Ca' P'a - Casa Privata
My grandparents came here on their honeymoon,’ I tell Mr Smith, ‘and they were married for 60 years. So something special must happen on the Amalfi…’ He pauses, then hurriedly points out an available taxi, over where a tiny figure in a white vest is waving his arms at us.
‘There’s Vesuvius to the left and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the right; that’s Sophia Loren’s villa,’ says Gennaro. He talks his way around every bend. Coughing and laughing at the same time, he also waves at every car we pass. As the taxi climbs the hill out of Sorrento, we stick our heads out of the windows and inhale tarmac and turf, lemons and waves. And that is it; our senses are perfectly primed for the feast of colour, sound and smell that will make up the next two days.
As a little Smith, I was an occasional tourist to the steeps of the Amalfi. I tell my other half how mozzarella came in plaits, not balls, and how the Neopolitans slurred their words, their gesticulations making up for missed syllables. I reminisce how all the best things to eat around here are green – the olives, the limes, the granita di menta and pistachio ice-cream. A vividness of colour is what you notice about this whole area: the lava-rich soils of the Sorrentine peninsula, nurtured by volcanic eruptions, have created an Eden of yucca, cacti and clementines. It’s a deep Perrier green, broken up by vertical splinters of white rock and zabaglione-coloured cottages tumbling from mountain down to sea.
Any sensible street-numbering system seems long forgotten this far from the main road. The steps down to the hotel are steep, passing between olive groves and high walls with doors and gates leading on to the houses beyond. The Amalfi Coast must breed muscular thighs.
We drop our bags dramatically in a sigh of sweaty relief; we’re at a high wall marked Casa Privata. The door slowly opens. I now have an idea how Livingstone must have felt when he pulled back the vines and saw Victoria Falls for the first time. Walled gardens and terraces lead from the house right down to the sea, and we hear workmen and a bonfire in the distance. Syrian oregano gives way to gilded rosemary – each plant has been marked with a copper plaque telling us what we are smelling. The drive had been stimulating, but the gardens of Casa Privata are something else.
True to its moniker, a spell at Casa Privata is like staying in a private house. The owners – Rosa, Max and Marie – spent childhood summers sailing around the peninsula, returning years later to this spot to restore a fisherman’s cottage. They carefully preserved frescoed vaulted ceilings, furnishing the six rooms with 18th-century maps and a cube of suitably themed books. Aptly called Cupola d’Oro, our room has a library of Egyptian antiquity and a bed set underneath a weathered yellow dome. It is beautiful, carefully curated (as with the rest of the house), and the sun streams through its huge windows in gilt slices.
Watches removed, we measure time by the iridescence of the sky and the direction of the breeze. Mr Smith takes off his top and smiles proudly at the sea, as if he’d made it himself. I do exactly the same, and we fall asleep on our sunlit terrace not knowing if it is afternoon, morning or evening.
An honesty bar in a corner of the downstairs sitting room means we tally up our glasses as we take photos of still-life compositions created from lemons and corks. We stop talking every 15 minutes or so, usually when the church bells ring to remind us that we are in Italy, and look up at an evening sky the colour of Campari.
A great energy hits you the second you wake up in Casa Privata, as if your senses need an instant fix. Encouraged by this – and a breakfast spread straight from a farmhouse fantasy – the next morning, in matching shorts and shirts (reminiscent of The Talented Mr Ripley), we hit the coastal road, ‘buying’ nearly half the romantically crumbling villas we pass along this stretch of the coast. We also spot a sign that reads ‘Beach: 362 steps’.
Adopting an expression that says,‘We both know where we’re going’, we soon find ourselves next to the sea, persuading a local fisherman to let us hire his boat. Because I am lazy, and because Mr Smith fancies himself as a pirate, he paddles us past caves and under stone cliff arches while I tell him why there is no seaweed on Mediterranean beaches and what the inside of a squid looks like, until eventually it is time to head back for dinner.
Striped grey benches have been arranged around a little pond. Between mouthfuls of monkfish and home-grown tomatoes cooked by the family, the evening lights of Positano reflected on the sea further along the coast, we ponder that soon we’ll have to reset our watches. We take one last walk around the gardens, squeezing each herb we walk past, trying to memorise every aroma and texture. Wishing I could take home a sample of everything we smell, I settle on some seeds for our London window box. At least we’ll have our own tiny plot of Praiano-on-Thames.
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Smith extra at Ca' P'a - Casa Privata
A bottle of limoncello and a brass keyring from a fishermen’s shop in Amalfi