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 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 and mountains 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 maps so detailed and walking notes so comprehensive that even someone as directionally challenged as I would struggle to get lost.
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 that stands at the heart of the town.
Keeping a watchful eye over the plaza were an elderly couple, high on their top-floor balcony. Wrapped in snug dressing gowns, the pair surveyed the scene in silence.
Amalfi's surge in popularity began in Edwardian times, when wealthy families from across Europe deemed it a pleasant place to spend their winters. By the 1950s, it had gained a reputation for glamour and sophistication. Today, it attracts travelers in search of fine food, eye-popping scenery and weather that's nothing short of sublime.
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 backstreets 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.
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 enjoying a quick caffeine fix. 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.
Rushing away from Praiano too hastily, however, would have been a mistake, for down the road was another effortlessly beautiful bay by the name of Praia. The dazzling teal sea lapped hypnotically against countless light-gray pebbles as Speedo-clad swimmers capitalized on another sunny day. Fishermen, wearing more conservative attire, huddled together waiting patiently for a catch.
Dominating the bay was a tall and slightly lopsided cylindrical tower called Torre a Mare '" the Sea Tower '" one of several built in the Middle Ages during Amalfi's darkest chapter. Savaged by Saracen pirates who sailed in spreading terror, kidnapping women and ransacking villages, the coast endured widespread turmoil.
In fact, much of the region's past is both brutal and bloody. Shipwrecked Romans took control in the 4th century; the Normans invaded in 1073 and ruled until 1135. The Spanish also had a turn. But Amalfi prospered in times of turbulence. It became an important trading state dealing in everything from spices and ivory to timber from the Middle East and salt from Sardinia.
A closer look at the stone defense tower revealed that the door was ajar. Inside, charcoal portrait sketches covered the walls, and abstract sculptures crammed the sideboards. In the corner, hunched over a piece of clay, was Paolo Sandulli.
An artist famed for his cheeky caricatures of local fishermen, Paolo is something of a local celebrity. For the past 20 years, he has sat on Praia beach quietly sketching anglers and later molding them into figurines.
Now 64, Paolo was born in Avellino, on Italy's east coast, but holidayed in Praiano as a child. "I was blown away immediately. The colors of the water, all the beautiful fish, the lovely villages," he reminisced. "My mum and I would wait for the fishermen every morning and took great delight in choosing what we would have for dinner that evening. The beach was our supermarket."
"Back then, there was only one hotel here and only two restaurants," he said. "So it's changed a lot, but I still see beauty everywhere I go."
I could have spent all day listening to Paolo's tales of Amalfi's bygone days and admiring his humorous works of art, but a heavenly ascent along the Path of the Gods beckoned.
The initial portion of the six-mile trail, 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.
Jumping to his feet, 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. After a quick peek inside the monastery's musty interior to admire its fading frescoes, it was time to continue. The rest of the trail was mostly and mercifully gentle, running along flat paths with vertiginous drops framing rocky cliffs and sapphire inlets.
After a stretch of dense and shady forest, we emerged into the almost deserted hamlet of Nocelle, perched nearly 1,500 feet above sea level. The only people we saw were a father and son walking their dog and a man sitting silently beside a shrine to Jesus. He looked up, somewhat startled at the unexpected company, and smiled.
Positano was still some distance away, 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. Well-dressed couples swept through the attractive piazzas bound for the alfresco cafes and gelaterias.
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 eight-bedroom farmhouse set among 35 acres of 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 in perfect English. "Even the soap in the bathrooms."
Such spots were once common on the Sorrento Peninsula, but not so now. "Many farms have sadly been abandoned," Vittoria said. "It's a tragedy, but we've kept our traditions. People come here for the fresh air and the peace and quiet, the chance to escape."
She had a point. Le Tore proved to be the perfect place to simply sit and take stock of our journey. Joining me in the gravel courtyard was Tex, Vittoria's friendly Labrador. He dozed happily in the sunshine surrounded by oak barrels filled with wine (homemade, of course) and crates of freshly picked vegetables.
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?