‘Nearly always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano, your impulse is to conceal it. You think: “If I tell, it will be crowded with tourists and they will ruin it, turn it into a honky-tonk and then the local people will get touristy and there’s your lovely place gone to hell.” There isn’t the slightest chance of this in Positano.’
John Steinbeck, 1953
Yeah, right. The sad truth is that like so many classic destinations, Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, has long since been overtouristed almost to the point of ruination. Even as early in the season as late April, when the Fawn and I visited, the tiny beach area was almost unbearable. Boatloads of day trippers swarmed across the promenade, funnelling into the steep narrow alleys on a near-impossible quest to find somewhere to eat. At which point you might wonder: ‘Why bother?’
Well I’ll tell you why: because if you follow my two cardinal rules of modern travel, it’s still possible to experience Positano exactly as Steinbeck did in the 1950s or as the Rolling Stones did when they wrote ‘Midnight Rambler’ there in the late 1960s — in the days when travel was for the few not the many, you could smoke cigarettes and drink cocktails with impunity, and the Med really was as unspoilt and idyllic as it looks on old postcards.
Rule no. 1: no box-ticking. The first thing I did on arriving at our hotel was to scan its list of things to do in and around the Amalfi Coast and then, next to each one, scrawl ‘No’. First to go was the boat trip to Capri (a tiny island with two million tourist visits a year? No thanks). Then, I ruled out the other trips too: the one to Sorrento, the one to Ravello, the one to Pompeii. This wasn’t laziness — just a grown-up acknowledgement of the way things are in the age of mass tourism.
It’s like this: if, on your deathbed, you still haven’t seen the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David or anywhere in Venice, this should be a matter for self-congratulation, not regret. Sure, it would have been great if you’d caught them in the mid-1950s when they weren’t ruined by a gazillion other people jostling for a view. But you didn’t — and you were grown up enough to accept this.
Rule no. 2: ruthlessly edit. You came to see Positano as it ought to be, not as it is. Best, therefore, to confine yourself to the one place in town where arguably that magically glamorous ambiance still exists: the hotel where Steinbeck stayed, Le Sirenuse. No, it’s not cheap; when we sat reading by the pool on the terrace and the so-polite waiter came along, we didn’t dare order anything except espresso. But it is amazing: like being a Count and Contessa in your very own Mediterranean palazzo for a weekend.
Le Sirenuse is a former nobleman’s palace, in the middle of town with the best position, multiply tiered as all the buildings in the village have to be because they’re built more or less into a cliff, and with quite possibly the most delectable view you will ever see anywhere in the world in your entire life.
The time to enjoy it at peak magnificence is in the morning, when you look out to sea over the majolica-tiled dome of the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta, the sun just beginning to light up the pastel-coloured houses clinging to the cliff at the port’s edge, while sitting in the most exquisite dining room (shimmery white arches, big windows, bougainvillea-trained on the walls, lit by 500 candles), gorging yourself silly on rich pastries, fresh fruit, hams, cheeses and so. There are insufficient superlatives in the lexicon to do this experience justice.
Even at the end of our three-day stay we were still getting lost in the hotel’s warren of corridors and lounges, crammed with all manner of antiques and artwork, ranging from ancient prints to a neon bar sign commissioned from Martin Creed by the hotel’s groovy aristocrat owner Antonio. But this was all to the good. It meant that apart from the occasional foray out for lunch and dinner — plus the one trip we did take, an early-ish morning walk up to the heights to catch a view of Positano before the boats and coaches arrived — we stayed in our enclave: relaxing, sipping cocktails, lounging by the pool, cooking gently in the steam room and the sauna, reading, drinking in that still-perfect view.
You know what? Maybe Steinbeck wasn’t so wrong after all.