In this blog, Roberta shares about her experience on Pleasures of the Amalfi Coast Women’s Retreat
High above the Amalfi coast, I look out on the Mediterranean Sea far below the craggy mountains swiftly descending to meet the blue water. This view from my room and balcony in Le Rocce hotel never fails to make me catch my breath as I stand mesmerized.
I left Montreux with music fans about to gather for the annual Jazz festival. (Estimated 200,000 fans over 16 days.) Europe’s trains make it easy to get around, and a friend of mine, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, just happened to be hosting a women’s gathering in Agerola, Italy, during that time.
The area around Agerola is called “small Switzerland” for its cultivated terraces stepping down the mountains. Pumice from the Vesuvius eruption of AD 79 holds moisture in the soil for the many small farms; every house has its own plot for harvesting vegetables each day of the long growing season. I don’t know anyone who would argue with me when I say that in Italy eating freshly prepared food in quantity daily is a cultural mandate.
The first official day of our women’s week the seven of us sat down to lunch in a small room just off our hotel pool for the following menu served as courses: deep fried stuffed zucchini flowers, salad, stuffed lamb rolls with a vegetable side, and a fresh fruit mixture for dessert. Crisp crust bread of course, and wine and sparkling mineral water were our beverages.
When we weren’t eating, we were learning about Agerola, the surrounding countryside, and its people. One of the famous locals is Paolo Avitabile, a soldier and mercenary in the early 19th century. He became a colonel in the Persian army, leaving after six years to make more money as a general in the Indian army. He became governor of a territory in Afghanistan in 1834, establishing order with ruthlessness and brutality, it’s reported. He made his fortune advancing money to the British to pay their troops in the British Anglo-Afghan wars. Having thereby transferred much of his wealth back to Europe, he quit his post to return to Agerola and build a castle. We toured the site of the castle high on a hilltop which Mussolini coveted a century later and leveled to build his own great building.
Coincidentally, as I was walking around one of the hamlets of Agerola, I stopped at a restaurant in the courtyard of the Palazzo Acampora. I talked with the manager who gave me a pamphlet about the Palazzo. It had the rest of the story about Paolo Avitable.
Returning to Agerola and building his castle, he also married his much younger and beautiful niece. She took as her lover, Luigi Acampora. One night General Avitable summoned a friend to tell him he was dying, exclaiming, “They have poisoned me!” referring to his wife and her lover. The lovers got away with it, married and chose the Palazzo Acampora as their residence. The locals want me to write a book about the general. The last and only book about him was written in Italian in 1909.
There is magic here in so many ways. One day we took a leisurely five hour hike to and through the Valle delle Ferriere, Valley of the Fairies State Nature Reserve. Stopping at a plunging waterfall, stripping to our bathing suits and cooling off, we thought we were in heaven. But heaven was up ahead. Following the stream, continuing to see aqueduct ruins, carefully crossing a tree trunk bridge, we were all stunned to silence as we entered an area with cascades of gentle waterfalls from different stream tributaries. The water flowed softly down the mountainsides in many places, looking like thousands of translucent threads. It felt like a holy place.
In another holy place, the church of Madonna of Loreto, we saw a newly discovered fresco by an unknown artist from about 1375. Part of the fresco is a scene of the Last Supper of Jesus, done at least 20 years before Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous version in Milan. The fresco was discovered while repairs were being made to earthquake loosened plaster covering it on a ceiling in the church. I’m working on the mystery of who the artist is. The church is among several beautiful churches in the Agerola area. But coincidentally, 475 years after the fresco was painted, the mausoleum of General Avitable was constructed in this same church.
Graziella Coccia, Debra’s cousin through their maternal line, was often with us as our local guide. She invited us to her home for a luncheon with some of her large extended family. We learned how to make gnocchi in her kitchen, then watched while her brother-in-law and her 84 year old mom made mozzarella cheese. Green beans freshly picked from their garden and Tiramisu made by her daughters, Angela and Bianca, were some of the other treats we savored. We all ate at a long table on their patio in the shade of their arbor of ripening kiwi. Graziella’s 82 year old father shared his homemade wine with us.
There is much more: a classical music performance of flute and piano in Ravello; an all day boat ride just for our party along the Amalfi coast, stopping to swim in caves; discovering the best pizza in Italy in Agerola (“Tony” has a trophy to prove it); getting to know my new women friends and being with Debra, my long-time friend; exploring other nearby sites; gelato and more gelato. From the “biologique” food served with pride and love to the open-hearted welcome of Ageroleans including our van drivers, my stay was a feast of the senses and spirit. Debra is planning more such trips if any of you women are interested.
Though I enjoyed it, spending the last two days in Florence was a bit of a come down only because there were so many tourists! But nothing can dim the splendor of the art and architecture of Florence. After the heat and crowds of Florence I was happy to get “home” to my little apartment in Montreux.