Martin Hesp, Editor-at-Large at the Western Morning News, recently joined our Exploring the Sorrento Peninsula tour. Here's his report.
Everyone has heard of the Amalfi Coast – Italy’s mountainous World Heritage littoral which grandstands its way south of the Sorrento Peninsula.
The great finger of the peninsula is dramatic enough, terminating, as it does, the massive, blue, Vesuvius-dominated, sweep south of the Bay of Naples. But around the corner – around the massive limestone crags where the Sirens used to lure their sailor prey – you come to the vertiginous littoral that has been attracting mankind for millennia.
People have been clinging to these maritime cliffs and gorges for thousands of years, and a rather enviable time they have had of it compared to the historic existence led by many civilisations. There is plenty of fertility in the tiny pockets which have collected the fertile volcanic soils, and lemons, grapes, tomatoes and aubergines seem to almost leap out of the sun-warmed canyons and defiles.
Linking these pockets of land, and the villages and hamlets that go with them, are ancient packhorse trails which weave their way up from seaside to mountain-top – often in a seemingly impossible and overly optimistic series of switchbacks and clever tucks and turns.
Somehow these old pathways – laid by the Romans in many cases – pull off the impossible and get you either to the top of the crags, or to some coastal resort far below.
They are public rights-of-way that most visitors never see. The tourist buses twist and turn along the famous single road that links the towns of Positano, Amalfi and Salerno, and most passengers concentrate on the aquamarine views below rather than looking upwards into the mountains. If they do, then the likelihood will be that they won’t imagine that paths wend their up into the mountain tops, or that hiking along them can be a hugely enjoyable thing to do.
For those enjoying this holiday, however, these paths become a wondrous reality. The tour embraces both the world of the high footpaths and the more crowded but jolly visitor zone below. In other words, a vacation that gives you plenty of chances to ride on buses and do a bit of vertical sightseeing with all the other tourists – and also explore the extraordinary landscape in more depth by striding out along some of the paths.
Taken as an entire weeklong experience, this allows you to enjoy one of the world’s most beautiful holiday hotspots in a way that affords a much more satisfying, more interesting holiday than being a mere follower on the well-travelled tourist trail. You begin to understand how life on the vertical works, how it has flourished down through the ages, and how local farmers and fishermen have adapted to the modern world.
Oh, and you are treated to much, much, better views than the ones you can enjoy from the overcrowded lay-bys where the luxury coaches stop for ten minutes.