When your cruise takes you to the port of Naples you will be spoilt for choice. First of all, you are close to one of the most fascinating sites of the Old World, Pompeii. But you are also close to the Amalfi Coast, a stunning coastline with beautiful towns that couldn’t be more charming even if they tried. Then, there is the island of Capri just off the coast, a pretty day trip destination with stunning scenery and typical Italian la dolce vita.
But we wanted something different from this port. Instead of the usual tourist staples we wanted to check out Naples itself. Of course, the city has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous places in Europe. Don’t go there, people will tell you. It is too poor, too corrupt, too dangerous. Yet we reckoned that a tour exploring the Underworlds of Naples would be full of excitement, an experience quite off the beaten path. We were looking forward to discover a place that not many people would dare venture to.
But, alas, as it turned out, our choice was indeed too daring. The tour that was offered by the ship was too off-centre and couldn’t spur enough interest. Subsequently, it got cancelled and we needed to change our plans and sign up for one of the other 25 tours, all of which would visit Pompeii one way or the other.
I have to admit, I was a little bit disappointed by this. Pompeii surely is an interesting attraction in the region but I felt that I needed to see something different. In the end, we did book an excursion to Pompeii but we also spent half a day in pretty Positano. I am happy to confirm that we thoroughly enjoyed both destinations and that it took us less than five minutes to get over our initial disappointment. So let’s look at Positano first.
From Naples along the Amalfi Coast to Positano
The route from Naples to Positano is quite a remarkable journey. We first drive through country that was once severely effected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, past villages whose names sound familiar – Stabiae and Herculaneum still ring a bell after years of Latin studies.
We follow a road that looks unlikely to be a popular tourist route, right through the centre of villages, narrow and winding. At times, the road is so narrow there is no footpath to either side, just tall walls that are fencing in gardens and backyards of the village houses. It is a challenge for our driver, and an interesting way to slow down our journey and enjoy the scenery.
It is only after this initial stretch of the route that we finally reach the beginning of the spectacular Amalfi Coastal Route. An UNESCO World Heritage Site, to honour this outstanding example of Mediterranean landscape. The cliffs here are steep and towering, unforgiving and humbling. Thanks to the UNESCO heritage status the coastline is protected from any further development. This makes purchasing real estate almost impossible for newcomers but secures this beautiful stretch of coast in its current picturesque condition for further generations.
There is hardly any space for the road, let alone for the villages. Every usable square metre is occupied here, sometimes in the most ingenious way. Properties need to cling to the cliffs, their gardens cascading down to the coast. Marinas and beaches, artificially created for tourists and day trippers to add appealing features to the ancient villages. Parking lots by the side of the road, fully enclosed by the tall walls of a former quarry.
The eternal blue of the sea
As we travel down this impossible road, passing through incredibly long tunnels, making use of concrete bridges that hug the walls in the most precarious way, we realise how one-dimensional our perception has become. To the left there is nothing to see, just the sheer limestone mountains with their sparse vegetation.
But to the right there is the dramatic coastline of the southern Sorrento peninsula. The endless blue of the Mediterranean Sea. This early in the morning a haze shimmers over the water’s surface, blurring the lines of water and the bright blue summer sky. We see tiny islets dotting the indigo sea. Small yachts criss-cross the waters, their white hulls blindingly white in the harsh morning air. Crumbling watchtowers are hiding in this impossible landscape. We spot a hermit who has found his exclusive spot in a remote bay just outside of Positano.
On and on it goes, until finally, after many twists and turns and lefts and rights, tunnels and bridges – we finally arrive in Positano. Or rather, we arrive at the end of the queue of busses and cars waiting for their turn to enter the village centre. A traffic jam of the unexpected kind.
A vertical village with all its perks
Positano is a vertical village. In this rugged landscape, where the steep cliffs meet the sea in the most dramatic fashion, there is no space to be spared. As we are siting in the car queue waiting for our turn to enter the city centre we have plenty of time to view the town from above.
Only the very top roads are broad enough for traffic, and even then it is a challenge even for smaller cars. Parking spots are rare and treasured. From the initial net of roads that allow traffic, maybe they are a handful, no more, the streets flow down to the sheltered bay. In these lanes it is pedestrian traffic only.
Positano entered the world stage during the times of the great seafaring nations. It was a busy trading port for many centuries and served the Amalfi Republic which traded locally acquired salt, grain and slaves for the gold dinars of Egypt and Syria. With this they in turn bought Byzantine silk which was a desirable good in Western Europe.
Later, the people of Positano turned to fishing but by the mid-nineteenth century the economy was in shatters. Many left the area to seek their fortune in other places, most notably in America.
It was the tourism in the 1960s that brought a breeze of fresh air back into the villages of the Amalfi Coast. Musicians and poets felt inspired by the romantic flair of the town, the pastel houses and elegant boutique stores. Italian cinema made Positano popular, the fashion industry embraced its raw and unspoilt charm.
Today, Positano is one of the most famous destinations along the Amalfi Coast, a perfect honeymoon destination, a beach resort for families, and shopping mecca for anyone looking for Italian style fashion and homewares.
Keeping it real
After a lot of chaos which involved at least half a dozen of uniformed police controlling the traffic flow in a semi-logical way, we finally pull up with our bus at a petrol station. From here it’s just a short walk to the beginning of the pedestrian zone that is not unlike many other village roads throughout Italy.
In fact, it strangely reminds us of the streets of Venice, with the difference that Venice doesn’t have any mountains and Positano doesn’t have any canals. The atmosphere here is authentic and comes with small imperfections like crumbling house fronts and smelly back lanes.
We follow the flow, taking the steps downs to the bay, past trestle tables with cheap jewellery and tacky souvenirs. Wisteria cover the walls and the pergolas of many broader streets. The thick flowering carpets blissfully offer shade and paint the scenery in a prism of colour.
There is little sense in our route which leads us left and right and down some stairs and past some dead ends. But you cannot lose your bearings in Positano as all routes will eventually take you down to the water and to the beach. We see the typical mix of shops and boutiques along the way, invitingly calm and relaxed backyards of luxury hotels with their stiff looking waiters and trickling water fountains.
Pizza e limoncello
Down by the water it feels like in any other Italian seaside resort. We find a shady spot in a pizza restaurant and order some cheap but surprisingly tasty slices of pizza. It is too tempting to order some limoncello afterwards, a lemon liquor that makes the most of the melon sized lemons that are harvested in the dark volcanic soil up to three times a year.
Our last walk before we have to return to the bus takes us along the beach promenade. The sun lounges and umbrellas are standing orderly in line on the beach like soldiers, awaiting the masses of tourists that are just about to conquer Positano via the arriving ferry boats. The newcomers undoubtedly will be greeted by the most amazing sights. They will see the slopes with the colourful houses, the pretty church of Santa Maria Assunta in the centre, the classic Italian chic that has its roots in the 1960s.
Picture-perfect Positano: A towering, vertical village that seems to defy the laws of gravity and that takes us away to places that are almost to surreal to believe.