Montepertuso sits perched fifteen hundred steps above the glitter of Positano; a ramshackle village clinging to both the mountain side and its old time family traditions. Our landlord, Giacomo, offered to meet us at the only coffee shop in town; Cafe Pertuso. While we waited, we ordered drinks and talked with the server – a friendly, young woman more than happy to chat with her only customers. She explained, “There are two Giacomos here.” “There is the Giacomo who owns an apartment and the Giacomo who runs a bed and breakfast.” She stated this factually, leaving no chance for a third, as yet unknown, Giacomo to appear. We clarified that we were waiting for the apartment Giacomo.
Coming back and forth to our table, she shared her life in snatches; born in Montepertuso, educated in Salerno, working in the family cafe/pizzeria with her parents and three siblings. They owned a three bedroom B&B one floor above. And on the top level, they all lived together with her grandmother ensconced in a private quarters next door. We had barely finished our drinks when she ran back to our table and breathlessly announced, “Your Giacomo is arriving.”
Where were we? We had stumbled upon a 1950s time warp; a world where multi-generational families lived and died, worked and celebrated side by side with no obvious drama or indication that this was in any way unusual. Here, every single village member is accounted for and strangers are welcomed as friends. We hoisted our bags and set off behind Giacomo, down the hidden alleys behind the church.
Occasionally, we spied the deep blue sea and Positano well below us. We walked past faded terra cotta villas and polished wooden doors. At last, we arrived at our apartment, behind an iron gate and tucked into the corner of a small family compound. After dinner, I relaxed on our balcony sipping wine, spell bound as the sun slipped behind the distant island of Capri. After months of second guessing our Amalfi home base, Monterpertuso appeared everything I had hoped for.
We awoke Sunday morning to find a bowl of two eggs left on our kitchen window sill, a gift from our neighbor. I had warned Pat about the chickens when I booked the apartment after reading a few chicken references in the reviews. I hesitated before sending in our deposit, concerned about the type of apartment which allows a chicken coop (seriously, are there no zoning laws?). Somehow, chickens seemed such an inadequate description for these regal, deep rust colored birds which lived on our terrace. They clucked about the courtyard pecking under the lemon tree completely oblivious to their spectacular nest. Each morning, the crowing rooster (only audible from our kitchen!) reminded us that this village had somehow managed to pause time.
Finishing up our scrambled eggs, I noticed people parading past our courtyard carrying olive branches; some not much more than twigs, others entire saplings.“Pat, come quickly, Palm Sunday mass must be starting.” In the church courtyard, we found the entire village waiting with their olive branches and chocolates for the priest’s blessing. A congregant, noticing my empty hands, smiled and snapped off a piece of her olive branch and handed it to me. I smiled back and held my branch aloft just as the priest passed by. He walked back to the church to start the mass with most of the villagers behind him.
Yet many more waited outside; men in groups smoking and talking as they stared out over the hills, children playing ball under their mother’s watchful eyes.
A woman offered me a chocolate, which of course I accepted. She seemed surprisingly not jaded by a tourists invasion of their intensely religious celebration.
Our week in Montepertuso played out much as that first Sunday. We met a man selling freshly squeezed lemonade in the church square in the village above us, Nocelle. Pat showed him a photo he had taken earlier that morning of an elderly man who preened for the camera.
“Oh yes, that’s my uncle. He is 87 years old. Come, meet my grandfather. His farm is just below us. He is 92, you can hear him chopping wood.”
Pat became a bit of the village photographer, taking photos and collecting email addresses which we hope to successfully match. Yet, I’m not sure why we worry. I have no doubt each and every photo will make it to the proper recipient no matter where we send them.
As we hiked farther up the path from Nocelle, we met a farmer pulling garlic and other gardeners pruning and sprucing their plots for spring. A sign post of sorts, painted on a flower pot, denoted this as the “Path of the Gods”. We followed the trail for a few hours, as it snaked higher and higher above the coast, motivated by a “let’s just see what’s around this bend” sense of adventure. Eventually, we entered the village of Bomerano, large enough to contain a coffee shop, hotel, and restaurant. We ate a late lunch in a nearly empty restaurant.
I noticed our waitress eating, along with all the other restaurant staff, at a nearby table. Periodically, one or the other would jump up to take our order or clear away plates. When we finally pushed away, we decided to hike back to Montepertuso rather than deal with a network of delayed or cancelled buses – the off season schedule not nearly so dependable.
We ended our week dining on the square in Montepertuso the evening of Good Friday. During dinner, a church processional walked past the restaurant. As a sign of respect, the owner dimmed the lights and turned off the music. We stepped outside as the entire village re-enacted the last steps of the life of Christ.
One man carried a large, seemingly heavy cross over his shoulder surrounded by villagers holding flickering candles as the sole source of light – a haunting scene. When we returned to finish our meals, the hostess explained that her parents ran the kitchen, her sister baked the breads, and her son was our waiter. And while processionals would be enacted in every village throughout the region, the most moving would be in Sorrento where all the churches convene after midnight. She rubbed her arms, “It gives me —-..” she paused searching the right word. “Goosebumps”, I offered.
The next morning, as we jumped into our tiny Fiat to head back to Salerno, we reminisced about this remote village where families still live, work and pray together. I hadn’t anticipated such a place existed on the Amalfi coast and particularly so close to the buzz of the Dolce and Gabbana tourist crowd lurking below.
“Do you think you could live here for three months when I retire?”, I asked Pat.
“Honestly Julie, I think I could live here forever.”
And with that, Pat put the car in gear, and we set off down the mountain.
Make it happen:
Where to stay: We rented an apartment from VRBO – perfect for our needs. During April, we paid a bargain 350 euro for the week.
There are numerous, small family run bed and breakfasts both in Montepertuso and Nocelle – all of which looked warm and welcoming and most with killer views.
If you want a luxurious and expensive hotel or need to shop at Dolce and Gabbana, stay in Positano. Otherwise, I loved our choice of Montepertuso. Nocelle is also lovely but even higher up the mountainside.
Getting around: If I returned, I would visit in May or September and rely on the ferry to go between villages supplemented by buses. You can easily arrive by ferry from Naples. We rented a car from Hertz at the Salerno train station. This was very convenient, but not really necessary. You can also hire a driver, but at a premium cost.
Restaurants: We ate at several restaurants in Montepertuso which are some of the best rated restaurants in the area. To me, none of them were noteworthy. In hindsight, I wish I had shopped more at the very well stocked market in town and eaten on our balcony with the million dollar views.
And yes, we did return for a very good (and quite inexpensive) pizza at Cafe Pertuso.
Categories: Western Europe