Wanderlust and the Amalfi Coast

This is an article I wrote a few years ago that was published in the South African magazine travel ideas. I’ve scanned the pages so you can appreciate the photographs integrated with the text. Or if you prefer, the plain text is included below.

Some places offer up their best gems when you put on your boots, make the effort and walk off the beaten tourist track.  When visiting Italy’s Amalfi Coast, just south of Naples, this should be your attitude, as many places are inaccessible by road, being either too steep or too remote, but they are always worth the effort when you get there.  The Amalfi Coast consists of thirteen seaside and mountaintop villages and towns, separated from each other by headlands and quiet deep valleys, with precipitous lemon and olive groves scattered in between.  Perhaps try imagining Bantry Bay and Clifton, but replace the fancy mansions and private elevators with multi-coloured medieval villas, ancient, crumbling stairs and cobbled streets, and also insert uncultivated valleys hiding small, third-world subsistence farms.  Then add warm ocean water, a happy sun, lots of olive oil-soaked food, and tanned Italians.

The bus drive up to Ravello, the starting point for our hiking holiday, speedily increased the heart rate; the area is known for its narrow, twisting (aka crazy) roads.  Ravello, a town 350 m above the sea and dating back to the fourth century, is famous for its magnificent seascapes, the Arabian-Norman Villa Rufolo with its roof-gardens, and the Wagner concerts held every year in honour of the composer’s stay there.  For the South African there is also the fascinating haphazardness of the stone streets and narrow alleyways, hiding popular shops and family-run restaurants, and leading one almost anywhere.

Our plan was to hike along the coast for five days – one father and two daughters – following a detailed trail guidebook.  With the aid of a baggage-transport company, each day was merely a case of carrying a daypack, enjoying the miles and the views, and then flopping into a new hotel in a new village every night.  The execution of the plan must not be thought to be easy – the terrain is pretty tough and if you’ve never done any walking, you could find yourself in a pickle.  But the reward for having done the leg work is that on that first night your body is flooded with endorphins as you sit on the terrace, watching the darkening ocean, eating pastas and pizzas that the heart recognises from its dreams.

Our first day’s hiking had involved winding through the backstreets of Ravello, past bougainvillea-draped entrances, before trekking down a seemingly endless flight of stairs, the steps themselves being roughly a thousand years old.  We passed luxury hotels as well as homes built into caves in the side of the cliff face before finally landing up in the coastal town of Atrani.  Our route then took us back up the other side of the valley, through the mountain villages of Pontone and Scala, and back to Ravello for a second night.  It was in Pontone that we first witnessed a pair of laden donkeys, the main means of transport for any large load.  It is hard, even having been there, to imagine a lifestyle where a visit to a friend involves solid shoes and arriving perhaps an hour later bathed in sweat.  But I suppose such is life when all your homes are perched on the mountainside.

The second day was the longest, covering nearly 14 km.  Whereas the first day we had walked in and about a maze of houses, this day was spent mostly up in the mountains, in the Valle delle Ferriere nature reserve, away from the hubbub.  The coastal towns are generally wealthy, tourist-oriented and many of the buildings have modern interiors.  But venture inland and you will discover the more rural, traditional way of life.  We came across shack-like homes and homes made from mud, which by all appearances subsist on perhaps a goat and a few hens.  I have a paltry knowledge of perhaps fifty Italian words at best, but even this was a great help when trying to speak with locals who are unconnected with tourism.  We managed simple communication regarding the weather, the farms, and we were even invited into the orchard of one stooped old man to have a look around, not being permitted to leave until we had agreed to take away an armful of lemons.

There are numerous ruined towers and fortresses dotting the rocky outcrops of the coastline, and they stand testament to the former military prowess of the area.  In fact, the town of Amalfi dominated the Mediterranean Sea both militarily and commercially until Columbus discovered America.  Having spent two nights in Ravello, we then spent one in Amalfi, the chief coastal town.  The small piazza in Amalfi is splendid, crowded with restaurants, curio shops, fruit stalls, plenty of tourists and presiding over it all is the imposing and unique Saint Andrew’s Cathedral.  An Arab-influenced Romanesque building, with Baroque interior, the cathedral dates back to the early thirteenth century.  The relics of Saint Andrew the apostle were, at that time, stolen from Constantinople in order to be placed in the new cathedral and thereby lend it prestige.  Not only are there numerous old, ornate churches to be found all along the coast, but we were amazed at the number of shrines, seemingly everywhere, which we encountered: shrines above doorways, tucked into walls, built into caves, and even erected to the side of mountain footpaths, miles from any home or dwelling.

We spent the fourth night in Conca dei Marini, a tiny coastal community literally carved into the rock, with only one road passing through.  Everyone living on the Amalfi Coast appears to know how many stairs separate them from everything else; we had 400 narrow steps, running round the houses, to take us from our hotel down to the tiny cove that forms their beach.  The beach is watched over by the ruins of an ancient watchtower and one feels quite oblivious to the rest of the coast’s settlements when tucked away down there.  The Emerald Grotto is also an easy walk from the village.  The boat guide thoroughly enjoyed regaling us South Africans with phrases like “Baie mooi” and “Totsiens”, learned from previous visitors!

By the fourth day of hiking we thought our legs could go forever.  A highlight in our trip was stopping at the family-run Serafina Farmhouse for a traditional lunch.  We were greeted by Dominic and his two girls, who proudly took us around their farm, which grows tomatoes, olives, lemons and grapes.  We saw his old father down below bent over at work in the vineyards, and found his wife in the kitchen plucking tomatoes from their stems.  Resting in the shade of the terrace we were served a lunch of green beans, aubergines, tomato salad, bruschetta, fresh bread, cold meat and chunks of cheese.  Everything was of course marinated in olive oil, which is a taste I soon learned to love.  Conversation was once again more a matter of goodwill on both sides rather than of comprehension.  For dessert our host plucked bunches of grapes from the vine above our heads – beautiful, sweet green grapes unusually shaped like a rugby ball.

On our last day of hiking we climbed higher than on any other day, reaching the dramatic Walk of the Gods.  The path snakes along the cliff-edge, with sobering drops of a few thousand feet straight down to the ocean.  Just before the start of the Walk of the Gods is the San Domenico monastery.  In the past the monks were sent food in a basket, pulled up via a pulley system, from the townsfolk below.  In return, the monks prayed for their town.  In the afternoon, on our way down from the mountain village of Montepertuso, a stray dog took a liking to us and kept with us all the 1500 steps down to our hotel in Positano!  The day was a blazer and we were slightly anxious he would not be fit enough to make the return trip; but it did lend truth to the saying that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out into the noonday sun.

I confess we were actually scheduled for six days of hiking, the final day to be a roundtrip based out of Positano.  But after five days of exercise, we felt little shame when we decided that instead of walking we would prefer to PIP (Potter in Positano).  Our pottering involved stretching out on the beach, making brief excursions into the placid ocean, eating “Positano” gelato (a vanilla, Nutella andorange liqueur ice-cream), and drifting about the shops.  Positano is one of the best towns for such idleness.  The lower half of the town is cobbled and solely for pedestrians, being too steep for cars.  There are numerous seafood restaurants, winding lanes filled with street vendors, fashionable clothes shops and a gorgeous beach, crowded in the daytime and then also offering some nightlife.

I have perhaps never had such an exotic holiday as the one in Amalfi.  This part of Italy reveals a distinctive lifestyle; a lifestyle of orchards, steps, donkeys, ruins, shrines, churches, terraces, balconies, mud huts, wine, pasta and blue sea.  And for the rich traveller, backpacker and backwater farmer alike, beautiful, unparalleled views over ocean and mountain.  I have yet to see anything else like it.

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