Tony Perrottet
Writer, Editor, Historian
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Work-Out of the Gods

An ancient hiking trail shows that Italy is still a strange and volatile place


Anyone planning to explore the dizzying heights of the Amalfi Coast should beware the Italian concept of dolce far niente—the "sweetness of doing nothing." It's a tradition that dates back two thousand years here, to when this spectacular mountain peninsula was the setting for ancient Rome's most decadent holiday resorts: Every summer, the nymphets of antiquity reclined by its azure waters in goatskin bikinis, while drunken Roman revelers cruised from villa to villa in a ceaseless toga party. Later generations greedily carried on the pagan indolence, most famously in the 1950s, when bohemian heroes like Fellini and John Steinbeck converged on Amalfi to work on their tans. Today, even the most athletic Italians, wearing the latest velcro hiking gear, have trouble rousing themselves beyond the beach-side pentathlon: Calamari-nibbling, chianti-sipping, espresso-savoring, rubber-necking... and the exhausting art of looking good.

Nobody wants to be so crass as to break a sweat.

On a recent visit to the Amalfi Coast, the power of all this niente suited me fine, for a while. The town of Positano, where I was staying, lived up to its reputation as one of the most preposterously beautiful places on earth: Even a bargain room in the family-run Villa Nettuno—Neptune's Villa—had a balcony with 270 degree views of Mediterranean blue. Framed by the hypnotic sea, a medieval watchtower was decaying in artful splendor; beyond it, bay after cliff-lined bay unfolded like a color-saturated opera set.

No wonder that every traveler in Italy, sooner or later, washes up by these shores. But around day four, I began to wonder if there was more to Positano than simply staring at all that gorgeous scenery. And so one night, having indulged a little too freely in a local wine called 'The Tears of Christ,' I confessed to the hotel padrone a furtive secret.

I wanted to—do something!

The padrone leaned forward conspiratorially, as if providing the address of a favored bordello. "Turn away from the sea," he whispered. "Walk with the gods."

At first I assumed he'd partaken of a little too much vino rosso himself. But no—apparently all those forest-covered mountains were still cobwebbed with ancient walking trails. There were dozens of spectacular hikes up and down the peninsula, but the most illustrious was called Il Sentiero degli Dei—the Trail of the Gods. It had been in use since darkest antiquity, the padrone enthused, wandered by pagan pilgrims and Homeric shepherds. In fact, according to the dog-eared guide book kept at the inn, the trail was one of the great day hikes in Europe—"a connoisseur's walk," no less. If I wanted a glimpse of mythic Italy, stripped of its Talented Mr Ripley glitz, I need look no further.

The next morning, I staggered a little groggily onto the sun-drenched balcony, to find a dome of perfect blue. Not a single cloud marred the sparkling horizon. Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods and lord of Nature, was obviously giving me two thumbs up.

Soon, fired up on three cappuccinos and clutching a copy of the padrone's guide, I bounded past the Bar Internazionale, where policemen sat in the morning sun assessing passing women, and climbed the first of the thousand stone steps up the sheer cliffs. By the time I'd reached Nocelle two hours later, a village perched like an eagle's nest 1500 feet above the coast, the Tears of Christ had been well and truly purged from my system. I scurried through labyrinthine alleys, dodging the hand-winches of aerial cables used to bring supplies up from the beach, and finally found a stone path running along a cliff.

This was it, I gloated—a chunk of Italy unbound. Ahead, the Coast looked as if it been carved into sheer folds by a Cyclopean knife; in the other direction, three titanic columns of stone protruded from the sparkling sea by the island of Capri (where it was said the Sirens lured sailors to their deaths by singing irresistible songs). I stopped beneath a ruined, cactus-framed archway and—well, what was I if not a connoisseur?—tore into my supply of olives and mozzarella, trying to absorb a view that hadn't changed since the days of the Emperors. There was certainly no mistaking this for a spaghetti Big Sur: The carved steps of the Sentiero, which clung precariously to each precipice, were worn smooth by centuries of use; stones bore the shadows of ancient carvings, hinting at long-forgotten altars. And yet, despite the evidence of history's incessant parade, the eerie silence as I sat there proved a rule of thumb about the Med today: Even in high summer, travelers only have to take a few steps away from the most popular attractions to find a little peace and solitude. You'd see more traffic on the Inca Trail of Peru.

At one point, I did vaguely notice that those three pillars of Capri were disappearing into mist. But the path was clearly marked with daubs of orange paint every ten yards. This was still sunny Italy, I thought cockily—how raw could things get?

* * *

An hour later, I was gingerly treading through a dark, damp fog, barely able to discern ten feet ahead. I could only perceive the cliff edge just to the right of the trail, and sense the ocean crashing somewhere far, far below. It was as if I'd taken a wrong turn and stumbled into a different dimension of reality. The mist was surging down the hills in rivulets, like a freshly poured proseco. Skeletal trees formed abstract patterns in the shadows. I took a few arty photographs—until it grew too dark even for that.

Maybe the gods were trying to remind me of something up here, I thought—that the Mediterranean was still an elemental place, riddled with volcanoes and seismic fissures, wracked on occasion with earthquakes and storms, and nothing if not volatile.

Soon enough, a wintry rain began to fall. I found a whittled wooden staff and set my shoulders like Kirk Douglas in Ulysses. As forests encroached, the images became more hallucinatory: An abandoned farmhouse, its stone walls covered with miniscule wildflowers like a film of multi-colored algae. Caves that could have suited a Gorgon. Somewhere behind me—or was it above?—the first peals of thunder began to rumble. Finally, the orange daubs disappeared from the trail. Someone must have run out of paint. That, in gutter Italian, was known as proprio uno sfigato — a bit of a bummer.

The last vestige of civilization had just been washed away.

Fighting the sense that I'd stumbled into a pagan eco-challenge, I plodded past forks in the trail, trying each mist-shrouded path in the forest, twice, three times—into abandoned citrus groves. Occasionally I found myself bush-bashing as if this were the Amazon rainforest. And whenever I came to a dead end, the rain seemed to grow heavier.

Many ancients used to believe that rain was Jupiter voiding his bladder on the mortal world. This afternoon, the gods were all pissing on me in unison.

Well, I thought—I'd wanted to see the other Italy, far from the coddled pleasures of the Amalfi beach resorts. Now I'd found it. And I might be up here all night.

* * *

In ancient Roman times, there would have been small shrines to the god Mercury, protector of travelers, placed every few hundred yards along the trail to indicate the right direction. Even a few decades ago, farmers would have been living in those empty huts to offer advice. Now, in Catholic Italy, I felt like I should mutter a few choice words to Saint Jude of Thaddaeus—patron of lost causes—and ask for a clue.

Suddenly I froze. Bells—church bells were booming far below, their mournful bass making the mist shudder like jelly. I asked not for whom they tolled, but gathered that they were ninety degrees to my left. I had been going completely the wrong way.

As I blundered down towards the sound, past a string of limestone cliffs honeycombed with caves, I slowly realized that I was no longer alone in the mist. The air filled with an acrid odor also found in New York subway stations—the sweet perfume of makeshift latrines. Were there mad hermits living up here? And in fact, one of the larger caves had wooden doors, plastic windows and a string of pot plants on the sill.

Perhaps this was the last vestige of Amalfi's once-thriving rural population, I thought deliriously, a descendent of the pagan shepherds. The scene wasn't exactly threatening—the décor might have suited Winnie the Pooh. But this was southern Italy: House calls required a certain cultural delicacy, lest the residents take me for a mafia hit man or, worse, taxation officer, and take defensive measures. So I clapped my hands from a distance, as they do in Argentine ranches, and yelled a polite buon giorno...

A stocky, unshaven figure appeared, wearing nothing but soccer shorts, rubbing the remains of a siesta from his eyes. Before he could reach for his hunting rifle, I asked for directions, trying to sound as close as possible to an idiot foreigner lost in the fog. In my bedraggled state, this didn't take much convincing. In an instant, he'd pulled out a bottle of limoncella, two thimble-sized glasses, and laid out wooden crates for seats.

"Have you heard —" he asked somberly "—the results of today's football matches?"

It turned out that, from here on, the trail was child's play. All I had to do was zig zag down the mountainside, jump through someone's back yard past the snapping fangs of a chained attack dog, double back past a shrine to the Virgin Mary, slip down another thousand carved steps, then find my way to a silent and half-flooded village.

By the time I dragged myself back home to Positano, the rain was coming down in sheets, and lightning flashes were streaking across the sky. I entered the Villa Nettuna like some amphibious creature tossed up from the sea.

I felt mildly heroic, but the old padrone looked at me and shook his head in disapproval.

"Antonio, you are almost too late for the aperitivo," he chided, reaching for the bottle.

It was a relief to know that, here in the mortal world, the priorities were still in order.