In February 1992, Antonio Sersale had been working at the famous Cala di Volpe hotel on Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda for just short of a year. It was part of am apprenticeship that had already taken him to New York, Washington and Puerto Rico, after his studies at the prestigious École hôtelière de Lausanne. Antonio knew that his destiny was to be entrusted, one day, with the running of the place where he had spent much of his early years – Le Sirenuse in Positano, which had been founded by his family in 1951. But that was a long way off, surely?
Things don’t always go the way you plan them. Especially when other people are involved. Especially when those other people are family. But sometimes what you least expect turns out to be what was meant to happen.
Antonio wrote the following account of his 1992 return to Positano for Sirenland, an annual pre-season Writers Conference founded in 2007 by Dani Shapiro, Michael Maren and Hanna Tinti that has been hosted at Le Sirenuse since its inception. Today he continues his mission of making his family’s Amalfi Coast hotel ever more chic, desirable and in tune with both the spirit of Positano and the contemporary zeitgeist. He is helped in this task by his wife Carla, founder of fashion brand Emporio Sirenuse, and their two sons Aldo and Francesco.
1992: From Sardinia to Positano
A phone call
The phone call from my father Franco came one day at the end of February 1992. It was a leap year, so it may even have been the 29th. I was thirty at the time, working as an assistant manager at the Cala di Volpe hotel in Sardinia.
The Cala di Volpe job was the most important step so far in what I assumed would be a career in hotels around the globe, before I went back one day in the distant future to Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, to take over the reins of our family hotel, Le Sirenuse, from my father Franco.
After all, he himself had only returned to Positano a couple of years previously. A chemical engineer, he had lived and worked all over the world before heading back to Italy in 1990 to help his brother Aldo run the family business.
I knew it was him as soon as I picked up the phone.
He went straight to the point.
“I have persuaded your uncle Aldo to hire a new manager for Le Sirenuse, and I’d like you to meet him.”
“How about next weekend?”
The timing wasn’t exactly convenient. Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda, where I was working, was a long way from anywhere, rather like Positano. And I was busy preparing the Cala di Volpe hotel for the new summer season, which was just over a month away.
Plus, I wasn’t sure what my father was planning. He hadn’t involved me in the change of manager – but he wanted me to meet the new one. I had an uneasy feeling, but I promised I’d be in Positano the following weekend.
A Sardinian summer
Carla and I worked impossibly long hours that summer.
She had been taken on by a yacht brokerage firm owned by a neurotic husband and his short-tempered wife.
They would have flaming rows in the office while Carla sat praying for someone to get her out of there. But as jobs were scarce, she put up with it and learned to duck to avoid the objects the wife would occasionally hurl at her marito.
Of those days in Sardinia, I remember this: walks through endless clouds of blossoming juniper; fields that ended at deserted beaches; the deep blue of the sea dotted here and there with tiny white islands; seagulls soaring; empty roads.
The ‘Cala’ (as we used to call it) was truly glamorous. It was owned by the Aga Khan, who had opened it with a few friends, and the guest list read like a Who’s Who of Europe. As with all grand hotels, it had some quirks, such as the fact that they used to charge the same rate for all rooms regardless of their size or location. Can you imagine walking a guest into a room with a view of a lawn and some other rooms, when they know they’re paying the same as they would for a sea view?
As I look back on that year what I remember most vividly is not the magical scenery, or the oleander trees shedding their thin leaves to the wind. It’s the people I worked with on a daily basis. Most came from humble backgrounds and had worked their way up through the ranks, dedicating their life to the profession. They may not have been high-born, but a life amongst Europe’s high society had given them a unique elegance.
Take the formidable Signor Stacchini, the hotel’s maitre d’, a legendary figure who inspired awe in a beginner like me. He remembered each and every regular guest’s name, as well as their children’s, as though they were his closest friends. He would fight with the front office manager, Signor Cantatore, to secure ‘his’ clients their favourite table in the restaurant. One day, while Carla and I were dining there (something senior staff were allowed to do no more than once a week), Signor Stacchini walked by me and whispered into my ear. “Antonio, do you see this charming couple just behind me?” “Yes,” I answered without turning to look. “Well, I simply have no idea where I am going to sit them.” “I guess that means you’ll take them for a walk through the restaurant,” I answered. And that’s exactly what he did, leading them on a meandering route until a table freed itself up.
I got to recognise many of the return guests. Like the very refined gentleman who would come to the hotel with his wife once a year. I would observe him at dinner; the meal would start with a frugal consommé followed by a lightly steamed fish, accompanied by water and a simple glass of wine. Conversation would be kept to a minimum and the look on the couple’s faces was one of resigned boredom. The following week he would usually return with his lover, and once again I would observe their dinner. The meal would usually start out with caviar and a fine bottle of champagne. This would be followed the most extravagant lobster dish prepared by the chef. The look on their faces was one of expectant desire.
On our precious free days during the summer months, Carla and I would head straight for the sea. Sometimes friends would take us out on their boat. I loved standing on the prow, the deep blue below, my body covered in spray. On cooler days we would go to visit our friend who ran the Porto Rotondo yacht marina, and often ended up talking to some of the owners of the boats that were moored there. I remember a sweet Norwegian family with two small children, one of whom slept in one of the cabin drawers, which they had propped open especially for him. It was a lot better than falling out of bed as the boat rolled from side to side. The family were navigating towards Tunisia, as the father wanted to show his children that there were countries where the sun shone in winter.
Once, during the San Pellegrino vintage boat regatta, I even roamed the harbours asking for day passage as a deck hand. The captain of the Royono, a magnificent 1936 yawl, spotted me and kindly offered me a place. He asked me to arrive early the following morning. When I showed up ready for a day of sailing, I was handed a large bottle of Brasso and told to clean all the boat’s fittings, along with rest of the crew. It took us four hours.
But it was a price worth paying. During the race, there was total silence. All you could hear, apart from the wind in the sails and the swish of the yacht as it cut through the waves, were the low voices of the helmsman and the tactician, calmly conversing as we headed at full speed towards a competing boat. I can still see the steadfast look on the crew’s faces as they waited for the order that would take us out of danger. However, as each inch gained would bring us closer to victory, the order was put off until the last possible moment, when you could already see the worried faces of the other boat’s crew.
Only when the first syllable of the order “Come about!” was uttered did the crew explode into furious activity. The trimmer next to me manually yanked in the main while I tidied the line, the helmsman turned the tiller with a speed that made you dizzy, the jib was brought about, the stays were released and then brought in once again, all this in total silence as the helmsman measured our course. The owner, I was told, never raced on the Royono, preferring to watch the regatta from the comfort and safety of a friend’s boat. After that experience, I could see why.
A Sardinian winter
Carla and I had arrived in Sardinia just a few weeks before Cala di Volpe opened in April 1991, not long after our wedding. It had been a busy summer, which made the change at the end of the season all the more striking. It takes no time at all for a resort to empty out. The few remaining guests leave, then the waiters, the kitchen staff, the pool hands, the cleaning staff. On the Costa Smeralda, even the policemen are seasonal. But as I was assistant manager, I was required to stay on, along with a handful of other employees.
A hotel out of season can be an eerie place. The corridors are covered in dust, the furniture in the common areas is all piled together and covered by sheets of plastic, the guest rooms are empty. I remember sitting at my desk wearing my overcoat, gloves and a hat. I often worked all day in my office without seeing a soul, when only a few weeks previously, Cala di Volpe had seemed the centre of the universe.
But there was a harsh beauty to the Sardinian winter. The two of us would sit in front of the fire on cold nights while outside our house the wind howled. On my days off, we loved going for long walks in the island’s rugged, majestic interior. Once we drove to the remote area known as La Barbagia, and hired a local trekking guide. The shepherds that live there had once been renowned for their sheep-rustling skills, but by this time they were more famous as kidnappers, having worked out that stealing people was far more lucrative than stealing sheep. The son of a friend of ours had been one such hostage – luckily, he was released unharmed after the ransom was paid.
It was a place of tall, jagged mountains covered by barren vegetation, the only sign of human presence being a few primitive stone shepherd’s huts – perfect for concealing kidnap victims. We followed our guide fearfully through spiky bushes, streams and banks of fog, without ever meeting a soul. At one point we came across a few puppets dangling by their necks – warning signs put up to mark the territory of one group of brigands and discourage rivals. But even here, in this bleak landscape, there were consolations. Lunch was a leg of lamb, cooked by our guide on a fragrant bed of myrtle, accompanied by a bottle of strong red wine that he pulled out of his knapsack. Apprehension does wonders for the appetite. Never has an al fresco meal tasted so good.
A black cat
I persuaded my wife Carla to go to Positano with me. Neither of us had any idea what was awaiting us
I remember the day we set out for the airport like it was yesterday. It was the beginning of March, a time when the Costa Smeralda is at its most beautiful, sprinkled by the yellow, pink, white and blue of wildflowers, gorse and the dense coastal maquis, but still utterly empty save for a few gardeners and workmen getting properties ready for the coming season.
In our usual style, we were cutting it fine for the flight. Still, the roads were deserted, and we would be able to park directly in front of the terminal at Olbia. What could possibly go wrong?
That’s when I saw the cat. A black cat that came out of nowhere and darted across the road right in front of the car. I slammed on the brakes and stopped just in time.
Now, I’m a little superstitious. When a black cat runs across the road in front of you, you do not cross its trail. You wait for another car to come along, pass you, and soak up the iella, the bad luck.
On a busy road in town this can be a matter of seconds. But even on a remote Sardinian side road in early March, surely it couldn’t take more than a few minutes?
We waited. And waited. Carla was shouting at me not to be so damn stupid. But it was more than I could do to move the car. Time slowly ticked away as the tension rose between us. I kept my eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror. Ten, twenty, thirty minutes. Nothing.
Finally, another car appeared in the mirror, a tiny speck. It took an age to grow in size. It was crawling along, and as it drew close, it seemed to slow down even more. As it passed us, I glanced at the driver: an old lady with large glasses and white hair plaited up on her head.
I gunned the car into action and soon passed our saviour. It was, of course, too late. The flight was missed, the row was big. But that evening we had a wonderful dinner of Sardinian delicacies at Gallura, one of the most famous restaurants on the island, accompanied by a lovely bottle of Vermentino.
“We have the black cat to thank for this”, I said to Carla, teasingly. She just gave me a look.
Dinner in Praiano
The next morning we set out towards Positano and what would turn out to be a new life.
On landing in Naples, having splashed out on the hotel and dinner in Olbia and the rebooked flights, we decided to be parsimonious. We would take a taxi from the airport to the Circumvesuviana train station and ride that long, slow, overcrowded line all the way to the terminus in Sorrento, where we would get the bus for Positano.
As soon as I gave directions to the taxi driver he turned towards us with a sad, fatalistic look, and informed us that the Circumvesuviana was on strike. What could we do? Well, he was willing to make a big sacrifice, skip a delicious family lunch, and take us directly to Positano for five times the amount we had set aside.
With immense gratitude, we thanked him and sat back to enjoy the drive. The journey to Positano from Naples takes approximately ninety minutes, of which the first forty are spent traversing a succession of unattractive suburbs surrounding Mount Vesuvius. I remember a good friend telling us that on his first trip to Positano, organized as a surprise by his new bride, he was on the point of asking her to turn the car around as this scenery unfolded, thinking she had gone totally mad. It was only afterwards, when the Amalfi Coast appeared in all its majestic beauty, that he was able to relax, and admire the tall impervious mountains cascading into the deep blue sea.
We were on it now, that narrow road I remembered so well, greedily hugging the contours of the rocky spurs that descend from the Monti Lattari high above. Soon Positano would appear, tucked scenically into one of the folds of the coastline.
As soon as we arrived at the hotel, the staff rushed out to welcome us. I mentioned the Circumvesuviana strike, and how lucky we had been to find a taxi driver who was prepared to bring us directly to Positano. “The Circumvesuviana is most definitely not on strike” Gennaro the concierge informed me.
I had to admire our driver’s acting skills. He’d told the lie it in such a way that even he half-believed it.
That evening, my father decided that the best way for us to talk informally and openly was to leave the prying ears of the hotel and go out for dinner to La Brace, a delicious fish restaurant in nearby Praiano. Filled with curiosity, I set out with my wife, my father, the new hotel manager and his wife. We left behind my uncle Aldo, who was already quite ill.
I remember Aldo so well. He always told the most amusing stories which would have us all in stiches of laughter. He feared no one, having survived the war by a miracle, and from that moment on he lived every day as if it were his last. My father told me that my uncle had gotten his incredible sense of humour by hanging out with Neapolitan coachmen in his youth.
Whenever we sat down at the table he would always say “Antonio, remember that all good things in life are either illegal, immoral or fattening – and luckily I like only the latter.” Uncle Aldo had never married. He had been very near to it, he told me, however in one of his most beautiful turns of phrase he said, “Antonio, the woman I loved was married, and realizing I could never build my happiness on the ashes of her husband’s unhappiness, I convinced her to return to him. She thanked me for the rest of her life!”
He would say this with the same nonchalance that he displayed when telling his most hair-raising war stories. Yet I knew that in both instances there had been pain, fear, and finally courage. “Courage, Antonio – courage is nothing more than getting used to fear.” This was my uncle Aldo. I remember his sweet girlfriends, with whom I would spend endless days on the boat. Each and every one had a different nickname: Farfallina (Little Butterfly), Miciona (Cuddly Cat), Biscottino (Little Biscuit). They were all kind to that younger version of me, and I adored them.
We would all go to for lunch at a restaurant called Maria Grazia, which was famous for its ‘spaghetti alle zucchine’. It stands on the sea – literally – in a little village along the coast called Nerano, where just over thirty years earlier my father had married my mother, a wild and eccentric Californian woman he had just met on the beach in Positano.
At Maria Grazia there was a delightful waiter called Salvatore, who behaved as though he was the owner, while the owner Gennaro seemed more like a waiter. Gennaro clearly wanted to get rid of Salvatore, but he was worried he would lose clients by doing so. So, choosing money over pride, he continued to play the supporting role. When we arrived, it was Salvatore who would greet us – for all the world as if we were the British Royal family. “Benvenuto Marchese!”, he would shout from the restaurant’s terrace to our little boat approaching the dock, “Il vostro tavolo è pronto!”. And my uncle Aldo, his entourage of friends and numerous girlfriends would happily make their way to the table, which was indeed pronto. My father told me that after eating copious amounts of spaghetti I would go to sleep under the empty tables surrounded by lazy cats.
I remember uncle Aldo’s last look a few moments before passing away, deep, sad and at the same time fatalistic, embodying in it the all the qualities that I loved about him. He had been ill for a long time, and he probably was glad to move on.
As must this story.
What my father hadn’t realised when he’d booked diner at La Brace was, first, that this particular Sunday – March 8 – was International Women’s Day, and second, that a group of 40 women had chosen La Brace for a bonding session that very evening.
When we walked into the restaurant, we were overjoyed to find it empty. Finally, we would be able to talk openly. As the owner greeted us and walked us to our corner table, I saw out the corner of my eye a rather long table in the centre of the restaurant. I immediately ask the owner if he was expecting a group. “A group?” he asked. “No, no, just a few ladies who have decided to come for dinner. No need to worry. They will very quiet!” It was not the tone that gave him away but his evasive eyes. I feared the worst.
Our dinner started well, we were all at ease and the conversation flowed easily. The new manager, Mariano Alabiso, started by telling us he had spent his entire life working for the Italian hotel company CIGA, where he had risen through the ranks to become, in the last years of his career, a manager in one of their most exclusive Spanish properties. I was impressed by his progress, less so by his manner, which seemed over-confident, stiff and old fashioned. Nonetheless, not wanting to be hasty in judgment, I kept an open mind.
Suddenly our conversation came to an end, as a group of 40 women of all sizes and ages burst into the restaurant. They were not meeting for a quick, quiet dinner. These ladies were determined to proudly celebrate women’s day. They wanted the whole world to know that they were alive and happily getting on with their lives.
The whole situation became hilarious, and we could not stop ourselves from laughing. Here we were attempting to have a serious conversation, while the forty Southern Italian ladies were tearing down the restaurant around us. Were they our saviours, or our damnation? Whatever else they did, they certainly helped to break the ice. We all relaxed, the atmosphere mellowed, and I finally learned the real reason that I had been summoned to Positano.
The revelation came between an exquisite plate of spaghetti con le vongole and a delicious rockfish, sautéed in a light tomato sauce. Mariano made it perfectly clear that he would only accept the position of general manager at Le Sirenuse if I moved to Positano and became his assistant.
Why me? Why so soon? My mind was full of questions as I sat silently tackling the tricky rockfish bones. Mariano explained that he was on the verge of retirement and he considered his career complete. He was now only willing to start anew if the challenge was not running the hotel, but training me to take it over.
I was in a bind. Mariano seemed capable. Le Sirenuse was in a terrible state, and as I had relatively little experience in managing a property in a small village in Italy, his help would be invaluable. I wasn’t exactly being thrown in at the deep end – more somewhere around the middle of the swimming pool.
I knew I had no choice: I had to resign from the Cala di Volpe and move with Carla to Positano to work under Mariano. I had wanted to make my own way in this fascinating trade, but duty was now calling and Le Sirenuse was in desperate need. That evening, after dinner, Mariano showed me some comment cards left by the previous season’s guests. They made for depressing reading.
As I strapped myself into the seat for the return flight to Olbia, I suddenly remembered the first time I had flown there from Rome, little more than a year earlier. It was during the first Gulf War, when airports were ghost towns. In Rome, for the final leg of my journey from Washington DC, they had put me on propeller plane, a model they only used in warmer climes because of de-icing issues. Halfway through the flight, somewhere above the Mediterranean, one of the engines suddenly stopped. I remember the fearful looks on the faces of my fellow passengers as we sat transfixed, praying the second engine did not follow the example of the first. To make things worse, it was so windy that we couldn’t land in Olbia, and were diverted to Alghero on the other side of the island.
I kept on thinking I had made it so far… could it be possible that just a few miles from my destination it would all come to an end? But the pilot brought us down safely, and we were loaded into a rickety coach for the journey to glamorous Porto Cervo where I was due to be interviewed for the job at Cala di Volpe.
The interview had gone well. I had become assistant manager of one of the world’s most exclusive resorts. Now I was about to hand in my resignation, just a couple of months before the start of the new season.
It would mean leaving our sweet little house on the Abbiadori hill where we had huddled together in front of the fire on cold winter nights. It would mean transferring all of our worldly goods, and the three of us, to Positano, where I had spent some wonderful days in my youth, but hadn’t called home for years.
The three of us? Carla was pregnant by this time with our first son, who we would call Aldo in honour of his inimitable great-uncle. That was something worth thinking about too: where did we want our son to grow up?
Leaving was easier than I had built it up to be. Maybe it always is. My colleagues at Cala di Volpe understood that Le Sirenuse was my calling – they were in the hotel trade too, and knew what a strong pull a family hotel has on sons and daughters, granddaughters and grandsons. It was time for me to take my place, embrace Positano, and make it my world.
Photo © Stefano Scatà
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