Saturday, March 05, 2016


We wake up to a drizzle and the round tones of rain-dampened church bells bouncing off the valley walls. The buildings that line the mountainsides are all yellow or pale pink or cream with terracotta roofs, the walls dotted with tall, symmetrical windows and the merest suggestion of a balcony on each. The sea is grey today but looking at it through an arbour of sunny yellow lemons brightens up the whole scene.

We walk down to the main square for the bus to Amalfi. Henri buys a soccer ball while we buy tickets for the bus and he and I kick it around as we wait for the bus. The piazza between the road and the beach is lined with white trucks with awnings and folding tables laid out with bras, underwear, sheets, second hand clothes, cleaning products, kitchen gadgets, vegetables, you name it. The local ladies have come down from the hills and are doing the rounds with their shopping bags. These trucks probably do a non-stop tour of the local towns, bringing the big city products to the small town clientele.

The sprinkling turns to rain which turns into a torrent and then a hailstorm. I get out my trusty I LOVE NAPOLI umbrella and keep kicking the ball. Henri, being Henri, does not and gets soaked. The bus finally comes. It is a steamy ride. The driver stops every few minutes to clear mist off the windshield, starting on the top left corner (the second most important visibility spot as he brushes against the plants growing out of the cliffside every left hand turn). The drive is a stop-start affair — a dance between him and oncoming traffic. There isn’t enough room in the curves for two vehicles when one is a bus and the negotiations that ensue are serious entertainment. The driver honks as he approaches a curve and waits for oncoming traffic to clear enough space by either coming on or staying put for him to pull around. When a truck pulls around a curve up ahead the tension in the bus palpably rises as the two drivers suss out the best line of approach. They eventually squeeze by each other, eyes casting back and forth and side to side in the mirrors, watching the inches shrink between them. If I had a window that opened I could kiss the truck driver without even having to crane my neck.

We get to Amalfi, then jump on another bus for a twenty minute ride up to Pogerola (Poh-JEH-ro-la, I am politely corrected). I chat with the lady who sits beside me who reminds me a lot of my auntie Joan. I ask her whether she is from here. No, No!, she replies vehemently, I am from Pogerola! (five kilometres away). I ask whether she rides this bus every day. Oh NO! she exclaims, only when I have shopping to do. We get off the bus after her and wander into the sleepy village. We step into the first bar and have some hand-pulled coffees and buy a few snacks for the walk. We ask the owner if he can direct us to the beginning of our walk and he shakes his head. The weather is not nice for a walk, he says. That’s true, we acknowledge, but we’re going all the same. The weather for a walk will be better tomorrow, he says. That’s also true, we say, but today is the day that we’re here. The rain will make the streams difficult to cross, he says. Also, the wind on the mountains will be rough. And those umbrellas, they will not work on the mountain, he says. We shrug and when he sees that we’re not desisting he reluctantly agrees to show us, walking us a hundred metres up the road and pointing out the beginning of the trail.

Thankfully the path is in much better shape than the goat tracks we were trying to follow yesterday. We’ll basically be skirting the flank of the mountain, heading inland along the valley created by the Dragone river, over the river and along the other side of the valley into Scala. The woods are beautiful. We are so unused to the combination of elevation and hardwood. Giant chestnut, oak and beech, the path littered with acorns, brown leaves and prickly chestnut husks that look like forest urchins. Streams and dramatic waterfalls intersect the path. The mountain, in stripes of chalk and peach stone, towers over us on the left, the valley a sheer drop on our right. Wil is battling his demons. His fear of heights is playing tricks on his brain and his gut while the rest of us are having a ball. The kids had balked at the walk this morning. Alice came to breakfast with an alternate plan of tourist attractions but walking is what we came here for and now we are all happy to be out. Soon enough the threatening clouds start to unleash on us, the wind picking up pretty furiously. We were out on a little embankment jutting out into the valley and we all pulled out our umbrellas. Alice’s flipped and broke almost instantly, Henri’s bent and then snapped at half mast. He tried splinting it with a twig but it didn’t really hold. Fortunately the rain didn’t last. The sun came out and it was hot and welcome.

Up and down through the wood, scrambling over rocks, up and down stone steps, little animal tracks crisscrossing the mountainside. When we finally reached the source of the river the setting was like something out of Lord of the Rings, old-growth hardwood and a lush, green carpet of grassy fronds sweeping up the mountainside. As we rounded the most inland part of the valley we heard muted bells jingling in the valley below but we never caught sight of the goats. When the bells were loudest we rounded a corner and came upon a lovely golden lab lying like a sphinx in the sunshine. It didn’t move an inch as we passed. It just watched us walk by — perhaps sizing up whether we were a danger to his flock. The highest ridge of the mountain top was lined with a crumbling stone wall. Beautiful vista upon beautiful vista, the gorgeous aqua water of the Med stretching away, the shores of Sicily glistening in the warm sun.

We made it into Scala and eyed Ravello on the other side of a ravine. Every town around here seems to have its share of staircases but usually just the one road. The trick is finding the staircase that leads to the road and avoiding the one that leads to the bottom of the valley only to have to climb the equivalent number of stairs on the opposite side. We asked everyone we saw and the answer was almost always the same. Sempre dritto (always straight) although the path rarely was. The expression “all roads lead to Rome” kept coming to mind as most of the staircases seem to end at or near the village church. I wonder if the diocese financed their construction. We finally managed to get across, encountering a few horses and donkeys and being barked at by more than a few furiously barking dogs trying to get at us through an iron gate or over a stone wall.

Ravello is lovely, perched on a promontory that hangs over the sea. We sat in the sunshine in the piazza, had a panini and watched a pair of old guys in jackets in caps with their backs against a sunny wall. They chatted and greeted the locals with an enthusiastic “Giorno”. We had a meander through the Villa Cimbrone, the only piece of flat land for miles around. The villa is picturesque — tree-lined paths, arches framing stunning views, flower gardens that must be beautiful when in bloom and some lovely sculptures combined with some seriously fugly statuary. We pretty much had the place to ourselves and we wandered around as Wil read the poorly translated but immensely-entertaining flowery descriptions of the garden features. Ravello is all cobblestone and whitewash, stone walls and romantic walkways that lead you up and down and around the town. Ninety percent of the shops were closed, which suited us to a T.

We headed over the ridge to Minori. Our agriturismo is probably not much further below Ravello from an elevation standpoint but even when you can see a path across the valley that might get you to where you want to go, finding the right combination of stairs and walkways to get to that one path is a crap shoot. The odds are definitely not in your favour. We were so hoping to get across without having to go all the way down but yesterday’s adventures had us a little gunshy about off-roading. So down the stairs we went. Stairs, stairs and more unforgiving stairs. I bet we went down a thousand stairs. So many stairs that by the end my knees were screaming and my thigh muscles would shake involuntarily whenever I stopped. We made it down into the valley at 3:27 and the comune was heading back up the hill at 3:30 so we ran across the piazza and by the church. With rubber legs I’m sure it wasn’t pretty but we made it and we sure earned our dinner.

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