Huffing and Puffing: Montepertuso to Positano

You work out five days a week, you do a fair job in the nutrition department–you consider yourself to be in good shape. That is, until you find yourself at a writers conference in Positano, Italy, and one of your fellow fiction writers (yes, I’m talking about you, Cindy Martin!) casually mentions she and some others will be walking up to the hamlet of Montepertuso for lunch. Would I like to come along? There’s a terrific restaurant up there. Well, yes I would, thank you very much!

And my new friend, Holly, you come, too!

As soon as our workshops broke at 12:30 then, off we went. Cindy and her husband, Cal, led the way for the half dozen plus of us who came along that day. They’d been to the conference before and had done this hike several times then, and they had done it the day before as well. How tough could it be?

Montepertuso sits 1,137 feet above the Mediterranean, a fact I only learned after I was home and googled it, but even now the height doesn’t seem very daunting. High enough to afford spectacular views, but don’t I sometimes climb 2,000 feet on the treadmill at my gym back in New York? Well, bless that treadmill and its smooth rubber belt, its rhythmic pace, its predictability.

Because it wasn’t the steepness of the climb as much as it was that instead of hilly pathways leading up, we found ourselves faced with ancient stone steps. (I emphasize ancient, because they are much higher than modern steps and therefore far more taxing. They are also more irregular.)

Fifteen hundred steps. A couple hundred less, incidentally, than the more famous 1700 steps that lead from Positano to Nocelle.

Ten minutes in, I used the excuse of a photo opp to collapse against a wall and let my lungs do their work. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so out of breath. How much longer? I inquired of Cindy and Cal, those show-offs at the front of the pack. I was going for a breezy tone, but instead I was wheezy. Cal threw me a smile over his shoulder and laughed, brushing my question off as if it were merely rhetorical.

Holly came over to lean against the wall with me, shooting me a look I read as, what did you get us into here? I liked Holly. I hoped she wouldn’t hold this all against me.

Yet, though I would barely have thought it possible, the view as we ascended was even more stunning than it was down at our hotel. The sun danced on the sea and dazzled the multicolored jumble of houses on the mountain opposite. We were surrounded by citrus trees, lemon and orange, and in the narrow stone lanes, soccer shirts and jeans and sheets hanging on laundry lines frolicked in the refreshing pre-spring breeze.

We took our pictures, we caught out breath, we were ready again. This wasn’t so bad. Really it wasn’t.

Not five minutes later and already my breath had deserted me again. I couldn’t afford any more conversation if I was going to make it to the top. We were all new acquaintances, anxious to get to know one another, but that would have to wait. I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone when I was dead.

Up, up, up.

Presumably, if you climbed without stopping it would take about half an hour to reach the top. We set foot in Montepertuso about 45 minutes after we began. But we made it. My clothes might have been soaked through with my exertions, my hair might be dripping down my neck, but we had reached our destination and in just a few steps we’d reach the restaurant where we’d cancel out everything we’d just accomplished with a feast, Italian style.

Holly and I attempted as best we could to take a shower in the bathoom sink and when we went out to the dining room, the smiling Paolo welcomed us with a glass of Prosecco. Now this was my kind of place!

Il Ritrovo (www.iltritrovo.com), which means the meeting place, is special. I’d be lucky enough to eat here twice during my time in the area (yes, I undertook the hike a second time).

Because we were a large group, Paolo suggested he bring us large platters of antipasti, followed by a variety of homemade pastas. First there were plates of fresh seafood–marinated anchovies, shrimp, mussels, icefish (that was a new one for me)–and charcuterie–prosciutto, speck, salami. There were grilled vegetables and there were cheeses. Pastas included a linguine with fresh mussels, a pasta with a simple but divine cherry tomato sauce and, the hands-down favorite, a thick tube pasta with a cream sauce of provolone and walnuts. And all the while, the wine flowed as freely as the conversation.

Afterward there were cookies and biscuits and tiny cakes along with not only the ubiquitous Limoncello but homemade liquers made of blueberry and apricot.

We didn’t want to leave–ever!–and not just because we were thinking of the long walk back down to Positano (a walk that would seem easier, but just have a little heart-to-heart with your knees and see what they think).

Just outside the restaurant, near the railing overlooking the sea more than a thousand feet below, we gathered together so Paolo could snap our picture. I will treasure this photograph always, not only for the memory of that hike, of that meal, but because it contains the smiling faces of some of the new friends I made on my trip–new friends who I hope to be calling old friends years down the road.

I see it in my mind. Five or ten years from now, at one of our book signings.

“Cindy,” I say (or Holly or Allison or Claire or Gail or Greg or or or), “remember that climb to Montepertuso?”

And Holly will laugh and say, “Yes, I remember how you almost fell off the mountain on the way down!”

“That was funny,” I’ll say, probably with tears in my eyes, because I’m sappy that way.

– Jude