We have been on the Amalfi Coast (me – most strangely – without a camera: how did I do that?) in truly summery conditions and the lap of luxury. We were at the glorious hotel Le Sirenuse in Positano, for the birthday party of owner Antonio Sersale. But it wasn’t only indulgence and mondanità. We managed, as always, to squeeze in walking and taking things in. And there’s so much to take in down there.
The costiera needs to be done out of season. Or edge-of-season at least. Standing at the bus stop in Positano this morning waiting for transport to Sorrento and the Circumvesuviana train station was rather like standing in largo Argentina in Rome: deafening and smelly and full of bewildered people. Mind you, there’s no expanse of dazzling water hundreds of metres below in largo Argentina, and no bougainvillea or hibiscus flowers tumbling over walls either. But though that particular hub may have been chaotic, Positano itself was blissfully only mediumly hopping. As for the walk up to Nocelle, I think we saw four other souls the whole way.
You are so very much in another world down there, botanically speaking, and it’s an amazingly lush, tropical-feeling world where the vegetation shows no signs of anticipating cold on its way. The only sign that someone is thinking that winter may eventually come is given by the lemon-growers… which effectively means just about everyone on the coast because there are so few people who don’t have a clump of trees in their little terraced patch of land clinging to the steep rocky terrain. Each patch – small if it’s for household needs, larger for commercial growers – is transformed into a cage of tall upright chestnut poles, with horizontals attached pole-to-pole just high enough up to allow covers – reed mats or green plastic woven fabric – to be dragged across to cover the tree tops when temperatures plummet and the salt wind off the Mediterrean turns so cold that it would burn the plants. That way the trees are fruit-laden and productive year-round. In newer orchards, or orchards with ambitions, the uprights jut out far higher than the crossbars, which can then be moved upwards gradually as the trees grow.
On this Golfo Salernitano side of the Sorrento headland the lemons produced are the rather elongated, paler Sfusato di Amalfi variety (back around on the Bay of Naples side the Limone – or Ovale – di Sorrento variety is plumper and a brighter yellow). From time to time, even at this unlikely point of the year, the sweet smell of lemon blossom would waft up from some orchard below, or through a high metal gate.
And lemon wasn’t the only thing surprising us with its flowers. I’m not sure, for example, that I have ever associated Chorisia speciosa (which, I see, we are now meant to call Ceiba speciosa) with flowers of any kind, yet the funny spiky-lumpy, green-trunked, bottle-shaped trees were full of big exotic-looking blooms – a little hibiscus-y though something about them suggested that if I had been able to reach up high enough to touch one of them, it might be almost waxy in consistency. I wonder if this is normal, or another monstrosity thrown up by this extraordinary late summer/autumn, like the huge, gorgeous, double flowers I saw on a pomegranate bush on the Fonterutoli wine estate in Chianti a couple of weekends ago – or, indeed, like the rather pathetic little pomegranate blooms I found the other day on the twiggy dwarf pomegranate which manages somehow to survive in that abandoned garden of mine over by the barbecue. I also have Felicia roses outside the front door completely laden with buds. And a couple of flowers on my Chaenomeles speciosa.