PositanoT. SHER SINGH
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
I have promised myself that if I ever lose my mind and decide to marry again, Positano is where I would like to go for a honeymoon.
But while Positano is food for the soul for romantics and romanticists, those with vertigo beware.
However, it is to the credit of this village -- which perches midway on Italy’s Amalfi coast, both vertically and horizontally -- that I braved several days one summer, despite my newly acquired fear of heights, and survived it well enough to be more than ready and willing to go back any time.
I remember the drive down. We left Naples, drove past Vesuvius and Pompeii -- saving them for the return drive -- and turned the corner on the jagged coastline overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Sorrento sits on the eye of the frog-like peninsula, as it ogles the Isle of Capri, which sits a mere flick of the tongue away. Soon, we were on the south face, heading eastwards towards Amalfi and Salerno.
It looks awfully unnatural to be driving on a ribbon of a road wrapped on the near-vertical cliffs, but that’s the only easy way you get to Positano. You can hear the frolic of the waves a thousand feet below. My hands gripped the steering wheel, my eyes fixed on the middle of the road, dreading to even think of the precipitous rise and fall on either side.
We arrived at our destination in the dark, parked the car precariously at a 45 degree angle, and lugged our bags up the endless steps to the bed-and-breakfast, La Fenice.
Lights flickered far below us, not unlike the stars all around.
We were greeted by repeated “bon journo”s, which continued even when Constantino, our host, emerged to greet us. It was merely his parrot -- Napoleon, who we were introduced to later -- he explained, busy earning his keep.
Constantino suggested we unpack later and, instead, head down to the beach below: there was a party tonight, he said, and promised to join us shortly.
We walked more than a mile -- all of it steps carved on the rock-face, barely visible in the pitch dark -- or, more accurately, clambered down, until we finally felt rock give way to sand under our feet, and stood on a beach.
The whole village was there. Literally.
Food, gossip, yelling, screaming, laughter, children tearing around with gay abandon, all with the waters of the Gulf of Salerno washing the sand a few feet away.
We ate our fill from dozens of inviting aromas, and slumped down on the sand to watch the antics of the merrymakers.
At midnight, with the temperature still at a comfortable 75 degrees, the crowd assembled at the edge of the water. A serpentine rope was hauled off a truck and dumped on the sand. A middle-aged woman with a bull-horn of a voice took over.
She divided the crowd into three groups: two teams for the tug-of-war, and the third of fans standing on either side of the 100-foot long rope, a mere foot away, hollering encouragement and insults with full-throated abandon.
American slang punctuated the din, the rest of it undecipherable to our ears untrained to the local dialect. T-shirts proclaiming Hugo Boss and Vuarnet, the Dodgers and the Bulls, the Stars and Stripes, the bald eagle and the Lady of Liberty -- tangible expressions of dreams of a distant promised land -- added further splashes to the feast of colours muted by the night.
Aromas wafted towards us from the barbecues that continued to go strong, though unattended.
Two hours later, we -- my daughter and I -- ran out of energy and left them still trying to identify the summer’s champions. In a remarkable reversal, the celebration was allowed to precede the selection of the victors, and had thus become the very impediment to the conclusion of the evening.
What I remember most distinctly of that magical night is that I have never been among a happier bunch of people in my life.
The citizens of Positano number less than 2000 today. Most of them are related to each other.
More than three-quarters of its original thriving population had, however, left the village several decades ago, and settled on Columbus Avenue, New York.
They descend from a thriving community thousands of years old. Local legends -- and there are many -- go back to Rome’s Emperor Tiberius of two millennia ago, his trials and tribulations during his sojourn in nearby Capri, and even further beyond in pre-history.
In the 10th century, as part of the Republic of Amalfi, Positano competed with Venice as a maritime power. Its ships and merchants held sway for another thousand years or so, until the steamships came along and drew sailors and traders away to the new industrial centres.
The Positanese then immigrated to America in hordes.
Those who remain, the children especially, merely wait until the day they can leave for … New York! They come back ultimately, those who do get away, and this is what poses the biggest challenge to the mayor of Positano today.
In a village that stands at close to a vertical keel, virtually every horizontal inch has already been constructed upon. Yet, every Positanese who lives in the United States -- and there are tens of thousands of them -- wishes to be brought back home when he or she dies, to be buried in the village.
I spent half-a-day climbing to the top of the village and tracing the saga of its residents through the inscriptions on the gravestones in its already crowded cemetery. Existing graves are already being snuggled closer to each other to make way for the new.
One grave in particular has an interesting legend. About a half century ago, a Muslim arrived in the village which was, of course, completely Catholic.
Despite the intense age-old anti-Muslim feelings that have pervaded Italy and the rest of Europe since the heyday of the Moors centuries earlier, the village welcomed him. He settled down, and thrived in the village as an equal.
When he died, the villagers respected his wishes and buried him lying in the direction of Mecca.
Four years later, somebody discovered, quite by chance, that the body was in fact not pointing in the direction of Mecca. It was 28 degrees off. The whole village assembled. Lovingly, they exhumed the body, and re-buried it at the proper angle. Amidst much fanfare … and, of course, a party on the beach.
Standing high above the village, amid the graves and desperately fighting vertigo, I surveyed the panorama.
It’s obvious to anyone who ventures here that the different shades of blue and green of the sea and the sky merely reflect the warmth of the people of the remarkable village.
John Steinbeck, who frequently fled to Positano, once wrote: “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”
Conversation about this article
1: Rosalia (Baltimore, Maryland, USA), October 09, 2012, 1:42 PM.
Three years ago on a family trip to Italy, my father, older brother, sister-in-law and I stayed in a hotel the next town up the mountain from Positano in Priano at the Margherita, and daily we took the bus to Positano, and to the other towns along the Amalfi coast. You are correct: Positano and the entire Amalfi coast is definitely a place for honeymooners. It ranks as one of the most romantic places on earth! While there, we dined atop rooftop restaurants, the moonlight shimmering on the sea below, and for the first time since getting divorced did I wish for a significant other, deciding then if I were to ever remarry, the Amalfi Coast would be the perfect honeymoon site. I'd urge anyone who wants to rekindle their marriage or propose or take a romantic trip to head straight to the Amalfi Coast. From Positano, one can hop onto a ferry to Capri and see the blue grotto, hop on the bus to Sorrento, Amalfi and the other towns where just about every house is surrounded by an explosion of brightly colored flowers and the road connecting them doubles for the world's largest roller coaster with its ribboned loops, complete with two-way traffic of buses, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians. Take dranamine for sure to get up and down the road.
2: Harinder (Uttar Pradesh, India), October 09, 2012, 10:02 PM.
Sher Singh ji is a great traveler, observer, writer ... Where do you derive all this vigour and vitality?