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Positano Stroll: A Peek Behind the Chic

By Rick Steves
Positano, Italy
Positano, the jewel of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, hugs the rugged shoreline. (photo: Rick Steves)
Positano, Italy
Once an artists' colony, Positano remains full of boutiques and galleries selling locally made works. (photo: Addie Mannan)
Positano, Italy
In summer, Positano's busy beach is only empty in the early morning. (photo: Addie Mannan)

As we've had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here's a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

Italy's Amalfi Coast — a fairly isolated and dramatically scenic stretch of shoreline south of Naples — is blessed with beaches, sunshine, and picturesque towns spilling down precipitous slopes. Among these towns, I have a clear favorite: Positano, easily the most scenic, chic, and romantic stop along the coast's winding clifftop road.

A breathtaking sight from a distance, Positano is a pleasant gathering of cafés and expensive stores draped over an almost comically steep hillside. Terraced gardens and historic houses cascade downhill to a stately church and a broad, pebbly beach.

Many visitors come to Positano with only two aims: to shop the town's airy boutiques, and to bask on the beach. I've enjoyed both — but the town also has an intriguing history to explore. Stroll Positano with an eye past the glam, and you get a richer sense of this fascinating corner of the world.

Until the late 1800s, the only access to the town was by sea or donkey path. Even now, only one street in Positano allows motorized traffic; the rest are narrow pedestrian lanes. Endless staircases are still a way of life for the hardy locals. While Positano has 4,000 residents, an average of 12,000 tourists visit daily between Easter and October. But because tour-bus access is so difficult, Positano has been spared the worst ravages of big-bus tourism.

"Downtown" Positano centers around a single pedestrian street that tumbles from the high road past tempting shops and restaurants down to the sparkling sea. A slow stroll down this route is a lovely way to acquaint yourself on a first visit. And I recommend starting off, at the top of the lane, with an icy granita from a family-run stand that's been following the same secret lemon-slush recipe for generations.

The entire town center of today's Positano, from the granita stand down to the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, sits upon the site of a sprawling Roman villa, buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 (the same eruption that destroyed Pompeii). Only a small part of it has been dug up, but you can find some of its leftovers around town. At the top of the main lane, for example, the little yellow Church of the Rosary holds a delicately carved fragment of a Roman sarcophagus.

Astute strollers will notice an abundance of shops selling ceramics and linen — both have been made here since the 1950s, when the town was a haven for artists and writers escaping Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. To this day, numerous galleries feature the work of local artists. A 1953 essay by John Steinbeck tipped off tourists to the town's charms, and by the '70s Positano had become a trendy stop, with the "Moda Positano" fashion trend — a leisurely dolce vita lifestyle of sauntering barefoot in brightly colored clothes and skimpy bikinis — enjoying a worldwide day in the sun.

About halfway down to the beach is the ritzy Hotel Palazzo Murat, easily overlooked as yet another instance of Positano's jet-set appeal. But it fills much of what had been a grand 12th-century Benedictine monastery — and then, after Napoleon closed many of the region's monasteries in an effort to limit the power of the Church, a private palace. Today, tourists of any budget can enjoy the palazzo's plush courtyard and views of the church's colorfully tiled dome.

From here the lane leads further downhill under a fragrant wisteria trellis, past a gauntlet of more artisan shops and much-used ATM machines. Near the bottom you come to the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, once the Romanesque-style abbey of the Benedictine monastery.

Though known since antiquity for its hearty fleet, Positano was weakened by a 1343 tsunami, and in the mid-1400s the entire lower town — including the monastery — was abandoned to escape pirate raids. But in the 1700s, when the coast was clear of pirate rule, Positano flourished again as a favorite under the Bourbon royal family. Many of the town's fine mansions were built then, and Santa Maria Assunta was thoroughly restored with an extreme Baroque makeover and its dome slathered in brightly glazed majolica tiles.

A romantic legend about the church's Byzantine altar painting is said to be the source of the town's name. The icon-like Black Madonna was likely brought here from Constantinople by monks in 12th century. But locals prefer a more colorful origin story: that it arrived after a violent storm threatened to sink the ship of evil Saracen pirates, who had the painting on board as plunder. The painting of Mary is said to have spoken, saying, "Posa, posa" (lay me down), causing the ship to glide safely to this harbor and the stricken pirates to become Christians. Locals kept the painting, and the town became known as "Posa-tano."

The church faces the Piazzetta, a tiny square lined with tourist restaurants that were once fishermen's quarters (and before that, shipyards fueling Positano's mighty naval power). Behind the church, an underground exhibit offers a peek at excavations of the extensive Roman ruins still sitting under today's village. And near the steps down to beach level, you can see some original Roman columns scavenged from the buried villa.

But enough history for now — we've reached the beach. Most of the year, it's atmospherically littered with colorful umbrellas amid a commotion of fishermen, recreational boats shuttling visitors in and out, and local Romeos practicing their craft. Grab a nice perch, and watch the scene as it unfolds. Or leave the tourists and hustlers for better swimming at Fornillo Beach, a 10-minute walk away.

I'd return to the Piazzetta in the evening, when the square and beach start to buzz with the energy from a nearby nightclub that's still got a '70s disco vibe. While the scene doesn't really get going until late at night, the club is open for drinks much earlier. Whether seduced by a local charmer or by the town itself, it's time to drink in new memories of your fun in the Italian sun.