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Originally published Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 7:00 PM

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Italy in the slow lane: the Amalfi Coast by foot

The Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, may be one of the world’s most scenic drives, but exploring it by foot on ancient trails is an even richer experience.

The Washington Post

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The ancient pathway was long and rocky. Lined with delicate orchids and scented by zesty lemon groves, it zigzagged up the mountain and out of view. Far below, waves crashed against giant boulders, and an endless succession of cars, coaches and mopeds swept around the countless hairpin bends.

Italy’s fabled Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, may be one of the world’s great drives, but I had come with other ideas. Laced with trails first carved in the Middle Ages and used by mules to transport goods between villages, the hills of Amalfi offer some of the very best hiking in all the Mediterranean.

I was going to spend four days walking the 25 miles between Amalfi and Sorrento — a self-guided journey, stopping at various coastal towns and remote hamlets along the way. There was little to worry about: My luggage was being transported ahead by the company that arranges the walks, and I was armed with detailed maps and walking notes.

It was late morning by the time my friend Karen and I arrived in Amalfi (via bus, train and boat from Naples), and the central plaza was buzzing. People shuffled into the plentiful limoncello shops and gathered on the steep staircase leading to the Duomo di Sant’ Andrea, the 9th-century Romanesque cathedral at the heart of town.

Rising early the next morning to the chimes of the cathedral, we pulled on our walking boots, grabbed our daypacks — laden with picnic snacks — and set off for Praiano, a westward journey of about seven miles.

The labyrinthine back streets of Amalfi — so narrow that I could touch the walls on either side of me simultaneously — offered intriguing snapshots of local life. Through open windows came the crackling sounds of Italian opera; curious dogs came rushing to locked gates barking and sniffing wildly. Elsewhere, small chapels appeared with wilted flowers placed besides statues of the Virgin Mary.

Before long, the houses faded away, replaced by panoramas of terraced hillsides set upon slopes that soar almost vertically from the water’s edge. The sea sparkled, flecks of light catching every ripple and wave.

Blissful rambling

The day passed in a state of blissful rambling: crossing quiet woodland and gushing streams; strolling past eerie hillside cemeteries and roadside stalls selling chilies, lemons and rotund melons.

After lunch on a small rocky clearing, we stumbled upon a small cafe filled with locals. Most seemed impressed that we were taking our time to explore their spectacular home. “People usually drive along the whole coast in a day or two,” said one in a thick Italian accent, swigging a strong espresso. “But why rush such beauty?”

Praiano materialized several sweaty hours later. Sandwiched between Amalfi and Positano, this small hamlet of 1,800 receives merely a fraction of the visitors that descend on its famous neighbors, despite its intimate hotels, charming restaurants and quiet beaches.

Dinner was a well-deserved feast served on the terrace of La Strada, a restaurant carved into the rock face and overlooking the craggy coastline. The jagged peaks of the Lattari Mountains, rising to heights of 4,700 feet, faded into the darkening sky. In the foothills, the distant lights of Positano began to twinkle.

“Praiano is a treasure missed by most,” said the English-speaking woman at the next table. “All the world flocks to Positano, but here it’s peaceful, and there are still secrets to discover.”

As I glanced over the menu, one dish in particular stood out: grilled sea bass in “crazy water.” Baffled, I quizzed the waiter. “Ah, it’s a special broth of tomatoes, garlic and parsley. It was first made by local sailors in the 12th century, and the original recipe used seawater. But things have improved a lot since then,” he was quick to assure us.

Our anticipation was running high — not just for the crazy water (which proved delicious and not at all salty) — but also for the following day’s walk along the famed Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods). Once peppered with Roman temples, it’s the unequivocal highlight of walking the Amalfi Coast.

Up the Path of the Gods

The initial portion of the six-mile path, leaving from the glazed cupola of Praiano’s Church of San Gennaro, was steep and relentless. For the better part of an hour, we huffed and puffed our way up the 1,900-foot-tall peak, following a seemingly never-ending stone staircase dotted with 14 large wooden crosses.

Help was in sight at the top in the form of Domenico, the friendly caretaker of the abandoned 16th-century San Domenico convent. He couldn’t help chuckling. “You look a little tired. But don’t worry, Positano is only three hours from here,” he said, pointing to the faraway cluster of pastel-colored houses that tumbled down the mountain.

He rushed off to press some lemons and pick fresh figs from the trees — refreshments we enjoyed from the comfortable armchairs placed around the shady courtyard.

Positano was at the bottom of 1,700 thigh-straining steps that wove down the peak. We stumbled into town looking slightly disheveled and rather out of place among the immaculate residents and decadent surroundings. Gleaming yachts rocked in the harbor not far from the helipad and the abundance of fashion boutiques.

Such affluence is the reality of modern-day Positano, but I was far more interested in its past. Inside the Church of Santa Maria Assunta stands a precious wooden panel, carved in the 13th century and depicting the Virgin Mary, to which the town owes its name, which roughly means “put there” in Latin.

According to legend, the panel was stolen by pirates who encountered a fearsome storm during their escape. Suddenly the clouds parted, and a loud call erupted from the skies, ordering them to return and put it back. Terrified, they did as they were told.

The next port of call on our walk, reached via high ridges and a succession of fishing bays, was the modern and rather characterless town of Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi. Our accommodations, however, were anything but characterless. Built in the 18th century, Le Tore is a rustic farmhouse set among olive groves, apple orchards and rolling pastures. Owner Vittoria Brancaccio was on hand to greet us.

“We produce everything ourselves — the elderberry juice, the olive oil, the limoncello,” she said proudly. “Even the soap in the bathrooms.”

Our pilgrimage was coming to an end as we set off the following day for Sorrento. The six-mile trail was quiet and punctuated by views across the Bay of Naples to Capri so fine that they stopped us in our tracks. Appearing majestically on the mainland was Sorrento, its beaches and long boulevards filled with travelers, all falling under the irresistible spell of the Amalfi Coast. But how many, I wondered, had taken the time to see it in all its glory?

IF YOU GO: On Foot Holidays (www.onfootholidays.co.uk) offers a seven-night self-guided walking trip along the Amalfi Coast from $1,000 per person, including B&B accommodation, luggage transportation and detailed maps and notes.

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