Who is up for a trip to Italy??? I have a special guest blogger today. Carole Waterhouse is here to talk about her trip to that beautiful country last month. Enjoy!
Turn Right at the Madonna
By Carole Waterhouse
The Amalfi coastline in southern Italy is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe, an area of craggy cliffs and serene valleys full of lemon groves, with tiny secluded beaches and picturesque towns built on hillsides so steep they appear to be tumbling into the sea. An early explorer to the area described it as a place where only the ocean was horizontal, anything even remotely resembling land appearing vertical. It’s a place where colorful majorca domes on churches glisten in the light, houses look like pastel boxes, and flowers bloom everywhere.
Although rugged, the Amalfi coastline is a walker’s paradise, as I discovered on a recent inn-to-inn hiking trip. In five days, I completed walks ranging from 9-15 kilometers with an average ascent/descent of 500 meters. While steep at times—a “hike” could involve a full hour of walking up or down steps—seeing this area on foot is a way of truly appreciating its uniqueness. Walking through the groves where lemons are grown adds to the appreciation of that slice in next morning’s tea and there is nothing like the experience of sitting on a quiet beach listening to the sound of waves washing through pebbles.
I chose a self-guided itinerary organized by a walking company called One Foot Abroad. They booked rooms for me and make arrangements to transport my luggage from hotel to hotel so that all I had to carry was a daypack. They then provided detailed walking instructions, complete with emergency numbers should I get off track or experience an injury, and then I set off on my own—literally. While most walkers travel in pairs or small groups, I have a preference for going solo, a way of becoming truly in tune with my surroundings.
Slowing down and spending more time in a single place can mean sampling the tremendous variety it has to offer. Along the Amalfi Coast it meant seeing the changes in color in the ocean from bright turquoise to deep, cobalt blue and watching the way the towns with their unique pastel colors and the limestone cliffs surrounding them changed moods in different light. Walking also leads to interesting encounters with locals. A man who was trimming weeds stopped his work to serenade me as I passed by and I received my first ever Italian lesson on a terrace with spectacular views over the ocean. The woman I met there was concerned that I didn’t know the proper words for food, even though it’s hard not to feast in Italy regardless of the language spoken. A walking itinerary also means an opportunity to experience towns the tour buses miss. In Pontone, a tiny village high in the cliffs, I watched children ride their bicycles around and around a tiny square, the only spot that was flat, and as I walked from village to village that early Sunday morning, I had the luck of arriving at each town just in time to be greeted by the sound of church bells pealing.
My tour began in the town of Amalfi, the location of one of the most beautiful churches in the area with its black and white striped exterior and a colorful mosaic façade. An area known for its papermaking industry, the walk passed through a stream-lined valley with an impressive waterfall and vine-covered ruins from the mills, all surrounded by lemon and olive groves. I passed through Pontone and on to Ravello, an especially beautiful town whose villas have extensive gardens that look down into the sea, then went town steps and steps and more steps to the small town of Atrani, which just out into the sea, then back to Amalfi.
The second day involved a nine mile walk from Amalfi to Priano, a quieter town more often visited by Italian vacationers than international ones. The walk began on a terrace overlooking the sea and followed an old mule track. For a short time I walked with two mules that were being used to haul debris from a building that was being renovated. From there, my trail wound up and down the hillside, across terraces with flower-covered villas, passing through tiny towns and by interesting churches, and involved scrambling down a ravine that ended in a secluded cove. The “path” made use of sidewalks, roads, steps, and forest trails—a maze that offered a view into all sides of local life. Animals are apparently well-cared for—I was impressed by the number of pans full of left-overs I stepped around outside doors. Religious shrines appeared in all kinds of unexpected places, including alcoves in walls and along tight turns in the road. The directions I was given often sounded vague, but made sense while following them. There were comments like take the left at the shrine or turn right just before the house with the red roof, or take the right fork at the Madonna. Riding a ferry back to Amalfi the next day in an attempt to trace my own path from the ocean, I found it impossible to see how I had made it through what at times appeared to be shear rock cliffs.
The third and forth days were spent on the famous Sentiero dei Degli, or Path of Gods, the first a circular route over Praiano, the next on the hike from Praiano to Positano, both offering spectacular views over the ocean and surrounding villages and countryside. The walk to Positano began with steps lined with crosses that led to a monastery where there was a small church with frescoes inside. Scrambling upward, the walk then opened up into what my route notes described as “the most famous section of the most famous path of southern Italy.” With a thousand foot drop into the ocean below, there were breathtaking views of terraced gardens and the surrounding towns. The walk was exhilarating for both its height and its views. Despite the trail’s fame, there were only a handful of other walkers. That was my experience most of the days walking here. This is a place rich in its scenery and vegetation and full of enticing scents, and in the hills at least, a place where you can find the solitude to truly become immersed in everything the area has to offer.
The final day of the tour when into the higher elevations, beginning with a bus ride to Montepertuso and following paths in a park that loomed overhead, passing by cliffs used by climbers, views of a natural arch built into the rock, and fields full of wildflowers, always again with incredible views of the hillsides and sea.
Each of the towns are remarkably unique and carry their own specialties. Amalfi’s paper is used by the Vatican for official correspondence and there is a museum where you can watch the process and buy paper with pressed flowers inside. Positano is known for its unique clothing styles and is full of art galleries. Sorrento, on the other side of the same peninsula, its famous for its in-laid wood. Each town also handles the hills differently. Amalfi’s side streets are built into the rock like long white tunnels. In Praiano, streets that run parallel to the sea are flat winding lanes, while those run perpendicular are steep steps. Positano’s wind more gently upward, the main one covered in wisteria.
The Amalfi coast isn’t the only attraction in the area. Nearby Sorrento is a larger town with winding medieval streets that are mercifully flat and terraces that look down into the sea and harbor. From there it’s and easy train ride, one where musicians stroll the aisles playing for passengers, to Pompeii, a vast archeological site where time stopped after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Sorrento is also one of the gateways to Capri, the upscale island that is often described as a mountain rising out of the sea. It, too, is considered to be a walker’s paradise, provided, as one of my guidebooks states, you are at least part mountain goat. Part of the island consists of pedestrian only lanes leading to the ruins of Tiberius’s castle and the natural arch that extends into the sea, one of the island’s most famous sites. The paths are marked with colorful ceramic tiles. In the center of the island is a chairlift that leads to the top of Mount Solaro. The small town of Anacapri has a church with an amazing tile floor and villas, including the eccentric Red House, a castle-like structure made of a combination of tiles and other pieces of artwork.
One of the best parts of traveling are the completely unexpected surprises. I began and ended my vacation in Rome, where I stayed in a hotel that was a converted monastery. During my first stay, I was amused by the signs asking visitors not to hang laundry outside the window, an Italian custom, because clothes wouldn’t look appropriate strung out along the side of a cathedral. On the day before my flight home, I return to the same hotel. After checking in, I was given a key and sent to the third floor, where I was told to cross the terrace and find my room on the other side. The terrace was the roof of the cathedral, and when I walked outside, all of Rome seemed to stretch out before me. The Amalfi coast, I knew, would be full of remarkable views. This one wasn’t bad either.
A creative writing professor at California University of Pennsylvania, Carole Waterhouse has traveled through England, Wales and Ireland by bicycle, recently hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, has gone trekking in Turkey’s Cappadocia region and has completed other walking vacations in the Austrian and Swiss Alps. A fiction writer, she has written two novels, The Tapestry Baby and Without Wings, as well as a collection of short stories, The Paradise Ranch. You can visit her website at www.carolewaterhouse.com.