Positano, on Italy’s Almalfi Coast
Positano is a dream. Not my dream though. A 60-year-old librarian’s dream perhaps, but one still worth having.
It came to me when I told a friend, James, about plans to visit family in England. “Oh, I’ll be at the holiday house in Positano. You should come down. I’ll have some friends staying, it would be great to have you.”
James is not typical of my friends nor, likely, of many people’s. When asked how he’s doing he invariably replies, “Really well!” and runs his hands through his hair in a manner suggesting he’s just returned from somewhere sunny and exotic – which he most often has. I was used to him handing me his latest model iPhone to flick through shots of these frequent holidays, so to be invited to partake in one seemed something for which it would be worth changing plans.
Lonely Planet advises that there isn’t much to see in Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. A well-kept church holding an icon of a black Madonna, and a popular beach called Spiaggia Grande. But people don’t come here to sightsee – they come for reverie.
If Venice is a city in aspic, as one of Daphne du Maurier’s characters once described it, Positano is a village in Botox. Frozen in its dotage. Antiquated, yet curiously perfect, the town has survived centuries of war, privileged students on grand tours, film crews, and the new entropy of gawping foreigners.
Stepping off the ferry from Salerno and onto the short pier, I stood back and watched my fellow visitors pass, as if moving through a gateway to another world. They filed onto the bright promenade, each effecting an expression that suggested private exultation as they bathed in the citric sunshine.
Golden, dignified houses hug the steep slopes around the bay, each with bowed steps and postcard views of the Mediterranean. The gravity-defying town clusters under the forested cliffs, petering out at their foot; a curled lemon rind suspended in oil. The breeze carried evidence of olive groves and tomato plantations, ascorbic Limoncello and soft curing sunlight.
Crocodiles of broad-brimmed sweating tourists pulled clattering luggage up crowded laneways ahead of me. We passed an airy restaurant, a gelateria, a jeweller, a gallery, another restaurant. This is not a town for the backpacker. My joy at arriving was diluted by sympathy for the Positanesi who navigate this changeless ambling crowd every day, and envy for anyone who could afford to stay.
Climbing higher, I followed a busy two-lane road between dawdling cars and low, bougainvillea-lined walls. It seemed the foliage was deliberately situated to allow its scent to rise on the sea breeze.
Following the directions of a local who merely needed to hear the name “James” to point me in the right direction, I walked a narrow path, through a security gate to a vine-roofed plaza. James welcomed me with a hug and a glass of something red and local of which his friend had just bought several cases. It was immediately apparent that the promised “holiday house” actually referred to a sprawling complex of gardens, stone cottages, a pool and a private beach. With the whole village and bay spread out below our lofty courtyard, it was hard to focus on the faces. My new home was host to an architect, a film director, a businessman, an author, a restaurateur, a TV presenter – and now an unemployed musician.
Feeling I had done nothing to deserve this unphotographable beauty, I thought of all of those more worthy of my luck, and I wondered from whom I was stealing it. Among such new illustrious and knowledgeable friends, what could I bring? The sense of mounting debt was crushing. Pleasantries and gratitude could only go so far.
My quarters were a converted 15th-century water tower, my bed a four-poster between curved windows that opened over the bay. After standing too long under the biggest and least eco-friendly showerhead I’d ever encountered, I returned to the courtyard where talk was of a nearby beachside restaurant. To reach it, one had to catch a lift through four storeys of solid rock, and this was just one of the town’s many restaurants worth visiting. Once these had been sampled, I was told, nearby Ravello offered even finer options.
Over a dinner of fresh spaghetti marinara, garlic bread and a seemingly bottomless glass of something perfectly matched, I struggled to be worthily charismatic.
“Tomorrow we’re heading to Capri,” said James.
“Great!” I replied with a grin that failed to properly convey the gratitude I felt this owed.
After a glorious sleep, I woke, found the room filled with the sort of light that suffuses Renaissance art, sighed at the sheer improbability of it all and hurried to the pier.
As the ferry eased out of the harbour and into the Gulf of Naples, we passed pleasure boats populated by smiling sunglassed faces, almond limbs and sculptured physiques. The coastline was marked with crumbling watchtowers, precarious lemon groves and obscured caves that suggested candlelit smuggling. I longed for an app that would tell me their history, or at least to have studied the classics. Grand mythologies must have played out along these shores. Invasions, proclamations, heroes plunging from the cliffs and storytellers spending days describing their deeds in nearby villages.
As we arrived, James spoke of visiting “this great restaurant a friend of mine runs”, and our plans to escape the crowds once we landed. The sea was too rough to visit Capri’s famous Blue Grotto, so instead we walked through the twisted, rising laneways of Marina Grande and up on to its luxury shop-lined plaza. The sunlight was so strong that even with sunglasses saturating and blurring the colours so that everything looked like a super 8 film projection, I had to squint to appreciate the views.
Emerging from the crowded plaza in a hire car, James drove us along the jagged coastline, following the curving roads past low-roofed houses and farms up into the mountains. Vista after vista seemed familiar. Was it a dream, a Sargent painting, an Antonioni scene, a backdrop from The Talented Mr Ripley? My new friends chatted about previous visits, the spectacular local culinary options, and then allowed talk to ebb into silent scrutiny of our surroundings.
Arriving at the poolside restaurant in the high hills, the landscape shifted to rolling farmland and a breeze-blown bay. At any moment I expected a well-connected stranger to die, Poirot to meander in, and a genteel woman with an incriminating hatpin to say, “Oh, how perfectly ghastly!” Instead, the conversation was a litany of ribald anecdotes about more famous friends, punctuated with belly laughs and forkfuls of pesce marinato.
We chatted about backroom dealings that decided the fate of Melbourne’s restaurants, talk that could fuel food and lifestyle columns for years. Everyone was so chipper. How could someone not have fun here? Why couldn’t I stop trying, and just be, like them? I felt like an actor who’d walked onto a film set 20 years before being sent the script.
Dusk fell as we left Marina Grande on the last ferry back to Positano. The sound of its motor melded with the lapping waves. Heat lingered heavy and cloud-like, the looming beach emptying as the lights of the bars and restaurants flickered on along the crowded waterfront. Snatches of conversations and music from passing laneside tables reminded me that Positano is, for those fortuitous enough to be drawn into its orbit, as much of a rite of passage for some as my beloved music festivals.
As well as being “a dream place that isn’t quite real”, in the words of John Steinbeck, Positano is more real than any fleeting festival. It reverses the habitual search for adventure that is second nature to so many travellers. It is not something sought – it is a state to which you succumb.
Back at the “holiday house”, musing on how quickly my focus had shifted from chasing thrills, I nursed a Bellini so delicious I involuntarily whispered “Oh shut up” at it. With gentle horror, I realised: I was on the Amalfi Coast, contemplating retirement, and drinking a Bellini. Positano was schooling me in how to age.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2015 as "Elevated company". Subscribe here.