Just Don’t Do It On Your Own

I’m not really into the ‘Bucket List’ thing.  Books with titles like ‘The Hundred – or even more remarkable – Thousand Places You Must See Before You Die’ strike me as weirdly chore-like.  Sorry, can’t die yet, haven’t been to…

The Amalfi Coast is  probably in a few of those 'bucket list' books.

The Amalfi Coast is probably in a few of those ‘bucket list’ books.

Comunque (coh-moong-quay) – one of those words that really should be among the first words taught in any Italian course – right up there with sciopero (strike), chiuso (closed) and guasto (broken – I’ve seen that one on countless WC doors).  Without words like comunque, what are we to do with all the paradoxes, contradictions and inexplicable, but often loveable bits that make us who we are?

..and deservedly so.  You really must see it if you can.

Bucket list or not, you really must see it if you can.

Comunque, (which, as you may have guessed, means ‘however’) in spite of my lack of enthusiasm for bucket lists, there was one thing I’d always wanted to do and never had time for on previous trips to the Amalfi Coast.  Il Sentiero degli Dei. This time I set aside three days for the ‘Path of the Gods’, the route the Greek gods took whenever they felt like coming down from Mt. Olympus to visit Homer’s sirens.

In spite of all the confusion as to exactly which route the gods took, it is generally agreed that the path along the mountains inland from Positano was part of it.

One of the most beautiful stretches of the Gods’ Path overlooks Positano.

When I first started researching this part of my trip I had a hard time figuring out what was going on.   The Lattari Mountains have been the site of a lot of path-making over the centuries.  After the gods left, a motley assortment of briganti and contrabbandieri (no translation needed for those words – as if they were part of some universal language…) moved in and added a few paths of their own.  Then, about a century ago, they set off for easier pickings.   Sicily perhaps?   Since then, the paths have been used primarily by local villagers and a few energetic artists and aristocrats on the Grand Tour.

Lattari Mountains near la Ginestra.

Lattari Mountains.

The end result of all this walking about is that the mountains are now riddled with paths and I was having a hard time figuring out which one the gods had taken.  Then I came across an Italian website in which the author commented on the molta confusione around which path, or perhaps which combination of paths, was the real thing.  While this didn’t make planning my trip any easier, it was strangely comforting.

‘It’s all downhill from here’ is not usually something we seek out, but one thing I had no problem figuring out was that I needed a base from which all my wanderings would be downward.   Those Greek and Roman gods all had wings or could transform themselves into things with wings whenever they wanted – remember Leda and the Swan?  Finally I found a place close to one of the highest points of entry.

Agriturismo La Ginestra.

Agriturismo La Ginestra.

La Ginestra is an agriturismo in a small hamlet called Santa Maria del CastelloCastello for short.  The thing about Castello is that, even though it is overlooks the Amalfi Coast and even though there are plenty of pathways from the top of the mountains to the sea below, there is not even one rotabile (roh-tah-bee-lay) – vehicular road – from anywhere on the Amalfi Coast up to the hamlet.

This meant I had to take the bus west, back to Sorrento, transfer to the Circumvesiana – the train I had taken from Naples to Sorrento at the beginning of my trip – go east as far as Vico Equense, a village on the north side of the peninsula – we’re now in the Bay of Naples – and then take another bus up into the mountains heading back south towards the Gulf of Salerno and the Amalfi Coast.  This is is all very disorienting, especially when, just as you’ve got used to the sun setting to the right as it does on the Amalfi Coast, the next night there it is, sinking into the sea – on the far left.  Also, normally I will do anything to avoid retracing my steps.  All I can say is it looked a lot easier on my computer screen.

Vico Equense is momentarily lit up by sunlight.  To the right on the far shore Vesuvius looms over Naples.

Vico Equense is momentarily lit up by sunlight. To the right on the far shore Vesuvius looms over Naples.

I arrived mid-afternoon, later than I had expected, but then I only found out at the station in Vico Equense that the local bus didn’t actually go all the way to Castello.  This is when I realized that nowadays even a Luddite needs to travel with a cell phone.  There was a small Tabaccheria on the other side of the piazza.  Maybe they could tell me where there was a public phone booth.

It turns out there are no public phone booths in Vico Equense.  I eventually came to the conclusion there are no public phone booths left in all of Campania, the name of the region – like Tuscany in the north.  There probably weren’t any up there either, but I know my way around Tuscany and had never needed one.  Besides I’d always had a car.

Sometimes you just have to swallow your pride and throw yourself on the mercy of strangers.  I explained my predicament.  One of my theories as to why Italy is such a popular destination is that apart from the art and the ruins and the architecture and the food etc., the people themselves are generally very welcoming, very accepting of others tromping all over their land.  Even those who have no real involvement in the tourist industry.  Not for the first time I was rescued by locals.  The signora at the cash register called la Ginestra.  After quite a bit of discussion, she finally hung up – do people still say that with cell phones? – and turned to me.  I was to get on one of the buses in the piazza – it didn’t really matter which – one went up the mountain clock-wise, the other counter clock-wise – and ask the driver to let me off at il Panificio Castellano.  Pane means bread. My drop-off point was a bread store.  There I was to talk the woman who runs the bread store into calling la Ginestra and ask them to come pick me up.

Normally the panificio would have been closed and the padrona long gone by the time I arrived but, luckily for me, she was having problems with one of the machines and had stayed late while an engineer looked things over.  As I told her my story, her face took on that ‘Is this straniera for real?’ look that I’ve come to expect in these situations.  As I explained in an earlier post – Flourishing , Flowering  Florence (Sept. 2013) – I have learned that if I just keep blathering on, the person I’m speaking to will eventually decide I’m not a total lunatic.

15 minutes later a young woman driving a mini jeep as battered as Vincenzo’s at Villa Maria pulled up at the panificio.  It was Antonella, a delightful and very enthusiastic young woman who helps take care of guests at la Ginestra.  When she learned that I wanted to walk along the Path of the Gods, she offered to show me where the paths began.

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The beginning of  the path down to Positano.

Antonella’s favourite stretch was le Tese, the path down to Positano.  It would take me about an hour and a half down and then a bit (?!) longer – she gave me a quick glance to assess my relative level of fitness – for the walk back up.

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Un sentiero a serpentina. The path literally zigzags its way down the mountain.

The villas of Positano follow the contours of the mountains to the was t and west of the tiny harbour.  west

The western portion of Positano from the sea …

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…and from le Tese.

This is as far down as I went.  As the snow falls outside my window, it is hard to remember how hot it was – unseasonably hot, not that you’ll ever hear me complain about the heat – and I now had a pretty good idea of how long it would take me to retrace my steps to the top.  It was fascinating to watch the boats and ferries come and go and the buses manoeuvre the narrow streets.  In the photo above, two buses are getting themselves in position for the pass-by.  The bus on the right has backed up – there is no way they can go by each other on a curve; the pedestrians who were on the narrow sidewalk have all scrambled out of the way and the buses are just about to start inching past each other.

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This was one of those times when I wished I had a telephoto lens that would show exactly how close those two buses really are.

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On the way back up there were lots of excuses to stop and admire the views.

Halfway there. I liked the seaward views a lot more than the mountain views.

Halfway there. I liked the seaward views a lot more than the mountain views.

The following day I headed west.  I wanted to be in good form for the third and hardest walk and Antonella had assured me the Monte Comune path was easy, much easier than the one to Positano.  She even showed me photos of her young children who had walked this path.  She hadn’t counted on my getting lost.

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To the right of Positano, one of the seemingly countless curves along SS163, the Amalfi Coast road.

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At one point the path led through a forest carpeted in wild cyclamen.

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The cyclamen went on and on.  Absolutely enchanting.

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With all the cyclamen I almost missed these autumn crocuses.

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From the top of Monte Comune, facing north across the Bay of Naples to that other, less reliable mountain, Vesuvius.

The photo above is the last one I took of that hike.  Somehow, shortly after I took this photo, I got lost and ended up climbing down the other side of the mountain.  In startling and, for me, frightening contrast to the rest of the area, it was totally overgrown.  Dense, thorny shrubs.  Long, thick vines that looked a lot like the Dog-Strangling Vine that has infested so much of Toronto’s few remaining natural spaces. And rough, uneven boulders – volcanic I suppose – half-hidden in the long grasses.  All of a sudden I had a Bucket List.  Don’t sprain an ankle.  Don’t get your eyes scratched.  Don’t be still up here when the sun starts to set.  Don’t take another trip without a cell phone.

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By the time I got back, I was famished. I can almost still taste this antipasto misto. Absolutely delizioso! It was more than I usually eat, but I polished it off – and the wine – without the slightest difficulty.

For my third and last day at la Ginestra, my plan was to take the path from Castello to Montepertuso, a remarkable geological formation in the mountains above Positano.

Before setting out I had a chat with Antonella.   She had seen me when I arrived the day before, my legs and arms covered with blood.  She warned me that this stretch of the Gods’ path was molto difficile.  Would take at least four hours.  (She was right.)  But I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic to sit and watch the clouds and I didn’t want regret to have any part in this trip.

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The path begins close to la Ginestra. The dead trees mark the trajectory of a fire that ravaged the area a few years ago. The agriturismo had been largely spared, but they had still lost many centuries old trees, iconic cypresses among them, in that fire.

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Montepertuso is the rocky outcrop towards the centre of this photo.

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I don’t think I will ever get over my amazement at the sight of these terraced mountain gardens.

I had been expecting something a little more...

I had been expecting something a little more…grandiose?

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Until recently, paths like this had been the only link between the mountain villages along the coast.

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Far below, Positano was more like a hazy idea.

At one point the path was totally blocked by a fallen tree.  (There was so much glare I couldn't take the phot facing into the sun so I shot this facing west shadow is me.)

At one point the path was totally blocked by a fallen tree. There was so much glare and not a lot of room to manoeuvre, I finally settled for this shot, shadow and all.

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Some parts of the path were more intimidating than others.

The crossroads.

Il trivio.

After what had been vaguely described as un paio di chilometri, I arrived at the trivio. This was the turn-off point for Montepertuso.  The literal translation of paio is ‘pair’, but given past experiences, I suspected a more figurative use of the word and had been on the lookout for this point for quite a while.   Getting lost once in these mountains was enough for me.

According to the website, the path is very well marked and indeed, if you look, very carefully, you will see a red and white mark on the path to the left.  I did not want to take this one.  Even the obviously intrepid writers warned that it ‘sale ripido‘ (rises steeply). The path in the middle – that’s the one just to the right of the steep one – was tempting.  It led to a terrace 890 meters asl and a panorama da rimanere incantati (which would leave you enchanted).   After all the spectacular views I’d seen so far that hadn’t got any particular mention, I figured this one had to be pretty special.  The only problem was you had to go 1.5 k in the wrong direction, some of which obviously was going to be uphill, which meant adding another 3 k to an already long hike.  I set out along the third path – the one to the right – although it didn’t really look like much of a path.

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Finally, the Caserma della Forestale.  According to the info board, there were only 1793 more metres to go, which would, in the opinion of the writers, take an hour and a half.  The level of difficulty was given as bassa (bass – suh). Low.

The views were even more stunning on this side of the mountain.

The views were even more stunning on this side of the mountain.

And the steps, as warned, were definitely irregular.

The steps, as warned, were definitely irregular.

Many of the discussions on the benefits of walking mention the importance of walking on uneven surfaces.  Apparently we have some muscles that are designed for all-terrain activity.  Even if we do heave ourselves up and get walking, the flat, smooth contours of our North American streets – and don’t forget the malls! – don’t give these muscles much of a workout and over time they get weak.  They are called the gluteus minimus and medius.  I learned all this after my walk, when I could barely move.

You'll have to use your imagination on this photo.  I was so upset when I saw all those sunspots

You can’t be in all the right places at all the right times.

OK.  I know.  This is a terrible photo.  I put it in, deleted it, put it back in, deleted it again and, in the end decided to let you have a look.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it is a good example of what happens when you try to force things.  But most of all I left it in because, even after all the spectacularly beautiful views I’d seen so far, this one was so beautiful, so unexpectedly lush – like something out of a magical fairy kingdom.  You’ll just have to use your imagination.

From the other side of the slope, facing the 'right' way for the light, you only get the faintest sense of what that cypress-studded slope was like.

Sometimes when we are in the middle of something, we have no idea what we are in the middle of.  Looking back through the cypress grove the colours are better and there are no sun spots but…

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Even if you miss the ‘clear indications’ – see the red and yellow mark on the left? – it would be hard to get lost here. Although decidedly more earthly than godly, there is only one way to go.

Just when I was beginning to think the Corpo Forestale people must have mismeasured the distance to Montepertuso, the rough, rocky steps were replaced with wide, flat cement steps.  Almost there.

Pertuso‘ (pair-too-zoh) is an ancient word for ‘hole’.  Montepertuso means ‘the mountain with the hole in it’.  Since its real, historical origins are, as they say, lost in the mists of time, a legend sprang up to fill the void.  This is how it goes:  Since time immemorial the mountain was the setting for heroic battles between the forces of Good, represented by the Virgin Mary, and Evil, personified by the Devil in the form of a snake.  After one particularly terrible battle, the former prevailed and hurled the vanquished snake and forces of Evil along with it, through the rock, leaving a hole as an eternal symbol of the triumphant power of Good.

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Even though I was on the lookout for the hole, what with keeping an eye on the steps and then getting distracted by these cats, I almost missed it.

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I wondered if they fought over spots. The one nestled among the leaves, and presumably olives, looked pretty comfortable.

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Montepertuso, the mountain with the hole.

It was difficult to imagine the mountain submerged under the sea and the strong underwater currents that created that hole, perhaps over millions of years.  It was even more difficult to conjure up an image of the Virgin Mary heaving a monstrous snake through the rock.

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Close by, more of those gorgeous Amaryllis.

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I was glad I’d gotten an early start. By the time I reached the village, clouds were already gathering over the peaks I’d walked along just a short while before.

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A lovely view, even in daylight.

The restaurant I had been to so many years ago was still there.  It had been even more enchanting at night with all the lights doing their twinkling thing along the coast, but maybe that was just my memory playing tricks on me.

It all looked wonderful and I was going to go for the Delizia di Papà Domenico, but she

It all looked wonderful and I had just about made up my mind to go for papà Domenico’s Delizia, but I always like to ask about the daily special.  When I asked the waiter which of the two he recommended, he said, la pasta del giorno.  Assolutamente! 

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Ravioli fatti in casa con porcini e tartufi. (Home-made ravioli with porcini mushrooms and truffles.) Deliziosi. Assolutamente!

When I had spoken with Antonella before setting out, she had strongly recommended I do the return trip by trasporti pubblici, ie. take the little local bus down from Montepertuso to Positano and from there the bus to Sorrento and from there the Circumvesiana and from there… I knew the routine by now and, not for the first time, wondered what I was thinking when I planned this part of my trip.  I was just glad I hadn’t dragged anyone along with me.  I was also glad a local had suggested taking the bus back.  Otherwise I might have felt like a bit of a wimp.

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Looking back from the bus stop in Montepertuso it was hard to believe I had been up in those mountains.

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Even through the dust-covered bus window, the views on the ride back were pretty spettacolare too.

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