Italian adventures – part two

Part two was kind of the whole point of the exercise. About three years ago before Covid, before some crappy bereavement experiences, and certainly before we even started to talk about the next world war, me and Mrs E started to plan the next stage of our lives. This was to involve decreasing any work that couldn’t be justified as improving the world around us, looking after the people that meant a great deal to us, and getting away into the rest of the world as much as it was humanly possible. As you can imagine, the pandemic has put a bit of a downer on the last part of that plan, and we decided that 2022 should be the point at which we relaunched our travelling ways. 

We’d heard a lot about the Amalfi Coast from friends, and we’d previously enjoyed the process of booking walking tours with On Foot Holidays, so it was just a question of time before the world opened up and we could dust off our walking boots. We sorted out an itinerary with them, then went through the laborious process of navigating our way around timed Covid tests, international green vaccine passes and passenger locator forms to get everything booked and sorted for March. Delightfully, requirement for most of this paperwork was revoked the weekend before we left, but hey ho.

We took the train from Florence through Rome and Naples to Salerno. Well, we tried to anyway – we pitched up at the station to get the train, and found it packed with angry people all of whom had had their trains delayed or cancelled because ‘someone had been found on the line’. There was a general lack of sympathy for this someone, most notably from the tourists in the station, rather than the locals, which perhaps suggested a bit of self interest, but again, hey ho.

Eventually we managed to get away, had a relaxed and speedy rattle down to the south, then found ourselves on a bus from Salerno to Amalfi. It’s hard to really do justice this journey without the aid of a video or some sort of zero gravity machine. It was a fairly sizeable bus, seating maybe 50 people, split between relaxed locals who were returning home from Salerno, from local markets or from school, and tourists like ourselves, frantically looking for the sick bag. The road snakes around the coast, enjoying a great many steep slopes and an even greater number of switchbacks, most of which have a vertical drop on the side, without any sort of guard rail. The driver of the bus had a fairly testing schedule to keep, and did so with the same sort of technique that you might have seen delivered by Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in ‘Speed’. Either that, or in some of the more rapid scenes in ‘The Italian Job’. Mrs E, who had been very keen to sit near the window and to enjoy the sea view, asked early on, in a slightly shakey voice, if I thought the whole trip would be like this. And it was.

Just over an hour later, we landed in Amalfi, where we enjoyed the experience of solid ground beneath our feet, found the hotel in a maze of valleys and staircases, and got introduced to a phenomenal view from our room, of yet another astonishingly stripey cathedral:

Out in the evening for our first disappointing meal of the trip, at one of the few restaurants open, and a lesson to ourselves that we should never again trust anywhere that had pictures on the menu. Undeterred by the experience of ‘Casa Wesawyoucoming’, we continued our uninterrupted run of gelato every night (85% chocolate fondant and lemon della Nonna, thanks for asking), we took ourselves to bed, to be pleasantly awakened at 4:30am by the recycling efforts of Amalfi’s very own refuge management team. I’m guessing that they do all the recycling and waste management at such a ridiculous hour so they don’t disturb the tourists, but if so, it was a plan that dramatically backfired.

And so to the first walk of the trip, which was a climb up to the village of Ravello. This started with 380m of climbing which was pretty much vertical, and pretty hard going. There was an alternative easy walk, but on further investigation, this just started by taking the bus to Ravello. We opted to go for the harder walk, on account of this being a walking holiday, and after 30 minutes were coo-ing and aww-ing at the views.

When we first start looking at walking Amalfi Coast, I searched for some pictures online, and saw lots that looked like postcards. I guess I thought it unlikely that every view we had would be postcard worthy but I was dead wrong. Every time you look back on where you’ve come from, every time you turn a corner to look down to another cove, you just want to take another picture. To save effort describing every single picture we took, here is a generic drawing:

As we walked, Mrs E asked if I knew anything about how to take better pictures, and I bluffed my way through a vague explanation of the rule of thirds, where you split the picture into horizontal and vertical thirds, and typically place your subject into the third on the left or the right, allowing a wider image space to the side. We agreed that we’d try to take this approach on a lot of the photos we took going forward, with the added bonus that if and when we had a massive row and split up in the future, that we could edit each other out and still have an excellent set of square pictures to look back on.

We headed for the Villa Cimbrone on the way, we’d read a bit about this place, it was a favourite bolthole of Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Henry Moore, Winston Churchill and Greta Garbo. Humphrey Bogart filmed ‘Beat the Devil’ here and Gore Vidal (nothing if not a well travelled bloke) wrote that the view from the Villa was the most beautiful place that ever seen in all of his travels. Having built ourselves up to a fever pitch of excitement at walking in the footsteps of the rich and famous and taking in the astonishing vistas from the infinity gardens we found a notice on the main gate to say that everything was closed for the day.

This was a shame in a number of ways, but to put a positive spin on it, we managed to save a good deal of money on wasted wedding deposits. To explain, we’d started the morning with a video call from New Zealand from Jr Emu #1 and his lovely partner, who had called to say that they were now engaged which is fantastic news that fuelled every one of those bloody steps up to Ravello.

Apparently the Villa Cimbrone now functions primarily as a wedding venue, so if we’d had access to it in our current elated state it would only have been a matter of time before we put our first downpayment on some wildly impractical venue hire. Instead we spent time considering what hats to wear for the big day ahead and enjoyed a convoluted discussion on how the stag night was likely to map out, depending on who got the job of the best man. 

Back to the walk, and through Ravello, past the views to Atrani, and up to the Torre dello Ziro, a coastal watchtower built to protect against Saracen pirates. This is apparently haunted by the spirit of Giovanna D’Aragona and her children, who were locked up here after she was accused of having an affair with her butler.

So it’s probably pretty scary to come here at night, but also manages to be fairly testing during the day…

It takes about 15 minutes of climbing and sliding to get to the tower. There is no signage, you just go inside the pitch black opening, give thanks that your phone has a torch built into it, and start climbing the stone spiral staircase. Once you get to the top of this, you notice that someone has kindly installed some metal stairs and the sort of mesh cage that you see on cherry-pickers, that goes out over the top of the tower. You can stand on this and scare yourself stupid as you look down a couple of hundred metres through the metal mesh, and this is a good time to reflect on the levels of health and safety adherence there in place in different parts of the world. Standing and gingerly peering over the edge of the drop, I wondered just how much control and process would be in place in the UK to stop you from getting to this point, but here it’s just a long abandoned tower with a really scary and dangerous ascent just left for you to take your chances on.

Back to Amalfi via the Valley of the Mills – lots of descending on steps and slopes, and towards the bottom of the valley, past a number of abandoned paper mills which were straight out of the Scooby Doo sets. Huge buildings that are now just shells, and the memory of the Bambagina paper that had been produced here since the middle ages. Rather than just using wood pulp form paper, Carter Bambagina is made from the slurry pump by mixing water with wood, rags, cotton and hemp white. There are still a few ‘authentic Amalfi paper’ outlets around if you find yourself here, desperately needing a greener alternative department to parchment.

The second day of proper walking took us to Praiano – this would take about 25 minutes by car, but on foot, with lots of ups and downs it took us almost 6 hours. We were given a few route options, including taking the bus, and were a bit concerned that there were ‘less vertiginous’ choices, thereby making ‘vertiginous’ a word of the day. We opted for the longest and hardest option (still believing in our walking invincibility two days in), which took us through San Lazzaro at 650m and then onto the Abu Tabela path, which stretches all the way down to Praiano. Abu Tabella came from this part of the world, and settled in San Lazzaro after having made his fortune as a mercenary and tax collector in and around the Khyber pass. Later he became governor of Peshawar, where he had a fairly direct approach to governing the peace:

When I marched into Peshawar, I sent on in advance a number of wooden posts which my men erected around the walls of the city. The men scoffed at them and laughed at the madness of the feringhee [a disparaging local language term for Westerners], and harder still when my men came in and laid coils of rope at the foot of the posts…However, when my preparations were completed and they found one fine morning dangling from these posts, fifty of the worse characters in Peshawar, they thought different. And I repeated the exhibition every day till I had made a scarcity of brigands and murderers. Then I had to deal with the liars and tale bearers. My method with them was to cut out their tongues. When a surgeon appeared and professed to be able to restore their speech, I sent for him and cut out his tongue also. After that there was peace.”

Apparently even now, in times of unrest, Peshewar citizens send a small wish for the return of Abu Tabela, to re-establish law and order. Abu sounds like someone who wouldn’t take much truck with anything that irritated him, so I suspect he might of kicked off at the descent into Praiano – one of those stages where you seem to be slipping down steps for miles, but never seem to get to the bottom. As ever, the view makes it all worthwhile, and you get to see Praiano which is predictably easy on the eye from a distance.

And just as lovely, it turns out, close up. Still waking up from the winter, so much of it was still closed, but well worth wandering around, particularly if you’re a fan of very very long stone staircases.

Walking day three, and time for the Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods), up to the San Domenico monastery and across to the village of Nocelle. The first couple of kilometres go more or less straight up to the monastery, past the markings for the 14 stations of the cross, and finally up to the square in front of the church where, bizarrely, there was a man asking us to buy some lemonade, and another asking to have his picture taken against the view. We were nicely off-season, so we’d not seen any other people on either of the previous walks and this was the only day that we did. Fortunately we had a week of immersing ourselves in a whole load of some heavily accented ‘Buongiorno’, ‘Buono Sena’, ‘Ciao’, ‘Grazie’, ‘molto bene’ and ‘non-Parlo Italiano’, so we considered ourselves almost completely naturalised. If only we’d actually met some Italians we could have tested ourselves, but instead we cross paths with Americans, Dutch, Germans, French and some occasional Brits. I was surprised not so much that there were foreign tourists, but that there were so few locals. I figured that if this was on my doorstep I’ll be walking here every day, but maybe that’s the thing about stuff that’s on your doorstep.

Anyway, the Path of the Gods was the day that would’ve justified the whole holiday. Fabulous views, stomach turning drops, challenging ups and downs, blue skies, blue escape seas, and a brilliant drop down from Nocelle to Positano – another coastal town with its waterfront stepped houses, and tiny narrow streets with, apparently, a gelato shop at every corner.

As I’ve mentioned, we hunted out the ultimate gelato wherever we went which was both a great reward for the walking, and an excellent guilt trip for us in the land of Catholicism. And probably the only place where we would rub shoulders with Italians who went on holiday. I’ve been told about this culture before, but this was the first chance to see first-hand the importance of gelato in society. It seems to be an opportunity to meet, date, chat and generally shoot the breeze for everyone, not least for the age group that, at home, might be getting tanked up on Breezers and WKD to talk to each other. Access to gelato is all hours, often until midnight, and available to anyone who owns the scooter. Which is everyone. The only challenge that we saw in this impossibly simple social network was the need these days to wear a helmet when riding a scooter. So the number of times we saw the young and beautiful of southern Italy parking their Vespas a few hundred metres from their destination, in order to resolve their ‘helmet hair’. Aah, first world problems, eh?

Leaving Positano the next day we headed for Sant Agata. Again, we were given route options, which were termed medium/hard, and perhaps should’ve been hard/harder. We wimped out and wandered down to the port area of Positano, found a shop that sold bus tickets (not as easy as it sounds), and jumped on the bus to Colli di San Pietro. This turned out to be a smart move, as the weather turned from idyllically continental to bloody miserable – we’d avoided the really tough option because the route instructions look ridiculously complicated and would’ve been much worse in the wind and rain that greeted us when we stepped out of the bus to reacquaint ourselves with our stomachs.

The route took us along the coast for a few miles, then turned inland at Torca,, climbing higher and higher so that we could see both the coast we were leaving behind and the one we were headed towards. Unfortunately having made the decision to leave the difficult map-reading behind us, we managed to get lost almost as soon as we headed north, and found ourselves in a bizarre network of terraced allotments and wilderness. Fortunately my ‘trusty’ GPS map came in use here, and I persuaded Mrs E to follow my confident scout leader-style tramp across the hillside to what looked like on the map to be a proper footpath. And, to both of our surprise, it turned out to be exactly where we needed to be, and I briefly bask in the glory of my wife’s admiration. Very briefly, as I’m pretty sure I that as I announced that we were back on track, I heard her muttering about luck versus judgement.

We found a hotel in Sant ‘Agata and were greeted as if we were the first guests of the year, which we subsequently learnt that we were. Found a great place to eat around the corner, and declined a tiramisu as we said we were too full, and then sneaked our gelato (85% chocolate and black cherry) past the restaurant on the way back.

And so to the last day of walking and talking, from Sant ‘Agata to Sorrento, via Schiazzano and Masso Lubrense. Slightly grey again but still plenty to coo about, including a detour out to Villa di Pollio – there is the remains of a Roman Villa here but it almost gets in the way – the view out to sea; south east to Sorrento and south west to Puolo is really worth the trek.

We headed east to Sorrento and got there about five hours after we’d set off, to another near empty hotel with lovely people treating us kindly. At our advanced ages, that seems to have become something to treasure.

We stayed an extra night in Sorrento because we wanted to see Pompeii, so we hopped on another train the next morning and did just that. Pompeii is astonishing beyond words, not just the story of the a huge site (170 acres – really?), but the story of the excavation which had started in the Middle Ages and gradually progressed and been bodged right up to the present day. Like so much of what we saw in Florence, there wasn’t a great deal of labelling, so I think you had to do your bit of (ahem) digging to understand what you were looking at. Nor was there a great deal of limit to you wandering about – obviously there was a bit of protection around the frescoes and some of the really well preserved buildings, but very little restriction about what you could reach out and touch or walk around. So that’s what we did, and completed the second week of awestruck cooing.

Home the next day, leaving our last Ciao’s behind us, and enjoying the delights of Ryanair and ‘Greater’ Anglia. Home to grotty weather, lively rows in the Stansted queue, no mask wearing and no vaccine checks. Kind of the opposite of where we come from, which was a bit demoralising. But also home to the dogs, who were exceptionally pleased to see us, and back out the next day for a run where I didn’t need to use my hands on the hilly bits. So we didn’t want to come home, but we’re glad that we did, and is that the best kind of holiday? I bought a bottle of Limoncello from Tesco’s when we got home and put it in the freezer. It’s almost finished, it’s only been used when we bore our friends and family about our holiday.

Ciao for now!

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