A clatter of hooves draws me to the balcony. What? Where? From my perch I can see half of the village of Pontone above and below me. I spot the horse just across a gully, down a bit from me, standing next to a parked van at the end of the single road.
A man is loading panniers on the horse with heavy bags that look like sand or cement mix. He’s using a sort of crane and pulley system to position the bags until they can be secured. The small, stocky horse waits patiently, shifts his footing as the bags are loaded on.
The man then leads the horse to the bottom of a stone staircase, swings up onto the horse’s back in front of the panniers, and they begin to climb. I watch as they turn under an archway, cross the little piazza, walk up a ramp, disappear into an underpass, reappear higher up, zig back, climb some more steps, disappear behind some buildings, appear again, zagging, up and up until they are lost among the wandering pathways of the village.
At last, I spot them again, above the village now, climbing to another village perched even higher. From our updated, comfortable room in Pontone, I can see half a dozen small villages and two towns, all within a 30- to 40-minute walk, some with no road access at all. The only way to furnish these homes with dishes, TVs, and anything else that can’t be produced on site, is to carry those items up and across the steep slopes.
Meanwhile, other mules and donkeys are also working routes through the villages, delivering a variety of parcels —groceries, mail orders — to different addresses where no car can go.
This is life in three dimensions. Compared to the villagers who live above the Amalfi Coast, we are all a bunch of flatlanders. Even the better hotels and B&Bs may require a climb of up to 300 steps to get yourself and your luggage into your room.
Unfortunately, Karel had a cold and needed to rest, so I went off exploring on my own. I found myself in an enchanted landscape of thousand-year-old churches, terraced orchards, and stone houses, all linked by steps and cobbled pathways leading everywhere. In most places the paths wended between stone fences and bedrock or retaining walls, which formed the foundations of the buildings. Sometimes the earth behind the walls had been tunneled out to form a storage space, and I’d come across an unexpected doorway or window; in other places rooms or connecting paths were built right over the pathway, supported by arches. It was hard to tell where the houses ended and the mountain began.
I’ve worked in skyscrapers. I’ve lived in the mountains and in a hilly city. Step into an elevator, and it will deliver you to any floor of the skyscraper, its own flat, little kingdom. The mountain homes and hilly city are laid over the surface, and cars will flatten the traveling for you, while you enjoy the pretty scenery. Most of us live in a perceptual environment of two dimensions. Our addresses and errands can be expressed in longitude and latitude, as coordinates connected by lines in an X, Y plane. Just take a look at the green lines and black place markers on the maps at the top of each of our blogs, tracking our movements around the world. The villages of the Amalfi Coast are different. They are married to the mountains in a way that makes the vertical axis a significant feature of your experience.
In my wanderings, I came across a landscape in miniature. Someone created an entire settlement of farms, shops, and mills, connected by cliffside trails —complete with safety lines— and populated with an assortment of figurines. I found more of these make-believe villages when I walked down to the town of Amalfi. It seems to be a common hobby here.
The town of Amalfi is at the bottom of the valley, on the coastal highway. It’s a popular stop for tourists, so I found the shops and restaurants bustling with activity. The main road through the town was wide enough for cars, but the cobbled street belonged to pedestrians. The cars were released into the one-way street every three minutes or so by a traffic light; the shoppers would move to the sides and allow up to four vehicles to carefully pass, and then people would fill the street again like water swirling in the wake of a boat.
On my return climb to Pontone, I met a farmer sitting on the wall of his lemon orchard, taking a smoke break. He spoke very little English, but I’d already learned that this minor inconvenience of language will not stop an Italian from communicating with you. Between my hodgepodge of Romance language vocabularies (a speck of Italian, a dab of Spanish, and some high school French), his few words of English, and a lot of hand waving, I learned that he is 83 years old, named Antonio, and that the lemons from his orchard are used to make the famous and delicious Limoncello liqueur. He also grows a few orange trees.
Antonio decided to give me a tour of his orchard. I discovered that the terraces were only 3 or 4 meters wide and almost as high as they were wide. In other words, the slope of the mountainside is close to 45 degrees (steep! Especially for a farm!). We descended terrace after terrace on steep, narrow, uneven, ancient stone steps that were part of the retaining walls. The trees, which were covered with a black, woven fabric that protects the fruits and blossoms from frost and birds, were already heavily laden with bright, ripe, yellow fruit. The lemon harvest begins in April —so it was already in progress— and runs through June. It was interesting to see this blend of ancient and modern farming techniques. The terraces have been built over a period of at least a thousand years. The fruit must be harvested by hand and carried out by donkeys and mules. But the high-tech fabric provides a margin of safety for a successful harvest. And the product is distilled and packaged in modern factories and shipped to high-end restaurants around the world.
At last, after climbing halfway back down to Amalfi, we reached our goal: two orange trees with different varieties of ripe oranges. Antonio gave me several, and we climbed back up through the beautiful, fragrant groves. Although Antonio is 83 and a smoker, I was the one who was wheezing when we arrived at the gate. A vertical world is a good way to stay fit.
As I ascended the rest of the way to Pontone, I was keenly aware of not only the Z-axis, but of time, the fourth dimension. Here, more than almost any other place I’ve been, one can see how the prosperity and beauty of the present is built on the shoulders of the hard work, clever inventiveness, creativity, and wise decisions (or trial and error lessons) of many generations.
Sometime later I heard the horse again, coming down to the accompaniment of church bells ringing the hour. The man was walking now, to spare the horse’s legs on the steep descent. They returned to the van to prepare another delivery for this four-dimensional world.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013