Some travel experiences are special.
Our time in a tiny southern Italian mountain village was certainly one of them.
As the road winds up from the Bay of Naples through Italy’s Lattari Mountains, it passes through a wonderland: a place that magnifies much that has been lost to the world.
Before reaching the tourist bustle of the Amalfi Coast, there are small mountain communities where traditional Italian customs have changed little over decades and long-held values are obviously cherished.
In the few days we spent as honoured guests in the village of Paterno Sant Ancangelo, we marvelled again and again at the simple life in the mountains and its many imperfections that, together, seem to bring perfection.
We revelled in a village where few vehicles moved on the ancient streets; where little noise disrupted the stillness of the mountains; where people gathered for siesta under shady lemon trees; where the only store operated to ‘Italian time’; where households often raise goats, sheep and chickens – and grow much of their fruit and vegetables; and where there is minimal contact with the outside world of petty arguments and politics.
We walked lonely mountain paths with solid stone steps; drank home-made red wine and limoncello; watched awe-inspiring sunsets; and felt awkward because the entire village spoke only Italian, with a local dialect.
Thanks largely to our hosts Gert and Annette – who has a traditional Italian villa in the mountains – we were accepted warmly into the community and, in our few days, grew to understand and appreciate its sincerity, warmth and family values.
We watched the community come together to celebrate a Christening; saw the people pulling together to get the grapes off the vines; watched the old women trudging along roads to collect chestnuts and mushrooms; and admired the way their faith and community spirit intertwined practically.
On September 29, we were privileged to participate in one of the most important days on the local calendar – the feastday of St Michael the Archangel, patron saint of the village,
Holding aloft a statue of St Michael, and accompanied by a brass band, we walked through the narrow streets, which villagers had decorated with coloured paper and lanterns.
At certain points on the procession, the parish priest stopped to offer prayers for the prosperity and safety of the village and its people, before the valley erupted into a crescendo of church bells and fireworks displays. It was the loudest noise we heard in our time in the area.
Amidst it all, however, you couldn’t help but wonder how much longer these villages could remain largely untouched – and whether the influence of travellers like us was helpful or not.
As you move closer to the Amalfi Coast, the impact of big tourism – both positive and negative – is increasingly apparent.
For example, at nearby Ravello, the stunning coastal scenery seems to have forged an industry in wedding tourism.
On one hand, this continues to produce new jobs and secure income, greatly welcomed, it seems, by the bulk of the community.
But, for traditionalists, the face of the Italian town has also changed forever. We watched hordes of tourist buses battle for space on roads that were probably designed for mules – and parking space in the town is at a premium.
For now though, it’s possible to experience both sides of Italy – the traditional communities with their endearing customs and the Italy of the tourist books and travel agents.
As well as Ravello, we journeyed to the popular coastal centres of Maiori and Atrani where the coastal road is lifted on arches right in front of the village.
And we walked down a gruelling 1,500 stone steps carved into the mountains to reach the coastal resort town of Amalfi, for dinner and a few beers by the seaside.
But, in the village itself we found wonderful moments: sitting under the lemon trees watching the sun on the mountains; trying to communicate at the village store (on her first attempt, Sue stunned the storekeeper by ordering a kilo of dog meat); listening to the chatter of children and the sound of church bells echo around the valley; watching the grapes being carted from the fields; struggling with steep stairs; and drinking limoncello around the table each evening.
Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines.