Hiking Along Italy's Amalfi Coast

Trails wind between chic towns along the steep cliff walls. Katherine Kiviat / Redux

The retired opera singer went ahead of us, singing of Ulysses, while the blue Mediterranean flashed sun from below. We were on a hiking trail along the Amalfi Coast, moving along steep cliff walls. The trail, considered one of the most beautiful in the world, is rightfully named the Pathway of the Gods. Later that same day, around a long outdoor lunch table, again with the ocean glinting and gorgeous below, we sat listening to a conversation between a doctor, a business-school professor, a lawyer, and a scientist about the ethics and practicalities of extending the human life span to a century and a half or more. Sitting at the lunch table was like taking part in a seminar at college.

Other people are not necessarily hell, but they are certainly challenging. In the case of the group walking tour that my wife and I went on, however, one of the great pleasures was the company of our fellow travelers. Among us were the opera singer, three college professors, a doctor, several scientists, health-care executives, lawyers, and two foreign-service officers.

The trip was organized by Country Walkers, a Vermont-based travel company known for setting the gold standard of walking tours. My wife and I had spoken for years about traveling with them, but we have always been shy about taking group tours. Perhaps out of vanity, when I am traveling, the last thing I want is to appear a tourist. The idea of following behind a guide who is holding up an umbrella makes me cringe. But the nature of the holiday my wife and I wanted, to walk the Amalfi Coast but to do so with guides who could keep us from getting lost and then becoming disheartened, appeared to require a group tour.

The organization of the trip was excellent, the guides cheerful and knowledgeable, and the restaurants that they had us stop at for lunches, both simple and delicious. The trip began ominously, though. We met in the afternoon outside Pompeii. The bus that was going to take us onward was white and enormous, and it beeped as it backed toward us. I saw the bus, and my heart sank. I pictured a guide holding up an umbrella. The group on this trip, however, was only 18 people, and when I got on the bus, I realized that the vehicle was so large because this way most people would have a window seat.

Once we were all on, we set off along the coast's twisting turns for our first hike.

Hiking along the Amalfi Coast is not like hiking anywhere else. Typically, we began our hikes with an espresso at the cafés seemingly located near every trail head. Also, one is rarely far from homes. Even on the Pathway of the Gods, we regularly passed houses with lemon groves and grape trellises. Once, when I had somehow wandered off alone, I came to a dirt trail that divided in two. I stood at the juncture for a moment and then shouted, "Which way should I go?" A man stepped out of a small white house high above me and called, "Go left."

The paths we walked along had loose gravel, roots jutting up, and enough pine needles and fallen leaves to make the trails slippery. At first I spent so much time looking down that I was not taking in the details of what I was seeing: the mule paths, the cunningly carved channels for running water that keep the trails from getting soaked, the caves whose ceilings are black because the shepherds who took shelter in them burned fires to cook their meals. I asked one of the guides what I should do so that I could notice these details more. "Slow down," he said, and laughed. "This is Italy."

There were orchids growing along the trails, small purple ones. As we walked, our guides regularly tore off wild mint, arugula, and licorice for us to taste. In the same way that we often link our memories of a place to a sense of smell, I feel that I will remember the licorice I chewed with the particular moment when I came over a hill onto a sunny plateau and a breeze picked up, and in the distance was a white church.

While many of the walks my wife and I went on are famous, the dizzying descent from Ravello to Amalfi and the climb from the port of Capri to Anacapri were most memorable. In Amalfi, there is not the machismo that one finds among avid hikers elsewhere. To try to do a trail especially quickly or to seek out an unnecessarily difficult way of doing so for a slightly better view seems beside the point. And yet at the end of every day, my wife and I found ourselves tired and fell asleep easily.

The coast of Amalfi deserves its reputation of not being culturally significant. The duomo in Amalfi is lovely, and the concerts in Ravello are fine, and the architecture of the old city center of Sorrento is somewhat neat. Compared, however, with Rome and Florence and Venice, the pleasures of standing in the churches in these places and looking up at gilded ceilings are of the more check-the-box variety. To the extent that there are cultural pleasures, they are the pleasures of getting lost in unknown alleyways and looking through people's windows at the strange television shows that they are watching. What one finds in most towns is not so much culture as high-end clothing stores. The number of shops is baffling. Why does any one town need three Chanel stores? Do women really buy expensive lingerie on vacation?

The trip did, however, have its bits of history. Standing on a hillside and looking at a series of stone outcroppings in the sea, our guide explained that local traditions claim that Ulysses visited the Amalfi Coast and these rocks are the sirens that called to him, and when they failed to lure him, they turned to stone. Unlike in other recountings of the story, the residents of the Amalfi region believe that the sirens were half woman and half chicken.

The strongest sense of history tends to come in Capri: old Roman ruins look down at the sea, churches sit on ancient temples, but the very nature of the steep hills means that the narrow streets one walks are basically the paved versions of ancient routes.

Along with being nervous about the company of strangers on the tour, the other thing I had dreaded was being surrounded by tourists in this justly famous region. Partially because of this, my favorite moments of the trip were in the late afternoon and early evening, when tourists retreat to their hotels. I also loved night, when the world seemed to retreat.

One night my wife and I stayed in a hotel called Monastero Santa Rosa. It is an old convent looking down on the sea with terraced gardens that step toward the water. We sat in the gardens as night came, and the towns in the distance turned from buildings into lights. At a certain point, my wife and I stopped talking, and there was only the roar of the waves. Sitting there I had an eerie sense that what I was hearing now was what people had heard for thousands of years and what they would hear for thousands more.