WALKING THE AMALFI COAST
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WALKING THE AMALFI COAST
By Susan Gough Henly
A sunny day on the Amalfi coast…steep, craggy limestone hills rise like an ancient dragon from the indigo depths of the Tyrhenian 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 queues on the cliff-hugging roads.
Enter the Peregrine Amalfi walking tour…the perfect way to slow down and smell the rosemary, while marvelling 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(Lacryma Christi) 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.
At this stage most adults would be devising places to park the kids but I decide to bring along one of mine…12 year old Julia…for the ride, or rather the walk. Peregrine has ingeniously adapted some of its adventures to appeal to parents who want to share with their children an active holiday that combines history and geography with great food.
Julia and I arrive at the Hotel Neapolis in the old quarter of Naples (most accommodation is in comfortable three star hotels) in time to meet up with our guide and the rest of the group, which consists of two Melbourne families, a doctor and his wife and two daughters aged 11 and 13 and a couple with their own construction company plus their 12 year old daughter and 10 year old son. Our guide, Francesco Carpegna, is an eloquent Italian American who has been living in Positano for 12 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, and a love of life that ranges from joining in the kids’ games to discussing philosophy with the adults, while still managing to tell us the juicy bits about who stays where along this remarkable coastline. In short: a genius.
Next morning, as we head in our private bus to Mount Vesuvius, Francesco regales us with tales of how Pliny the Younger gave the only surviving eyewitness account of its massive 79 AD eruption describing the shape of the cloud he could see from afar as the branches of an umbrella pine spread on a very long trunk. We trek into the Valley of Hell, where the kids do some moon walking down a desolate volcanic ash flow, before climbing up the ridge of Mount Somma and circumnavigating the rim of Mt Vesuvius with its spectacular views to the Bay of Naples and across to the lush green Monte Lattari range, site of some of the richest dairy pasture in Italy.
We spend the next two nights at the delightful family-run Hotel Risorgimento in San Lazzaro di Agerola, located high above the Amalfi coast. Our first dinner is perfection: freshly made pasta with artichokes, veal saltimbocca and local swordfish, and, for dessert, the plumpest, ripest peaches and figs.
The next day we explore the prosperous merchant town of Pompeii, which we learn was only rediscovered in the 16th century after being buried under metres of volcanic stone and ash. We marvel at the grand theatre, the forum and law courts, temples to the Roman gods, public baths and laundries, shops, and elaborate houses with four dining rooms for each of the seasons…would Melbourne look this remarkable 2000 years later, we all wonder.
This evening is a kid fest: a pizza-making lesson at the hotel restaurant. They douse everything in flour as they learn to knead the dough to just the right consistency, spread fresh tomato paste, mozzarella, and basil leaves…the true Neapolitan pizza, courtesy of Queen Marguerita as Francesco explains…. and shovel it into the wood-fired oven for a mere six minutes. The results: bellisimo.
Now we start our walk in earnest…from San Lazzaro to the town of Amalfi, while our bags are transported by car to the Hotel Residence across from the main beach in Amalfi, our home for the next four nights.
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 kids sing and call out across the valleys to hear their echoes return. They create faces from acorns when we pass through a cool oak forest. But the temperature is rising on this late September morning and bodies begin to wilt. Miraculously, when we reach the road near the entrance to Amalfi, a transcendent site appears: The Posaflora gelati shop perched precariously above the aquamarine sea. I make a note: best ice cream with view in the world.
We walk along the road under Francesco’s watchful eye, past the bougainvillea-bedecked Hotel Santa Caterina, its elevator dropping direct to a private beach, and into the bus-choked town of Amalfi. The afternoon free, we fling on our bathers and head straight for the beach…grey pebbled though it may be, the water is divine. We rent kayaks and paddle down the coast to explore hidden coves and rock-clinging villas on the way to the pretty village of Altrani.
Day four, 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. The kids are more interested in fishing coins out of the fountain.
We lure them away with 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 chestnut trees, lemon groves and gardens overflowing with ripe red tomatoes and peppers, basil, purple eggplant and figs, and bright orange pumpkins. Everyone is hungry. 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.
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. Now we are surrounded by towering rain forest trees, dripping vines and massive boulders. Suddenly before us a 20-metre-high waterfall cascades down sheer moss-covered rock. The kids are enthralled with the magic kingdom we have entered. Surely, we are no longer in parched southern Italy. They hop from boulder to boulder, discovering frogs, ducking under fern fronds and reaching 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 preglacial age.
The kids find a pool deep enough for swimming and plunge…just for a few moments…into its icy depths. Refreshed and exhilarated they take off down the valley, past more ghostly ruins, past a dam 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 papermaking 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. The kids even make their own paper using the traditional techniques.
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 now-deserted Monastery of San Domenico, built on Roman foundations, which commands a spectacular view along the peninsula’s dragon tail. Farmers are putting the last of the grape harvest in crates to go via pulley down to sea level. Inside the church is a fresco painted by a member of the school of Giotto. 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. Far out to sea, the Islands of the Sirens continue to tantalise. Francesco tells us that Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev bought the largest island and, before him, the architect Le Corbusier created a majestic villa for the Russian choreographer Leonoide Massine. Below us is the elegant San Pietro Hotel, popular with the Murdoch and Packer families, clinging to the cliff above its private beach.
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. Francesco impresses the kids by explaining this was the set for the movie “Hook.”
Everyone is hot and tired and hungry but soon we are walking under grape arbours at the entrance to the village of Nocelle, home to the delightful Sante 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.
Plans are hatched amongst the younger set to catch the bus to Positano, meanwhile a lovely languid mood spreads across the table. We miss the bus. The only option is to walk down thousands of steps to the sea. The splendid meal has, however, worked miracles and the kids bounce on ahead…leaving delicate messages in flowers, leaves and twigs on the steps…500, 1000, 1500 and finally 1673 steps to the bottom.
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 overflowing with boutiques. Each of us licks a mountainous gelati as we walk along the beach, the kids skipping pebbles across impossibly blue water. 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 with my youngest child such a convoluted, meandering and spectacular path as this.
Francesco Carpegna is at Positano Adventure Walks
e-mail ringhio 51 @hotmail.com