Almost Fearless

Worth the Climb: The Path of the Gods on the Amalfi Coast



In Italian, the trail is called Sentiero degli Dei: the Path of the Gods. It’s an apt name for this winding mule trail that clings to the Lattari mountains high above the Amalfi Coast, for it is both divinely beautiful and mercilessly indifferent to mortal limitations.

The plan was to hike from our home base in Praiano to the small village of Nocelle with my husband, eight-year-old daughter and 17-year-old nephew. My sister, still nursing wounds from a painful spill down steep stairs to Duoglio Beach, would spend her day recuperating under an orange-striped umbrella.

I knew from pre-trip research that our route would be three or four miles, including a climb up from Praiano to connect with the main trail. From there, we’d turn west and hike to Nocelle where we’d catch a bus that would deposit us in Positano. As it turned out, my information was accurate, but lacked about 1500 relevant particulars.

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We started the day on the fence about whether we should do the hike at all. Halfway through a 12-day trip, we’d already pounded miles and miles of pavement in Rome, climbed up Mount Vesuvius, toured Pompeii and paddled around on a four-hour sea kayaking excursion. We were tired.

If I skipped the hike, it wouldn’t be the first time. I had been to the Amalfi Coast once before, two decades earlier in my 20s. While I look back on that trip with great fondness, my most vivid memories are of laying out on a black pebbly beach and taking a snapshot of a traveling companion lapping water from the “lactating” breasts of a sculpted woman in Amalfi’s St. Andrew Fountain. We weren’t even aware the Path of the Gods existed.

I wanted my daughter and nephew to think about travel differently than I did at that time, and encouraged them to experience a place more than superficially and learn a bit about its history and significance in the world. For example, if they wanted to take a photo at the Fountain of St. Andrew, they should know he was the patron saint of the Amalfi Coast and protector of seamen. While it was awesome to search for sea glass in a picturesque fjord, it was also worthwhile to understand why this dreamy part of the world was once an important port. If they were intrigued enough to take a photo of lactating women in a Baroque fountain, they should also make an effort to understand their significance.

In the spirit of experiencing a place to its fullest, three of us decided we’d regret not taking a hike which, by all accounts, was extraordinary. One of us—the one with the shortest legs and most recent birth date—was somewhat less convinced that a multi-hour hike in a 90-degree heat wave was a better idea than chilling with her Playmobil pals and a bag of biscotto on the terrazza.

However, it was three to one in our small democracy, so we set out from our apartment with snacks, water, sunscreen and dorky hats in hand. As we turned uphill and took the first step, it was probably a good thing we didn’t know what was in store: an elevation gain of around 1,500 feet via at least 1500 awkwardly-spaced stairs built with four-footed pack animals in mind. Long before an oasis appeared on our path in the form of the Convent of San Domenico, counting stairs had ceased to be fun for my daughter, and we were too out of breath to sing our tried and true (and trite) hiking song, “The Ants Go Marching.”

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The convent was an idyllic pit stop in more ways than one. More than just a welcome end to our 1500-step effort, we were all stunned by the view and cheered by the idea of a cool drink. While my nephew put on his headphones to enjoy the vantage point in his own way, my husband, daughter and I happily sipped on sweet lemonade squeezed from fruit plucked out of a tree we sat under while staring out at the impossibly blue Thyrrenian Sea. It was surely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Refreshed, we pressed on, climbing several hundred more steps to merge with the actual Path of the Gods. (Tip: As it turns out, most people start the trail in the town of Bomerano in order to avoid the steps up from Praiano.) This section was much less difficult and, aside from a few narrow, sheer places that I alone found rather terrifying, we enjoyed our walk and savored the especially stunning view from our perch on the edge of Italy.

Not long before we left the U.S., my daughter had spent several months of second grade fascinated by a section on Greek mythology. It made our walk all the more interesting because looking out over Positano and the Gulf of Salerno toward the island of Capri, it was easy to imagine Odysseus sailing through these waters, tempted by the Sirens’ intoxicating song.

While the four of us spent most of the hike clipping along happily, toward the end of our own odyssey, one too many uninformed “We’re nearly there’s,” prompted my daughter to throw her pink straw hat to the ground in frustration. Then she picked it up and did it again. It was the kind of moment that could have been avoided altogether if we’d set expectations fairly, but she soon regained her composure, picked up her hat and kept walking. My husband and I were proud of her for rallying, and though we sometimes joke about her mini-meltdown, we also often encourage her to remember how her tough spirit paid off that day when she grows frustrated with new challenges.

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With or without a pink hat, everyone has low moments on tough hikes and, in most cases, we dig in and keep moving. Discovering that you have the resilience to rise to a challenge is part of what makes hiking so rewarding, whether you are eight or 78.

Soon after, we made it to Nocelle, where we treated ourselves to a cold drink and fresh pasta at the lovely Ristorante Santa Croce. While we’ve done tougher hikes in the two years since walking the Path of the Gods, it was the most difficult my daughter had done at that time. Today, she absolutely remembers that it was hard, but says the fact that it was challenging–in addition to the incredible view and thrill of walking on a high and narrow path–is one of the reasons she is glad she did it, and would do it again. In Italian, that’s called sicurezza: confidence.

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Jill Coody Smits

Jill Coody Smits is a freelance writer of many things, including articles, blog posts, op-eds and essays published in outlets like Psychology Today, Southwest, Southern Living, Austin Monthly, Design*Sponge, the Washington Post, and CNN.com. She is also the author of Expedition Austin: A Kid’s Guide to the Weirdest Town in Texas. She lives in ATX with her husband, daughter and two four-footed sons.

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