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AS WE WALKED UP the steep, winding roads of Italy’s Amalfi Coast a touch past midnight, my friend Lauren and I tucked close to the crumbling cliffside railing to dodge the speedy Fiats and Vespas that whizzed their way down the unlit hill. It was a familiar trek, and we were always salty and crisped from a day of swimming or kayaking or reading on the beach.
The late-summer trip had us staying in Italy for only four days. During the day we went exploring, getting lost in the backstreets of nearby hamlets, or simply stuck to the beach. Evenings called for night swimming, the moon playing spotlight. But the long weekend was quiet, loosely planned, relaxing — that is, we didn’t do all that much. And as an extrovert, there are few things more frustrating.
As far as vacation preferences, on a scale of one to Ibiza, I’m about a Mykonos — looking to discover restaurants and bars and make a friend or two while taking in the area’s beauty. Nothing horribly crazy, but a little more than staring into waves for four days.
The southern Italian towns of Sorrento and Ravello slid over to the other side of the spectrum, their utter calmness daunting. Sure, locals are talkative and trying to speak with them starts a fun game of “listen up for language cognates,” but the lack of a bustling city center or a variety of restaurants or bars makes for a lonely existence. It’s a beautiful vacation spot, but there’s no hiding that it’s dull.
As a young person, there’s a certain social cachet in exhilarating vacations. Whether you’re reading about it in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night or are there yourself, the South of France is the kind of place where holidays are never dull. Fitzgerald’s vision of the chic getaway, expressed through his increasingly complicated characters, Dick Diver and Rosemary Hoyt, shows the South of France as a hotspot of subtle social cues and hinted desires — a sexy, buzzing milieu.
At a friend’s apartment in Cagnes-sur-Mer last summer, a handful of close friends and I took a five-minute train ride over to Cannes most evenings. Between the well-tanned, Louis Vuitton-toting boardwalk fashionistas and the scene-y beachside restaurants and clubs they frequented, Cannes is a place to see and be seen. It’s a city built for Instagram “likes,” and when looking to induce travel envy there are few better places to holiday.
Yet often, it seems as if you’re constantly being played — that when vacationing in these popular cities, you’re paying almost solely for a vain, intangible privilege to show off.
You may not meet any homewrecking actresses like Rosemary or any too-good-to-be-true socialites like Dick on a “dull-cation.” But places like the Amalfi Coast at least let you put your guard down and truly relax. It’s tough to feel like you’re on holiday when you’re donning shiny shoes and a spiffy blazer every night, putting forward whatever image you’ve attempted to craft for yourself.
But should vacations be about feigning interest in a pretty woman’s summer reading list at a noisy club or snapping photos of parties?
Seemingly everyone, from the waiters to the boat captains to the maître d’hôtels, seemed relaxed in Italy, happy to just be in such a beautiful part of the world. I love the South of France and other socially buzzing destinations, but sometimes these places come at too high a price — you can’t actually relax, constantly wearing your veneer even thicker than usual (whether or not you realize you have one).
On our trip, we often came across Italians so at ease they deemed you innocent even after proving you guilty. If at first it was shocking to holiday in a place full of such chilled out, modest, genuinely kind human beings, my mind was changed by their humorously laissez-faire attitude.
On our second day in Italy, as we walked back from the beach to our hotel to eat dinner on the terrace, we spotted a placid infinity pool resting at the base of a nearby hotel. The hotel resembled a castle’s turret, and the pool held a panoramic view of Ravello’s beach-dotted coastline. It looked splendid. Fresh water, no crowds, and an elevated view. Non male.
Knowing it was a private pool, Lauren and I followed the piscina signs down the rocky steps, had a look around for a guard on duty, and cautiously dove in. After some swimming and poolside reading, a fit, middle-aged man clad in a white polo strolled confidently down the steps. He noticed us almost immediately and headed poolside to speak to us.
“Room number, please,” he asked earnestly.
I looked up, guilty. “Oh, we’re so sorry, is this a private pool?”
“Sì,” he replied.
“Oh sorry…we’re staying in a different hotel.”
“Please, do not feel bad. It is no problem.”
He smiled, apologetic for having had to ask us to leave his pool and his expensive hotel. Then he left. And we stayed in the pool a little longer.
The next day, at a different beach, we lay on the sunbeds placed right up against the water. We passed on the 15-euro ticket and spent nearly an hour before a beach boy came by asking us for our proof of payment. “Oh, we have to have a ticket?” I said. “Sì.” But then he waved his arm and left without another word, leaving us to lounge sans ticket.
Even later that evening, as we headed down to our hotel’s beach to swim beneath the stars and without the crowds, I locked eyes with the receptionist, my swimming shorts on and towel in hand. The beach had officially closed five hours prior, but she said nothing, flashing a smile before going back to her paperwork. (Quick comparison: On Long Beach in New York, there is a massive fence encircling the entirety of the beach, and everyone must pay the $25 entrance fee, entering only during official opening times.)
Traveling somewhere that’s void of pretension is worth far more than the few Instagram “likes” you might accrue elsewhere. “Dull” should not be equated with “bad” when traveling. I’m all for an exciting trip every so often, but taking a break from all the social jockeying, the see-and-be-seen circus, is worth far more than it’s given credit for.
On our last day on the Amalfi Coast, Lauren and I got lost hiking up to another village — our gelato long since melted. Tired from the long walk, we sat down on the stone steps.
On our left, through open window shutters, a young girl set the table for her family and called them to dinner by ringing a glass with a fork. We heard the family pulling out their wooden chairs to sit down, and we turned and looked out from the steps, realizing just how high we had walked. The Mediterranean slowly ebbed in the distance, and the colorful rooftops sprinkled the hill below us.
“What should we do now?” I asked
“Let’s just sit here for a moment,” Lauren replied.
And so we did.
We sat on the stones and listened to the ambient noise of Italian dinner conversation we didn’t understand and watched the deep blue water sitting calmly in the distance. That’s to say, we did nothing, joyously.