Stairway to…I guarantee it wasn’t heaven!

I love my sister. We email several times a week. We agree on important things and agree to disagree on everything else. But she owes me now. Bigtime.

Several days ago she wrote complaining that I’d mentioned a beach. She said she’d seen photos of sheer cliffs disappearing into the sea and although the images were beautiful, by her definition that did not qualify as beach.

So, Sherry…is there a beach?

Remember this sign? Alla spiaggia means exactly what the translation immediately below says it means: To the beach. But the day I took this path I was on my way to the church of Saint January. I diverged to the massive square in front of the church and did not continue on.

So Sherry, is there a beach?

According to the sign, yes. Had I seen one in all my meanderings? No. In Paulo Sandulli’s tower studio he had painted people sunbathing on what looked suspiciously like…a beach. Tourists flock here in the summertime to go to…the beach. The map has a location in Praiano called…Lido One Fire Beach. So…

Today for you, sister, I’ll follow those signs. According to the map, Via Rezzola will take me there.

Its entrance was easy to find.

After the little landing at the top it was steps.

At the bottom of this flight, the path turned and there was another flight.

Then it leveled off for a leisurely stroll.

I imagined my trek down to the beach would be like this lovely trail, gently sloping, lined with interesting gates, gardens, flora and fauna.

And it was…for a while.

All good things must end, and so did my walk-in-the-park so to speak. The path turned to steps. Downward.

And down…

and down…

It was a nightmare of steps. Any minute now, I thought…around the next corner…surely I’ll catch a glimpse of…anything but steps.

But that was not to be. Each bend brought another steep descent.

And then there were step switchbacks.

I hadn’t seen a soul. I have to admit it was a bit creepy and I felt extremely alone. No sound of voices, no footsteps, no animals…a twilight zone.

Just endless steps taking me where?

The to the beach signs had disappeared long ago, but there were no other trails, no other options, only this steady march downward.

Buildings – deserted. And more steps.

Where am I?

Sherry, is there a beach?

When I rounded a corner and saw an inlet below me with a flat surface I almost cried. THE BEACH! Then I took a closer look. At the bottom of this cove was a massive, man-made concrete shelf. Holy moly! Was this the beach???

Couldn’t be. The real one must be on the other side of that rock wall with the industrial looking equipment on top. I proceeded around the rim of the inlet to the other side and walked through the assortment of old boats, steel drums and mysterious odds and ends looking for a way through. But there was nothing else. Dead end.

Nicola had warned me not to go on the beach when the seas were high. Giant waves crashed over the surface. I decided this was definitely one of those days.

I watched for a while, dumbstruck. What a forlorn place.

Sherry, is there a beach?

Well, dear sister, not exactly but sort of. Well, no. Not really. Heck no! Not at all!

Suddenly I wanted distance between me and this desolation. I’d seen a road on the map. Now to find it. There was no way I was going to walk those fifty million steps back to the street.

I hadn’t seen another way out on my way down, but it must be here somewhere…

There was no road. Or if there was, you couldn’t get there from here. I did indeed have to walk back up all those steps.

It was 55°F (12.7°C) and there was a ten mph (16 kph) wind out of the north but I was sweating buckets by the time I reached the street. I thought about you, sister – thought about what I’d been willing to do to satisfy your inquiring mind. Thought how it would have been so much more fun if you’d been with me.

I let my mind wander. If she was with me, what would we do next?

Across the street was a little cafe with drool-worthy scents emanating from its open door. I peeked in and knew immediately what we’d do.

Zeppole di San Guiseppe aka creampuffs.

When I got home I Googled beaches in Praiano and what do you know? Yes, that dreadful Lido One Fire is one of them, but there’s another. I’d passed it on my ‘cute shoes walk’ the other day and took this photo. I didn’t know it was a beach. This is the one Sandulli painted from his tower. You can just barely see it up in the far left corner.

You’d be happy. I can tell from the photos on the internet…there’s real sand.

The Wild-Haired Women of Paulo Sandulli

Paulo Sandulli creates art in an 800-year-old medieval tower.

Assiola was built as a defense lookout in 1270 when Praiano had a thriving silk industry and marauding pirates were a constant threat.

The curious round structure was the first thing I noticed from my terrace when I arrived. You really can’t miss it. I Googled: Tower in Praiano, and Signore Sandulli’s name popped up. I read about this multi-talented artist and knew I had to meet him.

Today I did.

The rugged approach was challenging after the 2,966,843 steps down from the street. I exaggerate, but not much. It’s rumored that Sandulli has goats. I didn’t see them, but the terrain would suit.

The door to the studio was open. He motioned me in. Oh, please converse in English, I prayed.

He did so with eloquence.

As one would expect, the circular space was a visual cornucopia. Sandulli has been working his magic here for thirty years. Right now he’s madly pumping out product preparing for the summer onslaught of tourists who flock to buy his pieces.

“Do you ever get tired of creating?” I asked, wondering how anyone could maintain that level of productivity over such a span of time. He raised his eyebrows, no doubt surprised at my cheeky question, looked around to ensure we were alone, then nodded the affirmative.

He was obviously able to power through whatever boredom might plague him. The room, bursting with torsos and busts, attested to that. He told me the figure beside him with glasses was a likeness of his father. I could see the resemblance.

On shelves and tabletops were rows of women sporting hair in a riot of colors. “Sponges,” he said. He removed one elegant lady’s updo and handed it to me. It was light as cotton balls.

For the next hour, the master himself treated me to a personal tour of his studio – a workplace magical and enthralling.

He excels in every medium: clay, oils, watercolor, acrylics. I paged through reams of charcoal sketches that prefaced his creations.

Unfinished busts sat drying, works in progress, and the blue box in the background is his kiln.

Mermaids cavorted in bathtubs…

Scantily dressed teams played tennis…

Nudes rode sea creatures. He told me the name of this fish…grouper maybe?

And in their private glass case, a group of fishermen played cards.

Sandulli’s muse Eleonora, “…was born in a tower overlooking the sea not very different from this one,” he said of the Aragonese princess, who in 1473 sealed a dynastic union by becoming the wife of the Duke of Ferrara. A picture of her hangs on the wall.

Paulo’s process is a study in economy and brilliance. He has only a few molds he uses for the chest and hip portions of the body. Then he attaches the head and limbs and assigns different positions to make each character a unique individual. For those that ride sea creatures, the hips spread wide for stradling broad backs. On some he attaches a mermaid’s tail.

It’s similar with the busts. The basic head is the same, but while the clay is still malleable he varies the shape of the eyes, nose, mouth, ears, and gives each one a personality.

The terracotta figures are flamboyant and fun. But Paulo’s paintings tell deeper stories.

As my visit drew to a close, I thanked him for sharing his time and he grew contemplative. “This tower was used to defend Praiano from people who would have destroyed her,” he said. “With my paintings I also wish to defend this place. Make a record for future generations before it is lost.”

It’s a noble cause. Thank you, Signore Paulo Sandulli. I wish you well.

Oh, and by the way, please keep that painting for me, You know the one. I’ll be back.

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