I can think of only a few things in life that we have absolutely no control over. I’m sure there must be many more but there are only three that come to mind immediately. No matter what we do we can’t control who our parents are, what sex we are or where we are born.
Our parents give us our genetic makeup, for better or worse, and have a lot to do with the development of our personalities. For most people, some of the strongest love we experience is from our parents and we return it wholeheartedly. Of course, that is not true for all but because we share so many common characteristics we probably find that our similarities will, at the minimum, allow us to accept our parents at some point.
For some, our sex is something much more complicated. There are great advantages to both genders and probably a couple of downfalls to each. Most people find that the advantages of their sex outweigh the negatives and they learn to accept themselves as they were born. Many others struggle with their gender, but thankfully the world is adapting and finally becoming more comfortable with allowing people to determine their own destiny.
Where we are born is completely random and based upon where our mother happens to reside when we make our first appearance. If you grow up in the area you are born, most will make friends, attend school and establish bonds that are intrinsically linked to their birthplace. They may learn to love the landscape, weather and local lifestyle. For others, it may not be so easy. As much as they try, they never become comfortable with their surroundings. The concept of home is never realized.
Of course one of humankind’s greatest motivators is the desire to fit into a group. These people who weren’t lucky enough to be born where they were meant to live will eventually begin the search to find a place where they fit. A place to call home. For some, the journey may be a short move to a nearby city. Others may have a long journey. Some may find it takes many moves and many years to find a place where they feel comfortable enough to call home.
We have spent the last 8 years traveling the world. While we have enjoyed nearly everywhere we have traveled only a few destinations have really given us a sense of home. These places have a special attraction and an undefinable quality that make us feel relaxed and comfortable enough to feel like we belong. Even if we possess minimal language skills and know no one who could qualify as a family, we still feel we fit in.
Italy is such a place for us. We have spent a total of six months in the country and continue to be amazed by each destination. Whether it was a tiny island in the Bay of Naples, a grand piazza in Rome, the history-filled canals of Venice, the beautiful hills of Tuscany or the tiny villages of the Cinque Terre region we immediately became enchanted by the magic qualities we found in each. Whether it was the landscape, architecture, style or just some unexplainable quality we never seem to be uncomfortable in this country.
One part of Italy we wanted to spend time in and had not is the Amalfi Coast. Thoughts of the tiny picturesque towns precariously perched over a crystal blue sea have invaded our travel dreams for many years. After a couple of months of aggressive travel in difficult places, the thought of a month in the uncrowded late winter/early spring days of southern Italy sounded wonderful.
After a one night stopover in Abu Dhabi, we arrived at the Rome airport the next afternoon. A beautiful and speedy train ride south through the shadows of Mt. Vesuvius brought us to Salerno, the southern gateway to the Amalfi Coast. Salerno lends its name to the bay along which the Amalfi Coast sits. The most famous part of the coast begins just north of town and is reached via a precarious road of a thousand turns. The road hugs the jagged cliffs that rise from the sea and snakes its way across bridges and through tunnels as it connects the tiny towns along the way.
The road is an engineering marvel of its time and its builders must have risked life and limb to construct it. It has freed the people of the coast from the island-like existence they lived prior to the road being built. It is narrow and slow and even in these cool winter months before the tourists arrive it can be occasionally treacherous. The driving here is best left to people who understand the nuances and unwritten rules of the road. Luckily buses run fairly frequently and these would provide us with the least expensive and most scenic way to travel the coast during our visit.
We found our home in the village of Maiori on the ground floor of an attractive apartment house across the road from the beach. The building had a design that said “swinging ’60s” and was probably constructed sometime not long after jet age intercontinental travel became the rage. Maiori has the biggest strand of beach on the coast and is packed with summer beachgoers during the season. However, we found the pebbly beach deserted. The boardwalk promenade sprung to life daily with strolling locals out to catch the afternoon sun. Both young and old made full use of the warmth to shake off the winter doldrums of the previous few months and enjoy the last few days before tourist season begins again.
High winds, pounding rains and rough seas occasionally reminded us that winter was still very much alive. One day we were even surprised to see snowflakes outside our window. However, while we rarely went out without plenty of layers, the weather generally allowed us to be outside daily.
We filled our days with journeys to the towns that dot the coast. Each town seemed to have a character of its own that might not be apparent to visitors on shorter stays. Many of the tourist-oriented businesses were not open or had limited hours. Ferries rarely ran. Restaurants had shorter hours and limited menus. Outdoor cafes only had a few chairs available. No umbrellas marked territory on the beach. While some might find this time of year less than ideal, we find that having the squares, narrow streets and scenic views to ourselves easily makes up for anything we may be missing.
High on a mountaintop with commanding views up and down the coast sits Ravello, a village we visited several times. Filled with 5-star hotels, tiny piazzas, beautiful churches, winding alleys, grand villas and tiny parks, Ravello might be the most exclusive village on the coast. Famed for its music festival and an impressive roster of resident musicians, writers and artists Ravello oozes class at every turn. We toured Villa Rufolo with its stunning views and 13th-century architecture. We found warmth and beauty inside the church on the main square on a windy afternoon. We found locations used by John Ford, Gina Lollabridgida and Humphrey Bogart when they filmed a movie here.
Everyone loves Positano, which enjoys perhaps the most beautiful setting of any of the coastal villages. The colorful houses of the town rise steeply from the church that sits next to the modest size beach. The hills are so steep that only a couple of roads have been carved for automobile traffic. People transit the town on the narrow alleyways and steep staircases that pass expensive restaurants, classy boutiques and fine hotels. Workers still use donkeys to carry heavy loads as they make preparations for the upcoming arrival of international visitors. From almost anywhere in town the views are stupendous especially as the sun is setting and the lights of the village come up.
Amalfi itself is the touristic hub of the coast. Ferries to the island of Capri run from here and it serves as the hub for all bus traffic on the coast. The church on the main square is the most ornate on the coast. The beach is beautiful and the piers give the best perspective to view the dramatic setting of the town. Classic beachside hotels and restaurants line the wide pedestrian walkway that separates the beach from the town. From the pier, you can see the terraced mountains that limit the size of the town. This time of year the terraces are covered with bright yellow lemon trees and two monasteries are visible perched high on the stunning mountains that frame the town.
One of the more photogenic spots is just through the tunnel from Amalfi. Atrani is tiny but looks gorgeous from nearly every angle and viewpoint. From the nice beach, you pass through the giant arches of the roadway to enter the towns main square. Smaller than the squares in other towns, it feels intimate and on quiet sunny days became one of our favorites.
Over our month we became familiar with each town and spent nice afternoons wandering many others. Cetara, Minori, Praiano and Vietri all offered scenic views of lemon filled rock terraces, perfectly positioned churches and stunning vistas of land and sea.
Towards the end of our trip, we ventured further north to Sorrento. The incredible scenery made the two-hour bus ride well worth the effort. North from Positano, the road passes over the towering mountains of the peninsula that separates the Gulf of Salerno from the Gulf of Naples where Sorrento is located. Views of Vesuvius and Pompeii are amazing and Naples is easily visible in the distance. Sorrento itself is a bustling city that seemed especially active after the relative quiet we had enjoyed on the Amalfi Coast. We loved walking through the Old Town area and touring the wonderful churches of the city. Viewpoints from the parks that overlook the marinas were especially grand.
If a person travels enough, they will no doubt find places that they repeatedly visit. In some cases, it may just be a coincidence. Perhaps the location is a common hub that must be passed through to reach other destinations in the area. Others are not a coincidence at all. They are places we feel connected to in some way, even if we have never been there before. They make us feel comfortable, entertained and in the best sense, home. Italy has been that for us. Not our actual home but for the short time we have had the privilege to spend there, we have always enjoyed pretending that it is.