Among the gods on the Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast, Italy -- You walk slowly on the Path of the Gods high above Positano for fear of cutting a switchback short and falling over a cliff. Your imagination starts playing tricks, keeping you on the lookout for brigands and satyrs. You get used to going astray on trails that peter out into nothing or dead-end at farmhouses guarded by furiously barking dogs. Then, of course, you must retrace your steps, all straight up or down.

It’s agony ... and ecstasy, for here, on the southern side of the Sorrento Peninsula, between Naples and Salerno, the Lattari Mountains come to a screeching halt, in one of the great meetings of land and sea. Like Big Sur, the Amalfi Coast is a place of savage beauty, all truculence and temerity.

In other ways, though, it is more like France’s civilized Cote d’Azur, attracting the stylish and well-to-do. Their reclusive villas overlook villages, stacked on the mountainsides above rocky headlands, where a traveler can be assured of superb southern Italian cuisine and luxurious accommodations.

Most people come for the sun and pebble strands, the shopping and seafood. A walking tour along the fabled Amalfi is something only the hardy British would dream up. It suited me, though. I visited in October, at the end of high season, when the Amalfi can be too damp and overcast for sun worship.

My short, self-guided tour, with luggage transfers and reserved hotel rooms, was rated moderately difficult by Inntravel, the English company that arranged it. I would cover 14.4 miles in two days, with a day of rest in Ravello before starting and another at the end in Positano, treading paths that cleave to the cliffs above the coast. Given my proclivity for getting lost, I’m sure I walked twice as many miles as the route description foretold.

Car-free piazza

The tour started in Ravello. From Rome, I had taken a train to Naples with the sobering sentinel of Vesuvius on the southeast horizon.

An Inntravel agent found me in the throngs at Naples central station on the Piazza Garibaldi and deposited me in a brand new, air-conditioned Lancia minivan. Instead of taking the infamously winding coast road around the Sorrento Peninsula, he took the shortcut across its neck, to the heights above the coast, a 90-minute trip.

Perched high above the coast, little Ravello is ravishing, not least because its center is car-free. So when we arrived, my driver got a porter for my luggage and left me to walk from the piazza to the Villa Maria, where a room was booked for me.

The hotel is shelved on the side of a steep hill, with a terrace restaurant stretching to its edge, like an infinity pool. Inside, solid 19th century highboys, crystal and white linen suggest Sunday dinner at an Italian grandma’s. My room on a lower floor had a private terrace, tasseled lamps and a double bed covered by a crocheted spread that fit the old-fashioned setting.

Knowing I had to start walking early the next morning, I immediately set out to explore the town, heading first to the nearby Villa Cimbrone. Established by refugee patricians from Rome around the time of dissolution of the empire in the 4th and 5th centuries, it was embellished in the early Middle Ages’ Arab-Sicilian-Norman style common on the Amalfi, where thriving maritime trade brought contact with Byzantium and the Muslim world. In the early 20th century, the villa belonged to Lord Grimthorpe, who fell under its spell, lovingly restored it and invited English friends to stop in on their grand European tours.

The villa -- now a hotel -- and its lush, romantic gardens, open to the public, are still besotting. From the Moorish arched cloister near the entry, a wisteria-draped alley leads to the Terrace of Infinity, where busts of ancient Romans punctuate breathtaking coastal views. There I found a group of elderly women straight out of an English novel, painting the scenery in watercolor.

“Angela, that’s awfully good,” one of them commented.

Then bells began to peel from the towers of churches scattered far below, reverberating against the valley walls.

I quickly discovered that Ravello is a warren of stone walkways, lined by houses with plaques commemorating the visits of such famous people as D.H. Lawrence, who wrote part of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” in a building on San Francisco street. The lane converges with other winding arteries on the piazza, lined by cafes, galleries and shops selling riotously colored ceramics from Salerno area factories.

At one side of the piazza, a promenade bordered by pine trees looks over the valley. Across from it, steps mount to the 11th century Cathedral of St. Pantaleone. Though the cathedral has been renovated in the Baroque style, its marble pulpit, studded with mosaics and set upon six sculpted lions, suggests the town’s medieval heyday.

Ravello is a cultured place, the scene of year-round film and music festivals held in the church and gardens, such as those at Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo, just off the piazza. I bought a ticket for a chamber music concert that night in the cathedral’s chapel, then had dinner at the Villa Maria. It was a decorous and delicious affair, starting with pumpkin and clam risotto. Grilled sea bass followed, expertly boned tableside by my waiter. For dessert, I had lemon and chocolate souffle.

When I went back out for the concert that night, the temperature had dropped and the wind had kicked up, making me worry about my soon-to-begin walking adventure. Bach and Mozart assuaged my concerns, as did a deep, dreamless sleep.

Day 1: Turn right, turn left

I slipped away the next morning with only a bottle of water, an orange and an energy bar in my backpack. I felt sure I could buy whatever else I needed on my way to the day’s destination, the town of Amalfi. My luggage was tagged and ready to be transferred. I had a route description and map, provided by the tour company, which clearly showed Mt. Vesuvius, Salerno and the Sorrento Peninsula, but it wasn’t of further help to a walker.

Crossing the piazza on my way out of Ravello, I saw a tow-haired boy sitting on a bench, devouring a large cornetto, the sugar-coated croissants commonly served for breakfast in Italy. I said buon giorno. He brushed crumbs off his mouth and looked at me with dark brown eyes, as lovely as the Amalfi Coast in their way.

At first, it was easy to follow the route description. I found the mule track that delves into the canyon behind Ravello and the woodland trail that crosses it. But then I got confused by such directions as these:

“From this point, you are aiming to reach the church up on your left, Santa Caterina, across the valley. Continue along the woodland trail that descends to a T-junction, and bear left here on a wider path heading toward a stream with a small concrete dam. Cross over the stream (usually dry), and continue along the paved path on the other side heading up toward the Santa Caterina church....”

I never found a paved path, though I made it across the ravine on trails blazed, I fancied, by wild boars. When I reached the church, I discovered it was dedicated to San Pietro, not Santa Caterina, which meant I was in the wrong village. A woman in the grocery store across the square, where I should have bought a sandwich, set me back on my way. But then I got lost again, rounding a headland in search of the path through the Valle delle Ferriere Nature Reserve.

This time, I met a Danish pianist who lived nearby. He puzzled over my route description, then told me to keep walking. He said he wished he could go with me because the pine groves along the way were lovely. But he had heard that a key bridge in the nature reserve had burned in a recent forest fire.

I ate what I had in my backpack as I paused among the aromatic pine trees, looking toward Capri and filling my water bottle from an antique-looking tap. After lunch, with many false starts and considerable backtracking, I found the overgrown, burned bridge but decided I’d be a fool to try to cross it.

So I relied on my own wits to get to Amalfi, now clearly visible below. I chose a route to the village of Pontone. There I had an espresso in a cafe and got directions, which took me down an endless flight of steps to the back side of Amalfi.

Thus, I limped, hungry and exhausted, into the capital of chic on the coast, as the sun fell into the sea at passeggiata time. The tight ravine that defines the terrain of town led me and the strolling crowds, like a funnel, to the waterfront, where I got a chocolate and coconut gelato and a bus ticket, as directed by my route description, to my evening stop in the mountaintop town of Bomerano.

Fortunately there was enough time before the bus left to visit the Amalfi Cathedral, with its checkerboard brick facade, steep steps and asymmetrical tower. The best thing about it is its 13th century Paradise Cloister, decorated in a southern Italian hash of Byzantine mosaics, Roman sarcophagi and twisting Arab columns.

I wished I could have spent the night in Amalfi, though, I gather, hotels there are tres cher. Instead, Inntravel had booked a room for me that night at the modest, family-run Pensione Due Torri, a 45-minute bus ride into the mountains above the coast. The wait for dinner and bed was elongated but put me near the start of my next morning’s foray on the Path of the Gods.

It also gave me a chance to ride along the inimitable Amalfi Coast road, built in 1852, with straight drops into the sea and no quarter given to the fainthearted. Every time the bus driver rounded a hairpin curve, he honked his clownish horn. Lights below flickered on, in the haphazard way of a bursting firecracker.

The driver let me and a large group of English hikers off in Bomerano, around the corner from the modern motel-like pensione, where I was immediately ensconced in front of the fireplace with a glass of red wine, next to the hotelier’s elderly mama. My solo status set me apart from the jolly crew and won me assiduous attention at dinner, which started with a table full of cold antipasti, followed by fish pasta and fruit.

It was so cold that night that I slept under two woolen blankets in my neat second-floor double. I heard the Brits come in from a night on the town. Then I rolled over and, like an Amalfi path, petered out.

Day 2: Path not chosen

At breakfast the next morning -- a buffet of fruit, cheese, yogurt, cereal and large cornettos -- I eavesdropped on the English group debating whether to take the bus or walk on. It was pouring, and the uniformly gray sky offered no promise of sun. I could have caught a bus to Positano, my next stop, but that didn’t sound like fun. So I set off with a lunch from the pensione kitchen, in a drizzle, down the road that led to the square, where there’s a sign for the Path of the Gods.

I went astray, resulting in a detour into the Bomerano suburbs and a not-too-fruitful request for directions from a garbage collector. I’m still trying to figure out why I chose wrong whenever two paths diverged. I have a reliable sense of direction. Maybe it was the haphazardly pointing Italian signposts or my English directions, which were, at once, vague and detailed.

Lost again among vineyards about 30 minutes later, I found myself at a house on a mountaintop, where a man was working on the roof. I hailed him and asked for directions to the Path of the Gods, which brought him down the ladder.

He looked me over, then said, “You’re all alone. I’m worried about you.”

With that, he escorted me back down the mountainside to the clearly marked start of the Path of the Gods, requiring him to climb back up to his house afterward, no small sacrifice for a stranger.

Fortunately for me, the way from there was well marked, around hairpin turns overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, past vineyards, into shaded canyons and through rosemary bushes, from which I collected a bouquet. There were occasional straight bits where goats with bells tied to their necks roamed in a panoply of colors, making me think about varieties of Italian cheese.

The rain slackened into a fine, complexion-blooming mist, through which I could see black clouds jockeying with patches of sunshine for domination of the serpentine coast. Thus blessed, I gradually loosened up and started to think about gelato in Positano instead of brigands on the path.

I was getting close to Nocelle, a hilltop suburb of Positano, when I met a man heading onto the route to attend to his goats. His name was Antonio, he said, and he was old, short, stout and homely, hardly the sort to put me on edge. So when he said I had to see his house overlooking the coast, I went with him and sat at his kitchen table, taking in the view and perusing his family album. Things went well enough until I told him I had to go.

Then Antonio jumped up and said, half-desperately, “Meet me in Positano tonight. I’m single. I have no children or wife!”

I rushed out and through Nocelle, taking a set of about 2,000 steps to the coast road at a run.

Lemon-scented splendor

Positano is another lovely mountainside-cleaving Amalfi town, with a black sand beach and beautifully decrepit air, once devoted to fishing. Now, it’s all about selling tourists teeny-tiny bikinis, gelato, pizza and everything lemony -- candles, soap, candy and the region’s after-dinner drink, Limoncello.

By the time I reached the luxurious Hotel Buca di Bacco, tucked above the church and seafront in Positano, my muscles were so sore that all I wanted was a hot bath and bed. I told the front desk clerk to send tea up to my room and a vase for my rosemary. He looked at my sorry little bouquet and said, “That’s for chicken.”

My room was far fancier than the others, with a TV and king-size bed, two gracious balconies and a marble-lined bath. While I rested, it started to rain again, water scouring the town, then draining away into the sea.

At dinner in the shoreside restaurant, I gazed at the deserted, off-season promenade, feeling like a character in a Thomas Mann novel. But then the food came -- clam spaghetti with shells that clattered when I twirled, grilled calamari on a bed of lettuce, chestnut souffle cake, followed by an obligatory tot of Limoncello -- and I knew I wasn’t lost anymore.