“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.” – John Steinbeck
I read the above quote about Positano, a glistening jewel on the Amalfi Coast, before I went on this trip, and it stuck in my memory. Little did I know that Positano would almost cause my untimely demise.
I got up early on my first morning in Italy, partly to unpack the bag which had been unceremoniously dumped at the end of the bed the night before when I’d got in to the room (I like to be organised as much as the next person, but it had been a choice between unpacking, and faceplanting into bed. The bed won), and partly because I was eager to get out and visit somewhere that had enthralled Steinbeck, of all people. Would it be as he described it, or changed beyond recognition? Would it still have that dream-like effect? It clearly needed investigating. Never mind that it was 6am.
After a hearty cooked breakfast – my favourite hotel in Sorrento is freaking awesome, and there’s no such thing as too early for breakfast – I popped into the town. This was my fourth visit to Sorrento; I know the place pretty well by now, and I had that lovely feeling of being back in my home-from-home. Travelling to new places is wonderful and exciting, not to mention something that I intend to do a lot of in future, but there’s definitely something to be said for also having that place you like to go back to, the place that fits like your favourite, most comfy shirt. I knew where the buses to Positano left from without even looking, and so I popped into a nearby tabacchi to get by bus ticket, validated it on board, and off we went.
I think getting a bus from Sorrento to the towns on the Amalfi Coast is a must for anyone visiting the region. An actual bus; not a tour bus, not a coach. A couple of years previously, I’d been on a tour, because my anxiety told me that I couldn’t possibly buy the correct ticket, if not that a bus would almost certainly have an impatient driver, that I’d be plunging off a scenic cliffside with screaming nonne, that Italian media would send a reporter who would shake their head at the foolish tourist who got on this deathtrap, and Italian families would shake their heads even more watching the news on Rai1 that evening, before settling down for an episode of Soliti Ignoti.
It was a good tour; I take nothing away from it, the guide was absolutely excellent. But did it stop at Positano? No. Did I miss out on things? Yes, I did. Is being on the bus more authentic, more interesting, full of characters? Yes indeedy. And is being on the bus, getting the exact same views as you get on a tour, more cost effective? OH HELL YES.
And what views you get.
The Amalfi Coast is world-famous for glorious views, and it’s well-deserved. High mountains that make your ears pop, hairpin bends that descend through meadows of wildflowers, steep drops off the side of the road down to sharp rocks, cobalt sea smashing into them and sending plumes of white spray flicking into the air.
The views also helped to distract me from the two American girls sitting in the seats behind me, who had to be two of the most unenthusiastic, joyless travellers I’ve ever come across. Whilst the glory of the open sea, sparkling with golden sun, spread across the horizon, they monotoned at each other at each other about how boring their stay was so far. “I mean, like, I really love the rest of you, like, but, I regret asking Rachel to come, like, because she doesn’t drink, and like, she never wants to go partyiiiiiing.” Not one mention of the scenery, or where they were going, or what they were doing today, was made. I started to think that Rachel had the right idea.
”Positano!!”, our driver sang out, and we all eagerly scrambled from the bus (except for the two girls; I’m not sure they noticed that we’d arrived, being busy with a full character assassination on Rachel).
The initial view of Positano almost knocks you off your feet. From the bus stop, the town curls down a hillside opposite you, peach-coloured houses trickling down like a stream of water rippling over stones, down to the beach where it meets the clear blue of the sea. Beach umbrellas bloom like flowers. Pastel colours gleam warmly in the sun. Already, I could see where Steinbeck was coming from.
I headed down the road from the bus stop, already feeling in a dream-like state. I could see churches and quiet passageways, overgrown with greenery. I walked down a narrow road which was shaded by wisteria growing on an overhead trellis, the scent of lemon, sea salt, and mountain air mingling together, as craftspeople sold art and jewellery on small stalls. Shops sold lemon produce, soaps and candles and perfumes, and gave the whole town a pleasurable scent of sun-warmed citrus, whilst a granita seller sold yet more lemon, mixed with ice. Church bells rang. Italian voices chattered. It was an assault on the senses, and I loved it; I couldn’t get enough of it.
There were a lot of visitors there that day – as I suspect there are most days; who wouldn’t want to visit there once in a while? – and I was pleasantly surprised that the vast majority of them seemed to be Italian, stocking up on lemon souvenirs by the armful. I may have been guilty of buying some lemon chocolate, and a bag of lemon sweets so large so it probably contained the lemon juice of an entire orchard. When in Italy, do as the Italians do. Italian tourists count too; don’t judge me.
I came to a rather square-looking but stately church, had a quick peek through the door (I’m never keen on staying too long in churches if there’s people using them to worship, especially if it’s only small – it’s their local church, it’s theirs for their community, and I think a quick look before a respectful exit is enough), before I sat down on a low wall in the piazza outside to put my feet up for a bit, and enjoy some sun. I’m English; I have to familiarise myself with sunshine every now and then. I liked it there: in front of me was the piazza, whilst behind me was a view of the sea, eager visitors queuing for boats at the small dock. Directly beneath me was an alleyway with small businesses operating out of tiny shops built into the walls, like kiosks. Fashion seemed to be the trade here, catering to Positano’s reputation of being for the chic and well-heeled; one shop took the latter literally by offering sandals made on the spot, by a craftsman who measured his customer’s feet before working on a leather sole, adornments and fixings close to hand.
Turning my attention back to the piazza, I noticed that a small commotion had started to occur. Was it some kind of incident or accident? Had Vesuvius finally rumbled back into terrifying consciousness, and the whole area was being evacuated lest we become a modern-day Pompeii?
Nope, a model in a bikini had walked into the square.
Now, a mob of tourists, predominantly male, began gathering behind the photographer and taking their own shots of the bikini-clad beauty. It was soon noticed; the model and her team seemed surprised at first that they were garnering such a keen interest, before they started laughing. The model was really relaxed about it; she laughed it off and waved her hand to say “it’s okay”. Everyone chilled out about it, right?
An English couple walked across the piazza, and stopped to see what the small mob of men were taking photos of. The wife scowled, whilst her husband seemed to take a bit more interest, snapping “who’d want to take a photo of some animal you’ve never met?” Hey now, lady. That’s really harsh. Criticise the photographers if you want, but coming to someone else’s country and calling them an animal because you don’t like the way she’s dressed? Not cool. The model was gracious and good-humoured, neither of which seemed to apply to the woman making the comment.
I had a stroll along the beach, doing some people-watching. I’d been almost a little nervous of Positano before I’d arrived there. It’s known, aside from its stunning beauty, as being the most expensive town on the Amalfi Coast, and this is completely correct. Chic boutiques and art galleries rub shoulders with the souvenir stalls, hotels and restaurants come at a premium. It’s a well-known hangout for the rich and famous. I thought I was going to stick out like a sore thumb. But here’s the thing I most liked about Positano: it’s not exclusive, or excluding. It caters for the rich, but it also caters for the mere mortal. It’s friendly, and still a small Italian town at heart. It wasn’t overrun by posers (indeed, my main encounter with that type of traveller was a couple of days away). It may be a busy resort, but it has a soul.
I was starting to feel a little worn out by this point, and decided to head back to Sorrento and get some rest. This was where the fun began.
For some reason, and I’m not sure how this happened because I can’t find it in my trusty Lonely Planet which I’d read before leaving, or indeed anywhere else, but I had in my head that I couldn’t catch the bus back to Sorrento from the bus stop where I’d been dropped off. I had to go to a stop outside of the Bar Internazionale, a bit further from the town centre. I can only assume that I had either dreamed that particular ‘fact’, or that I’d been severely deprived of oxygen on the flight. So instead of walking to the bus stop and checking, like a rational, sensible person, I got out my map app and checked the way to the Bar Internazionale. It didn’t look too far. There was a rather long and curving road to walk up – a curve that looked suspiciously like the large hillside ahead of me – but the map showed some steps which would eliminate all that pesky walking. Short cut!
Let me introduce you to the Steps of Death. This is probably not their official name.
At first, the Steps of Death were pretty alright. They were relatively scenic, and I was fairly sure that I was on the right track – one of my few skills is that I’m actually pretty awesome with maps. I rarely get lost. The steps were steep, but I was stopping to take photos and catch my breath. Whilst not exactly fun, I was doing okay. Oh, by the way, it was really hot. I was tired. I was carrying a hefty camera, a bag of essentials, and a bag of lemon sweets which was visible from space. And I was literally climbing a mountainside, to the extent that my ears popped.
I started to find it a little odd that there was no one else struggling up these stairs. After all, this was the only way back to Sorrento, right? Sorrento’s a popular place, surely there should be more people. And how did anyone vaguely elderly make it up this never-ending staircase, which appeared to be taking me directly to the moon?
Suddenly, I was beset by doubt. Did I actually have the right staircase? I’d been so sure! What if I was going completely in the wrong direction? I was so agitated, so nervous to get to the top and find out where I was, like a meerkat standing on top of an anthill, that I did the stupidest thing possible.
I started climbing the Steps of Death really really fast.
It didn’t take long in the afternoon sun, dehydrated from walking and flying, recovering from a flu-like cold, walking up thirty million steps, for me to feel quite severely unwell. My heart started pounding. My head buzzed. My breath became laboured. I felt sick. Caught between heat exhaustion and the throes of a panic attack, I slithered to the ground outside the front door of someone’s apartment, which led directly on to the steps, gulping down air and rapidly turning an interesting shade of grey. I’m pretty sure I visualised vultures soaring overhead, whilst trying not to be sick on the doorstep.
Mostly I was trying to calm myself – I had no idea where I was, and I had no idea what the emergency services telephone number was. I glassily stared up at the doorbell, with the resident’s names neatly printed next to it, and wondered if Michele and Grazianna (plus bambino) would terribly mind if I rang the doorbell and pleaded for help. I wondered how on Earth they did their shopping, when their apartment was on this forsaken staircase.
But wait – shopping. They have to do shopping. All apartments must be on a road. True, I couldn’t get there from here, only having a choice of up or down, but there had to be a road somewhere near! I gathered myself, stood up somewhat unsteadily, and prepared for the final asssult. I’d get up those steps even if I took them one by one. I set off, slowly, but gaining strength again.
Until I got to a bit where the staircase went off in two different directions.
How could there possibly be more fucking steps?! Weren’t the people who built this staircase just bored of them by now? Or had they died of exhaustion mid-process, and the damn thing was extended by a further eighteen miles in their honour? Was this some way to get rid of tourists forever? Was Positano sponsored by WeightWatchers? It all seemed particularly cruel. I had a choice of up and right, or up and left. Again I sank on to a wall, defeated.
Until a guardian angel appeared from the direction in which I’d come, wearing motorcycle leathers.
I don’t know if this angel was Michele from the apartment downstairs. I didn’t care, either.
“Excuse me, help!” I squeaked, so tired that I legitimately forgot that I can speak Italian “Please can you tell me where the bus stop is?”
”Sure, is up there, Bar Internazionale.” He pointed up and right. He had a look of “what are you doing here, crazy English person?” on his face.
“Thankyouthankyougraziegrazie!” I exhaled as he took the steps himself, gathering myself a bit more before the last push. I emerged at the top five seconds later, on a road, the most beautiful road I’ve ever seen. My guardian angel was there, sitting on a motorbike, and pointed up the road to where to the Bar Internazionale glistened in a holy sunbeam. Choral music played, lions nestled next to lambs.
The bus trip back, with its air conditioning and shade, was perhaps the most relaxed I’ve felt in a while. I’d been lost. I’d been ill. I’d been panicked. But I’d overcome it all. Suddenly it felt like I could take on the world.
I returned to Sorrento as evening began to creep in, and threw myself face-first into a tub of mint and stracchiatella gelato. I bloody well deserved it.
Positano bites deep. It’s a beautiful, magical place that anchors itself in your memories, a lemon-scented mirage. But make sure it doesn’t bite you in the arse.
Have you been to Positano? Did you navigate your way out better than I did? And do you have any amusing near-death experiences you’ve had abroad? (please share; I’ll feel less alone.) Feel free to leave your story in the comments! Also, watch out for my Positano: Essentials piece in a couple of days if you want to check Positano out for yourself!