Walking the Amalfi Coast with The Wayfarers
By Richard West
“The world is big and I want to have a look at it before it goes dark,” wrote the naturalist and father of our national parks, John Muir. Indeed, sir, which is why as often as possible my wife and I join The Wayfarers for one of their expertly (since 1984) guided six-day walking vacations, the best way we’ve found to “look at it before it goes dark.” This time, from 46 walks in 17 countries, we picked one of their most popular: the stunningly beautiful Amalfi coast on the Bay of Naples.
The adventure begins in Sorrento on an early Sunday evening: get-acquainted drinks and meeting our seven walking colleagues, our guide, Alessandro Tombelli, and walk manager Clair Rogers, both so affable we felt we’d known each other since the Pleistocene. This in the Hotel Bellevue Syrene (est. 1820) atop a cliff overlooking the Bay of Naples with Mount Vesuvius, the beauty as inarguable as a geometrical theorem; it left my gast truly flabbered. After rules and marching orders, to dinner. A final serving of lemon cream puffs, a limoncello, then Avanti Popolo, onward people!
We begin not with a walk but short ferry ride to the isle of Capri, its great cliffs looming over a calm dark sea, here and there sparkling with glints of light. Under these cliffs, 20 centuries ago, Roman soldiers landed the old Emperor Tiberius to the island. From the Marina Grande, Alessandro leads us on a brick path between dry walls and villas and lemon trees up to the city of Capri, already packed with daytrippers. But ten minutes out of town, we’re left alone gradually making our way under umbrella pines northeast to the Villa Jovis, the remains of Tiberius’s large (23,000 square feet) complex.
After a serendipitous detour to the remarkable Villa Lysis, home in the early 20th century to the French poet, Count Jacques Ferson, an unforgettable lunch at Le Grottelle, the kitchen and bar literally built into two large grottos. We sat at tables outside overlooking Capri’s east coast, the sea a deep blue turning to cyan, a greenish blue, as waiters brought the house specialty, ravioli caprese and their famous lemon cake. Then an hour and twenty-minute walk around the island’s southeast corner, looking down on the red modernist Villa Malaparte and the three up thrusting Faraglione rocks before a return ferry ride to our Sorrento hotel and dinner in town at L’ Antica Trattoria (est.1930) for eggplant parmigiana and a wonderful red wine, Aglianico, made from the eponymous black grape, leaving what wine snobs call “palatal memory.” Distance walked: 11 miles.
On a foggy, windy day, the mountains looking like masses of vapor on the point of dissolving, from Sorrento we walk south up and over the Sorrentine peninsula past cornucopias of fruit with the sun still in them: great glossy globs of grapes overhead, lemons, apples, pomegranates, tomatoes, passion fruit, olives and juicy figs plucked from trees. A seaside lunch at Ristorante Le Sirene in the charming tiny village of Marina del Cantone, 16 kilometers from our hotel where, instantly, Italian tapas arrived: bruschetta, potato croquettes, caciotta cheese, local ham, then two pastas (fish/shrimp, zucchini). Rough seas cancelled our scheduled boat trip so an hour van ride on the famous 25-mile serpentine Amalfi Drive to our Positano hotel. Distance walked: 10 miles
Positano. An impossibly vertical town, the maze of alleys, houses, and steps built into the hills. The white-washed buildings were light teeth in the jaws of mountains, the walls reverberating with the sounds of mopeds and, again, streets crowded with shoppers bringing to mind the word ‘schwarmerei,’ an enthusiastic swarm. Two vans take us high above Positano, to walk all morning through woods of beeches and chestnuts, past women gathering firewood for winter ovens. Alessandro stops and picks up bits of volcanic rock from the Vesuvius eruption’s ash fallout in 79 AD. We catch glimpses of Positano far below and boats gliding away from the marina like sea gulls taking flight from nests.
Lunch at Ristorante La Terra in the village of Monte Pertuso looking out at the Galli Islands, the site of Odysseus’s resisting the Siren’s song in Homer’s “Odyssey”. On the most prominent, Isola Lunga, the house (and island) once owned by Rudolf Nureyev. The Galli are a reminder that every field and path we walked probably had names, so old that everything imaginable had been done or tried, that wildness had been tamed long ago into what had already been.
Back in Positano, time for a late afternoon swim before a musical dinner at Ristorante Mediterraneo where popular singer, Pietro Rainone, serenaded us with yet another ‘That’s Amore’ as we banged along on tambourines handed out by waiters. No need to shout “Da capo e fine,” once more with feeling. Distance walked: 15,000 steps according to one Apple watch.
The trip’s highlight stroll on the famous Path of the Gods. With Canute-like fortitude, we walked through rugged gorge country where breeze is funneled between haggard cliffs and bluffs, gulched and rock-strewn all the way down to the cities on water’s edge. We had a blue Homeric view down the coast’s crenellations as far west as Capri and the three mighty rocks we passed Monday. Another lunch delight, this time a surprise picnic prepared in an old cabin just above the trail: sausages, caprese salad, antipasto, baked potatoes, and a final treat, a sip of homemade Finocchietto, a fennel liqueur made by our hosts.
A charming finale in late afternoon at the Crazy Burger Bar (no burgers served) in Bomerano. Owner Antonio plucking grapes for us from the ceiling pergola as beers and trays of halved figs and slices of melon arrived. Then to the Hotel Convento di Amalfi and dinner at the Marina Grande restaurant (tuna pancetta, sea bass, salad). Distance walked: 7.8 miles.
A van to Ravello, six miles away, famous for ceramics and the beautiful Gardens of Villa Cimbrone, 14 acres of stunning landscape, botany, and English culture in the Mediterranean region built in the late 19th century by Ernest Beckett, Lord Grimthorpe. Then out of Ravello and a walk alternating with trudges uphill and careful shuffles down, through small villages—Santa Catarina, Scala, Minuta—before lunch in Pontone: samples of four various pizzas before their special pasta with lemon sauce. Afterward, down along a gushing stream, a stop at a former paper mill for lemon slushes, then descending into Amalfi’s crowds. Distance walked: 10.3 miles. At our hotel, toasts, a final dinner, and “Ava atque vale,” hail and farewell.
The Wayfarers: 1-800-249-4620 (US/Canada)