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04.08.2014. Best of the Coast
On the Amalfi Coast, many visitors are so caught up in the Positano movida or dazzled by Amalfi’s historic charms that they never venture up into the hills. True, there’s always Ravello – the only one of the region’s inland towns that attracts much tourism – but Ravello has always been an exception, a lofty, aristocratic perch, where writers, musicians and cultivated ladies and gentlemen of leisure would go to distance themselves from the world and its foibles.
The other Amalfi Coast is to be found not in Ravello’s romantic gardens but in tiny rural villages like Nocelle, where the arrival of modern comforts like electricity has had remarkably little effect on a lifestyle which is still, in essence, that of a small rural community that looks to the land for sustenance. Olive and lemon groves colonise the terraces above and below the village, where kitchen gardens planted with tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, potatoes, green beans, aromatic herbs and other good things fill the spaces between simple houses built from the local pumice stone. In this vertical landscape even the single-naved village church has to fit itself into the space available (and in the absence of any other flat ground, the local kids have adapted the small piazza outside for use as a soccer pitch, with the door of the church as goal).
A road finally arrived here in 2001, connecting Nocelle with its larger neighbour Montepertuso before winding down to Positano. But it stops short of the village itself, which is still best approached on foot, via a long, well-maintained flight of ancient steps that for centuries has provided a direct link between the tiny hill-perched hamlet and Positano.
It’s around 1,800 steps from the base of the climb, half a mile east of Le Sirenuse on the main Amalfi road, to the piazza in front of the church, and another 65 up to the contour-hugging lane that brings one out onto the Montepertuso road. Offered as one of Le Sirenuse’s regular weekly activities, this natural Stairmaster workout is best done early in the morning in summer (our guided walks set off at 8am), when Positano is illuminated by the rising sun and before the heat of the day has become too oppressive. Any reasonably fit person should have no problems completing the walk in around ninety minutes – and the mostly good condition of the steps means it can easily be done in trainers and gym shoes.
On the way up, as you ascend past prickly pears, fragrant Mediterranean macchia and ilex woods, note the way the view changes and evolves until, with around 1,100 steps under your belt, it opens out to reveal a whole sweep of coast, with the islands of Li Galli piercing a sea criss-crossed by the trails of speedboats, ferries and yachts. From this height they look like so many water-skimmers on a shimmering pond.