I could have spent all day listening to Paolo’s tales of Amalfi’s bygone days and admiring his humorous works of art, but a heavenly ascent along the Path of the Gods beckoned.
The initial portion of the six-mile trail, leaving from the glazed cupola of Praiano’s Church of San Gennaro, was steep and relentless. For the better part of an hour, we huffed and puffed our way up the 1,900-foot-tall peak, following a seemingly never-ending stone staircase dotted with 14 large wooden crosses.
Help was in sight at the top in the form of Domenico, the friendly caretaker of the abandoned 16th century San Domenico convent. He couldn’t help chuckling. “You look a little tired. But don’t worry, Positano is only three hours from here,” he said, pointing to the faraway cluster of pastel-colored houses that tumbled down the mountain.
Jumping to his feet, he rushed off to press some lemons and pick fresh figs from the trees — refreshments we enjoyed from the comfortable armchairs placed around the shady courtyard. After a quick peek inside the monastery’s musty interior to admire its fading frescoes, it was time to continue. The rest of the trail was mostly and mercifully gentle, running along flat paths with vertiginous drops framing rocky cliffs and sapphire inlets.
After a stretch of dense and shady forest, we emerged into the almost deserted hamlet of Nocelle, perched nearly 1,500 feet above sea level. The only people we saw were a father and son walking their dog and a man sitting silently beside a shrine to Jesus. He looked up, somewhat startled at the unexpected company, and smiled.
Positano was still some distance away, at the bottom of 1,700 thigh-straining steps that wove down the peak. We stumbled into town looking slightly disheveled and rather out of place among the immaculate residents and decadent surroundings. Gleaming yachts rocked in the harbor not far from the helipad and the abundance of fashion boutiques. Well-dressed couples swept through the attractive piazzas bound for the alfresco cafes and gelaterias.
Such affluence is the reality of modern-day Positano, but I was far more interested in its past. Inside the Church of Santa Maria Assunta stands a precious wooden panel, carved in the 13th century and depicting the Virgin Mary, to which the town owes its name, which roughly means “put there” in Latin.
According to legend, the panel was stolen by pirates who encountered a fearsome storm during their escape. Suddenly the clouds parted, and a loud call erupted from the skies, ordering them to return and put it back. Terrified, they did as they were told.
The next port of call on our walk, reached via high ridges and a succession of fishing bays, was the modern and rather characterless town of Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi. Our accommodations, however, were anything but characterless. Built in the 18th century, Le Tore is a rustic eight-bedroom farmhouse set among 35 acres of olive groves, apple orchards and rolling pastures. Owner Vittoria Brancaccio was on hand to greet us.
“We produce everything ourselves — the elderberry juice, the olive oil, the limoncello,” she said proudly in perfect English. “Even the soap in the bathrooms.”
Such spots were once common on the Sorrento Peninsula, but not so now. “Many farms have sadly been abandoned,” Vittoria said. “It’s a tragedy, but we’ve kept our traditions. People come here for the fresh air and the peace and quiet, the chance to escape.”
She had a point. Le Tore proved to be the perfect place to simply sit and take stock of our journey. Joining me in the gravel courtyard was Tex, Vittoria’s friendly Labrador. He dozed happily in the sunshine surrounded by oak barrels filled with wine (homemade, of course) and crates of freshly picked vegetables.
Our pilgrimage was coming to an end as we set off the following day for Sorrento. The six-mile trail was quiet and punctuated by views across the Bay of Naples to Capri so fine that they stopped us in our tracks. Appearing majestically on the mainland was Sorrento, its beaches and long boulevards filled with travelers, all falling under the irresistible spell of the Amalfi Coast. But how many, I wondered, had taken the time to see it in all its glory?