“We weren’t in the scant old country villages anymore – this was Italy’s version of the Hollywood hills.”
At the absolute end of Atrani lies your very own secret garden, if you’re up to the challenge.
Start your journey at the barberia in Piazza Umberto, then up the eerie, cave-like passageway, past the postage stamp park, through the one-stairwell neighborhood with the lone shrine ensconced in the wall, through the desolate courtyard of crumbled concrete and stretched chain link fence, stopping at the gravel road with the quaint waterfall that passes underneath a moss-covered bridge, then up a wider set of stairs, until you finally reach the one-Vespa road with a dried up stream and broken miniature statue of the Virgin Mary, disturbing holes where her torso used to be. Another steep incline followed by a heap of rusty, abandoned metal signifying something that once was, you’ll at last reach the foothills of the mountains, where you’ll encounter a smattering of unique fringe towns and villages, spanning far into the depths of the hill’s cool center or at the peak’s bleached tips. It’s a civilization that’s not quite lost, but suspended in time in a fairy-like state of serenity to those who know it blind, yet foreboding to stumbling trespassers like ourselves.
A cropping up of lush orange groves marks the place where the path to Ravello officially begins, narrow and steep, naturally snaking flush against the jagged, terraced mountainside under canopies of lemon trees and rugged cabins where flowered sheets hang out to dry. Focusing on the daunting, uneven ascent of stone ahead of you is critical, but it’s even more critical that you remember to stop every few paces to look to the left and behind you and take in a view that begs you to challenge everything you thought you knew about evolution, for how could what you’re looking at possibly be real – how did rock and roots manage to move their way so far inland to here – how could the seaside cafe and chatter of people you started with fall away so easily into an oblivion of gnarled vines making way for treacherous ravines, rushing waters, ominous stone arches precariously placed on cliffs where you’d fall to meet your end if you passed through?
I spent the better part of our hike rubbernecking so as to not miss anything behind me, even walking backwards when I could, and the remainder of the time inhaling the overpowering scents of honeysuckle, exhaling labored breaths, and re-hydrating my parched mouth with my tongue. It was our last day on the Amalfi Coast, though, so I knew better than to complain too much (although I still did a little). After reaching what looked to be a bed and breakfast with a creek and a water wheel straight out of a fairy tale, the charm was short-lived when the path quickly diverted us into traffic, cars teetering down the winding pavement on the cliff side, semi-trucks huffing exhaust fumes to get up the mountainside. After a half hour of straight walking, I thought we had to be close, but the castle ruins and crucifixes on scant chapels at the tippy-top appeared to not be getting any larger or closer.
On we went, this time with nowhere to walk but alongside the cars on the pavement. My boyfriend took off his long sleeve black shirt and tied it around his waist, as the bright midday sun began penetrating our layers. The weather actually held out for us today, all blue skies and breeze, but the fluffy white clouds had dark edges, and it was still chilly in the shade.
The paved road appeared to have no end in sight, and I realized we could have easily just taken a cab or rented a Vespa to get to this point, but a TripAdvisor review urged those seeking adventure that the destination was well worth the journey. We trudged forward, having a slight moment of panic that we went the completely wrong away, until across the road we spotted a staircase blending into the mountain’s edge, where someone had graciously spray painted in neon orange “Ravello” with an arrow pointing up.
After twenty more exhausting minutes of climbing conveniently placed wide plank stairs with railings (and my boyfriend discovering he lost his long sleeve shirt along the way), we arrived, at last, to the tiptop town of Ravello, its ancient city innards protected like a fortress by a spiral of roadway and palm trees and terracotta roofs, feeling very much like a Florida suburb or a Mexican resort, the only difference being the vertical mountainous vista behind it. We were as high up as I thought we could go, yet somehow there was still more – the chapels and castle ruins that before were several miles away now several acres within reach, a fuzzy straight line of pines and white rock now visible at the top: underneath, leading up to it, a thick foliage of palmettos and trellises of wildflowers buttressed only by massive brick patios separating the residents’ ritzy hacienda homes obscured from view by all the greenery. We weren’t in the scant old country villages anymore – this was Italy’s version of the Hollywood hills.
Winding our way from the outskirts into Ravello’s center, the city limits made way for us via an elaborate and impressive network of architecture built without machinery: rough, unclimbable walls softened only by eras of mossy growth, archways molded by individually placed stones, and dramatic steps as deep as they were wide, which we slowly ascended, feeling like nobility lazing about on a sunny afternoon, but more likely peasants with sneakers climbing to see some unknown royal figures, me in my gray yoga pants and he in his casual black tee.
The high stairwell walls had quaint, old-timey arrow signage pointing to a spiderweb of cobblestone alleyways with a restaurant here, a bed and breakfast there, a small tunnel with tucked-in gelaterias, limoncello huts, and high-end souvenir shops, the end opening up to the center of it all: the massive main plaza with an expanse of impeccably clean, beige brick, like the face of a sundial. That previous feeling of a jungly, purgatorial civilization dissipated as we joined the masses here, all mostly white-haired and well-to-do, pink sweater sleeves folded in knots at their shoulders, luxurious cream-colored loafers, expensive handbags, strolling the perimeter like dukes and duchesses.
A church with a grand entrance beckoning to be the centerfold of elite wedding photos stood opposite us, a cafe with outdoor umbrella seating to our right, a barrier of cypress trees planted in the cement to our left, the valley of rich soil and rich people beneath. We grabbed a table at the cafe and had a quick bite of prosciutto wrapped around juicy cantaloupe drizzled in balsamic glaze (this one was better than the one in Amalfi) and a glass of pinot noir and frosted mug of beer, our first alcoholic beverages on the coast that weren’t white wine. A calico cat slinked through our feet as we ate.
After our snack, we passed a castle for touring but didn’t go in (a common theme of our culinary-only tour of Southern Italy), its 5th century turrets and arches surprisingly well-preserved, then walked through the large passenger tunnel until we reached, at last, the most gorgeous landscape known to man: cumulus clouds over stock photo blue sky, an ocean to match with deep tie-dyed patches of teal, and a topography of shadowed peaks of violent shades of green lined like notebook paper, peppered only with orange, white, and yellow abodes – little squares of the lucky ones who get to wake up to that view everyday.
Leagues above sea level, the frothy peach milkshake shorelines tricked the eye into thinking the waves were paused mid-crest, like some artist took a pair of tweezers to delicately lay down feathers on epoxy resin. If it weren’t for the gaggles of blonde women in designer rompers each taking their turn at boomeranging hair flips in front of the backdrop, I would have assumed I’d trespassed on someone’s property. I didn’t feel worthy with my thrifted clothes, my greedy phone camera, the plastic bottle of water tucked in my pants pocket. It felt like cheating as I grasped the railing above an ultra modern restaurant that probably charged exorbitant prices just for the view. Fools, I thought. It’s free up here!
Forced to leave to allow the next wave of sea-watchers through, we followed the maze around Ravello’s perimeter walls and decided to pack it in, as the weather was turning quickly and we were looking forward to an AirBnB nap before a sushi dinner in Amalfi that night. I wrapped my pashmina scarf around my shoulders as we began the descent the same way we came, the downhill forgiving on my calves, careening down the marshy undergrowth of the sundial of Ravello. As we trotted down the wide steps and into traffic, I had the thought that while that final view was magnificent, the pathway to get there rendered it all the more worthwhile…”it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” come to life.
When we reached the paved road, I spotted my boyfriend’s missing long sleeve shirt in the shoulder, still in tact despite being flattened by a few dusty tire marks. I shook it off as we passed the fairytale wheel house, shoddy in its features compared to the limestone palisades at Ravello’s zenith. We reached Atrani’s border, somewhere around the haphazardly grown orange groves now being trimmed at the tops by working men in jeans and boots, the browned and moldy oranges plummeting first to the ground. After nearly an hour, we finally reached a point where you could see the gray horizon of the sea and the rocky shoal outside our AirBnb. The clouds rapidly grayed, casting a sepia tone over the tiny settlement of Atrani, its earthy dark sands mystical, where all of it started.
© 2020 Andrea Festa