Every once in a while an escape from the joys of parenthood is called for. We took advantage of the very generous French school holidays – two weeks at the end of October, to visit Italy. Nonna was itching to get rid of us so she could spoil the bambini for 3 days without interruption. So, it was with giddy excitement that Marco and I packed a single suitcase and stole away at the crack of dawn from a rainy Milano – Destination Positano.
One of the beauties of Italy is that it stretches on and on like the leg of a cheeky can-can girl. This glorious length means that while brollies are unfolded in the North to shelter from autumnal rain, further south it is still beach umbrella territory. We checked the weather forecast and the sun was smiling on the Amalfi coast, the perfect hideaway from all responsibility, and even better, off-season.
With the recent arrival of the high-speed trains, Milano to Roma takes only 3 hours, and Napoli just an extra 2 beyond that. For seasoned long-haul travellers 5 hours on a train watching the scenery of Italy unfold is a breeze. What’s more, the latest carriages are fully in tune with our technological demands – free wi-fi, plus free films, music and books online. Then there is the added attraction for train nerds who are thrilled at the thought of travelling at 300km/h. I obviously know one of them!
We arrived in Salerno, just south of Napoli, in the early afternoon. Salerno is a simple, seaside port town with all the hallmarks of southern Italy. Dishevelled buildings; creative drivers dodging the road rules and an atmosphere of drama awaiting to unfold – usually over a parking ticket.
Just down the street from the main station we found the sea and a ferry that was leaving shortly for the Amalfi coast. We had already bought a couple of bus tickets but decided that a quick gelato and a boat trip would be a far better way to proceed. We weren’t disappointed. The sea was a mirage of aquamarine and diamonds. The boat journey was like a moving picture as we passed bays and coves, islands and capes all the while approaching Positano, cupped in the palm of the mainland.
Positano is a special place. It is small enough to feel secret yet big enough to have plenty of bars and restaurants to discover. It is old enough to house ancient buildings and Roman remains but young enough to have a local yellow school bus, filled with laughing kids. The restaurants are all a couple of generations away from a simple taverna, serving freshly caught fish and the family’s own pasta dishes . There is simplicity in the houses nestled into the cove and grandeur in their ingenious design; scaling one on top of another up the cliff, like a stack of dominoes. There is a quiet grace inside the shady marble church and in the old world palazzos. However, step outside and there is a casual, carefree atmosphere on the streets. The people of Positano have emigrated far and wide, many to Australia, and thousands claim it as their home town but the actual population is just under 4,000. Practically, it cannot expand any further as land is so limited and access is only by sea or along the ribbon-like costal road. The summer invasion of tourists is welcomed for the industry it creates, but I imagine that there is a great universal sigh of relief when the last suitcase of the season is sent on its way.
The other guests were mainly on walking trips and were carted off by saintly tour guides each day. We had great fun eavesdropping on the baby-boomer Americans who bemoaned the lack of crispy bacon at the breakfast buffet and never once tried the deliciously fresh mozzarella. The Palazzo has the most beautifully landscaped garden, which is the perfect backdrop to the pastel coloured houses clambering up the mountain. Positano’s streets are narrow and steep with hundreds of steps for traipsing up and down the village. We chose to get about on a hired vespa, exploring the neighbouring Amalfi, with its incredible basilica, and the picturesque Ravello, perched high up in the mountains.
The Amalfi coastline rises up into rugged volcanic mountains covered in pine and olive trees, with terraces of vines wherever there is space. The ancient influence of Mount Vesuvius can be seen in the fertility of the plants that grow here. From rich lava soil, fruit and crops thrive – Nature’s compensation for the deadliness of the eruptions that can shower this corner of Italy. Pompeii lies just around the corner and is an ever-poignant reminder of the sleeping volcanoes in the Bay of Naples. But the beauty of this place is unsurpassable. Who could resist dwelling here? Not the Roman emperors who chose to build palatial retreats , sumptuously decorated in gold and mosaics along the coast. For many years the traces of their splendour slept beneath the bustling streets of the great Amalfi merchant era, until amateur gentlemen archaeologists revealed them once more in the 18th century. Then the 19th century brought new travellers to the coast, Romantic poets and monied heiresses, consumptives and pilgrims. All bewitched by its beauty.
When John Steinbeck wrote of Positano in the early 50’s, he doubted that it would become a popular tourist spot. – ‘It would be impossible to dress as a languid tourist-lady-crisp, cool white dress, sandals as white and light as little clouds, picture hat of arrogant nonsense, and one red rose held in a listless white-gloved pinky. I dare any dame to dress like this and climb the Positano stairs for a cocktail. She will arrive looking like a washcloth at a boys’ camp.‘ Harper’s Bazaar – 1953
Well, Mr Steinbeck was wrong. The dames came flocking. Positano became the perfect spot for sun lovers who caused quite a scandal when bikinis hit the beach in 1959. The local policeman was tasked with upholding respectability by requesting ladies to wear the more modest full swimsuit. The tale goes that he was quite abashed when he approached one bikini wearer. He pointed out that swimming costumes should be one piece, not two. To which she replied “and so officer, which of the two would you prefer me to remove?”
By the 60s and 70s fashionistas had descended on the coast, casting off high-heels and donning fishermen trousers. The poor local policeman had given up by then as topless bathing became de rigeur. Salvatore Ferragamo made a fortune selling his version of the simple, flat, leather sandals of Positano, while stars such as the Rolling Stones brought a new glamour to the fishing village. Since then tourism has remained Positano’s primary industry, with ceramics, Limoncello and wine complimenting it. Everyone loves it here.
However, as my knowledgeable husband points out the Amalfi coast was not always a simple pleasure ground. It was once a central power in Italian history. One of the four great maritime states, along with Genoa, Pisa and Venice, that controlled trade from the Orient and Africa. The wealth of that medieval era allowed for the flourishing of art and architecture, best represented by the basilica of Amalfi. It also led to the development of major navigational tools. For many years it was claimed that one of Amalfi’s sons, Flavio Gioja, invented the compass in the 1300s.
This has been disproved but the region’s pride in its maritime history is still very evident. The navigators and sailors of the Amalfi state were the pioneers of great voyages, which in turn led to the exploration of far-flung continents, such as America.
Of course what goes around comes around and the Amalfi coast now has lots of American explorers. We are told that they are joined by Australians as the area’s most regular tourists. In fact, Italian guests are a novelty and we notice that all the locals automatically break into English when they deal with customers. Most of them have been working 12hrs a day 7 days a week since Easter, when the tourist season officially begins. Now, the end is in sight. There are only a few more days and then Positano and the rest of the Amalfi coast will take a well-deserved rest. Many restaurants are already closed and the beach is decorated with just a handful of sun umbrellas. There is no jostle for space nor queues for tables. Everything is winding down. The sun is bidding a final, gentle farewell. There is time for casual chats and friendly discounts. The season has been a good one and everyone is looking forward to their own holidays, away from the magical Positano. A few waiters kick a football along the shoreline chatting about their plans. One is off to visit Thailand while another is going on a cruise to Istanbul.
No doubt in a few months the shutters will be unlatched and the sun-beds dusted down. The new season will begin and everyone will return full of energy and enthusiasm. But, for us, there will never be a better time to visit Positano than at the very end of a sunny October. Fuori Stagione.