On the Trail of Sophia Loren on 9/11
A romantic writing trip changed my priorities when tragedy hit
When 9/11 went down I was on a bus with a bunch of hacks on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, intent on plundering the region’s vast limoncello supplies. Not me but them — I was racking up 12 years of sobriety by this point and had my eyes fixed on a voluptuous Italian siren.
Sophia Loren wasn’t the only S-shape around this part of the world, where the writer DH Lawrence had holed up for a time. The coastline did a pretty damn good job all on its own.
Cape Palinuro, where the doyenne of 50s’ chic was courted by Carlo Ponti, is not a bad place for indulgence, especially when someone else is paying. But I never did like fellow journos who eyed me with a suspicion that suggested treachery on my part when I passed on the yellow liquor, as if I was letting the side down.
Even the Italians looked at me with suspicion, like cannibals sussing a vegan. I thought they were going to eat me, but had then thought better of it.
Back in those days, if I ever told people what I did, I was greeted with common assumptions. Everyone wants to write travel and, of course, held it high in their estimations, along with Hollywood, celebrity and anything that glittered.
I had long learned that trying to impart the reality: most hacks are ignorant, drink too much and, occasionally, smell — not something you want at the back of the bus — was hopeless.
Civilians just couldn’t make the required leap.
Trips financed by local tourist boards sound good but the reality translates the fantasy into a rude truth.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, and limoncello for breakfast and seven obligatory courses for lunch and dinner I’m sure sounds great.
But when you are stuffed to the gills with food, then have to contend with a stuffed itinerary of cathedrals and castles — the high spots of the region for some — you occasionally want to break out, lie alone in a field and scream.
There can be too much of a good thing. Which then morphs into a bad thing.
In fact, I think I made two trips to the region, looking at the bunch of stuff I wrote, but you never do forget where you were on that fateful day.
At some point, I was at a buffalo mozzarella factory, distracted by Vesuvius, which lay — mercifully dormant — across a vista studded by those sleek ‘air-brushed’ Italian conifers you only see in pictures.
Alberto is in a white cap and coat plunging a plastic hand into the doughy cheese, emerging with something the size of a meatball.
Outside, he introduced me to the buffaloes.
‘Dis one,’ he says ‘is Maria’.
‘Oh, you give them names?’
‘Yes, they are all named after divas,’ he says, smiling proudly.
‘So, who’s Maria?’
‘This is Maria Grazia Cucinotta.’
He beams, waiting expectantly, as if I should know who she is.
It’s my second hospitality-based faux pas.
The planes haven’t hit yet and things are picking up. Maybe I would find Sophia after all.
But she’s not here , or if she is they can’t find her, each buffalo a crooner bearing milk, entertaining visitors.
Later, as I venture a look online at the real Maria, Sophia suddenly has a contender for my affections. Maria’s just a few years younger than me and I figure — in one of many fantasies aboard the bus — I could be in with a chance.
As well as a lot of buffaloes and their produce, there’s also, being a coastline, a lot of fish to eat. At The King’s Residence hotel, the other regional delicacy is rolled out.
‘Once you start with fish here, you stay with fish,’ says Serena, one of our hosts. The blue fish is subsequently fried, diced, stuffed and pickled. I pictured its soul — if fish have souls — sitting delighted somewhere like a happy organ donor.
It’s the sort of overkill which pleasing hosts do so well.
If only they wouldn’t grin at you waiting for applause as if they’d just thrown mackerel at a seal.
Three hours later in Padula at Hotel Certosa there’s fried zucchini, grilled provola, prosciutto, cockerel, cavatelli — a tight, dense pasta — chips and apple tart.
God help me!
As always, on my travels I seem to bump into John Steinbeck, who wrote about the famous Amalfi coast road and lived nearby for a time at Positano. But finally, there is evidence of Sophia, the white villa that gilded her romance shimmering in the middle distance.
But it belonged to Ponti’s wife who, incensed by her husband’s affair with the starlet, sold it on condition it would not be resold for another 50 years. One can’t help thinking she was more in favour of a gelding than a gilding for her husband who had to get a Mexican divorce, as you couldn’t get divorced in Italy back then.
At Ravello, high in the hills, DH Lawrence, the Nottinghamshire miner’s son penned his controversial erotic classic Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Greta Garbo came here, Susan Sarandon and Sting were known to visit, although presumably not together.
The place positively reeked of romance.
Then the unthinkable, the inconceivable happened and any thought of love was steamrollered out of existence.
First reports came through on the radio on the bus. Soon we piled into the porters’ office in a small hotel and watched events unfold on a miniature TV.
All distinctions of class or role vanished as we became one big family in a quick-fire bonding that signaled the end of our trip and the start of a new, more dangerous world.
We wondered if and when we would get home.
Suddenly, the merits and deficits of five-star treatment cancelled one another out. Nothing seemed to matter, my disdain disappearing in the ash of the towers, like so many lives, hopes and dreams.
I haven’t returned to Italy since and went on only one more press trip, that one to Estonia.
I still travel, of course, but with a watchful eye no longer telescoped on luscious Italian women, at least not as my priority.
If you get the chance to go to Amalfi take it. It’s unlikely that lightning will strike twice and if it does, it’s unlikely to be here.
© Simon Heathcote 2019
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