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A New Challenge

“Thank you so much, young man,” said the elderly but sprightly English lady. “We’d have got completely lost if we hadn’t bumped into you.” This seemed to happen an awful lot on our walks. There we would be, hiking along one of the beautiful mountain paths that criss-cross this area, when suddenly we would come across a pair, or perhaps a group, of foreign tourists who had lost their way and who were desperately trying to make head or tail of maps that they had bought down in Sorrento.

“You know,” Catello said over a beer later that morning, “I reckon we could turn this into a business.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, every week, we come across all these lost tourists. Years ago, I qualified as a tourist guide and I’ve never made use of it. What if we set up our own walking club in the Sorrento area and accompany people on these walks of ours? We just ask them for enough money to cover our costs, pay for lunch … That way we get to go on spectacular walks and eat for free. And if we get a particularly big group, we might even make a profit.”
Catello fell silent – always a good sign, as it means he is thinking. An hour or so later, he had decided.
“Here’s what we do. We design a leaflet in four languages, Italian, English, German and French. Reckon your French is up to translating what I say?”
“Oo-er … um …”
“Oh, well. Forget French for the time being. Come to think of it, let’s forget Italian, too. It’ll attract too much unwanted attention. Let’s go for English and German, eh? We get the leaflets printed and set up a web site. We take the leaflets round hotels, pubs and bars in the Sorrento area. And then we wait.”

Give Catello his due, when he made a decision, it didn’t take him long to move from words to action in a way that was quite un-Italian. Over the following week, we got together every evening after work, pored over photographs that we had taken on our walks, and slowly put together the text for our leaflets.
“We are a group of enthusiastic … erm …”
“Ramblers?” I suggested.
“Yes, good. We are a group of enthusiastic ramblers based in the …”
“Pretty seaside town.”
“Yes, pretty seaside town of Vico Equense.”
Here we came across our first obstacle: writer’s block. We chewed on our pens and stared into space but, try as we might, we had absolutely no idea how to continue.
“Tell you what,” I said to Catello. “Let’s just make a list of everything we want to include and then write around it.”
“OK. Well, we ought to mention Positano and the rest of the Amalfi Coast.”
“Yes, and we should put in something about the fact that we are close to Campania’s historical and archaeological sites and …”
“No, let’s leave Naples out of it. Let’s stick to this area.”
We soon had a fine old list of the area’s blessings.
“Let’s see now,” said Catello. “Temperate climate, panoramic landscapes, superb bathing facilities …”
“Fine hotels, excellent restaurants, wealth of art and history …”
We brainstormed until late into the evening.

“We should make our walks into a full experience,” insisted Catello. “They should include breakfast, pause for drinks and lunch.”
“Good idea. What’s the point of bringing people along on one of these walks if they’re going to end up eating cheese and pickle sandwiches and drinking orange squash? It’ll ruin everything.”
“OK. So we have inexpensive walks which make use of public transport and end up in cheap and cheerful trattorias, and more expensive ones for which we hire minibuses and in which we end up scoffing linguine and lobster in a posh restaurant in Positano!”

Within a week, we had chosen our photographs, composed our text, and come up with a list of ten of the most beautiful walks. There was the Sentiero degli Dei – the “pathway of the gods” which takes in the splendours of the Grotta del Biscotto or “Biscuit Grotto” and the lovely little village of Nocelle near Positano. There was, of course, a Punta Campanaella roundtrip with a detour to admire the Bay of Mitigliano. There was the more arduous Sentiero dei Tre Calli walk which started in the little village of Agerola, nestled in the hills behind Amalfi, the Botto dell’Acqua, setting out in Gragnano, famous for its wine and pasta production. For the summer, we included a Monte Faito circuit, a leisurely stroll under an invigorating canopy of pine and beech trees, with the splendours of the Bay of Naples on one side and the Gulf of Salerno on the other.
“What about a spiritual walk?” I asked Catello.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, we could start at Agerola, take the ‘Biscuit Grotto’ route and arrive at the Saint Domenic monastery in time for the 11:30 mass. That one’s bound to be popular.”

Before long, we had ten itineraries and I put together a draft of a leaflet which I had translated by colleagues at work into German and, for later use, Italian and French. Catello, in the meantime, came to an advantageous agreement with a local typesetter for an initial run of 5000 copies ain English and German.
“Two things worry me a little,” I told Catello. “Firstly, what happens if we have an accident up there in the mountains? Neither of us knows the first thing about first aid. And, secondly, how much do you know about flora and fauna?”
“Well, if one of those tourists spots a plant or a butterfly and wants to know what it’s called, then we’re going to look a prize pair of berks if we don’t know. And I don’t know about you, but my knowledge scarcely extends beyond ‘bird’, ‘flower’, ‘mushroom’, ‘tree’ …”
“Hmm. No, I can recognise most species,” replied Catello, perhaps with a hint of exaggeration. “But you’re right about the first aid. Leave it with me. I’ll see to it.”

A couple of weeks passed. I bought myself a copy of a book called “A Field Guide in Colour to Plants and Animals” and tried to do some studying. With the animals, I had absolutely no problem at all. They were relatively straightforward. But the trees and shrubbery and the mushrooms were like peas in a bloody pod. How did people tell them apart?
One Wednesday night, Catello called me at work.
“Whatever you’re doing tonight, cancel it,” he told me.
“We’ve got our first lesson in first aid. It’s up in Moiano. I’ll meet you at the station after work and we’ll go up together.”
The course was held, in the local secondary school, by a doctor who puffed away at one cigarette after another, as did most of his students. Over the next few weeks, we learned how to resuscitate people, how to prevent people from choking, how to cope with anaphylactic shock, heart attack, external bleeding, head injuries, stroke, epilepsy, fractures, dislocations, spinal injuries, burns and scalds, as well as poisoning, bites and stings.

“Anything not covered by that lot, and we’ll just push them off the side of the bloody mountain,” said Catello as we waited nervously outside the examination room for our results at 11 o’clock one Tuesday night, having answered a multitude of theoretical questions and performed artificial respiration on a mechanical dummy that stank of cigarette smoke.
“That’s it then!” said Catello proudly, when we learned that we had both passed. “We’re in business.”
The following Friday, Giovanna spent the day at Capodichino airport handing out newly printed leaflets to English tourists as they came through arrivals in Terminal 2. On Saturday, she did the same for the Germans. On Saturday evening, the phone rang for the first time. It was an English lady named Kitty, and she was interested in one of our walks. In an excited panic, I rushed to Catello’s office to let him know, and to pick up a polo shirt and baseball cap complete with logo that we had had made to lend a semblance of professionalism to our walks.
“Well, the insurance may be all sorted out, but I still don’t know one bloody butterfly from another.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Catello reassured me. “You walk behind them and keep them amused with some stories and anecdotes, and I’ll go on ahead and shoo away any butterflies I don’t know the name of before they can ask what they’re called.”
At 8 o’clock the next morning, I picked up the four elderly English ladies from their hotel and we headed up to Santa Maria del Castello. The plan was to walk down to the “forestale”, the forester’s lodge, take a short break and then proceed to Nocelle to take in the views of Positano. The ladies clucked contentedly on the bus, commenting enthusiastically on everything from the local architecture to the traditional dress of the local peasantry. We arrived in Santa Maria without a great deal of ado and set off towards the forestale.

They walked slowly and, to my relief, seemed to be experts on Mediterranean plant and animal life and so, for today at least, Catello’s skills as a beater were not going to be required. Every now and again, one of them would bend down, displaying her ample backside to those of us bringing up the rear, and exclaim:
“Oh, look! Xanthoria parietina!” – or whatever – and look back round at me for confirmation, at which I would put on my most knowledgeable expression and nod sagely. After 40 minutes or so, we reached the forestale and sat down, enjoying the fresh mountain air.

“Well, that was lovely, dear,” Kitty told me.
“What was?”
“The walk. Absolutely super!”
The others chorused their agreement.
“But it’s not over yet!” I told them. “We were going to proceed down to Nocelle!”
“Speaking for myself, I’d be happy just to go back the way we came. By the time we get down to Vico, we’ll be just about ready for a spot of lunch.”

Catello and I looked at each other. We were hardly a quarter of the way through the walk we had intended. Catello shrugged.
“Well, if that’s what you want.”
They all started nodding like horses.
“OK, then. Let’s sit here for a few minutes and then we’ll head back.”
Back down in Vico, we took Kitty and her friends to a quaint restaurant, where they each ordered something different and spent the entire time tasting everything that everybody else had ordered, and quaffing an intemperate amount of wine with the result that they became delightfully giggly and made a hopeless mess of the tablecloth and serviettes.
“Well, if they’re all that easy to please,” said Catello, once we’d accompanied them safely back to their hotel, “then we’re onto a good thing.” I nodded, but I think we both knew full well that very few of our customers would be quite so easy.
When there were no tourists to take out, Catello, I and the others would undertake something a little more adventurous, or perhaps go further afield. As winter gave way to spring, we started to explore the area in the south of Campania, in particular, the Cilento Coast.

This part of Italy has everything the holidaymaker could want and has got to be one of the south’s best kept secrets. Imagine that you are planning a vacation in Italy and you are making a list of everything you want your trip to include. I’ll wager that your list looks something like the following: sun, sea, tradition, culture, history, processions, folklore, beaches, peace and quiet, nature, beautiful churches and museums. Am I close? Well, look no further, for the Cilento coast is perfect. First stop, heading down from the north, is Paestum, a town which started out as a Greek settlement in the 6th century B.C. and was originally known as Poseidonia until it became the Roman city of Paestum in 273 B.C. after its bungling inhabitants sided with the loser Pyrrhus in the war against Rome. Paestum went into decline in the Middle Ages and it wasn’t until the 18th century that its ruins came to light. Today, they are still in remarkably good condition and offer a true Greek experience to the modern traveller, as well as a fascinating insight into the world of Magna Graecia. The town is famous for its three white marble Doric Temples – the Basilica of Hera, the Temple of Ceres and, the most impressive and best preserved of all, the Temple of Neptune, and they are certainly magnificent on a hot summer’s day against a royal blue sky. It is said that childless couples flock to the Baslica of Hera at night, in the hope that a shag before the shrine of the Goddess of Fertility will result in that elusive pregnancy.

Further to the south of Paestum lie the towns of Agropoli, a captivating little seaside resort on a promontory, and Velia, where you can find the ruins of the Greek settlement of Elea, not as well preserved as those of Paestum, but still well worth a visit. Although Agropoli began to expand outside of its medieval walls in the 19th century, the old town remains intact and, with its beautiful churches, some of which date back to the very dawn of Christianity itself, and a simple but delicious local cuisine based heavily on olive oil seafood that has avowed pescophiles like me – as well as American nutritionist Ancel Keys, who studied the people of the Cilento as part of his “Seven Countries Study” on dietary habits and found them to be among the healthiest in the world – foaming at the mouth, it is a super place to escape from the insanity of the more renowned Amalfi Coast further north, in which it can be impossible to move in the summer.


10 pensieri riguardo “A New Challenge

  1. Quite the tale Giacomo. I can only imagine how pathetic many tourists appear when hiking the Italian coasts. I am sure we were no different than the rest when we hiked in Cinque Terre. But what a hike that was. Wishing you a Merry Christmas. Allan

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  2. Love the personalities you describe in your posts….a chain smoking doctor advising on first aid…priceless! You’ve left me wondering how far you went with this enterprise, so I’m really hoping there’s more to come in future posts, with more colourful guests and experiences to describe. Cheers Giacomo…and merry Christmas!

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