Walking In Paradise

Southern Italy: Touring Amalfi's sunny coast on foot puts visitors in touch with real people and centuries of history.

September 02, 2001|By Gary Gately | By Gary Gately,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On the Amalfi coast of southern Italy, morning light casts mountains in milky silhouette. The perfect harmony of nuns who never leave their cloistered convent drifts from a walled chapel near a grotto where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Alphonsus Liguori. Grapes and lemons and olives grow on terraces that climb like giant mountainside steps to the sky.

A teen-age boy, balancing an armload of fresh-baked bread, bounds narrow stone steps two at a time. A woman in a flowered sun dress scrubs her ceramic terrace with soapy water. A bald man with a round face and a red nose opens his shop and prepares to make paper by hand, the same way his ancestors did.

On a weeklong walking tour of this sun-soaked, 30-mile stretch of coastline on the Gulf of Salerno, we wander mountain trails, verdant hillsides, villages 1,500 feet above the pebbled beaches. Here, ancient Romans reveled in palatial villas as their empire crumbled. Saints prayed at monasteries atop promontories, within sight of gray stone turrets the once-mighty Republic of Amalfi built to defend its medieval paradiso. Europe's 19th-century elite journeyed here, and artists, musicians and writers such as Henrik Ibsen, Richard Wagner and E.M. Forster found their muses here.

We walk about five hours every morning where nobles, peasants, warriors and saints walked. Though a reluctant hiker -- I'm on my first hiking trip and don't much like organized tours -- I'm a quick convert. To get to know what's worth knowing about a foreign land and its people, we amble well beyond the museums, cathedrals, hotels and restaurants.

We break bread and drink a toast with the locals. We shop at their markets, worship with them in their churches, sail with their fishermen. That way we may know something of the soul of the place and its people, and perhaps come to know ourselves a little better, too.

Life moves slower here. The locals savor the simple things -- family, faith, food, fine wine -- and their mirth and good cheer are infectious.

At our hotel, the cliffside Zi'Ntonio in Scala, a tiny village closer to clouds than the sea, owner Michele Ferrigno pours icy limoncello shots (sweet, intoxicating nectar made from grapefruit-sized lemons). Salute! He sings "O Sole Mio" and lets out a loud guffaw.

Then there's the elderly lady who spots me waving to her granddaughter as I sit at an outdoor cafe in the Amalfi piazza. She promptly rolls the stroller over, tells me her family history and encourages me to kiss the little bambina.

It's her fourth grandchild, she says proudly.

Lucia Lucibello, too, brings us legendary Italian hospitality -- and the yellowest lemons we've ever seen, fresh from her grove. They're not just bigger here; they're sweet enough to peel and eat like an orange.

Lucia shows up in her tiny mountain village of Pontone as we return from traipsing trails, climbing 1,700 steps down, then up a mountain, dodging lizards, and watching warily for the snakes we had been warned about. She has taken a break from working her 2-acre lemon grove and cleaning the village's three churches, which she does on her own time.

"You work very hard, like drudgery. It's very hard. Every day you look after the garden. No holiday. You haven't got time to go out," she says. Still, she wouldn't consider any other life or any other place.

"The village I like. I don't like the people. They're nosy. They want to know everything." She laughs.

Laughter, it seems, comes quickly and often here.

Close to heaven

Alfonso Amodio, a cabbie taking us from Scala to the Amalfi beach, can't stop laughing. He knows little English, and I know almost no Italian, which becomes plainly evident. He's giving a quick survival course in Italian. "Bella donna," he says, pointing to a woman walking along the road.

"Donna? She's Donna?"

I mangle or misinterpret more words -- some intentionally, just to hear him laugh until his belly shakes and he bangs his palm on his forehead. I question the wisdom of indulging in such multilingual repartee as he tears down the narrow road that feels like a roller coaster, with just a few feet between us, the sea, way down there, and eternity.

But fear not, the locals will tell you: Die here and you'll spend eternity, well, here. That certainty is carved in stone, on a plaque under an arch between the Amalfi piazza and the sea: "Judgment Day, for the Amalfitani who go to heaven, will be a day like any other day."

The words on the plaque keep coming back to me as I stroll under the Amalfi sun -- the luminescent, big-sky, Mediterranean light that suffuses everything. The light shimmers upon the waters, turning them sapphire and aquamarine and turquoise.

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