Amalfi

There are places that you go because you’ve imagined them for a long time, and there are places that you go because they’re a new dream. For me, the Amalfi Coast was somewhere in between. I had never even heard of it until spring of last year, my first year at vet school, when all of us GEP’s (“graduate entry program” students) were freshly returned from Easter holidays and entirely exhausted from what was for most of us a four week sprint of animal husbandry placements in between two sets of final exams. We were weary and bedraggled and more disgruntled about sheep and the birthing process than I imagine most of us had ever been before in our entire lives.

“Next year, I want to go on a real holiday,” my friend Caitlin said (or something like that). “There’s this place called the Amalfi Coast where you can walk from village to village along the coastline, and it’s absolutely spectacular.”

Caitlin is basically my resident expert in all things spectacular (food, holidays, and, as I’d come to find out, Italy in particular), so when she talked about Amalfi, I listened.

Cliff faces. Ancient mule trails. The Mediterranean. Sun.

I had to go.

And after nearly a year of intending and hoping and budgeting and research, I did.

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Down a Rome side street.

I started in Rome, where I met up with climbing buddy and fellow nomad, locum Dick vet Silas.

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We’re cool kids.

For us, getting from the UK to Italy via Rome was cheapest. Ryanair flies through the CIA airport, from where plenty of bus companies then go direct to the Rome Termini station in Rome city proper for a single ticket costing between 6-12€. Other major airlines usually fly into the FCO airport on the other side of the city (often routing through Germany first). The FCO airport has its own train terminal with the Leonardo Express running direct to Rome Termini for about the same price as a bus, depending on peak times. Heads up though – before dispensing your ticket, the vending machines will yell at you loudly about being aware of pickpockets just in case, you know, you didn’t already feel enough like a tourist wearing a bright orange target.

Rome itself was a city that left me happily surprised. Having consumed so much media with Rome as its location, and heard so many other people’s stories about visiting the place, I was prepared for Rome to feel touristy and tired. Instead, I found it layered and inviting. Maybe it’s because I did most of my exploration at night, after the weighty heat of the day and away from the hordes of tour groups. I met the Colosseum in moonlight, found terrace gardens up steps around the corners of back alleys, and stumbled upon ruins made more intriguing because we couldn’t see their signs and placards in the dark. In the morning, we chased discoveries of ivy trellises and bumbled our way through trying to order espresso in Italian from a cafe chosen because it was full of patrons who looked least like us – people just passing through. Maybe if I’d had more time in Rome before having to catch a morning train to Salerno to start our first leg of real walking, I’d have settled into eventual disillusionment, but as it is, I left Rome wishing I had more time there.

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Meeting the Colosseum.

What followed, though, was an adventure well worth leaving for.

Summarizing five days walking the Amalfi Coast is as difficult as trying to collapse the region’s hills into a two-dimensional representation. You lose depth and an appreciation for distance truly gained by trying to lay it all out flat together. (Not that Google maps won’t try. A word of warning – be sure to use the terrain view if you’re going to let Google navigate Amalfi for you, and multiply all time estimates it gives you by at least 2.5; Google doesn’t quite yet understand that Amalfi is made of stairs. Thousands, and thousands of stairs. Tall stairs. Short stairs. Stairs that are inches wide, and stairs that are basically a terrace. Stairs that will make your future calf muscles thank you, and stairs that will make your present knees scream. Just so many stairs. Everywhere. You cannot run away from them. You can only run up them. And then down them. Repeatedly. For days.)

If pressed to describe Amalfi in only one word, however, I think I’d choose elevation.

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San Lazzaro summit: worth the walk.

While walking the Amalfi Coast, there were so many different twists and turns and plunges to the route’s elevation changes. Elevation is what gives the coastline a constant vista of absolutely stunning views. What rises beyond the next village changes with each bend, and the sheer insistence of the landscape on taking your breath away every moment, no matter where you look, makes walking it visually overwhelming in the best of ways. I had to resist tuning out and toning down my response to what I was seeing around me because of the constancy of it all. If you go, do not let yourself desensitize. Let yourself be stunned, always.

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Ravello.

If I had to pick another single word to describe Amalfi, I may also choose dirt, or maybe lemons. Most nights, Silas and I camped on the trail in order to save money, but because wild camping is illegal in Italy, we arranged instead to pitch our tents at a series of agriturismo – which in practice translates to sleeping beneath the trees of lemon farmers’ orchards, and having to politely decline offers to buy gallons of limoncello to carry with us on the trail.

As much as I tried to keep “outside the tent” and “inside the tent” separate spheres, by the end of the route I was cuddling up to a substantial about of dirt. It was on my shoes, on my clothes, on my face, in my lungs – everywhere.  I didn’t particularly mind, except for the last few days, when there was as much gravel in my voice as beneath my feet and my vocal chords seemed set on giving Barbara Streisand a run for her money. Before we set off for Italy, Silas and I decided that it was probably a good idea for him to bring along his Steripen, and while there are taps all along the villages’ interconnecting routes with water that is probably safe, I was nevertheless grateful for the sterility back up as my need to chug buckets of water steadily increased.

The start of our route along Amalfi ran from Salerno to Minori by bus; up to Il Campanile via an unofficial stair path; back down down to Amalfi via Ravello and then back up to San Lazzaro, Agerola via stairs, roads, and an inter-village concrete tunnel.

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Just your typical post-apocalyptic video game setting.

The leg out of San Lazzaro was the most robust, and the most famous – we trekked over to Balerno, the trail head for Il Sentiero Degli Dei, the Path of the Gods.

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It’s a well-named path.
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En route to “Falesia degli Dei,” the cliff of the gods, an approved climbing area!

We walked it to Nocelle, the first major completion point, before following its remnants through Montepertusso to their final conclusion in Positano.

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The view of Nocelle, mountain ridge village.
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Villa Sofia, Nocelle.

Trails perfuse the Amalfi hills like anastamosing arteries, and while we pumped our way up and over and around so any of them, enough that I know just how many more there are still to do, I am glad that of all the paths that carried us, the Path of the Gods was one of them. It is the trail of Amalfi. That means more people, sure, but I think it’s okay for some trails to carry more stories. There were families, and climbers, and folks who sometimes needed to be carried, and through-hikers like me and Silas who were doing a whole lot of carrying.

And goats. There were also some goats.

We actually met a fair number of animals along our route, including the friendliest cats I have ever encountered on any continent. Probably not the most well-vaccinated cats, or the most neutered, or the most, um, flea-controlled, but definitely the most gregarious. For anyone planning to bring their own pet with them on the Amalfi Coast trails – make sure you’re up to date on external and internal parasite control, and be sure to follow your country’s pet passport regulations strictly, especially with respect to worming. Nobody wants a tapeworm. Or Echinococcus Multilocularis. Trust me.

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We may have seriously considered stealing her.
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Another furry trail friend.
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Ran into our campsite, plopped down in front of me, and rolled over for belly rubs.

After Amalfi, we crossed the peninsula for Sorrento, where Silas was footloose and fancy free for a day while I met up with friends who were staying at a hilltop villa for a couple nights on their own Italy holiday. It was a night of trading stories, meeting new people, eating new food that we were taught how to cook (like fried pizza, a local specialty that my German friend insisted I had to try before I set out), and wondering at how I’d managed to find a life where I could sit in a hammock with friends while looking across a purple sunset on the bay at my next destination, Mount Vesuvius.

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Mount Vesuvius, from Priora.

Vesuvius was our last big summit of the trip, an almost last-minute decision that gave us a halfway point in Naples the night before our return from Rome. Why not, we’d decided. We could spend another day in Sorrento (and so complicate trying to make a late morning flight farther north), or rush back to Rome for one more day, or we could stop over in Naples (a place that wound up feeling a lot like an Italian downtown Los Angeles to me) and see what was there, including the giant mountain that once erupted over a city and ended an entire civilization millenia ago. You know, since we had the time.

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On the rim.

To get from Naples to Vesuvius, we took a tour bus that was about equivalently expensive but also much faster than public transportation. It started us farther up the volcano than I would have preferred, but given my increasingly high blister count was probably for the best. Pro tip: before putting your wool socks back on after swimming on an Amalfi beach, clear your feet of sand religiously. “Keep calm and carry on” means nothing to friction.

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The crater.

Still, standing on Vesuvius, I no longer noticed the complaints from my feet. The moments there were captivating. From the instant I learned about it to the instant I was there, Mount Vesuvius was a name historical and mythical enough to me that it may as well have been Olympus. I wrote more about the paradigm-quivering experience of being there in an Instagram post, but to sum it up briefly – there are some places that are so big, for whatever reason, in one’s mind that they seem impossibly inaccessible. For all of their facts, they still feel like legend. And then, to find one’s self actually standing there, in that impossible place – it’s worth taking a moment.

This trek through Italy was made of those moments. It was a hot and sunny and sweaty trip of bustling and awe.

And there’s still so much more to see, so many more mountains to climb.

Just imagine it.

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(Photo by Silas, IG @silasgold1) Overlooking the Sentiero Degli Dei.

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