This spring we explored the lemon paths of the Amalfi coast.
A slow harvest starts early and lasts until the autumn, spinning out the ripening as the black nets which protect the fruit from wind, rain and sun, are gradually peeled back.
Farmers navigate the narrow paths and stone steps of Campania carrying baskets heavy with ‘yellow gold’.
We travel light, meeting laden mules and are greeted by cats who walk by themselves, along the tops of walls.
Ravello perches above the Mediterranean and at the top of the steps we meet Marco, a Neapolitan. He tells us he prefers the gentler pace of life here, growing his own fruit and vegetables and walking these terraced paths, high above the sea.
“Our lemons are better but more expensive than Spanish lemons,” he says, rolling his hands in a spiral. “So we have to send them to market lentamente, slowly, slowly.”
The large sweet Limone Costa d'Amalfi, the most prized of lemons, have been grown here for centuries. Loaded into the holds and packed with vitamin C, they kept sailors on long sea voyages free of scurvy.
Step by step we descend through medieval Torello and down to beach level at Maiori. We take the boat back to Amalfi, passing the cliffhanger of a house where American writer Gore Vidal lived for 30 years. Here he entertained Greta Garbo, Lauren Bacall and, more recently, Hillary Clinton in the house known as La Robbinaia – the swallow’s nest.
The next day we follow easy paths inland into the nature reserve of Valle delle Ferrierre below a jagged skyline of dramatic limestone crags. Hidden among the remains of the old, water-powered ironworks is a green oasis with unique species of fern and salamander, which keep a very low profile. An agriturismo lemon farm provides limonata and sharp-sweet granita.
In a tiny village square we see the first of many miniature water scenes which combine stories from the Bible with Italian pastoral village life. In the distance, Amalfi seems to spill into the sea.
As we approach the cathedral a nativity scene shows the three wise men riding into Bethlehem as you’ve never seen them, on underwater camels.
There is a saying along this coast that if life hands you lemons, make limoncello. Under the shade of lemon trees we sample the sweet, heady mix of prized lemons and vodka. But an altercation breaks out in rapid Campania dialect, which my daughter, who speaks Italian, couldn’t follow. We ask our orchard guide for clarification. It turns out that on a previous tour, a visitor had stolen a lemon.
As a storm rolls down from the Lattari mountains, we find refuge in an Amalfi restaurant and sample the most delicious lemon pasta. We order more bread to savour every last drop. It would be a crime not to.