“It would take Sandy and I five minutes to get up to the village,” says Jaya, “but with you along we’ll take ten.” They are walkers, I am not. They walk up and down mountains for the pleasure of it; I don’t. I am not lame, however, and I want to wander around Retignano, so I climb down those endless treacherous stone steps from Jaya’s house and follow them out the goat path (the one Jaya drives her slender Opal on as I cringe in terror), out to the road. We mount the road as it winds around and around and when more than a half hour has passed, I ask Jaya, “What happened to ten minutes?”
“Oh, I took a detour where those construction guys were working. So it’s kind a loop, instead of a straight line."
We stop so I can take a photo of my friends in front of a house decorated with bourganvillia.
We get up into town. It is not a very old village as Italian villages go or very high (340 meters). The church, for example, was only built in 1868, but it is beautiful and charming. The streets are narrow and steep and the houses are shaped to fit where they can. At the very top I part from them, as I head downward through the alleys back to the road and they go off to another peak where there is an unused quarry – always a gorgeous, magical sight.
When I get back to those stone steps, now heading upwards to Jaya’s house, I am glad that I didn’t go any further with them. It has turned humid, a cloud has settled on our house and terraces, and I am sweating heavily as I mount the awkward, uneven steps – too far apart for comfort, full of moss that becomes slippery in this fog, difficult to navigate in a state of exhaustion. I finally make it to the door and turn around to look at the view to the Mediterranean. How utterly exquisite.
Another day Sandy and Jaya and I finally visit the Mediterranean, after stopping at a gallery for a friend’s show on the way. Even though I can see it from the mountain, I haven’t been close to the water. The wind is howling and the sand is blowing away from the shore at knee-height as a kind of echo of the waves. The usually placid Med is roiling and rocking, churning from the wind. There are three wind surfers who are going back and forth and back and forth at breakneck speeds and I worry that their parachutes will get entangled, but they don’t.
We head for the seaside resort town of Pietra Santa for a coffee (me) and drinks (them), after waiting endlessly in line at the post office for some dull postcard stamps. "This is Italy," my girlfriends remind me. We stroll among the 13th century churches and tarted up shops to the Chiesa della Misericordia, a church made famous by the murals painted by the Colombian master Fernando Botero in 1993 to tremendous controversy. All of Botero’s figures are fat people, including for these frescos of “Inferno” and “Paradiso” that face each other. We talk about how often the Catholic Church, so reactionary on so many levels, has been the patron of magnificent art.
That evening, before dark, we drive up mountains to the incredibly high and ancient village of Pruno (1,858 meters). The village church, San Niccolò, was built in 11th century. The homes are all very old stone, but beautifully kept. It is a stormy night and the wind is knocking us around the cobbled paths, from one magic structure to the next. All of these villages now build parking lots at various levels, and then the residents make their way from there to their remarkable homes from the Middle Ages or the 18th century or whenever someone decided to perch life on this peak.
Our goal, besides seeing this extraordinary place, is to dine at the restaurant il Poveromo, but we are early by one hour at 7:00 and instead of waiting at the bar with the loud local men, we explore some more, finding the children’s playground and some modernized houses. The skies open and we rush back just in time to avoid a drenching and the lovely waitress devotes herself entirely to us until a second table of customers arrives. We eat ravioli stuffed with white cheese and doused in a walnut cream sauce; sliced raw mushrooms with shredded vegetables; short ribs; steak smothered in bacon fat and sitting on a bed of roasted potatoes and onions.
Bloated and satiated, we start down the long winding road, as the song says, back to the valley in order to climb back up another mountain to home.