Endless Stairs, Pathway of the gods, & a “Light” Lunch

Blue Blue Sea

Blue Blue Sea

Friday morning’s sunlight and some rather loud 50s-era Italian music from a neighboring house woke me up around 7:00.  I took in the fantastic Mediterranean views from my pitch under some lemon trees.  This was my day to relax, and I planned to do this on a beach.  So far my vacation has kept me fairly busy, bouncing from city to city and hostel to hostel.  By spending three nights in the same place, I could unpack a bit and not worry about gunning for the next destination.  The best way down to the beach was to simply take the stairs.  I found that the first 270 some steps down to the road were only a fraction of the total trip.  Another thousand or so eventually brought me to a dramatic bay surrounded by cliffs and backed by a giant mouth of a shallow cave.  I’m finding that beaches are not the thing to attract people to Italy.  Every beach I’ve seen is a dirty grey sand and pebble mix.  Some beaches, such as this one, have only pebbles and no real sand to speak of.  The beaches are also fairly small, usually only a few hundred feet wide, often necessitating some rather high-density zoning for the sunbathers.  What the beaches lack in sand and size, however, they make up for in drama.  The coastline is nearly hyperbolic in its scale and setting and the water is as clear as it is in Hawaii, but with a beautiful, deep blue color.

I dropped a few euros on a chaise and umbrella rental, and let the built-up tensions of traveling, searching for lodging, and worrying about work and finances to melt away in the hot Mediterranean sun.  When I got hot enough, I went out for a long slow swim in the refreshing water.  I swam way out to along the edge of the bay and under an arch that connected to a small island.  I swam around the island and back into the bay and then over to a sea cave that looked a bit intriguing.  I swam to the back where a tiny pebble beach emerged from the water to a cool, dark area only about 30 square feet.  It actually looked like the sort of place that could be a bit nasty with broken beer bottles and that sort of thing, but it was actually perfectly clean and devoid of any debris.  Perhaps this is because it is completely inaccessible other than by swimming.  I found that the water leading into the cave acted as a sort of fiber optic conduit from the sunny bay outside, and the cave itself was illuminated by the glowing, teal water.  This concept is most famously observed in the nearby island of Capri where a blue grotto which is nearly completely sealed off from the sea is illuminated by the sun streaming through the water, creating a magical, glowing chamber.

As the afternoon wore on, I decided to take a boat to Amalfi rather than brave the endless flight of steps back up to the house.  I spent a few hours in town, exploring it a bit more in the daylight.  I can only describe the place as the town Escher would have built.  Nestled into a very small valley, this town is stacked on top of itself, with only one street suitable for cars.  This street is closed for several hours a day anyway, yielding itself completely to the pedestrians that swarm it.  Most interesting to me however, are the dozens of side stairways that function as pedestrian “streets” of their own.  At the entrance to these will be several signs advertising restaurants, hair salons, or whatever may happen to be up the Dr. Suessian tangle of steps that twist, turn, and switchback their ways up along and through the amalgamation of buildings and cliffs.  I purchased a few gifts for folks back home and then hopped on a bus that brought me back to the steps leading to my hostel, where the owners treated me to a free meal.

I reluctantly arose with my alarm at 6:30 the next morning.  I had a bowl of cereal for breakfast and then zipped down the steps to wait for nearly an hour to catch a bus that would bring me to the town of Agerola.  Here I asked my way through town until I reached the start of Seiguera della Dei (Pathway of the gods), a hike that terminates in the town of Positano.  The hike started out rather inconspicuously as a road that began behind a walled soccer field and curved its way past a few houses.  Not entirely confident that I was on the right “path,” I was glad when a boy chattered from his balcony something to me in Italian about a house down the road.  I simply replied with the word “seiguera,” but he didn’t understand me and turned to ask his mom if she could explain something to me.  He spoke with a perfect British accent and we both lit up when I said, “ah, you speak English?”  It turns out that he was warning me about some guard dogs at a house down the road, but I was mostly glad to hear that I was indeed on the beginnings of the Seiguera della Dei.

The road quickly left the few remaining houses and wound through some steep farmland with terraced vineyards.  I noticed quite a lot of animal droppings and guessed that this route was probably heavily used by mules for porting goods out of the farms.  Eventually the road narrowed down and passed through a gate where I finally saw a sign mentioning the path I was intending to take.  Right away, the views were dramatic, with tall, pocked cliffs rising over my head on the right and steep, terraced slopes falling away on my left.  Farmers had built intriguing little huts right into the edge of the cliffs, some of them almost looking like cliff dwellings.  As the route took me along the mountainside and into the next valley, the perspectives kept changing, compelling me to pull out my camera and shoot more photos.

The most remarkable find had to be a small collection of about three houses in a remote valley.  I’m assuming they were farm houses associated with the terraced vineyards that were all around.  I realized, however, that the path I was hiking was their road, and I suddenly felt like I had jumped back a thousand years.  These houses were nowhere near a road that could handle a vehicle, so the residents had to carry whatever they needed for miles on a dusty, cliffside path!

The sea below was a rich, amethyst blue and the water was so clear I wasn’t always sure if I was looking at rocks that were above or below the surface.  Sparkling little inlets attracted pleasure boats like fish to flotsam.  All the while, the changing setting was always subdued by towering cliffs.

As I came into Positano, I began to descend and found myself entering the small mountaintop village of Nocelle, a “suburb” if you will of Positano.  The familiar endless steps appeared, though these seemed to be much newer and better maintained than the steps in Vettica where I was staying.  I had read that Positano was the wealthiest of the three popular towns on the Amalfi coast, and even in this high settlement the houses seemed more dignified and better maintained.  After descending the steps for quite a while, I started counting steps to pass the time.  By the time I reached the bottom I had counted 770, leaving the total climb for those who live in Nocelle to be well over 1,000.  I need to do some research to find out if there is any sort of access road from up above, because I can’t possibly imagine living in a home that would require an hour of stair climbing to reach every time you left your house.  What a bummer it would be if you got home to realize you’d left the keys in the car!

I walked the last kilometer into Positano on the coastal road.  Like the other towns I’ve seen on this coast, Positano is a predominantly vertical town, with buildings more or less forming a cobbled terrace up the hillsides.  Here, however, the money was evident in much cleaner, more picturesque structures.  The main pedestrian drag from the top of the town down to the beach was rather narrow, but much of it was covered by a lovely, shady arbor.  I also noticed that there were no restaurants, at least on the route I took, until you reached the waterfront.  I’m guessing that there must be other roads and piazzas with the customary pizzerias, gelato shops, and open-air dining that I’ve found in the other towns.

I had made lunch arrangements the day before to meet Rosemarie and Pepin, friends of one of my clients.  The coastal road between Positano and Amalfi was still closed, so I went straight to purchase a ticket on the next boat to Amalfi.  It turned out that the next boat didn’t leave for over an hour, but I didn’t feel compelled to go back and explore the town further, so I bought some gelato and relaxed on the beach for a while.

On the boat ride back to Amalfi, I called up Rosemarie to let her know I was on my way.  She told me later that I called right as my boat was passing their house, and her husband left to meet me in town.  By the time I arrived, Pepin was already waiting for me, dressed in khaki shorts, a pink shirt buttoned only once in the middle, and a wonderfully bushy moustache.  We hopped in his powder-blue, pristinely-maintained, 1967 Fiat 500 and began puttering our way back up the windy roads out of town.  He spoke English reasonably well, and we carried on a light conversation punctuated nearly constantly by the perfectly shrill horn of his car.  I’ve noticed that most Italian drivers use their car horns with alacrity, but Pepin seemed to use his nearly as much as his gas pedal.  He beeped with every corner.  He beeped whenever he saw another car or person.  Sometimes I think he just beeped because it gave his hand something to do.  His tiny car was not just equipped with a horn, though.  He also had a cheerful bell, kind of a cross between a doorbell and a bicycle bell.  He had a separate button to ring this bell, but mostly he just stuck to his horn.  It was louder.  The bell did have a tendency to go off all on its own, however, so on particularly bouncy corners our Chihuahua-sized buggy would announce its arrival with a few Herbie-honks followed by some bell chimes.  I’m sure we kept the pedestrians guessing as to whether we were a VW Bug or an ice-cream truck.

Rosemarie and Pepin live in an idyllic setting in the village of Conq, overlooking the part of the coast where the emerald grotto is located.  Their lovely home is also accessible by a mere dozen or so steps, instantly exalting its value, in my estimation!  Rosemarie was waiting to greet us with their friendly St. Bernard at the top of the steps.  Speaking both fluent Italian and English with a lovely British accent, she welcomed me warmly and we more or less went straight to the dining table.

Now, I’ve heard about Italian hospitality, especially when it comes to dinner time, but I can’t say that anything I’d heard prepared me properly for my first encounter with these Italian hosts.  I had never met these people, other than a single phone call I had placed to Rosemarie about a month earlier to ask for local advice on visiting the area.  I thanked her for her help, and suggested that maybe we could get together for lunch when I was in town.  She agreed and invited me to join them at their house.  So under these circumstances, I knew that I was causing the imposition and I suppose I was just expecting a light lunch.

And it did indeed start out as a light lunch.  The table was set with olives, crackers, nuts, and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes.  Though I love olive oil, I curiously don’t typically go for olives themselves.  These were their very own olives, however, and I actually found them to be rather pleasant.  Pepin insisted that I keep taking more, and before I knew it, I had downed 8 or so.  Next out was a putenesca pasta dish, in honor of our mutual friend’s Sicilian roots.  The dish was made with tomatoes, olives, and peppers all from the couple’s garden.

I was quickly finding out that they pretty much grow whatever they eat.  They only shop for things like bread, pasta, and meat.  They have several wonderful gardens and fruit trees that produce grapes, olives, figs, apples, bananas, kiwis, lemons, cucumbers, melons, peppers, onions, garlic, herbs, tomatoes, peas, artichokes, and even sweet corn and pumpkins from seeds that a friend sends them from the states.  He even makes his own wine.

After the pasta came a large platter full of shrimp, prepared in what I am now assuming is the traditional Italian way including the full body of the shrimp.  We each got half of a very large Italian lemon and a finger bowl with lemon water.  Already quite pleasantly full, Pepin made sure that I got a healthy portion of shrimp and another slice of bread.

Next came a cheese plate with a couple of local mozzarellas, a type of parmesan, and a couple of Dutch cheeses.  This served with bread, olive oil, and figs from their garden.

Next came a platter with two types of melons: one was essentially a cross between a cucumber and a melon, and the other was what I’d call cantaloupe.

Everything was delicious and delightful, and knowing that most of it came from right outside their door gave the whole experience even more satisfaction.

After the feasting was over, Rosemarie gave me a tour of their place while Pepin laid down for a siesta.  Their house has wonderful, high, semi-domed ceilings.  An upstairs balcony gives fantastic views of the Mediterranean far below.  The most fascinating feature though is not really a part of the house at all.  It’s a huge cistern directly attached to their house, just next to their kitchen.  Rosemarie explained that they had hoped to cut through the walls and finish off a spare room in that area, but it turned out to be too problematic.  So for now there is a small window off their kitchen that peers midway into a deep stone shaft.  How cool is that!

Rosemarie and Pepin seem to spend a lot of their time in the tradition of independent self-provenance, working with their land and preparing food for the rest of the year.  They had racks of figs that were drying in the sun, getting ready for Christmas.  She also canned her tomatoes and dried her peas, beans, and herbs.  Surplus from some of the other fruit would also get dried for consumption during the winter months.

The afternoon drifted by and Pepin woke up to give me a ride back to my stone steps in Vettica.  Five minutes, and 30 honks later, I was saying goodbye with the promise to call again next time I’m in Italy.

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