Halfway along the Pathway of the Gods I had an epiphany along the lines of ‘WTF was I thinking when I signed on for this’. (Yes, I know, nowhere near as profound as the gospel according to St Paul, but no less pertinent given the time and the place.)
The ‘this’ being the Amalfi Coast’s most famous walk, the Sentiero degli Dei or Pathway of the Gods. Every celestial superlative penned has been used to describe the views from the track cut into the cliffs above the Gulf of Salerno. To suggest otherwise borders on sacrilege in Italy.
Yet, there I was surrounded by paradise on earth – tiny villages clinging to cliffs, slivers of beaches, deep gorges, terraced vines and everywhere the blue of the sky and the sea – praying for deliverance.
Mea culpa time. The devilish combination of rasping breath and pounding heart was punishment for my sins. I had broken the first commandment of walking: Thou shall take it slow and steady.
Let me explain: The POTG should have been a walk in the park for someone who had trained for three months. It’s only seven kilometres, mostly flat and classified as easy. If you walk from east to west, starting in the sleepy mountain village of Bomerano and finishing in Novello, a hamlet above Positano, as our gang on the Peregrine Adventures’ Spirit of Amalfi trip did, you actually descend 100 metres.
That said, there are a couple of hard(ish) scrambles upwards and one of them led to my undoing. My eagerness (or ego if you will) to have a Hillary/Norgay moment and beat my fellow journeymen and women to the highest point on the walk was responsible for my fall from grace.
Unless ego is driving you, walking is the best way to explore the Amalfi. It gives you time to savour the sights, smells and sounds of this paradise. Anyway, the roads are impossible. One thousand bends, most of them hairpins and drivers who believe they possess the skill of a F1 driver. Now that is hell.
For most part, our own two feet provided the transport on Peregrine’s Amalfi eight-day trip. Although we did jump on slow local buses to the POTG trailhead memorably caught ferries to and from the isle of Capri. (No exploration of the Amalfi coast would be complete without a ferry ride. It gives a perspective on and reverence for the endeavours of generations past who carved a life out of the cliffs with little more than their hands.)
Fittingly, the accommodation was divided between the mountains – two nights, and the coast – four nights. While the transcendent beauty of the coast and its villages hog the headlines, the mountains of Amalfi deliver a glimpse of Italian life much as it always has been lived.
For instance, in our mountain base, the charming village of Agerola, firecrackers greet the birth of a new baby, children walk to school in impossibly smart uniforms that could only be designed by an Italian, the fussball tables outside cafes are always in use, crystal-clear water spurts out of a drinking fountain in the main square, and shops sell essentials not tourist fodder.
The bulk of our week was spent in the tiny, sea-level village of Atrani. While its nearest neighbour, Amalfi, sucks up all the touristic oxygen, for my money the smaller Atrani, consisting of little more than a town square with excellent cafes and restaurants, is the perfect base from which to explore the coast.
This might sound like heresy but the only disappointment – and it was a slight one – was Amalfi’s most famous town, Positano. Don’t get me wrong, it is very beautiful. The issue for me is there is little evidence of life beyond tourism.
It was no purgatory visiting it, but it’s just not as fascinating as the other places we explored on the eight-day walking trip.
Like that other swinging 60s icon, the isle of Capri, which set my heart aflutter … in a good, not heart-attack, kind of way.
The flotilla of super yachts in Capri’s harbour, one of which just had to be James Packer’s distinctive icebreaker, told me the island remains in favour with the rich and famous. But, unlike Positano, Capri still possesses a beating heart, as our group discovered when we walked across the spine of the island.
Our ramble on Capri took us beyond the glamourous township through a labyrinth of laneways and pathways, past houses grand and humble, schools, football fields and tiny village shops. We ate locally, caught fish and drank a moreish Coste d’Amalfi white wine surrounded only by locals.
That’s the thing about walking. You can get up close and personal with locals in a way that rarely happens otherwise. One old-timer we encountered on a three-hour walk from Atrani to the glorious, cliff-top town of world-heritage Ravello, my pick for the most beautiful place I have ever visited, was particularly memorable.
Nearing his century, he was resting on a ledge by the pathway and happy to while away the time talking to us.
When our guide Marco explained that we were walking for fun, our new-found friend laughed at the absurdity of it. Why, why would you do that, he said. He only walked when he had to. We laughed with him.
Peregrine Adventures’ Spirit of Amalfi eight-day tour from $2800, including accommodation, all breakfasts and four dinners, arrival transfer from Naples, entrance to Pompeii, Naples sightseeing tour and daily walks. It also includes local transport and guided daily walks.