A Walk in the Clouds: Hiking to Ravello-Pontone-Amalfi
18.09.2009 - 18.09.2009
We woke to a beautiful day. I lay there in bed, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks below and watching the sun turn the sky deepening shades of orange and rose. When the sun finally pushed its way into the sky, it beamed inside brightly, nudging us and saying, “It’s time to get up.”
We rolled lazily out of bed. My calves were a little tweaky from the previous day’s climb, but I would get plenty of opportunity to stretch them back out today. We had planned an aggressive hike: Up to Ravello, then over to the village of Pontone where we would hike out on the trail to the Valle delle Ferriere which would carry us down to Amalfi. We’d then walk from Amalfi back to Villa San Michele in Castiglione.
We wanted to fuel up with a good breakfast, so we headed to the dining room. We wound up several flights of stone steps, each affording breathtaking views of the sea and climbing flowers. The dining room had a wall of windows facing out into the sea and the windows were draped in pink bougainvillea. It didn’t even look real. They gave us coffee, fresh squeezed OJ, and a basket of rolls and croissants with jam (and of course, Nutella).
Normally, this would be more than enough for my breakfast, but instead I sat there thinking…. “Where’s the cheese? Where’s the salami? What, no cake??”
It was official: I had become a piglet.
After our “light” snack, as I was still mumbling about “no cheese,” we grabbed our stuff and headed back up the Steps of Death to Ravello. Whenever Matt gave me a look that said, “I don’t want to climb any more…” I looked back, shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s easy, jus follow the white house,” and grinned.
The air was cool and filled with the scent of lemons. Thick mist clung to the mountain tops in the distance. We could see the villages of Scala and Pontone suspended in the clouds.
As we walked through the terraced farms, two men were out in the early morning dew picking lemons. I looked at the beautiful crate of fat, juicy fruit. I noticed that the Amalfi lemons are much bigger than the lemons I was used to. They have a very thick, bumpy skin and the smell is out of this world, fresh and pungent. I asked them if they minded if I took a photo and they nodded. When I was finished, one of them held out a lemon, “For you,” he said. They also handed one to Matt.
You’d have thought I had just won the lottery or gotten everything I wanted for Christmas. I was so excited. They gave me a lemon! I scratched the surface of the lemon, closed my eyes, and drew in the delicious smell of it. The lemon trees around me rustled and I sighed with pleasure.
Have I mentioned how warm and gracious the Italian people are?
We continued up through the thick vines and trees, our path twisting up the mountain and through the farms. We stopped occasionally to sample a fat grape that was bursting on the vine or a fig that was bruised with ripeness. Everything was so sweet and so fresh.
Soon, we saw Aisha and we knew we had made it up to Ravello…again. At breakfast, I had hidden some biscuits in my pocket and I pulled them out for Aisha. Her entire body wiggled with happiness.
We only lingered in Ravello long enough to grab a hiking map from the tourism office, then we were off to find the way to Pontone. We identified the right set of steps (yes, steps, are you surprised?) and started making our way down. Down, down, down we went and we reached a road. We had no idea which way to go. Afraid we had “missed our turn,” we went all the way back up. Up, up, up. When we got to the top, we did it all again and ended up in the same place, but at least this time we knew it was right (at least that is what I said to Matt when he scowled at me). Because the map didn’t really show where to go, we picked a direction and walked. We had a 50-50 shot. Soon, we saw more steps. We followed them down and around and up and over. Having no idea if we were actually going to end up in Pontone or if this was a shortcut to Switzerland, we just walked on faith.
We came to another road and followed it up and around….and there it was: Pontone. Pontone is a tiny little town that sits near Ravello. The town was literally deserted as we walked into the small piazzetta near the San Giovanni church tower. A small bar, the Blu Bar, had its doors open wide and had a welcoming committee that appeared to be a small Chihuahua. “Bars” in Italy were interesting things: one part bar, one part snack shop, and one part coffee house. I found them very curious things.
Our plan was to eat lunch in Pontone before heading down the trail through the Valle delle Ferriere. There are a few good lunch options in Pontone, despite its small size: Pizzeria San Giovvani or Antico Borgo were both good choices. We opted for San Giovanni and drifted inside.
No one was in sight. When someone showed up, it was obvious we were a little early for the lunch crowd, it was only 11:30. He muttered something in Italian that sounded like a question, so I assumed it must be something like “Can I help you?” With my limited Italian I said, “Pranzo?” meaning “lunch” and phrased it as a question. I was getting very good at communicating using one word at a time.
“Si,” he said and pointed at the clock, “Mezzogiorno.”
“Lunch is at noon,” I told Matt.
We walked around the quiet little town and then sat in the piazzetta, which had views to eternity. Matt was doing what men do and was ripping his lemon apart with his bare hands and squeezing it into his water bottle. He then went over to the little fountain and filled it with water.
I sat and ate what was left of his lemon. It was plump with juice still and I couldn’t bear to see it go to waste. I ate it like an orange and it was delicate and tender, tiny pieces of pulp bursting with tart flavor in my mouth.
When noon rolled around, we wandered back down the sleepy streets and into San Giovanni. We were taken across the street and seated in a garden setting that overlooked the valleys below. We were alone and had the terrace to ourselves for our entire lunch. We tried a pizza with anchovies. The anchovies were very different than any I have had here, and although I am not a huge fan, they were light and salty and delicious. We also had a caprese salad which arrived as a platter of tomatoes scattered with fresh balls of buffalo mozzarella and very fresh green olives. The main course was a pasta that was thick and rich with tomatoes, mushrooms, spicy sausage and fresh parmesan. Of course we had a bottle of wine….I can hike while inebriated, don’t you worry about that.
When we were finished, the waiter brought over two frosty glasses and filled them with limoncello, a very strong liqueur made with the peel of the lemon and lots of sugar. It was incredibly strong and sweet.
Let the drunk hiking begin!
Our goal was to find the trail that led through the Valle delle Ferriere all the way down to Amalfi. The trail gets its name from an ancient ironworks factory that lies in rubble in its middle. The area is now a natural reserve and is a place that, sadly, few tourists make it to. We headed through town and eventually saw some stairs (“surprise, surprise, surprise,” I say in my best Gomer Pyle voice….) and a sign that said “Amalfi.” Not sure if this was the right way…we asked a young man which way to Amalfi. He pointed down the stairs.
Down the stairs we went. Down, down, down. We looked below us and could see Amalfi and the blue sea sparkling like a jewel in the sunshine. Down, down, down. Cats curled themselves around our legs and we saw a woman sitting on the sidewalk, stringing brightly colored peppers. Down, down, down. As Amalfi loomed closer, I looked at Matt and said, “This isn’t right. This is taking us all the way to Amalfi by steps. We are supposed to be in a forest.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he sighed. “We have to go back up?”
“Yes,” I whined, “But I’m not sure I can, I mean, my legs are SHAKING.” I wasn’t lying. My legs were trembling slightly with the effort of so many steps in so few days. Or maybe it was just that they weren’t yet accustomed to carrying my newly acquired bread and cheese weight.
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
“I guess we should go back up. We came so far, we can’t miss it, can we?” I said, trying to sound pathetic, hoping he’d suggest we just go on down.
Up, up, up we went. We passed the pepper stringing woman. Up, up, up. We passed the cats. Up, up, up. When we reached the top, we wiped the sweat from our brows and headed down the only direction we hadn’t gone yet. Within moments, we were on the path that led down through the Valley. We had missed it by mere feet.
Was it worth it? Absolutely.
The path first wound it’s way across a ridge to the saddle of the valley. Before us were majestic peaked mountains framed by a clear blue sky. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn I had been airlifted and set down in Montana. I felt so small in front of such grandeur.
When we reached the saddle, the path took us down into a rich, green forest, cool and dense with ancient trees and bright ferns, across bridges and beside rushing streams. Deep into the forest, we saw some great rock arches and walls, ruins left from a time long since passed. It was then that we heard the rushing water….a huge waterfall poured down the mountainside and collided into a beautiful pool of water.
Before you could say “Granny, grab your drawers,” Matt was stripping down to his shorts and plunging into the cool water. I followed suit. Well, except for the stripping part.
The water was COLD. So cold that if you stood still in it, your feet began to ache like they were buried in snow…but it was refreshing and delicious. I splashed it on my face and neck, the coolness so inviting.
We sat on a rock to dry, staring in amazement that we had such a blessed place to ourselves. It was like a special gift from God, a treasure to be held for a moment in time.
When it was time to go, we pulled shoes back onto tired feet that were no longer gray with trail dust and made our way deeper into the valley. We walked beside a stream filled with mossy green rocks and little waterfalls. We walked passed ancient buildings that spoke of times long gone when this place was filled with the hustle and bustle of an iron mill and a paper mill. We heard nothing but the rush of the water and the crunch of stones beneath our feet.
The forest began to open up and we saw we were deep in a gorge, sheer mountain cliffs rose dramatically on either side of us. Stucco buildings dotted the green landscape in the distance. My heart literally caught in my chest. My heart hurt, it was so beautiful. I paused for a moment just to soak it in.
Dirt paths gave way to gravel paths which gave way to old stone paths and we began to see farm houses, piled high with crates of lemons and grapes, clean sheets hanging outside the beautifully crumbling windows. Farm houses gave way to shops and before we knew it, we found ourselves wandering into the afternoon activity of Amalfi.
Amalfi was ALIVE. Packed with people, shops and restaurants and bakeries lined the streets while cars and scooters fought for the tiny lanes that snaked in between. We stopped and went into a small leather shop where two gentlemen were busy making belts and purses. The rich smell of leather filled the air. I got a beautiful belt for my dad and snapped a photo of the wonderful little man that made it. “Grazie,” I said as I hugged the belt to my chest and wandered back out into the bright afternoon sunshine.
We walked past the windows filled with delicate pastries and colorful boutiques of silk scarves. We stopped in a small liquor store and browsed through the bottles of limoncello and other local liqueurs. We picked up a bottle of something that was a creamy orange. We couldn’t read the label, so we had no idea what it was. We assumed it was orange.
Our purchases made, we strolled through the lively piazza and gazed up at the incredible beauty of the duomo. It was magnificent. Decorative tiles and stone set against a backdrop of the bluest sky imaginable. Again, my heart hurt with the beauty of it all.
We made the short walk along the coast road out of Amalfi. We passed pebbled beaches littered with bright umbrellas.
We passed the golden dome of Atrani. Eventually, we drifted back into Castiglione and down the steps of Villa San Michele.
We decided to sample our orange liqueur and rest our weary feet for the rest of the afternoon. We opened the tiny bottle and sniffed….what was that smell? It wasn’t oranges. We each took a sip and our eyes widened with the unexpected and absolutely wonderful taste. It was exactly like eating a ripe cantaloupe! Amazing. The afternoon was spent relaxing in our quiet little seaside room with the balcony doors flung open to the salty sea breeze.
Dinner that night started off well enough. Just like the previous night, Villa San Michele offered a first course and a second course with two choices each. Just like the previous night, Matt and I decided to get one of each so that we could sample everything. For the first course, I got the pasta with eggplant and Matt got the pasta with fish and tomatoes. Let me say that, for my entire life, eggplant is one of the few foods I don’t eat. When the pasta was set down in front of me, it smelled wonderful. It tasted wonderful. Italy made me a fan of the eggplant. Delicioso!! The pasta course went well. For the second course, they offered a beef with peas and a “mixed fried seafood” plate. I am not a huge seafood fan, so I went for the beef. I talked Matt into the seafood.
When it arrived, it was pretty much a plate of squid. I don’t mean delicate little calamari, I mean nice big, chunky pieces. There were also some shrimp and some tiny little fish.
I felt so bad for talking Matt into it that I gave him my plate and I took the frightening plate o’seafood. At least there was a side of stuffed zucchini and that was really good.
We had tickets to a concert that night, so we cut dinner a little short and headed up to Ravello. We drove this time….hallelujah! Ravello is called the “City of Music” and is famous for its annual music festival, held on the grounds of the beautiful Villa Rufolo. We were attending the concert that night. We arrived in Ravello with about 30 minutes to spare and they weren’t letting anyone inside yet, so we stopped at a tiny bar in the piazza for a drink.
The night was glorious and the piazza was softly lit. The tower of Villa Rufolo rose high into the night sky, illuminated softly. I sipped on a limoncello while Matt had something a little more tropical until it was time to go.
The concert was inside the villa, which felt like a castle. The music that night was classical guitar and when he began to play, I closed my eyes and felt carried away on the notes of the music. Somehow, the music went perfectly with the setting…it conjured up images of walking down the stone path from the Valle delle Ferriere as it opened up into the gorge heading into Amalfi….I could see the sea glinting in the distance as the white stucco buildings glowed brightly in the sunshine….the green trees rustling secretly in the wind….and my heart felt full enough to burst. My heart was so full it ached.
When the concert was over, we walked dreamily back to the car, the music still playing in our heads. We had a moment of panic that turned to a moment of hilarity when we got to our parking space and it was empty. We were sick. Our car had been stolen. Oh crap. What do we do? We were in a panic trying to figure out how to even contact the police when we remembered we had parked in a different lot.
We drove back down the mountain with the beautiful music of the night still playing in our minds. What a beautiful lullaby to bring a beautiful day to an end.