Text and photo by Laura Thayer
The first sensation arriving in Scala, considered the oldest settlement on the Amalfi Coast, is one of peacefulness. Up in the mountains above busy Amalfi and just across the valley from Ravello, there’s something undeniably different in the atmosphere of Scala. «The intensity of the spirituality and the intensity of the beauty, » is how Padre Enzo Fortunato, author, journalist, and director of the Press Room of the Sacro Convento of Assisi, describes just what makes Scala special. Padre Enzo has traveled extensively around the world and yet his hometown of Scala has a beauty he’s not found anywhere else in the world. A bold claim and yet one easily confirmed by exploring Scala to discover its unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. The village of Scala is spread out along the mountainside between the Valle del Dragone below and the gentle curves of the Lattari Mountains above. Five different hamlets are scattered around the center of Scala: Campidoglio sits high above the rest of the town with Santa Caterina and San Pietro are to the north and Minuta and Pontone located south toward the sea. At the center of Scala is the charming Piazza Municipio and it is here where the story of Scala begins to unfold.
The deep sense of faith
Already settled by the 5th century, Scala’s wealth and success were closely tied to the Republic of Amalfi. By the Middle Ages, its noble residents had built grand palazzos and richly decorated churches that shaped Scala with the many fine architectural examples of the period we admire today. Spirituality has left a lasting mark on Scala and its residents have long carried a deep sense of faith around the world. A plaque in Piazza Municipio honors Fra Gerardo Sasso, a monk from Scala who was the founder of the Order of the Knights of Malta and the first Italian to found a hospital in the Holy Land. While the impressive size of Scala’s Duomo seems out of scale to the peaceful village today, its a testament to the town’s longstanding faith and dedication to their patron San Lorenzo. Under the soaring nave, a hand-painted majolica tile scene from 1853 on the floor shows a large shield with a lion climbing a staircase. This is a nod to the town’s name since Scala means “steps.” It’s a good reminder that there are indeed many steps to discover Scala.
Following the path of Sant’Alfonso
Not far from the center of Scala, an unassuming gate alongside a curve in the road marks the entrance to the Grotta di Sant’ Alfonso. Follow a steep staircase down to the simple chapel with a grotto forming the backdrop of the nave. Here in 1730, the Virgin Mary appeared to Sant’Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori. A fascinating figure, Sant’ Alfonso was a bishop and theologian born in Naples who is most known today for writing the Christmas song now popular throughout Italy “Tu scendi dalle stelle” (“From Starry Skies Thou Comest”). Sant’ Alfonso was drawn to Scala and found respite in its quietly beautiful landscape, which is said to have influenced and inspired his writing. You can continue in his footsteps by climbing high above Scala to see the ruins of the Castrum Scalae Majoris, a castle from the Middle Ages, and up even higher to over 1000 meters to Santa Maria dei Monti Refuge, a place so beautiful it’s possible to imagine the view overlooking the extreme beauty of the Amalfi Coast as a view from the heavens.
Exploring Minuta on foot
With such a scenic setting, hiking is the best way to experience Scala’s natural landscape close up. Rino Mansi, Scala local and hiking guide, has been exploring these mountains since he was a young boy. Growing up hiking Scala’s many trails with his father and family, he now leads excursions in Scala and along the Amalfi Coast with his company ScalandTrekking. «My motto is: leave the cities and take the pathways – he says – Because every mountain excursion leads us to discover something new, since walking slowly immersed in nature, with pauses of absolute silence, is always a journey within ourselves.» Scala offers a wide variety of intriguing journeys where history and nature blend perfectly. There’s nowhere better to start than in the hamlet of Minuta, which is scenically set on a mountain slope perched between land and sea. In the center of Minuta stands the Chiesa dell’Annunziata (Church of the Annunciation) on a little piazza where time seems to have stood still. Founded in the 11th century, it is among the oldest churches on the Amalfi Coast. Inside, the restored interior reveals Medieval architectural elements while the crypt holds an unexpected treasure. A series of 15th-century frescoes in the crypt fill the space with their vibrant red, yellow, and green hues. Among the religious scenes are stories recognizable from the life of St. Nicholas of Bari.
Gaze towards Pontone
From Minuta, the natural beauty of Scala shines with what Padre Enzo describes as «the genius of God in creation.» Gazing down the mountainside, the ruins of the 12th-century church of Sant’Eustachio in Pontone are an evocative sight. A pathway of old stone steps leads from Minuta down to the ruins where you can stand among the crumbling walls and imagine the splendor of the church in its glory when the Republic of Amalfi was at its peak. Just a short hike from Pontone, the 15th-century Torre dello Ziro watchtower is another reminder of this area’s rich past. Once part of the defensive system of Amalfi, the hike offers a spectacular bird’s-eye view over Atrani and Amalfi far below.
Untouched nature in the Valle delle Ferriere
Time spent exploring Scala isn’t complete without hiking deep into the Valle delle Ferriere, a protected reserve located in the mountain valley above Amalfi. From Pontone, a rugged pathway leads into the valley past lemon groves, ruins of the paper mills that once created Amalfi’s fine paper, and along a stream to a forested landscape unlike any other on the Amalfi Coast. «Inside the reserve, thanks to the waterfalls, mountain stream, and sea breeze, a subtropical microclimate has been created – explains Mansi – Which has become an exclusive habitat for a giant fern dating back to the Cenozoic period, the Woodwardia radicans, a symbol of the valley.» Surrounded by such untouched natural splendor, the sound of waterfalls, and the feel of the cool breeze through the forest, the hustle and bustle of the world feel far away. This is the true gift of Scala: tranquility. «The paths of Scala … are a series of positive emotions that certainly bring joy to the spirit,» says Mansi. This journey along the many pathways of Scala, from the top of the Lattari Mountains to historic towers and lush valleys, reveals why Scala is a hidden gem on the Amalfi Coast – and certainly does lead to an undeniable sense of joy.