Positano / Amalfi Coast, Italy / June 2015
On climbing stairs in Positano, coming to grips with its decidedly vertical orientation, and reflecting on its cinematic quality.
Positano’s city planning scheme became apparent pretty quickly upon our arrival there: one road and stairs. Lots of stairs. The one road, we also learned, is incredibly narrow and goes down, down, down through town and then back up, and can only be driven in that one direction.1 If you see something you want to stop for, do not hesitate. Indecisiveness about whether that’s reeeally the best parking spot, or whether that café reeeally has the best table will only earn you another circuit through town, up around the hill and back down again. It is all perfect. Just pull over.
It speaks to the timelessness of this place that John Steinbeck visited half a century ago and found Positano much the same. In a 1953 article for Harper’s Bazaar, he wrote: “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone. Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. I believe that whereas most house foundations are vertical, in Positano they are horizontal. The small curving bay of unbelievably blue and green water lips gently on a beach of small pebbles. There is only one narrow street and it does not come down to the water. Everything else is stairs, some of them as steep as ladders. You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or slide.”
In light of all of this, it seems fitting that the journey to our pensione found us scaling the hill behind Positano. We were warned before our arrival that the place was “a bit hard to find,” which always provides a frisson of excitement to the mundane business of bedding down for the night. After making several circuits through town, we finally managed to get off the perpetual one-way loop to meet the man who had offered to direct us to the pensione. He, astride a puttering scooter, zipped straight off up the mountain above Positano, while we struggled to keep up in our miniature rental car. He drove in utterly stereotypical Italian fashion (which is to say, the jagged rocks below us loomed large, and with every turn I wondered whether he would lead us straight off a cliff). When we finally reached the top and parked, there was no “there” there, but we presumed the villa must be hidden somewhere, just around a corner. Our questioning looks were met with: “Now we walk.” Or climb, rather, to a tiny village perched above Positano with a truly breathtaking view of the Amalfi Coast. The pensione was just at the foot of a rock-hewn stairway which led straight up2the rest of the mountain. A hand-painted sign indicated this was the aptly-named il sentiero degli Dei, or “the Gods’ pathway”.
We didn’t end up climbing those stairs; it seemed more prudent to go downhill, back to the paradise that lay below us. By some accounts of legend, Poseidon once loved a nymph named Pasitea, and gifted her the land on which Positano now sits. And there is something absolutely mythical about the beauty of this place, with its jagged coastlines and scrubby mountains revealing clusters of buildings clinging to cliffs. Everything is in technicolor – the candy-colored buildings, the vibrant tendrils of bougainvillea. You feel like you need to tell your brain “#no filter” so that it can properly assess what your eyes are seeing.
All of this lends Positano a certain cinematic quality. I was not surprised to learn that Jean-Luc Godard filmed Contempt on Capri, just beyond Positano. You can easily imagine Brigitte Bardot still sunning herself on any of these beaches. Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian film director, bought a villa here and hosted all of the glitterati of his era, including Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier, and Elizabeth Taylor. The casual glamour of the place is truly intoxicating. When we drove away later, putting the Jewel of the Amalfi Coast in the rear view mirror, I could almost hear a phantom director somewhere yelling, “That’s a wrap,” and felt a pang of sadness to have reached the end of the reel.