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Tales from La Terrazza: Part One December 27, 1998

Nancy Lytle

The Escape

For nearly two years, I planned and finally executed my departure from San Francisco to a new adventure. My move was made last June --- the Haight Ashbury to Sorrento. Why Sorrento? Well, previous to the move, my Italian friends were all in the center and north of Italy, where I usually traveled and hung out. They were mortified when I decided to live in Sorrento. "It's the mezzogiorno!" they said disparagingly. "No one will come to visit you," they said with pity.

Nonetheless, I had found the Sorrentina Peninsula to be simpatica for me; I loved the lush vegetation, the sea, the balmy climate. I also decided that I wanted to live in an urban setting, not in a casale in the countryside of -- say -- Toscana or Umbria, although I looked at places there. Sorrento is definitely not rural. As many of you know, it's actually chock-full of people, cars, scooters, touristy stuff, etc. I was kind of used to that from living in the center of San Francisco for twenty years, so...

I used the internet to find the Sorrento home page. From that resource I found a fax number and sent a request for a listing of long-term rentals. Within six days, I received in the mail (!) a list of 25 names and phone numbers. This was a good sign, I thought --- the mail works down there. I asked a very kind friend in Italy to make the phone calls. She telephoned each person on the list with my criteria in mind: six month to one year rental, furnished, up to $1,000 a month including utilities, comfortable enough for one person, a parking space, OK for having a cat --- with a fantastic view terrace. My friend came up with two Sorrento area possibilities and I flew to Italy in February to look at them. I rented the second one. Oh yes.

My apartment is a shabbily charming affair; three little (but very tall) white rooms with big windows, plus a bathroom hardly bigger than the bath mat on the floor. It is in La Terrazza, an old, grandly-faded villa that is a pastiche of yellow and white stripes, three orders of pilasters and wedding cake folderol decoration, balconies and pergolas, sitting on the cliff overlooking the Bay of Naples and Vesuvio. Specifically, it's in the center of Sorrento above the Marina Piccola.

The bedroom window and the terrace door of my little apartment open onto a view that still makes my heart take a leap each morning. Outside of my door is a raised terrace about 25 by 25 feet with white marble eagles and urns perched on the stone balustrades. Wide stairs lead down to the grand, immense, huge, white-tiled, fantastic cliff terrace of the original villa. My particular apartment's official entrance is an ornate gate under an arbor of jasmine at the far end. There is a three-story tall umbrella pine in the center, with (I swear) nightingales living in it. I hear the birds at night, at least in the summer. Allora, this is a terrace of one's dreams.

The Story of the Villa As I Currently Think I Grasp It

La Terrazza was built by a very rich man just before the start of the 20th century, after his yacht sailed one day into the south side of the bay of Naples. He was impressed with the then-rustic beauty of the area and bought an old farm with orchards on the cliff. Supposedly the small original dwelling was incorporated into the new villa. The "Baron" returned to Sorrento for many winter seasons, joined by friends who also built grand villas. His German-Russian family line eventually joined with an old, noble Neapolitan clan whose descendents still co-own the property.

For about thirty years, beginning sometime during the years of the Great War, La Terrazza was turned into another of the grand hotels on the cliffs of Sorrento. The villa passed down to my landlord's grandfather, who ended the "Hotel" adventure and spent the rest of his life and fortune maintaining the property as a single residence. After his death in the 1970s, the villa was divided in its plan and there are, today, ten condominiums in La Terrazza, all owned by various members of the old Naples family. None of the family owners live here except my landlord, a young guy who has adored the villa since he was a kid visiting grandpapa.

In Good Company

If you have seen "Tales of the City", a BBC/PBS mini-series (and book by Amisted Maupin) about a particular (and peculiar) fictional apartment house in San Francisco, you may be able to better relate to the next part of this story. Almost all of the apartments at La Terrazza are rented, very long-term, to Italian people who I am just getting to know. One mutual avocation among the tenants is to call the police on my landlord every time he constructs, repairs, installs, or otherwise tries to change anything on the exterior, i.e. anything they can see from their windows, balconies, loggias or terrazze. One day last week, the town police were here twice to inspect a suspected activity. Reports were filed. Life goes on.

I do have two American neighbors, a dynamite retired couple, who have lived here for eight years. They live two floors below me in a vast, vaulted apartment that is actually part of the cliff and used to be the laundry-drying rooms of the villa. They have a poodle that bounces four feet up into the air when he is about to go out. There is a mysterious woman who lives on the top floor, the whole top floor, with a kind of sea-watching tower as part of it. There is a family one floor below me with two teen-age daughters who play Chopin sonatas on the baby grand located in their glass conservatory off the west end of the front of the house. Their handsome and well turned-out Dad has a different Mercedes every day when he zooms in through the (electrically-controlled) main gates. There is a woman who lives just above me who stealthily goes onto the grand terrace every morning and feeds the seven wild cats who live --get this-- down below the terrace in the villa's extremely spooky stone tunnel and stairs that go to the beach far below. Best of all is the family in the apartment next door, on the other side of my kitchen and bedroom walls. Lots of vibrant conversations coming through those walls. Dad is a lot like Cosmo, the father in the film "Moonstruck". They have been very curious and warm about my presence here at La Terrazza.

So, what am I doing here?

Aside from the minute-to-minute, totally distracting excitement of the to-doings at La Terrazza, I am painting watercolors. From the terrace, of the terrace, above the terrace, through the door to the terrace. Like Matisse (ha!) from his hotel room in Nice, I'm prepared to spend ten years here until I get this view completely explored. I am accumulating some great interior props to include in my paintings --a white glazed Greek-ish ewer with a curved handle, and an outrageous old curlicue wrought-iron terrace chair. A headless marble cherub that was formerly on the terrazza. Plus tall, palm-like plants in large ceramic pots I brought back from a drive down to Sicily. My cat arrived here in September, so she is now a part of the prop collection. (My God, they sleep a lot, cats.)

Now that it's cold, I'm spending a bit of time keeping my little fireplace going with the firewood delivered through the connection with my favorite pizza-ristorante, the Aurora. Although there are old steam radiators in all three rooms of my apartment, they aren't connected to anything whatsoever, a fact I didn't discover until November. The fireplace and a small electric heater I bought are it as far as heat goes this winter. I walk a couple of blocks to shop for food, wine, etc every morning. Sometimes, when the bay is calm, I take a morning hyrofoil over to Napoli and explore one more Great Thing. Other times, I take the Circumvesuviana train, which also stops at the unforgettable Pompei site. Since I have been here, I have also explored Capri, the Amalfi coast and the Greek temples at Paestum. Lots yet to do and see. A lifetime's worth.

At the moment, Sorrento is back in the hands of the locals --just a trickle of visitors wandering around. The elegant yet fusty old Hotel Excelsior Vittoria (a major feature of my view) seems pretty quiet. Natale 1998 was wonderful in town, with lots of lights and great nativity displays. The sound of bagpipes rolled through the streets as players practiced the (one) traditional Christmas tune. There is on-going testing of massive firecracker arsenals for the up-coming New Year's Eve. There is the hint of nighttime music from the Foreigners' Club next door, now thankfully behind closed doors in the winter. There are windless, very still nights, with the chill from the bay rising up in the darkness and Napoli glittering across the black. I also have wood-fire warmth and the comfort of my favorite music, sometimes blended with the sound of my next-door neighbors having a normal, loving, high-decibel conversation. Somehow, it's all lovely, still lovely.

Happy New Year!

Part two of this essay was not completed.


Nancy Lytle lived in Italy for five years, writing manuscripts for two novels and various travel essays.

© Nancy Lytle, 2004

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