By Janis Turk
From the patio of the Hotel Monastero Santa Rosa in Conca dei Marini, Italy, I watch the sun set over steep terraced hillsides that trip down to the sea; land canopied by bright green leaves of lemon groves, their tart yellow fruit the size of ostrich eggs, adorning the Gulf of Salerno along the Amalfi Coast.
As I gaze at the water, the color of the sky reminds me of something my husband once learned as a pilot: When the air temperature and the dew point are within five degrees of one another, fog forms; and even the most seasoned navigator can lose his way.
I remember this because, in this moment when the sunset reaches its denouement and light leaves the coastal sky, its colors become fluid, mercurial, and soon the sky and the sea come within a few slight degrees of color gradation of each another. In that instant, it becomes impossible to distinguish where the heavens end and the sea begins, and I am utterly lost, in a fog, unable to navigate this glad “geography of bliss.” In the shadow of Amalfi’s Lattari Mountains, the water and sky continue to commingle until at last they merge as a single ebony expanse.
It is October, and while it’s still warm here, already the coastline has begun shuttering itself in preparation for the end of the season. In a week, cruise ships will leave the coastline and local taxi drivers and old men will return to the cafes.
The hotel, once a 17th-century monastery complete with a bell tower and arched walls the color of parchment, clings to the high cliff 984 feet above the sea, and the multi-level structure offers views of water and lemon groves and colorful Italian villages precariously perched above the water on the hills. A slender road hugs the mountain, so narrow that I pray each time a bus passes a car.
By day, the hotel seems to bake in the sun like a white loaf of bread. When seen from a boat on the sea, arches in the rock-face of the cliff below the hotel look like oversized pizza ovens. I notice this when I pass on a ferry boat to the nearby village of Positano. After dark, the hotel landscape lights come on, washing the building’s ancient face in cool linen white like a welcome lighthouse.
I wonder if I would still adore the Amalfi Coast as much, with all its little pastel-colored buildings cobbled into the cliff face, its huddled masses hugging the craggy Mediterranean coastline, if I weren’t staying in such a luxurious hotel. I like to think I would.
But I am a vagabond and homebody in equal measure, and when I am on the road, I appreciate clean comfortable lodging. I enjoy a quiet respite from the bustle and noise of the streets after a long dusty day of bartering in marketplaces and walking more miles than I ever would at home.
Upon arrival at the five-star Hotel Monastero, the staff greets me with smiles, tea with lemon and lavender, and cool washcloths for my face and hands. I have been traveling for weeks, and immediately the hotel feels like a long-lost friend.
There is a luxury in solitude, in quiet spaces with cool stone walls and views of water. There is extravagance in the scent of lemons on the wind. There is rest in sea and sun and breezes and rooms with king-sized beds and freshly ironed linens. There is comfort in heated, putty-colored terrazzo bathroom floors; plush robes and slippers; and deep tubs with salts for soaking. There is rejuvenation in strong shower pressure. There is joy in Italian arias that greet guests on TV stereos as they enter their rooms after a long day of rambling up and down skinny streets and steeps steps leading to sunny piazzas.
At Monastero Santa Rosa, as I walk the arched hallway back to my room, I sense that I am being cocooned in the myriad prayers of all the nuns who centuries before had lived here. I think of how these rooms had once been their austere cells, and I imagine for a moment that I can hear their lonely petitions to a merciful God. Still, I don’t feel lonely at all.
The hotel was carved from the good bones of an original 1681 structure whose restoration and rebirth as a boutique hotel took 7+ years of work, permits and patience on the part of its owner, American Bianca Sharma—no small feat considering the Amalfi Coast is a protected UNESCO World Heritage site. The elegant inn features 20 sea-view rooms, a world-class restaurant under the direction of Chef Christoph Bob, a full-service spa, a bar and wine cellar and an infinity edge pool that seems to melt into the Mediterranean. The hotel is tasteful, understated and quiet.
Before the shuttle takes me down the road to the little village of Amalfi where I hope to take a boat to Capri, I take a walk with Chef Bob through his hillside garden overlooking the hotel and the sea. We eat raspberries and tiny strawberries from the vines, hold ripe purple eggplants in our hands and shove our noses into bouquets of fresh basil as he tells me of the handmade pumpkin and sage ravioli he has in mind for my supper.
The season is coming to a close on the Coast, says Chef. We stand in the garden, sensing this in the now-misty wind. Down in the village of Amalfi, my ferry to Capri is cancelled due to choppy waters. Very soon Monastero Santa Rosa and most shops and restaurants along the Coast will close until spring. I am lucky to have been one of its last guests this year.
Chef says any fruit he doesn’t use this week will be left on the vines for the winter, perhaps first feeding little foxes and birds, and then feeding the earth. A day, a night, a season will pass. The earth, sea, wind and sky will conspire once more.
And again I am lost in a little fog of joy.
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