A LESSER KNOWN ROAD TO HEAVEN
Atrani is situated less than half a kilometre from the town of Amalfi. If you’ve travelled the coastline of the fabled Italian Riviera and did not stop at Atrani, it is likely you never even noticed it. You can hold your breath as you pass through; a single breath, and the town would have flashed past your windows in a hazy blur.
Unlike its famous neighbours, Atrani does not boast luxurious villas and lavish eateries. Its walls are not cascading with bougainvillea and shimmering tiles.
The town is a labyrinth of clumsy looking buildings, stacked awkwardly on top of one another whilst the town square lacks the colourful, repetitive storefronts of frilly beachwear and limoncello paraphernalia.
Instead, the square is generally inhabited by locals, old men bent over canes and smoking, sitting in one of the many chairs owned by the few cafes and restaurants. Local children emerge from the beach, skin shiny and slick, sitting down to enjoy a patatine fritte calde e salsiccia pizza (pizza with hot chips and sausage toppings). Old women gesticulate wildly in a way we seem to know as quintessentially Italiano.
People drink straight from the square’s fountain that spouts cool, fresh water into a pool of nervous goldfish.
In the evening young boys sporting their soccer gear kick a ball through the narrow main street, cheering and laughing as the girls sit by observing from the San Salvatore de Birecto steps. Their tanned skin and light eyes contrasting with the stark white of the stairs.
In the 1800’s a road was built across the top of the water shore buildings, enabling traffic to literally drive over the town. This unusual design more or less hides the town from the ocean whilst only a few archways offer views of the water.
It was this detail that struck me immediately- unlike other towns we'd visited along the Amalfi Coast, Atrani does not hero the ocean vista, there's little emphasis on the view at all, really.
Each morning we’d make our way down to the arches and scope out the beach. Our sandals would slap the cool stones as we walk through the tiny corridors; these small walkways always smelling faintly of washing powder and dampness as curtains of clothing would hang limply waiting for the midday heat.
We'd spend our days by the water or eating in the square at Minstrels, a family run restaurant. The two brothers would wait tables; they couldn't have looked more different-one tall and dark, the other short and blonde.
I’d order the mussels, their oily shells plastered with blobs of tomato and parsley with croutons poking through the mushy broth like brittle ships. Our heads would turn as the fragrant smell of freshly caught squid wafted across the square; we’d usually end up with a plate of them too.
Cameron visited the local fishmonger who only sold what they’d caught that morning. On this particular day, it was tuna and swordfish, which, according to Cameron, were filleted using a hacksaw with ‘surprising precision’. That evening we ate tuna steaks as wide as dinner plates and two inches thick.
By afternoon the merchants would resurface from their siestas, opening their store shutters like heavy eyelids.
Like so many of those who enjoy the novelty of foreign super markets, Cameron and I would spend far too long perusing the small convenience stores for hidden gems, much to the shop owner’s amusement.
Knowing what was in stock and what wasn’t could generally be deciphered by a casual toss of the hand and carefree nonchalance from the storeowners.
Recognising our mutual inability at the other’s language, the man behind the counter gently shooed us out the door when I didn’t have the correct change for the chunk of ricotta I wanted. “You pay tomorrow. Is OK,” he said, with a wave of his hand and a toothy grin.
That night I cooked baked ricotta and stewed peaches. We’d walked up the hill to the small family run fruit shop, pocketing the flat stone fruits into brown paper bags. The woman behind the counter laughed as I placed the produce in front of her-at the last moment quickly adding a bag of lollies to the ‘adult’ worthy mix of goods.
Almost every evening we’d walk up the hill to that fruit shop. Each time we’d pay, the young woman behind the counter would round down our total and add a handful of basil to our loot.
Our afternoons were spent on the concrete beach sipping on Birra Moretti and taking turns jumping into the ocean.
We’d chat with the other beach goers, many of who grew up in Atrani and were visiting their remaining families during the school holidays.
People would smile and ask about my shoes, a pair of sandals I’d made that featured an excessive amount of pompoms.
A Brazilian couple asked me to take a photo of them jumping into the water, they seemed only slightly disappointed when I said I couldn’t show them the picture on account of it being film.
Cameron and I would take turns with the pair of goggles we’d brought, duck diving below the rippling surface to check out the sea urchins and schools of curious fish. Most of the town would be down at the beach doing the same.
For five days our routines became daily rituals of salt water crystallising on skin; the smell of lemon, seawater and fresh squid; concrete pressing through our thin towels as we dozed by the water’s edge. People of all ages taking turns down the ladder or diving head first into the ocean; people chatting and laughing, smoking and drinking in the afternoon heat.
Cameron made friends with a group of Italian men who told us about the town and why they came back every year. One of the men had recently turned 71; he’d lived in the town his whole life. He was born in the apartment he currently lives in and has no intention of moving.
We all laughed as one of the men began taking photos of us all on his newly purchased smart phone, explaining that he’d just gotten Facebook, “and wasn’t it wonderful?” Somewhere on the Internet there’s a photo album with Cameron and I laughing with this group of Italians- I wish we’d gotten his name.
They said they were surprised to see Australians in Atrani, but that it was becoming more and more common for the tiny town.
They told us to meet them on the concrete beach this time next year, and the year after that, and the one after that. We all laughed, agreeing that Atrani is a long way from Australia. But it’s a trip worth taking; and as many times as our life can offer us, we will be coming back to this unassuming piece of heaven.