Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Path of the gods, it has many steps.

No, I haven’t converted to polytheism. The title is a reference to the Sentiero degli dei, a hiking trail that hugs the Amalfi coast, overlooking the Mediterranean. I walked/climbed the stretch between Praiano and Positano last month, and thought I would share some pictures and information.

Before I get into details, though, I should say that it was a remarkable experience and I would do it again in a second. If and when I return to the area, I’ll make sure not to miss it. Looking at my pictures, I’m wishing I could transport myself back there.…

But I think having more knowledge ahead of time can only enrich the experience. I’d done a little – in retrospect, not enough – internet investigation before I left the US, and went into it with some impressions that turned out to be inaccurate. Three subjects that could use some attention are: the difficulty of the trail, its suitability for people afraid of heights, and the quality of the signage.

(A few general notes, on which people seem to agree: First, it’s best to walk toward Positano rather than away from it. Second, start early, before the sun is high in the sky. We were fortunate to be sheltered by some misty clouds that diffused the sunlight and made the climb more interesting, but you shouldn’t go if there’s any threat of rain. If you’re taking the bus andor ferry to your starting point, plan accordingly and find the schedule that will get you there as early as possible. Wear sunscreen, and bring more. Bring plenty of water. Bring some cash. Bring your camera – you’ll want it.)

So, first, the level of difficulty. Maybe the most important element is the amount of climbing. The path itself is high, close to the top of the cliffs, so you have to reach it somehow. I saw several references to the 1700-step staircase at the Positano end, but I guess I hadn’t taken enough note of the discussions about starting the path in Praiano as opposed to Agerola. Apparently, if you begin in Bomerano (a neighborhood in Agerola), the bus drops you off high on the cliffs so you don’t have to climb up to reach the path itself. In contrast, where we entered in Praiano, the bus leaves you relatively low on the cliffside and you have to climb 1900 steps, to many of which the term “step” is loosely applied.

You won’t really see much of this portion in people’s pictures, because it’s extremely difficult and vertigo-inducing to take pictures as you’re climbing. Here are a couple from places we stopped to catch our breath.

After we’d climbed probably more than a thousand steps, we came upon a little church/monastery with a cute snack bar and a bathroom.

The man there was quite nice, and we also met a family of hearty Belgians who were just leaving as we arrived. Catching our breath, we asked hopefully, “There isn’t much more climbing after this, right?” “I don’t want to get your hopes down,” the man said gently, “but yes, there is.” Resigned to our future after hearing that, we set off climbing again, and yes, there was quite a bit more. Once we’d accepted it, though, and knowing we were making progress toward the top, the climb became more pleasant and the views increasingly amazing.

So, the Praiano climb is an important element in assessing the trail’s difficulty, and could explain to some extent the widely varying accounts. The descriptions I’d read before I left for Italy were largely ones like this (from recent posts on TripAdvisor):
“I had read many reviews about this walk hoping to find out if it would be suitable for someone with a bad knee and hip could walk it and I found no difficulty at all.”

“There is quite a bit of up and down but it is very achievable and no where near as hard as some reviews have suggested. My step mother (60) who has low to average fitness managed the walk and 1600 steps down [in Positano] and has now a great sense of achievement.”

“This is an easy walk on good paths, the one or two rougher patches are very short not difficult so long as sensible footwear is worn.”

“Agree with previous posters that this isn't really a ‘hike’. It's more of a stroll along an extremely beautiful path.”
If I’d dug deeper into the older posts on TripAdvisor, I would have found ones more like this, several pages in:
“The walk is quite demanding as the path is often no more than rough gravel and steps made from granite rocks. Wilst the path roughly stays at 600 metres or so above sea level, it does go up and down alot. We are both fit and active and would not describe this as a modest stroll.”

“This is a wonderful hike with awesome vistas along the entire route. Be advised that it is somewhat challenging and rocky at points.”

“Although a hard walk and very high at times, the walk was absolutely fantastic.”

“I consider myself in good shape (I run and workout several times a week) but there were a couple of times I was huffing and puffing. The hike is strenuous, but doable, with breaks, water and snacks.”
As I said, I probably hadn’t paid enough attention to the fact that most if not all of the people describing the walk as easier had begun in Agerola and not Praiano as we did. And that makes a difference – climbing almost 2000 stone steps carved into a cliff adds considerably to the overall difficulty. From what I’ve come to understand, the section that goes from Agerola to Praiano is comparatively leisurely.

However, even as a description of the part of the path from above Praiano to Nocelle/Positano, the first set of statements I think give a false impression. Very few sections could honestly be characterized as an easy walk or stroll, or suitable for people who aren’t physically fit or have knee or hip problems. Any trail where you have to use your hands in parts and keep your focus in finding your footing amongst rocks is pretty much by definition not a stroll. At one point we turned and took pictures of the path behind us:

Not a stroll. (I had to laugh as I was looking through my pictures, and then when I did a search online to see others’. None of them really show the narrow, rocky, ascending/descending sections, leaving the impression that the path is wide and flat throughout. I eventually realized that this is because it’s generally only in the easier sections that it’s advisable – or possible, really – to take pictures.)

Which brings me to the fear of heights. Here are a couple of descriptions from TripAdvisor:
“For the most part, the trail is wide and not as precarious as the overall steep slopes would seem to suggest.”

“People mention that there are some bits that aren't great for vertigo sufferers which worried me a bit but I saw nothing that was an issue. I think it would only be a problem if you have serious vertigo rather than a dislike of heights which is what I have.”
I can’t agree with this. Again, this is probably in some part related to the Praiano climb, since it included some of the narrowest sections beside steep drops. Climbing there, even for me and my companion who aren’t especially afraid of heights, often involved not turning around. I did a couple of times, and I imagine that if I were afraid of heights panic might have set in. (I would not recommend descending those steps in Praiano to anyone, really, but especially not to people with any fear of heights at all. It’s one thing to have the cliff at your back, but quite another to be facing the drop while propelled forward and downward.) But even setting this portion aside, the trail itself is often narrow (see the picture just above) and you’re often separated from the edge by a rickety excuse for a fence or nothing. This is in my view the more useful assessment for the acrophobes:
“If you are like me and do not like heights or being close to the edge of some extremely high and sheer drop offs on somewhat treacherous terrain, either go shopping, wear blinders or just figure on dealing with it. I managed to wear out a pair of leather gloves by crabbing across rocks and clutching at rock walls and there were several times where I really thought panic seemed to be the only way to a merciful end of the fear. I am however delighted that I didn't give in as this is truly a spectacular hike. I do believe though that a career in mountain climbing is not in my future. ;-)”
Finally, signage. Once again, although there are several people providing accurate information, there are some strange claims being made on TripAdvisor and elsewhere:
“The trail is easy to follow and there are signs that guide you along the way, just follow the red and white marks left on certain landmarks, such as rocks.”

“We found the path to be very well marked…”
By no stretch of the imagination is the path well marked. You often have to search the rocks around you for a splash of paint that looks like an arrow, and one of the funniest parts to me was that you would have to feel your way and pretty much guess for a long stretch, only then to come to a tiny, inconspicuous sign when you no longer needed it. The consensus seems to be that the entrance to the path in Agerola is well marked, and I can’t confirm or refute that, but neither the entrance nor anything else in Praiano is, and the stairs down to Positano are extremely hard to find.

Despite some initial surprises and confusion, we had a great experience. But I think everyone should go into it with as much information as possible, so here are my thoughts and suggestions:

- If I have the opportunity to do it again – and I hope I do soon – I would probably try it from Agerola. If you’re staying in Positano, though, it seems like this can be a bit of a pain, since you have to take a bus or ferry to Amalfi and then a connecting bus to Agerola.* Several people reported that the buses can be crowded, and the whole process can take more time than you might want to spend before you even get on the trail itself. (A few people mentioned hiring a private driver to take them, but the idea of spending 60 euros or more to get to a free hiking trail seems strange to me.) I’ll reiterate that the experience is well worth these minor difficulties.

But I would also probably do the Praiano stairs again, now with the full knowledge of what I’m in for. I would recommend the Praiano climb to people who a) want a serious workout,** b) want a sense of accomplishment, c) are physically fit, and d) have no or minimal issues with heights. (As I said above, I wouldn’t recommend descending in Praiano to anyone, really.)

- The path is moderately difficult in parts, but absolutely worth it as far as I’m concerned. The climb has probably to some extent colored my impression of the path as a whole, making it seem slightly more difficult than it would be for those beginning high up in Agerola, but still people should know that reports that it’s an easy stroll aren’t correct. We had possibly the best conditions: it was fairly early in the morning when we began; we had some light, misty clouds; and it wasn’t an extremely hot day, especially for mid-July. Even under these conditions, there were sections that were more difficult and strenuous. I don’t think you have to be in perfect shape to walk it, but don’t expect an easy stroll.

- For people who are slightly afraid of heights, I wouldn’t say “Don’t do it.” You should absolutely do it if you want to challenge or push yourself. But you should go into it with the knowledge that it might be a challenge. Claims that the trail doesn’t contain sections that would be stressful to people with some fear of heights aren’t correct. But if you want to try to confront and reckon with such fears, I can’t think of a more beautiful place to do it.

I hope this is useful information. Please feel free to ask questions or share your own impressions or advice in the comments.

*Of course, if you’re already at or near that end of the path you would want to begin there. Wherever you plan to begin, if you’re taking the bus you should probably have written on a card (or be able to say in understandable Italian) “Sentiero degli dei” and the name of the exact stop you need to get off, and show/tell this to the driver. It doesn’t hurt to ask the other passengers, either. Even if the driver doesn’t know what you’re talking about, you might well run into others going to the path – you’ll know them by their clothes - or locals who can show you where to enter. Speaking of locals, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the hikers weren’t all foreign. We met several Italian people, and later learned from some local people that they’ve walked it many times.

**As one person said: “We started in Praiano, hiked up 2000 stairs, then trekked over the mountains back to Positano. There are other approaches to the path - I was told this is the best one if you want exercise (which I did after 2 weeks of Italian dinners!).”


  1. We're going to do the same, how long did it take to do the whole thing?

  2. Thanks this was really helpful! I'm heading there in a few weeks and I'm gonna skip the 2,000 steps! Maybe next time :)

  3. Did the hike from Praiano to Nocelle in April 2015 and found the above description to be right on. My wife and I are 67 and in reasonably good shape. We were with my brother and his wife who are 70 and they were able to complete it. A wonderful experience.