Walk the Amalfi Coast

walking the amalfi coast mfp

A sunny day on the Amalfi coast…steep, craggy limestone hills rise like an ancient dragon from the indigo depths of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Alas, most visitors miss the magic, trapped as they are in a cacophony of honking horns and diesel fumes, kitschy limoncello souvenir shops, and serpentine traffic jams on the cliff-hugging roads.

Positano Walking Adventures

Enter the PositanoFrank Carpegna-Walking with the Gods…the perfect way to slow down and smell the rosemary, while marveling at a culture and a cuisine hewn from a landscape as harsh as it is breathtaking.  By walking on paths that have been used for centuries by monks and farmers you not only feel the majesty of place in your pounding heart but also carve a monstrous hole in your stomach.  All the better to be filled with mountains of made-this-morning fusilli tossed with everything fresh from the garden which goes down very easily with the Tears of Christ wine grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. And the view from the terrace of a trattoria perched vertiginously over the sea is enough to bring any modern day pilgrim to tears.

francesco-72Owner and guide Francesco Carpegna, is an eloquent Italian American who has been living in Positano for 15 years. He has perfect Italian, a deep baritone voice used alternatively for his engrossing stories and eclectic songs, an encyclopaedic knowledge of archaeology and history plus which celebrities stays where along this remarkable coastline.  In short: a genius.

As we marvel at the panorama of sea, land and sky, Francesco explains that the Greeks knew these waters well and the islands off the coast were inspiration for Homer’s Islands of the Sirens in The Odyssey. In Roman times, Capri became the summer palace of Tiberius and Caesar Augustus, while the Amalfi Coast was sprinkled with small settlements.  From as early as the 5th century AD, Amalfi was a powerful maritime republic, like Venice, Pisa and Genoa, trading heavily with Byzantium while also building fortresses against Saracen pirates. In more recent times, the likes of John Steinbeck, Sophia Loren and Gore Vidal have called the area home.

Our walk down stairs and stone paths along hand-built rock terraces is tiered like the olive groves and vineyards we pass. Around one bluff we discover enormous limestone caves, which Francesco explains were often hermit shelters, in front of which are medieval stone huts…visual testament to centuries of evolving habitation. We pass tiny chapels that still offer solace to farmers whose days are spent toiling the soil by hand and carrying their produce to market along these very paths.

The temperature is rising on this late September morning. Miraculously, when we reach the road near the entrance to Amalfi, we find the Posaflora gelati shop perched precariously above the aquamarine sea.  I make a note: best ice cream with view in the world.

Ravello

Next day we hop on a local bus to zigzag up the hillside to Ravello, dubbed ‘the aristocrat of the Amalfi Coast’. We explore the remarkable 12th century Arabesque Villa Rufolo, with its Moorish cloister and Norman watch tower, now the site of the Ravello music festival, where orchestras play in the same stunning gardens overlooking the coast that first inspired Richard Wagner.

There are promises of miracles at the nearby church of San Pantoleone, with its imposing brass doors and gold mosaic sea monster, the icon of the Amalfi coast.  And the miracle: the coagulated blood of its patron saint, stored in a glass vase behind a side altar, liquefies on his name day.  And it was still liquid, that name day having just passed.

At the top of the hill lie a swath of swank palazzos, now converted into luxury hotels, like Richard Branson’s Palazzo Sasso and the Orient Express’ Hotel Caruso. Taking the stairs out of town we head towards the ancient village of Scala, built to defend the Amalfi coast.

We pass gardens overflowing with ripe red tomatoes and peppers, basil, purple eggplant and figs, and bright orange pumpkins. A few more twists and turns and a stop to splash cold water from a village fountain and we arrive… somewhere close to heaven: the Trattoria Antico Borgo on a vine-covered terrace with the stage set of the Amalfi Coast below.  We feast on stuffed zucchini flowers, pizza and smoked provolone and eggplant ravioli.  Dessert: half lemons filled with lemon gelati. Local musicians serenade us with hauntingly beautiful Neapolitan love songs.

sentiero-giustino-fortunato-by-Susan-Gough-Henly-72

Valley of the Mills

Fortified, we embark on what Francesco describes as the Indiana Jones part of the trip…a journey into a world of scraggly bushes clinging to sheer cliffs, of waterfalls and clear mountain pools, of soaring Peregrine falcons, and steep trails. Dozens of medieval ruins overgrown with vegetation weave a story of ingenious industry in the Middle Ages…of paper mills and blacksmith factories powered by the pure rushing water of the Canneto River.

Francesco urges us deeper into the limestone ravine.  We cross bridges, forge streams as the valley narrows and darkens. Suddenly before us a 20-metre-high waterfall cascades down sheer moss-covered rock.  Surely, we are no longer in parched southern Italy. We duck under fern fronds and reach out to touch entire curtains of water dripping from mossy overhangs as Francesco’s sonorous voice weaves stories about the birth of the world. Later he explains that this hidden valley forms a micro-climate renowned for its rare long-leafed fern from a pre-glacial age.

We find a pool deep enough for swimming and plunge into its icy depths.  Refreshed we take off down the valley, past more ghostly ruins, past an aqueduct built during the time of Mussolini, past terrace upon terrace of lemon groves and into the laneways of Amalfi. We stop at a 14th century mill, now the paper mill museum, and learn how paper making came to Amalfi through trade with the Arabs and how paper was made from rags disinfected with animal urine, the mills powered by huge waterwheels.

 

View-of-the-Amalfi-Coast-from-Path-of-the-Gods-by-Susan-Gough-Henly-72The Path of the Gods

On our final day we walk the Path of the Gods, under a cloudless blue sky. After riding the local bus to the village of Praiano, we climb a steep carob-tree-laden path, along which are marked all the Stations of the Cross, up to the Monastery of San Domenico, built on Roman foundations, which commands a spectacular view along the peninsula’s dragon tail. Farmers are putting the grape harvest in crates to go via pulley down to sea level.  Inside the church is a fresco painted by a Giotto school member. At a certain time of the afternoon, light streams in from two holes in the opposite wall to illuminate the Madonna and Christ.

Suspended between sky and sea we walk along grassy terraces, dotted with rosemary and blackberries, with the entire coast beneath us.  Tiny boats buzz across the deep blue water leaving trails of white spray.  Soon we enter cool, deep forests of Holm oak and chestnut, mysterious groves reminiscent of fairy tales. Out in the sunshine again, we round a bend beneath steep cliffs and look down on the Bay of Positano.

Hot and hungry we walk under grape arbors at the entrance to the village of Nocelle, home to the delightful Santa Croce restaurant, with yet another panoramic view of the coast below.  Everything is homemade, from the antipasto platter of grilled vegetables, mozzarella, hand-cured prosciutto and salami to the mixed grill of sausages, rabbit, lamb and chicken, all from animals raised on the family farm.

A lovely languid mood spreads across the table. The splendid meal has worked miracles and we glide down 1673 steps to the bottom.

positano-panorama-by-Susan-Gough-Henly-72

Positano

Welcoming us at the end of the trail is Positano, its sepia-toned villas tiered above an aquamarine sea, its seafood restaurants behind an orange deck-chaired beach, its winding streets bulging with boutiques. Licking a mountainous gelati,  I look at the rocky crags above us remembering with a smile a sign that Francesco had translated on the trail.  “In life there are no straight lines” it had said.  What a joy it has been to share such a meandering and spectacular path as this.

 

Your view

As you will see from this and other posts, I am an avid walker.  Would love to hear any of your favorite walks in Italy, or anywhere else in Europe for that matter.

 

 

 

 

 

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Positano

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Positano 40.629197, 14.590015

Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

3 comments to Walk the Amalfi Coast

  • Libby Yap  says:

    Wonderful description of this special area, Sue. It brings back so many happy memories. Thank you for recommending Francesco to me last year. His knowledge, attitude and singing were magnificent. Now to plan the next trip..

  • Mark  says:

    On the Amalfi Coast there are many wonderful view expecially on a coastline walking adventure. About the Path of the Gods, I really suggest to wear proper shoes and bring some water and some snack, it’s not really difficult path, but definitely it’s not easy. We been on 2015 in May, the weather was fantastic and the temperature mild, me, my wife and our 10 yo daugheter had the path of the gods starting from Bomerano, we had a fantastic 4 hours walking to Nocelle, for our convenience we used a car service to reach Bomerano, as we were based in Sorrento, it was the same company that provide us the transfer from the airport, Rosario made all things perfect!

    • Sue Gough Henly  says:

      It sounds like you had a wonderful adventure. I did all the walks in the region with my daughter who was 12 at the time and she loved it as well. Aren’t the views sensational!

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