By Annette Gallagher Weisman
A low wall borders the outer edge of the Amalfi Drive’s cliffside, winding road – small comfort considering the sheer drop to the Tyrrhenian Sea below. It takes about an hour and a half for my husband and me to drive from Naples International Airport to the outskirts of Positano, where our rental car is now cocooned between a large red bus and a caravan of tiny Fiat cars and Vespa scooters.
The bus lurches forward to reveal a picture postcard of colorful villas set into rock, tiered all the way up the steep hillside. Author and former resident John Steinbeck once said, “Positano bites deep. It’s a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” I’ve been here before. Paradise beckons. And I’m about to relive the dream.
We park our car in a public garage, and our luggage is whisked away with the stealth of a pickpocket. Apparently, it will be delivered to our hotel – a relief when confronted with the first of a network of stone stairways, a hundred plus steps leading down to the Marina Grande, and our hotel Covo Dei Saraceni. (Clambering up and down steps to reach shops and restaurants is a given, so bring comfortable shoes.)
Said to be named after Poseidon, god of the sea, Positano’s rich history stems from the ninth century. In medieval times, as part of the Amalfi Maritime Republic, it was a prosperous port rivaling that of Venice. Later its fortunes declined and Positano reverted to a sleepy fishing village until the advent of tourism in the 1950s. Since then, celebrities, artists and the literati, including Sophia Loren, Pablo Picasso, Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger and George Clooney, have flocked here.
Positano saturates the senses, the joyous sound of bells from the Church of Santa Maria Assunta with its gold, green and blue majolica-tiled dome, the pinks and lavenders of trailing wisteria, as well as carpets of crimson, purple and white bougainvillea tumbling over walls and arbors, and everywhere the aroma of lemons.
Lemon trees can grow on the steepest slopes and the globular Sfusato lemons are especially juicy. Their fragrance is almost dizzy-making when drizzled over seafood, the zest shaved over pasta, in desserts like mousse al limone, or in drinks like an iced lemon granita (slush) and that popular digestivo a Limoncello.
Another prolific drink is an Aperol Spritz, like Compari but less bitter. After huffing and puffing up steps to go shopping on the Via Cristoforo Colombo or Via Pasitea for handmade sandals, ceramics, and Italian linens, this orange aperitivo is manna from heaven. Kaftans and dresses of blues, greens and yellows dangle from hangers outside shop doorways, tempting one further by a splash of color.
From our balcony each morning, an artist sets up his easel facing the ocean as couples in outdoor cafes converse over cappuccinos and espressos. Brightly colored lounges are lined up on the expansive black sand beach, while a straggle of people wait for a ferry to take them to Amalfi, Capri and Sorrento. And here comes bronzed, bare-chested Guido in that little boat with the familiar red fish on it—the logo for Da Adolfo Restaurant. The cheery greeting of Ciao! is exchanged between Guido and other boat captains before he takes his eager passengers to the “in” spot in a nearby cove.
Our hotel, Covo Dei Saraceni, includes a full breakfast that would satisfy a healthy appetite with foods like fresh figs, prosciutto, smoked salmon, pastries and local cheeses added to standard fare. It is also convenient to the beach, ferry and nearby restaurants along the esplanade such as Chez Black, known for its specialty ricci di mare (sea urchin), a creamy, custard-like, briny-tasting delicacy.
Whether handmade pasta, pizza, artisan breads, meats from the land or fish from the sea, all foods exude freshness. Vegetables are vibrant in color like the eye-popping red of tomatoes (pomodori) used in spaghetti di pomodoro or in a Caprese salad with the headiest scent of verdant basil leaves draped over sublime spheres of mozzarella di bufalo cheese.
For over 2,000 years wine has been produced in Campania, a region that includes Naples and the Amalfi Coast. Its terroir includes several microclimates and flinty, volcanic soil that contribute to each wine’s individual taste. Seafood dishes such as risotto pescatore or spaghetti alle vongole, a simple clam dish I’m addicted to, goes well with a glass of crisp, chilled Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino, or a Taburno Falanghina. For lunch with frito misto di mare (fried squid and shrimp) we had a rosé, Rosata di Aglianico. Aglianico is one of Italy’s finest red grape varieties and includes Taurasi, southern Italy’s first-ever DOCG wine.
Sparkling wine also is produced in Campania; the place to have it is the Champagne & Oyster Bar at the hotel Le Sirenuse, an oasis of luxury near the town’s center. The views from this hotel are to die for! For a memorable, romantic dinner, dine in its candlelit restaurant La Sponda.
On our last evening, we stroll to Max on the Piazza dei Mulini, a restaurant, art gallery and wine bar with a pretty patio. Its interior, filled with ornate antiques and paintings, feels like the home of a rich friend. After a multi-course meal that includes spaghetti puttanesca with tomatoes, olives, capers and anchovies; a hearty stufato di coniglio (rabbit stew); another Campania wine, a rich, ruby-red Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio; followed by a lusciously light tiramisu dessert, we are thoroughly sated!
Perhaps next time we’ll include Pompeii or Ravello, but on this visit we’re content to stay in Positano. In fact, one more Aperol Spritz, one more Limoncello, one more day here would be perfetto.
Traveling to Positano
Getting there: Naples International Airport is the closest major airport to Positano. If you are nervous about driving a rental car along the Amalfi Coast, you can hire a private car service. It is expensive and prices vary but might be worth it for stress-free travel. Your hotel or travel agent can arrange a car or bus shuttle service from the airport or possibly advise you of other options such as getting a bus or train to Sorrento and a SITA bus or a taxi from there to Positano. If you do get a bus from Sorrento don’t sit on the back seat. I did that once and felt like I was sitting scarily over the ocean whenever the bus rounded a bend. Another good option is to catch a ferry from the Port of Naples to Capri and on to Positano.
When to go: Summer is high season, so if you dislike crowds it’s best to go in the shoulder months like May or September. Fortunately, large cruise ships can’t dock in Positano, so there’s never that sudden surge of visitors taking over the town as they do in cities such as Venice.
Accommodations: Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts stay in hotels with dreamy settings like Le Sirenuse, Il San Pietro di Positano, or the Villa TreVille formerly owned by movie director Franco Zefferelli. However, there are numerous choices that won’t break the bank such as the Albergo California or the Villa Rosa. Covo Dei Saraceni, where we stayed, is in the mid to high price range and perfect for the reasons stated previously as well as the fact it has three restaurants, an inviting pool, hot tub, and a small infinity pool with views of the town and the Marina Grande. Hotel Buca di Bacco is another hotel/restaurant along the Spiaggia Grande (main beach), an option like the Covo Dei Saraceni for those less active who want to avoid steps as much as possible. Nowadays, renting villas from companies such as Airbnb or HomeAway is common and practical for groups and families.
What to do: Positano is primarily a place to enjoy the beach, dining and shopping. It’s also a walker’s paradise with several hiking trails, both easy and challenging, to explore. Those who like a more leisurely pace can stroll along the Marina Grande past the watchtower to the Fornillo Beach, which has more shade in the afternoon. You could also catch a ferry to Capri and Sorrento or take the bus to Ravello. A good idea is to take one of the small boats that shuttle back and forth to beaches and restaurants in nearby coves such as the Bagni D’Arienzo Beach Club – the alternative is to walk down 300 steps!
Aside from street stalls that sell the works (jewelry, ceramics, paintings) of local artists, there are several art galleries including Italian Fine Art on the Via dei Mulini. You may also like to visit the Church of Santa Maria Assunta which has a Byzantine 13th-century painting on wood of a black Madonna with Child above the alter as well as the recently discover ruins under the church known as the Chiesa Madre. Worth seeing, too, is the Grotto Dello Smeraldo, a large cave with stalagmites and stalactites where the water glows an emerald green in daylight. There is a small parking lot beside the main road SS163 where you can take an elevator down to cave level and then a boat to go through the grotto. You can also get there by boat.
When you arrive in Positano, stop by the Positano tourist office, Azienda Autonoma di Soggiorno e Turismo Commune di Positano on the Via Regina Giovanna, for more details.
For a splash of Positano at home:
You can make your own Aperol Spritz – it’s easy, refreshing and pretty. Partially fill a glass with ice cubes, pour in three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol, a splash of soda and a slice of orange in the glass or decoratively on the side. Salute!
Photo by Sean Sullivan.