish my painting before I went up the hill to catch the Sita bus back to Praiano.
Last night I had decided on the expensive option and had a delicious meal of gnocchi Minori style (with ricotta cheese mixed into the potato mixture) at the Ristorante del Pino, where Francesco takes a great pride in his cooking. He also serves honey with the cheese board - really delicious. It's the only independent restaurant in Praiano with a sea view on three of its sides. As I walked up the hill I wondered if the moon would be as beautiful tonight as it was last night - a thin sliver of light, lying on its back close to the horizon, while the sky near it glowed soft rose and peach colours. I resolved that tonight I should pick up a veal fillet and a bottle of Peroni from the Oasi del Gusto van at the Grotta del Diavolo.
Halfway through my holiday, and another seven days to enjoy - I felt very privileged to have such freedom. Part 2 of my diary will follow soon.
- Jan Windle
- Like a butterfly emerging painfully in several stages I've morphed a few times in my life, from art student to teacher, from rebellious confused twenty-something to faithful wife and well-meaning mother, from bored middle-aged art teacher to egocentric freethinking Italophile and painter. For the last few years I've been writing poetry and painting, drawing illustrations for my own work and other peoples's, and sharing as much of my time as possible with Donall Dempsey, the Irish poet who has owned my heart since I met him in 2008. We've spent working holidays together since then, writing, painting and enjoying ourselves and each other's company in a variety of places from New York to Bulgaria. We visit the Amalfi Coast in Italy every year, on a pilgrimage to the country that that I believe saved my life from sterility and pointlessness back in 2004. I'm looking forward to a happy and creative last third of life - at last I believe I've found the way to achieve that. I have paintings to sell on my website, www.janwindle.com, and books and prints at www.dempseyandwindle.co.uk. But I'll keep on writing and painting whether or not they find a market!