Adventures in Campania Part II, Amalfi Coast: Sun, steps and seafood!

[Did you miss Part I? Click here]

On the other side of the hills, through some tunnels and around some hairpin turns, one pops out on the Amalfi coast. Coming from Napoli, it looks as though you’ve disembarked in another land, even though it’s not 60km away. The greenery contrasts against an azure Mediterranean Sea. The cliffs drop off to reveal a rugged coastline dotted with castle-like lookout towers used by locals nearly a thousand years ago to defend themselves from pirates.


We booked a B&B in Positano for a couple of nights. Actually, above Positano in a small village called Montepertuso. It seems to consist of about 137 houses, a church, two restaurants and a bus stop. It’s perfect. These towns were built vertically from the sea up the hillsides. But what we hadn’t considered was the fact that there are approximately 1500 steps from Positano up to our perch.

Montepertuso from our B&B balcony. Bonus points for spotting the surprise in the photo.

We decided to explore somewhat horizontally that first day… traversing over to the trailhead for the Path of the Gods, or Il Sentiero degli Dei, we managed to hike the path all the way from Montepertuso to Bomerano and back. For the record, “horizontal” is relative in these parts.

Words cannot do justice to panoramas we encountered along the way: the jagged rock formations, caves, terraced gardens, carefully-placed villas, and the sheer cliff faces that seemingly melted into the sea below. We did the hike backwards, so had to wander about a little village to find sustenance, and were rewarded with some great eggplant parm to help fuel the 2nd half of the hike. The decision to hike back rather than wimp out and take the bus proved to be a good one: the views from the “high path” were even grander, walking through the long grasses that lined the trail was meditative, and the late afternoon light contrasting with the fog off the water was surreal. Truth be told, my legs grumbled a bit when we missed a bus from Nocelle and walked the last 3km or so. But all in all, I think this hike falls on my list of favourites. Total distance 22+/- km round-trip. Definite accumulation of adventure points on the day!

These coastal towns are connected by a local bus route, so the next day we were off to Amalfi proper, and from there the town of Ravello for its terraced gardens and medieval estates. Castles and breathtaking views? Yes, please. Bright blue skies and more spectacular views greeted us as we marched through the impeccable Villa Cimbrone (a fancy-shmancy hotel that opens its gardens to tourists)…worth every penny of the entrance fee. Between the architecture of the villa, cloister and crypt (replete with grand piano), the views, and the serenity of the place, this won our hearts more-so than the tourist-thronged streets of Amalfi.

But even an accidental tourist has to get one of Campania’s giant lemons topped with local lemon sorbet! (when in Amalfi…)

Once back in Positano, we were faced with the dreaded steps! There is a local bus that takes one from the bottom to the top, but that schedule is haphazard and it seemed silly to wait around for a bus that may or may not come… so up we climbed, and I lost count somewhere in the neighbourhood of 11 gajillion. The reward came at dinner, where we stumbled into the family-run Donna Rosa, a surprising little restaurant with charm spilling out from the kitchen onto our table! A nice way to round out the day.

Positano, from high on the hill

The following day, we planned to hike the Sentiero Panoramico, a loop high above Montepertuso. Essentially, mostly UP… But the weather gods had other plans. A shift in the skies was upon us, and the looming clouds promised a treacherous journey on a hike already deemed hard by the guidebook. So we opted to do a short climb up to Il Buco, a hole in the mountain with very cool views from this weird geology. What goes up must come down, so we hiked down the same steps we had climbed up the day before, and wandered around the streets where Kardashian sightings aren’t uncommon (no paparazzi to be seen this day). At no more than 17C, there were still several bikini-clad people on the beach, selfie-ing it up as if the season were in full swing. I cannot even imagine what this place is like in the middle of summer!

With dark clouds looming, we managed to grab our bags, grab a bus, and grab cover under a car park before the storm raged for real: Jupiter ushering us out of Positano with a bang. And so the days of the Amalfi coast come to a close with bonus points for bright blue skies, breathtaking views and challenging-but-worth-it hikes. Also fennel liqueur (where does one find some?!)

We stayed in a different section of Napoli on the last night, in a nice B&B run by a zealous host (whose mother made the most fantastic Italian pastries for us for Easter breakfast!). We were bowled over by her hospitality, which proved a wealth of excellent suggestions for the evening, including the best seafood experience of the trip: ‘a Figlia d’o Marenaro. The local favourite being the zuppa di cozze, a pile of steamed seafood over bread, with a zesty fra diavolo drizzled over the lobster. It did not disappoint!

Homemade sfogliatelle, courtesy of our host’s mother

So I left Naples with a better spirit than I entered. Maybe it was the last supper. Perhaps the Mediterranean air seeped into my pores. The eggplant parm and the homemade sfogliatelle and the hiking and the company surely didn’t hurt. They say you need at least 10 days of vacation for it to really feel like a holiday. I was on Day 9 and headed for a couple of nights in Istanbul to finish off my adventure.


I’ve written a lot about Istanbul, so I’ll not go into explicit detail here. Suffice to say it was a nice couple of days wandering about this weird and wonderful city. I’d intended to visit the Rumeli Fortress, a castle situated on the banks of the Bosporus, but it was closed (until next time!). I still managed to eat a traditional herring sandwich at a fish boat on the Golden Horn. I wandered through Gülhane Park and stumbled across a gray heron rookery. I explored Taksim Square, and later the Egyptian spice market. I even watched the Iftar unfold in the park between the Blue Mosque and Ayasofya. And my B&B, the lovely Hotel Empress Zoe where I’ve stayed each time I’ve visited, was a warm comfort. The city has gone through major renovations in the year and a half since I’ve been here, and seeing the old city walls and newly-restored ancient monuments was a treat.


So, no, it wasn’t the warm and sun-soaked holiday I had envisioned. But all the same I’m grateful for the ability to travel. I’m grateful for a world full of food and culture and historical ruins and relics and museums and landmarks and sweeping vistas to explore, and a team back at the office holding down the fort while I took this much-needed break (but not so much for the Lyft driver who got lost at the airport on his way to shuttle my jet-lagged body home).

Until next time, world… the wheels are already spinning.

Turkey, (re-re-re-)re-visited: Urban bustle and stone magic.

This entry comes at the end of a larger story, the middle bits of which I’m still not entirely sure how to convey. I’ve just finished a long stretch in Europe, totalling roughly 3 months away from home which was both an experiment in working remotely and an escape from home to learn more about the meaning of the concept of “home”. The working part was bookended by holiday weeks (for which I am very grateful); the days off helped me explore, recharge, reconnect (with humans), disconnect (from the blaring news cycles), re-evaluate (humans and news and all manner of things), and mostly begin to contemplate what comes next (the answer to which is still a mystery).

But I digress. That is a much bigger nut to crack and, consequently, summarily summarise.

I wanted to end my days in Europe on a sunny note, with toes in warm Mediterranean sand, appendages dangling in bright blue water. Due to circumstances beyond my control, plans for a Mediterranean escape didn’t unfold the way I had anticipated, so I aimed for a semi-familiar place with new and unexplored adventures to be had…


Istanbul.

This trip kicked off much the same as my other trips to Istanbul: a ride from the airport, a crowded highway, a wending through shop-choked streets, and a first glimpse of the Galata Tower, the iconic sight that brings me back, as I cross a modern bridge over the Golden Horn, to one of my favourite views in this old-meets-new city. I’ll sit and watch this old landmark in the days to come, listening to the ferry horns and the corn- and mackerel- and mussel-hawkers at the waterfront that make up the soundtrack to this bustling section of Istanbul.

I’m here this time for a significant amount of time: I have 10 days to more calmly explore Istanbul’s nooks and crannies, and I’ve booked a room in a cave house in Cappadocia, that rocky, other-worldly place I’ve long longed to explore.

The Adhan, the call to prayer, sounds just before dawn and at 4 other times during the day, adding a musical backdrop that is at times soothing or jarring, depending on one’s proximity to a mosque; the Imam’s voice projects across the bustling cobbled streets and resounds in the alleyways, bumping into the other nearby calls. The chant is my wake-up call, as this soundscape adds to the ways the city mesmerises me every time I’m here: it is a mystical mélange of old and new, of East and West, of saffron and silk, of wood (and tobacco) smoke, magic lamps and flying carpets…

I spend a couple of days in the city, exploring old haunts: the Mısır Çarşısı, the Eminönü neighbourhood, the cobbled, graffiti-flecked, narrow streets around the Galata tower, and of course the bustle around the waterfront. I also have time to wander into and around things I’ve missed the other times I’ve been here: an evocative staircase built in the mid 1800s called the Camondo Stairs; the Süleymaniye Mosque, perched atop one of the seven hills of Istanbul, its minarets overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, facing South-ish towards the Asia Minor portion of Turkey (and, farther-flung, Mecca), street food! Lunch one day was a balik ekmek from the food vendors on the waterfront (and a side of pickled cabbage and pickles, swimming in a beet-y pickle juice that is meant as a drink), and I managed to survive the gauntlet of the spice market without buying all of it.

As if my castle fetish wasn’t entirely satisfied in Germany, I set out on my second day to visit the Yedikule Castle and its seven dungeons. It turns out, however, that the government’s efforts to paint a pretty face on a country that is facing some dark socio-economic times have launched so many restoration projects that nearly every city wall and ancient mosque and historical building is surrounded by scaffolding and/or is closed to visitors due to renovations. I’ll reserve my political tirades for dinner over raki and just say that my exploration of old stone walls, turrets and dungeons will need to wait for another day.

The saving grace of the afternoon was a wander around the outskirts of the castle into a (very small) town square, where the local fruit seller invited me into his garden that abutted the old castle wall. Here, I was able to see some of the old stonework up close, and from him bought some of the most delectable fresh figs I’ve ever had. I ended up sharing part of my taxi ride back to the hotel with a young local Architect woman who offered to show me some of the city when I returned to Istanbul. I love seeing places through the eyes of locals, and I was excited to get her perspective on not only the city’s buildings but the political situation from someone of her generation. Google Translate for the win!

After a lovely Turkish breakfast, I embarked on the next phase of the adventure: the moon. Or something…


Cappadocia.

If Dr. Seuss hooked up with Dr. Ruth and Rumi and Akbar the Great, and they were asked to design something to rival Bryce Canyon or the Grand Canyon (but make it pigeon-friendly and not worry so much about how weird it gets), we’d end up with something akin to the rock formations in the Cappadocia region.

From the 6th Century BC, people populated the region encompassing what is now Göerme, Çavuşin, Ügrüp, Üchisar, Üzengi, Gomeda, and their surrounds. They built cave homes and underground cities and pigeon houses and churches and monasteries in the fairy chimneys and limestone formations created by the volcanoes and wind and water that sculpted the landscape here millions of years ago. I can’t do justice to a retelling of the long history, but this is a semi-concise recap of the main events, from ancient Hittites to Persian satraps and Zoroastrian cults to ancient Christians and Byzantines and, later, Turkish clans. The area is as rich in history as it is in natural wonder!

I did the requisite balloon ride over the fairy chimneys, as one does here. And as I tried not to be sucked in by the Insta-Selfieism of it all, I watched the sun rise over Love Valley and was dumbstruck by the colours and the clear air and most of all the topography, which may be, quite literally, a geologist’s wet dream.

Land of the giant penis rocks

After the balloon ride, I wanted to see Love Valley from the valley floor. From above it was spectacular, but I wanted to feel the scale of the place. If I tried to explain the rock formations, I’d say it’s like Stonehenge or Easter Island, but instead of manmade stone carvings, the result of the lava and erosion and water somehow resulted in 50-metre-tall penises, lined up in a row, dotted throughout a carved-out limestone valley. Even I would think I was making it up if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. It really looks surreal. So I hiked around the rim, cheered on some of the racers in the Salomon Ultra Trail Race that was taking place that day, and dropped into the valley to gawk as I walked through this other-planetary place.

Facing one’s fears in Rose Valley

Someone decided fifteen hundred years ago that they would build a church in a giant rock, in the middle of a lot of other giant rocks, in the middle of nowhere! I had hiked from somewhere at the edge of Sword Valley into Red Valley and then Rose Valley, looking for this church carved into a fairy chimney amongst thousands of other fairy chimneys and found, after a meandering semi-trek, the Ayvali Kilise.

Here, the hike took a turn…

The trails were vaguely marked but fairly obvious. And I had a map and knew the general direction towards which I needed to head. Feeling semi-confident, I followed the trail and the map and the GPS arrow. Then, the problem: although the map’s dotted line pointed me along a trail in the correct direction, what the dotted line did not do, was stop when it was time. But the trail did, and quite abruptly at that. At a cliff (with a gorgeous view, but that didn’t help much when I realised I needed to go down the same way I had gone up…)

So in an attempt to double-back and get back to the main trail, I encountered the most frightening 2 metres I’ve ever hiked: a narrow, eroded limestone arch bridge I needed to cross in order to make it out of there. It had a 10-metre drop on one side and a limestone cliff on the other, so my margin of error was approximately 30cm (or one foot, literally). I held my breath (also quite literally), stepped gingerly, and did not look anywhere but where I needed to go in order to live. As my foot cleared the last of the harrowing sandy and loose stone, I breathed, walked two steps, and saw the sign with the ⚠ and some equally nebulous arrows.

Because Turkey: a toothless farmer appeared moments later, proffered lunch (I graciously declined), tea (ditto), and directions (accepted, gladly). In hindsight, lunch and tea in his tractor cart might have made for an interesting twist to the story.

The rest of the hike from Rose Valley to Çavuşin was wonderfully uneventful, if you don’t count the vistas and the kind locals offering grapes from the vine and the street pups and the looming stone castle that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere in the middle of a small, dusty bazaar (and bizarre) street… I slept well that night in my cave room.

Step away from the tour bus

On offer here are tours: Red, Blue, Silver, Green, Gold… each offering a glimpse of the sights, and an Exit Through the Gift Shop approach to seeing a place. Since I had the luxury of several days in Cappadocia and I generally try to avoid crowds and tourist traps, I declined the canned tours and worked out a series of hikes and an itinerary of “must-see” places with the gracious and story-full owner of the cave hotel where I was staying. He grew up here, so was thrilled to craft a list of places for me to see. The first day, we headed out after breakfast and took a cursory look out over Pigeon Valley, where he gave me the scoop on the pigeon houses that dot the fairy chimneys throughout Cappadocia. Pigeons are held in high regard in Turkey, and throughout history have been used here as a means of communication (carrier pigeons) and as a source of fertilizer (poop). I’d also suspect, as today, there was a status element to one’s pigeon collection. To think that these pigeon coops were carved so skillfully into the rock centuries ago only adds wonder to the scene.

From Pigeon Valley we drove to the underground city of Kaymakli, inhabited in the 6th century (and beyond) to protect the villagers from invaders. Afterwards, we grabbed lunch at a local street market and picnicked by the side of the road, just next to centuries-old stone carvings. The warmth of the Turkish spirit really shined as bright as the brilliant day: my host and his stories of the area, and a neighbour to the place we were lunching who invited us into his home, gave us apples and quince from his trees, and offered tea. It was a recurring theme: chestnuts or walnuts or apples or tea or grapes, offered by complete strangers in warm greeting, looking for nothing but a smile in return. In retrospect, I realise that the people who wanted to sell me something offered much less of this gracious hospitality.

The highlight of the outing came late in the day… we ventured on to Soğanlı, another magical village with cave houses, a 6th century church, and a sort-of ghost town: the rock houses are now all abandoned because the government moved the residents to alternate housing (almost ironically) due to rockslides.

Between the apple tea and the warmth of the day (the sunshine and the big hearts I encountered), I left with the feeling I need to come back here to explore the secrets this place holds.

Wrapping up the trip with some raki.

I’ve mixed up my itinerary in this retelling, but suffice to say it was a fairy chimney-full adventure, making me again grateful for the opportunity to experience such a remote-feeling but altogether available spot, replete with history and fresh air and warm smiles and gracious hearts.

I extended my stay in Cappadocia for 2 days because I felt I couldn’t leave quite yet, but still managed to reconnect with the new Architect friend for a walk around the Fener neighbourhood and a dinner which included probably too much raki in relation to the hour of my trip to the airport the next morning.

The time flew, and I left Turkey feeling lighter but also like I’ve got unfinished business in the heart of the country…like I have more adventuring to do and so much more to learn about a place so steeped, like its tea, in history and culture.

Once again, I’m leaving a place feeling as though I’m leaving a part of me there and bringing a part of there back to be with me while I’m gone…


“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

Terry Pratchett