Stephen McGinty: Going to town on Positano

The Amalfi coast was described by Steinbeck as: 'houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it'
The Amalfi coast was described by Steinbeck as: 'houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it'
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The Italian ‘dream place’ and its famous hotel popularised by John Steinbeck 60 years ago still casts its spell over celebrity and 
non-celebrity guests alike, writes Stephen McGinty

IN 1952 when the heat in Rome became too much for John Steinbeck, his friend, the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia said: “why don’t you go down to Positano on the Amalfi Coast, it is one of the fine places of Italy”.

The sentiment was shared by John McKnight of the United States Information Service, who had spent a year in the terraced town while writing a history of the papacy and who became the talk of the taverns after the turkey he had painstakingly sourced for Thanksgiving flew off, in a state of drunken panic at the prospect of imminent execution. McKnight had force-fed him Grand Marnier cognac (better to sweeten the meat) then watched helplessly as the bird flapped off only to drown in the Tyrrhenian Sea, triggering a dispute between the sailors of Positano and nearby Praiano over who was the rightful owner of this rare example of feathered maritime salvage.

The author of The Grapes of Wrath had learned from bitter experience that in Italy it is better to be driven than to drive: “To an American, Italian traffic is at first just downright nonsense. It seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next.”

Instead he hired a driver whose business card said: “Signor Bassani Bassano, Experienced Guide – all Italy and Throt Europe”. As Steinbeck said: “It was the ‘Throt Europe’ that won me.”

The journey was not without incident: “We had imported a little piece of Italian traffic right into our front seat” but eventually the American arrived on the most beautiful town on the Amalfi coast and 60 years ago this month published an account of the town and its most famous hotel in Harper’s Bazaar which has since inspired generations of visitors.

As Steinbeck wrote: “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone. Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. I believe that whereas most house foundations are vertical, in Positano they are horizontal. The small curving bay of unbelievably blue and green water laps gently on a beach of small pebbles. There is only one narrow street and it does not go down to the water. Everything else is stairs, some of them as steep as ladders. You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or slide.”

While visiting Positano he checked into a hotel which is now among the most famous in the world, Le Sirenuse, to which Marisa Tomai and Robert Downey Jnr eloped in the movie Only You and within whose cosseted embrace a classic song was composed.

“We went to the Sirenuse, an old family house converted into a first-class hotel, spotless and cool, with grape arbors over its outside dining rooms. Every room has its little balcony and looks out over the blue sea to the islands of the sirens from which those ladies sang so sweetly. The owner of the Hotel Sirenuse is an Italian nobleman, Marquis Paolo Sersale. He is also the mayor of Positano, a strong handsome man of about 50 who dresses mostly like a beachcomber and works very hard at his job as mayor.”

Despite his noble lineage, he was elected because he was the only Communist in the town, a distinction in a field of royalists.

Last weekend, I set off to follow in Steinbeck’s footsteps. A visit to Le Sirenuse, which still remains within the Sersale family revealed it to be an enchanting, antique-laden warren whose arched windows frame one of the most beautiful views in the world, revealing a tumble of houses clinging to a cliffside high above a clear blue bay. Sipping a drink on the terrace, I could see why Steinbeck fell in love with the hotel which honours the connection by hosting a literary retreat each spring for aspiring American novelists. David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, once joined Jonathan Franzen as guest lecturers at the hotel.

However, Steinbeck was wrong on one point about Positano. Tourists he declared would never touch the town: “in the first place there is no room” and secondly he could not imagine “a languid tourist-lady… in sandals as white and light as little clouds” hiking up the Positano stairs for a cocktail: “She will arrive looking like a washcloth at a boy’s camp.” Today 150,000 tourists visit Positano (Pop: 5,000) each year with Scots certain to be among them now that easyJet is flying direct from Edinburgh to Naples.

Positano has a rich and ancient history. When Tiberius moved to Capri in 26AD he was so fearful of being poisoned that he had his galley creep down the coast to collect flour from a mill in the town. Later, as part of the Republic of Amalfi in the ninth, tenth and 11th century Positano’s seamen helped to write the maritime laws and the city was once said to rival Venice in nautical might. Although it lacked a port, the townsfolk would haul the galleys ashore with ropes. Positano’s swelling fortunes were at its height in the 16th and 17th century when it traded with the near and Middle East. But its naval power was broken by the rise of steamships which required a proper port and between 1860 and 1870 6,000 residents emigrated to America and the population dropped to 2,000.

Parts of Positano were “baptised” Li Parlati or the Dead City on account of the rows of abandoned houses. During his visit, Steinbeck focused on local characters. The postman who wore his official postman’s cap but left off his shirt if the day was warm. The shoemaker who worked part-time because he was convinced luxury goods company Ferragamo was stealing his ideas but who developed a reputation as a confidante of prominent visitors such as the Italian general Dino Grandi. After they spoke to him he would refuse to speak to anyone for days commenting: “I do not feel it fitting that I should discuss anything with outsiders after I have been admitted to the secrets of government and diplomacy.”

Then there was “Don Peppe”, the priest who would sit on his balcony in a pair of striped pyjamas puffing on a pipe made from a branch of a fig tree and scan the seas with binoculars then signal to the fisherman when he spotted a shoal of sardines.

Following once again in Steinbeck’s footsteps, we dined one night at Buca di Bacco, one of the town’s oldest restaurants and now a popular hotel. Looking out as the sun set and turned the sea first a burnished gold then an inky black, we dined on linguini and fresh fish then learned from the owner, Salvatore Rispoli that his grandfather Giulio Rispoli had apprenticed with John French the fashion photographer and ran his own photography studio in the town before reluctantly taking over the family business.

His book of black and white photographs, published in 1989, is a time capsule with pictures of the thief who stole the gold and jewels from the statue of the Madonna of Positano and was later caught in Capri and returned in manacled disgrace in the motor boat of the Savino brothers; the skeletons of the priests buried sitting up in the crypt beneath the cathedral and a black and white portrait of the Jewish painter Martin Wolff, who was arrested in Positano during the Second World War and never seen again. When Yehudi Menuhin stayed at the Buca di Bacco in the 1960s having discovered the town on the recommendation of the pianist Wilhelm Kempff, crowds gathered outside his window to listen to an impromptu concert during his daily practice. A gourmet with an eccentric taste, his favoured dish was a roasted head of lamb.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Menuhin was not the only musician in town. The reputation of Positano and Le Sirenuse had grown, in part through Steinbeck’s travel article in the American magazine and the romantic town where houses rise above like so many steps up a ladder began to attract thousands of new suitors. Among the throng were Mick Jagger and Keith Richards who settled into suites in Le Sirenuse then strummed and sang late into the night on the bougainvillea-scented terraces with the scribbled lyrics and chords finally coalescing into Midnight Rambler:

While Steinbeck arrived in the company of Signor Bassani Bassano, we departed in the company of Alfonso from the Positano Car Service Company who swiftly wound us through the narrow streets while explaining how locals need only an inch of clearance, but tourists: oh boy! (Off duty he wisely drives a Smart car). Then as the colourful town receded behind a bend, I was gripped by a strange sensation, a melancholy itch which I realised must be teeth marks. What Steinbeck said 60 years ago this month, is as true today: “Positano bites deep.”