The Cavalieres of the Amalfi Coast

by Maria Betteghella

A traveler takes part in the solemn nighttime ritual of transhumance on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

Midnight had hardly passed when the bell sound descended from the mountain. We had been hearing it from afar, and we knew it was happening. The day went by as lazily as possible. We strolled down Erchie’s beach, dived a couple of times into crystal clear water, took a nap during the afternoon, and made a wake-up coffee after dinner. The night had just begun.

“Let’ go,” commanded Gianluca, inviting me to act as natural as possible. “You will slowly fit in.” The bells were now singing fiercely under the moonlight, hundreds of them coming from a closer nowhere. “They are gathering them,” he announced.

By the time we get to the car, the moon has risen completely.

We start driving along a curvy Amalfi Coast, and the bell concert grows closer and closer. It doesn’t take long to reach the Cavaliere family. A hooded figure leads the way, waving his left hand into the air.

“Slow down!” he orders to incoming cars, and a long wooden mallet supports the footsteps of a prophetic walk.

“Why?” the drivers ask.

“You’ll see, my friend. You shall see.” The unashamed grin on his hooded face leaves no doubt. They better stop.  

Alongside the shepherds come the goats. At least two hundred animals and around fifteen people journey through the night, and the herd is barely kept together by the high-pitched sound of the bells. Every animal is equipped with one. Two young men follow the livestock on horseback, and a few people walk by them, tickling the goats with mallets to keep them on track.

“Are you a photographer, too?” Alfredo asks me as he rides his horse – or at least that’s what he calls his donkey. A dark-haired young man, Alfredo embodies the new generation of the Cavaliere family.

“Kind of,” I answer. I don’t want to give away the details of my presence before they let me into their world.

The ancient tradition of transhumance from Erchie to Agerola was declared as UNESCO world heritage in 2019. Erchie is a coastal village that keeps alive a strong local identity while facing fiercely the over-touristic flows of neighbor towns like Amalfi, Vietri, and a bit further, Positano. Agerola, also called the land of the Gods for its altitude and spectacular view on the Amalfi Coast, is a trekking paradise crossroad positioned 600-meters above sea level. Twice a year, a walking journey happens between the two villages with the intent of transferring a herd of goats, first ascending towards high mountain pastures and then descending towards fresher seaside cliffs.

A transhumance procession through the villages of the Amalfi Coast

I get out of the car at Capo d’Orso, literally Bear Cape, a rocky cliff whose lighthouse inspires sailors and fishermen in their nocturnal adventures. As I start walking the 18.64-mile path, all I know is that we are heading to the high peaks of Agerola. My naivety is mirrored by the shepherds’ composure. Franchina, the herder everybody knows for her year-long fresh goat cheese-selling, doesn’t seem intimidated by the long way ahead of us. Together with her brothers, sons, and grandchildren, she walks the transhumance twice a year, bringing the herd up and down one of the most crowded and exclusive travel destinations in the world. No wonder the journey happens at night.

The first few miles go by without effort. The bell imposes a meditative silence upon us, pilgrims and shepherds alike, and although we are all working to keep the herd compact, it seems that the underlying force of our journey is that indistinct mass of goats precariously running forward. I try to make eye contact with my companions. The youngest is a 6-year-old girl. I smile at her, but her gravity induces me to focus on the walk, so the first few hours go by with little talking.

“We will make it to Amalfi by sunrise,” Marcello says to me as he takes the hood off his head.

“Wait for the stairs. It’s the best part,” he announces, staring at the cliffs.

“The stairs?” I ask. “What kind of stairs?”

“You’ll see, my friend. You shall see.”

Marcello’s prophecy comes true. After crossing the towns of Maiori, Minori, and the tiny village of Atrani, we do make it to Amalfi by sunset. Walking down towards the roundabout where hundreds of visitors gather during the day, I can’t help but feel a strange sense of suspension. The overcrowded street of Amalfi is no longer the theatre of Japanese and American hit-and-go tourists. Instead, it is wrapped into a velvet silence that I have momentarily stolen from the deafening bell sound of the goats. I have managed to anticipate the herd’s arrival for a few moments and am about to enjoy the rare vision of Amalfi taken over by animals instead of tourists.

And that’s when the ascent begins. The subtle climb becomes clear when the shepherds take a side street that leads to a 600-hundred-stone stairway. The herd is funneled up the stairs as a river going backward, and although the tension rises, the goats prove able to manage the stress.

“Stop them!” one of the back shepherds screams to the brothers leading the herd. “Why don’t they understand that they need to slow down!”

At that point, I am exhausted. The goats have lost orientation, and one of them has gone off-track.

A shepherd leading goats through a tunnel on the Amalfi Coast

“We’re losing it. Stop!” I don’t know what’s happening in the front, but here at the back, we’re stuck in the middle of a goat mutiny. I decide to sit on a low stone wall. I need to rest my feet and escape from the herd that keeps pushing downhill. The fatigue is stronger than the fear, so I stay still while the Cavalieres try to regain control of the herd.

Just like a river flowing to the sea, the goats begin climbing again as if this were the natural thing to do. Who doesn’t feel like going upwards is me. It’s eight o’clock now, we have been walking for hours, and the summer heat is severely testing my resolution to conclude the transhumance. But I have no choice at this point. I cannot go back. The climb must go on. And so it does.

I make it to the top thanks to Alfredo’s kindness, who lets me ride one of the donkeys to ease the passage. I know we have made it when I see three women offering us coffee and cake. They must be some Cavaliere’s sisters or wives; it’s impossible to count them all at this point.

Accomplishing another transhumance is something to celebrate, and the Cavalieres do it by banqueting on coffee, cake, and freshly milked milk.

The age-old tradition of transhumance practiced on the Amalfi coast

“You want to try the special Cavaliere macchiato?” Giovanni, Franchina’s nephew and the youngest amongst the Cavaliere shepherds, opens the party by offering breakfast to all of us while the goats allow the milking again and again. It’s their feast, too, and the transhumance has lasted nine long walking hours. We all deserve that treat.

“Come on with that thing.” Alfredo requires Gianluca’s attention and commands him to record the mission’s success.

So we gather, children and adults, shepherds and travel mates, squeezing together for the final picture. It’s just a click, and another transhumance comes to an end. We hug and head towards Franchina’s house for a deserved rest, while the incessant bell sound of the goats reminds us that modern times can make peace with the untouched beauty of tradition.

Photos by Gianluca Tesauro

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