I knew from our brief encounter on the bus into Bomerano that she didn’t speak English. She was an older woman, all alone and quite fit, with bushy silver hair bursting out beneath the wide rim of her sensible sunhat. You could tell by her proper footwear and name-brand hiking staff that this wasn’t her first rodeo – she had hiked challenging trails before. Over the course of the first several kilometres, we had passed each other five or six times, each taking a turn setting the pace. She struggled with joint-straining descents and I was more than happy to take my time climbing the steeper sections and taking in the breathtaking views of the Gulf of Salerno, the cobalt blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the cliff-side villages that paint the shoreline in pastel shades of pink, orange and yellow.
After a couple of hours of vigorous trekking, I climbed a particularly rocky incline and carefully worked my way along the narrow cliff hugging section of trail that led around to the northwest. It opened up on a staggeringly beautiful new view of Positano far below, and the island of Capri in the distance. Then I saw her, the silver haired lady, leaning quietly against a rock formation and an immediate shiver went through my body. She had been crying. I took another glance and she didn’t appear to be hurt, though I immediately wondered what we would do if she was. We were miles from a roadway, 1,500 feet up the side of a jagged cliff and an evacuation, if needed, would take many hours. Moments later, she spotted me and self-consciously wiped a fresh tear from her cheek, turning her head away. As I came closer, I heard her whisper under her breath “Bella vista” and immediately I understood.
Afterward, I wondered if there was more to the emotional moment that I had happened upon. What brought her here, all alone, on such a challenging trail, so far from everyone? Had she discovered or overcome some dreadful illness? Was this trek her way of following Dylan Thomas’ advice: “do not go gentle into that good night... Rage, rage against the dying of the light”? Perhaps she had committed some great mischief or indiscretion in her youth and had ventured here to this place so near the heavens, seeking redemption. Or maybe, as she had suggested, she was simply overcome by the indescribable beauty of this secluded cliff on the Italian Amalfi coast.
I smiled as I reached her and responded quietly “Bella vista, Signora. Bella vista”. She nodded, and I left her to the solitude of her thoughts.
We were hiking Sentiero degli Dei – the Pathway of the Gods. For seven rugged kilometres, the trail runs up, down and across the coastal mountains of Amalfi at an average altitude of 500 meters (1640 feet). It begins in the village of Bomerano and winds its way to Positano where it ends with 1700 knee-crushing stairs down to the roadway. Along the rocky, exposed trails that pass along the cliff, one wrong step could easily send a hiker sailing gloriously over the precipice, soaring 1500 feet downward, and ending in a certain and tragic case of limestone poisoning.
That's a big next step...
I fear I may have been careless in my earlier posts and consumed all the appropriate adjectives to describe lesser subjects. Perhaps only memories can adequately convey what you see when you are high up on those cliffs, overlooking those waters. The pain I felt the next day (there was plenty of it) was well worth it. In the distance to the south, is a large landmass that I am sure must be Sicily, though it is a long way off. Closer, and far below to the east is the village of Praiano, and to the west, Positano and Nocelle, a village which shares a latitude with Positano but a higher altitude. The three rocky islets jutting out of the sea between Capri and Positano are called Li Galli.
Sorrento Peninsula with Li Galli on the Left
Pathway of the Gods
It was here, at Li Galli, where Odysseus encountered the Sirens during his twelve-year quest to return to Ithaca following the Trojan War. The myths tell alternately of mermaids or winged women living in these islands. They sang and played their instruments so beautifully that passing sailors were drawn into Li Galli, only to crash their ships violently into the rocks and meet their doom. Insisting that he hear the Sirens’ lovely song, Odysseus (whose voyage of many twists and turns inspired the name of this trip - the Great Odyssey) protected his crew by plugging their ears with beeswax. Having learned in advance of the Sirens’ powers, he ordered the crew to tie him firmly to the mast of his ship, demanding that no matter how hard he pled, he was not to be untied. Local lore says that the Gods, perhaps even Hera herself, descended along this pathway to watch over Odysseus in his quest as he safely passed the islands.
It’s hard to describe the sense of satisfaction I felt as my wobbly knees settled on the pavement after 7 kilometres traversing the mountainside and completing those 1700 steps down (I counted 1735, but who am I to argue?) I still had a kilometre or two to walk to get back to my room and along the way I was accompanied by a charming, elderly Italian woman who lives in Positano. She spoke excellent English and as we walked along we stopped to say hello to a family of swans that she likes to visit with when she passes by. They live beside the wall of a bridge and I wouldn’t have even noticed them had I not been with her. She recalled the one visit she had made to Canada a long time ago, how much she enjoyed Quebec City, and also Niagara Falls (though she couldn't find the word for it). "Of course!", she replied as if there were no other possible answer, when I asked her if she had taken the boat to the base of the falls. She had hoped to go to California on another trip but she had gotten old and so now she just stays in Positano.
There are worse places to stay than here, in the shadow of the Pathway of the Gods.
Positano, at Last!
PS: Chronologically, this posting is out of order. I still have three or four others I have to get around to writing, but when Muse chooses to sing to you, it is wise to listen.