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Along the rugged Tyrrhenian coastline, where gods and mortals have left their marks, sturdy hikers can weave through cliff-side villages set against an azure sea.

March 07, 2004|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Amalfi Coast, Italy — You walk slowly on the Path of the Gods high above Positano for fear of cutting a switchback short and falling over a cliff. Your imagination starts playing tricks, keeping you on the lookout for brigands and satyrs. You get used to going astray on trails that peter out into nothing or dead-end at farmhouses guarded by furiously barking dogs. Then, of course, you must retrace your steps, all straight up or down.

It's agony ... and ecstasy, for here, on the southern side of the Sorrento Peninsula, between Naples and Salerno, the Lattari Mountains come to a screeching halt, in one of the great meetings of land and sea. Like Big Sur, the Amalfi Coast is a place of savage beauty, all truculence and temerity.

In other ways, though, it is more like France's civilized Cote d'Azur, attracting the stylish and well-to-do. Their reclusive villas overlook villages, stacked on the mountainsides above rocky headlands, where a traveler can be assured of superb southern Italian cuisine and luxurious accommodations.

Most people come for the sun and pebble strands, the shopping and seafood. A walking tour along the fabled Amalfi is something only the hardy British would dream up. It suited me, though. I visited in October, at the end of high season, when the Amalfi can be too damp and overcast for sun worship.

My short, self-guided tour, with luggage transfers and reserved hotel rooms, was rated moderately difficult by Inntravel, the English company that arranged it. I would cover 14.4 miles in two days, with a day of rest in Ravello before starting and another at the end in Positano, treading paths that cleave to the cliffs above the coast. Given my proclivity for getting lost, I'm sure I walked twice as many miles as the route description foretold.

Car-free piazza

The tour started in Ravello. From Rome, I had taken a train to Naples with the sobering sentinel of Vesuvius on the southeast horizon.

An Inntravel agent found me in the throngs at Naples central station on the Piazza Garibaldi and deposited me in a brand new, air-conditioned Lancia minivan. Instead of taking the infamously winding coast road around the Sorrento Peninsula, he took the shortcut across its neck, to the heights above the coast, a 90-minute trip.

Perched high above the coast, little Ravello is ravishing, not least because its center is car-free. So when we arrived, my driver got a porter for my luggage and left me to walk from the piazza to the Villa Maria, where a room was booked for me.

The hotel is shelved on the side of a steep hill, with a terrace restaurant stretching to its edge, like an infinity pool. Inside, solid 19th century highboys, crystal and white linen suggest Sunday dinner at an Italian grandma's. My room on a lower floor had a private terrace, tasseled lamps and a double bed covered by a crocheted spread that fit the old-fashioned setting.

Knowing I had to start walking early the next morning, I immediately set out to explore the town, heading first to the nearby Villa Cimbrone. Established by refugee patricians from Rome around the time of dissolution of the empire in the 4th and 5th centuries, it was embellished in the early Middle Ages' Arab-Sicilian-Norman style common on the Amalfi, where thriving maritime trade brought contact with Byzantium and the Muslim world. In the early 20th century, the villa belonged to Lord Grimthorpe, who fell under its spell, lovingly restored it and invited English friends to stop in on their grand European tours.

The villa -- now a hotel -- and its lush, romantic gardens, open to the public, are still besotting. From the Moorish arched cloister near the entry, a wisteria-draped alley leads to the Terrace of Infinity, where busts of ancient Romans punctuate breathtaking coastal views. There I found a group of elderly women straight out of an English novel, painting the scenery in watercolor.

"Angela, that's awfully good," one of them commented.

Then bells began to peel from the towers of churches scattered far below, reverberating against the valley walls.

I quickly discovered that Ravello is a warren of stone walkways, lined by houses with plaques commemorating the visits of such famous people as D.H. Lawrence, who wrote part of "Lady Chatterly's Lover" in a building on San Francisco street. The lane converges with other winding arteries on the piazza, lined by cafes, galleries and shops selling riotously colored ceramics from Salerno area factories.

At one side of the piazza, a promenade bordered by pine trees looks over the valley. Across from it, steps mount to the 11th century Cathedral of St. Pantaleone. Though the cathedral has been renovated in the Baroque style, its marble pulpit, studded with mosaics and set upon six sculpted lions, suggests the town's medieval heyday.

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