Positano. The jewel of the Amalfi coast in Italy, south of Naples. An ancient town, popular for holidays since the Roman Empire. Dotted with white-washed, rose, peach, lemon, salmon and ocre-coloured villas, clinging precariously to the precipice of the mountain, as if craning to jump into the glorious sea. Grape vines climb up the facades onto terraces and Saracen roofs, reaching for the sun. Wooden shutters are flung open to drink in the endless blue panoramic views across the bay to the Isle of Capri, Sorrento and Ravello. Boats of every kind bob gently on the water; sailing boats, fishing boats, rubber dinghys, jet boats ferrying day trippers to Capri, Ischia, Sorrento, Amalfi and other treasures.
‘Buongiorno signora.’ Ahh. It’s good to be back in God’s country. Having lived in Italy almost twenty years ago, I still feel at home here. Where the sing-song language reflects the happiness of the gente (people). Where they revel in life’s simple pleasure and do the same things I love: chiacchierare (chat)—always on the phone, mangiare (eat)—fare una bella passiegata (walk). How blessed they are to have been born and raised amidst this beauteous place. The breath-taking landscape shapes the people. How random fate’s hand is. It could have easily been Beirut or Belfast instead.
We traverse the winding coastline in a taxi on the way from Naples airport to Positano. I practice my rusty Italian with the immaculately handsome taxi driver, who tells me about the frequent landslides and stops at opportune look-outs for us to view Sorrento, Vesuvius and Pompeii. The scent of rosemary and lemons and olives, abundant to the area, fires my nostrils, making me salivate with lust for homemade pasta. The pastures are bountiful with fresh local produce; tomatoes, caprese (local mozzarella cheese), lemons—found in everything you can eat and drink; the local digestive liquor limoncello, lemon granite, rich lemon tart dessert (delizia al limone). Seafood risotto was served in a giant lemon that could have been a grapefruit it was so huge, dimpled and organic. Not like the tiny super-yellow genetically modified version you buy in the supermarkets.
Our hotel, Villa Gabrisa is traditional Italian. A small four-star family run establishment. Our rooms are the penthouse, well attic really. With uninterrupted views over the grape vines on the terrace, to the sublime expansive blue. My mother-in-law and I are equally excited about the free L’Occitane toiletries. Almost.
I develop a crush on a local boy who resides at the hotel; Johnny, the local stray Corgi. He looks like he could be the Queen’s pooch, the tidiest well-fed stray I’d ever seen. Like the littlest Hobo, he’s a law unto himself. Mr Independent. Turns his nose up at croissants I feed him yet insists on sitting under my seat at breakfast so I can’t move to go back for second course at the buffet.
The food was generally a little disappointing. Overpriced and bland. I’d always believed that the south of Italy, particularly the Neapolitan region, boasted tastier cuisine than the north; rich with garlic, laced with chilli. No. Even the coffee, local caprese and homemade ravioli did not live up to expectations. And we were served tinned fruit for breakfast in the hotel. Criminal with all the fresh fruit they must grow on those fertile trees. That said, the Prosecco, local wines from Ravello vineyards and limoncello were daily pleasures to savour with dinner. As was the heavenly local fresh seafood that we saw hauled in on fishing boats; vongole, prawns and swordfish in particular seemed to like the warm Amalfi sea.
We make our way down countless vertical steps towards Fornillo beach. Scooters, Fiats and the interno Positano local bus zip round the sharp curves. Elegant Italian women grace the cobbled narrow streets that weave a labyrinthal path from the peak of the mountain, through the town centre of shops, cafes and restaurants, down to the beach. Adorned with designer sunnies, flowing colourful kaftans with matching bikinis, richly tanned and perfectly toned, with subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—gold jewelry. The eptiomy of grace. They age well too. Many attractive ladies and gents of a certain vintage, provide inspiration for our society with a fear and aversion to ageing. I tend to believe it’s down to being blessed with good genes and sense of style rather than plastic surgery.
The church with the dome dominates the piazza, reminding the community of its Catholic duty to God. It is not dissimilar to the Muslim churches in Turkey, unsurprising given most of the Roman Empire stems from Muslim influence.
The pebbly beach at Fornillo, and at every beach we encounter, is like hot rock therapy. Not really pebbles but huge torturous slabs of rock that bruise and burn the soles of our feet, rendering it impossible to enter or leave the water with any dignity. Much comical stumbling, pained expressions and swearing—but maybe that was just me. Not everyone is afflicted. All I can say is they must have asbestos feet or a bad case of hard elephant skin.
I may have mentioned this irk before, but the user pays in Europe. A scandalous 7 Euros for the use of a sunbed, shower, toilet, oh but you get the changing room thrown in, and the sweetener is a free water taxi, plus sometimes free Wi-Fi. There would be uproar in Sydney if beaches charged for such basic amenities. But there was a sneaky way out for those on a budget, if you go to the beach after 4 pm you don’t pay! Bingo.
I can’t remember the last time I lay on a beach and sunbathed all day—well, I lay in the shade actually, having lived in Australia for the last decade I’m no longer fanatical about a suntan. In fact, as I slather on my SPF factor 30, I’m more concerned with not looking like a wrinkled brown leather handbag. The shushing of the gentle waves is like soothing percussion; the drum-like rattle of the pebbles, clinking and tinkling of shells like a tambourine. The absence of shrieking kids is a pleasant relief. Not that I’m anti kids, but let’s face it, they are the antithesis of relaxation and peace. And, having none of my own, I can happily forgo the whingeing and sniveling. The vertiginous climbs of Positano are definitely not conducive to prams, toddlers or elderly legs.
We are jostled, jabbed and elbowed almost overboard the jetty, by gaggles of bronzed Italians—unaware I can understand them—as we politely stand in line for the water taxi that putters along, ferrying people from Fornillo beach to the main Positano beach. Italians don’t queue. In fact Europeans in general don’t queue. It’s a free for all; same on the bus or in a café queue for a cappuccino. But I like that about them; that disregard of rules. My mother-in-law provides onboard entertainment with her commando roll onto the boat (sorry Hazel, it was too funny to leave out). Of course, the Italians glide elegantly on, well practiced at this kind of thing. While I scramble up like a bloke crossed with a crab, Hazel is rolled on like a sushi roll by the captain. I cry with laughter, till the salt and suntan cream stings my eyes, the whole boat ride to the main beach. The bronzed goddesses gaze at us in puzzlement (or pity).
We continue to rip through the Euros like warm sand, slipping helplessly through our fingertips. It’s even more expensive than Sydney! Like Sydneysiders, the Italians are an exuberant, cheerful, positive bunch. Hardly surprising when they’re living the dolce vita by the beach, basking in the sunshine. They find pleasure in simple moments; an expression you hear everywhere ‘che bello’ how beautiful everything is, which it is. There are usually five words to say the same thing, so one long sentence sounds poetic and lyrical but could be translated into a short practical sentence in English. Every nation has its characteristics that are formed by the place and the language. Italians, to me, are characterized as openhearted, family oriented, impractical, stylish and expressive—they talk with their hands. Palms face up accompanied with the exclamation ‘eh’ means ‘and what do you want me to do, that’s life. Che serà serà.’
Dinner in Positano provides a classic romantic occasion. All the restaurants are perched on the edge of the mountain overlooking the sea. Twinkling lights decorate the scape. The piano, harp and singer warble Moon River. How appropriate as the huge pearl-like full moon slides from behind the mountain and sits against the dark sky, washing us in her marble glow, illuminating a yellow strip of boats bobbing on rippling black water. Her face looks serene, long nose and upturned smile like the Mona Lisa herself.
We take a day trip to the Isle of Capri; iconic playground of the privileged. Forty minutes from Positano by jet boat. Yachts, sailing boats, James Bond-like speedboats, clad with leather seats and helicopters siting atop on their launch pads, and humble wooden local fishing boats tour the island perimeter—which takes two hours to circumnavigate. Colossal monolithic rocks form an uneven circle of the island, jutting out in jagged coves forming caves, called grottos. Inside the grottos the water is the shimmering colour of Topaz, electric blue, aquamarine, emerald. Beneath the surface lie coral and rock-like rose quartz and amber. The rocks are alive and pulsing, standing proud and dangling like candle wax into the caves. Ninety percent of visitors are Italian, which despite the crowds, makes the experience more authentic and pleasant—not to be surrounded by fellow English speaking tourists.
The beach at Capri, well at least the one near to the main boat jetty is disappointing. Even more crowded and rocky than Positano. People are so tightly packed and negotiating the pesky hot rocks they literally fall on top of each other. I may have admired the Italian ladies’ elegance and beach style. Not so for the men. Picture throwbacks to the 80s with black Speedo’s or budgie smugglers, as they’re aptly known in Australia (I suspect overstuffed with socks) with hairy chests like rugs, gold jewelry galore, and of course, designer sunnies and cigarette in mouth. My mother-in-law comments it’s more like Blackpool or Northside Shore in Cumbria (unsavoury English beaches). She’s right. So we took the cable car up to the peak of Capri.
Stunning is an understatement. As we pass the immaculate piazza dominated by a white church we see a glamorous Italian wedding complete with confetti rice being thrown and traditional almond favours; the symbol of fruitfulness. A labyrinth of winding cobbled streets teem with designer boutiques and 5 star luxury hotels.
We meander down to the lookout at Marina Piccola where we are rewarded with spectacular views of Capri and surrounding rocks towering out of the aquamarine water. Boats zipped by, doing loops, leaving white wakes—realising the impression of Capri exactly as I’d envisaged it: pure blue and white nautical beauty.
The best views on Capri are found from Giardino di Agosto (August Garden). Of course it costs one Euro each to enter but is worth it. Until Hazel steps onto the grass to read the title of a statue and plant names. Whhhheeee! A shrill whistle sounds and the ranger comes running over. To my amusement she then has trouble getting over the flowerbed quick enough to appease the ranger without trampling the marigolds.
The tree trunks are covered with pink perfumed flowers and leaves, providing shade from the merciless sun. The bees are huge black creatures, not of the stripy variety; busy pollenating the plentiful honey miele, star jasmine and bougainvillea. Palms stand side-by-side with cacti, a lotus pond guarded by Romanesque sculptures of naked female bodies and other indecipherable objects, which we are unable to name, the grass being off limits!
We comment that Capri is the cradle of the rich and famous. No sooner had we said that we stumble upon a bar with photos on the wall of celebrity visitors: Cristiano Ronaldo, Mariah Carey, Sophia Loren, Beyoncé and many others. But it has an irresistible old-world charm that oozes peace and luxury, yet simple contentment.
Onto Sorrento, a typical Italian seaside town along the Amalfi coast. Centred around the piazza at the peak, a maze of shaded streets cascade in every direction. Row-on-row of shops. The aroma of leather is intoxicating; effusing superior quality. Despite this, the shoes and bags and clothes are surprisingly reasonable.
Limoncello granita refreshes our palates as we continue to wander past many churches. At St Francis of Assissi church a wedding was in full swing. The English are easily identifiable, lacking Italian finesse. Despite great stylistic efforts, they awkwardly perspire in ill-fitting suits, exposing pink and white striped sunburned shoulders.
Marina Piccola and Marina Grande consist each of a promenade and concrete pontoons, which to my surprise hold their own charm. Lined with iconic yellow and blue stripy umbrellas with matching changing huts and sunbeds. The water looks clear and inviting, despite what I’d been warned, with bathers diving in, snorkeling and floating on huge Polystyrene beds. Piccola is a bit tarty and over-cooked, with gaudy lights, confectionary stalls—reminiscent of a fairground, rather than befitting the glamour of the Amalfi coast.
The highlight of Sorrento is lunch at Trattoria da Emilia; a simple waterside restaurant on Marina Grande. Gingham paper tablecloths, and huge cheerful waitresses—displaying the gluttonous effects of their delicious pasta.
A simple spaghetti al mare, rocket salad liberally doused with extra virgin olive oil and fresh bread, washed down with Peroni beer and mineral water— that for some reason in Italy tastes as pure as fresh mountain spring. The most divine meal ever. Simple, fresh, delicious fare, and cheaper than Positano. We watch the fish devour the remnants of bread and the local skinny cats tuck into freshly pan-fried sardines that people simply couldn’t squeeze into their bloated bellies.
I want to go to the ancient ruins at Pompei, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to absorb the history of the remains of the town, recovered from the eruption of Volcano Mount Vesuvius. However, my husband declares it’s too hot and his mother has already been. Given the day trip cost over 100 Euros and it was still around 35 degrees I decide instead to retire for the last day on my lettino (sunbed) in Positano and watch the world go by, soaking up the dolce vita. Bellissimo.