In 2002 I left Naples to spend Valentine's day at Positano. I had heard all the stories about it's fabled charms, and since it was within easy driving distance of Naples, ( a mere 44 km,) I decided to give it a whirl. After checking out a number of hotel websites, an Italian coworker suggested I try the Albergo Casa Albertina. He remembered it as being a low-priced hotel. (By the way, albergo is the Italian word for hotel. Most places in Italy use the English word. Not the Positanese.)
Unless you arrive by boat, (the only way I recommend during the summer,) you will spend some time on the Amalfi coast highway. If you have ever driven Highway 1 along the California coast, then you have the merest inkling what the Amalfi coast highway is like. The highway was designed by brilliant madmen. The highway is an entirely improbable engineering feat. Sometimes the highway is too narrow and the curves too sharp for two cars to pass each other, yet the highway is clogged with tourist busses during the high season. In Positano perhaps half of the highway's outer lane is not built on bedrock, but instead is built on stressed concrete panels jutting horizontally from the cliff. From below the highway appears to be a concrete balcony. It seems surprising that it works, and absolute madness that it was built in the first place.
The Amalfi coast highway bisects the upper region of Positano. A narrow one lane, one way road winds back and forth from the highway on the western side of town down to the bottom of the gorge near the beach, then winds back up the other side of the gorge where it once again meets up with the highway. Another small road leads upwards from the highway towards the even more improbably situated small village of Nocelle. Nocelle is a small town originally settled by people imported from Paestum to work land owned by the Benedictine monks.
Positano has been described as the most vertical city in Italy. I'm not sure if it is true, but it certainly could be. The city is built on both sides of a narrow gorge. The houses and hotels seem to grow directly from the cliffs. Except for narrow vertical walkways they butt up against each other. It seems a highly claustrophobic existence to me.
Our hotel was 72 steps up from the street. 72 steps up. Don't bring much luggage with you. I also don't recommend you drive. If you look at the picture below, you'll see how crowded everything is. You will pay a steep price for parking. I paid €18 per day for parking my small Alfa Romeo. Had I chosen to drive my compact pickup, I would have been charged €33 per day.
One of life's little mysteries is why the Europeans don't build real bathrooms. They generally seem like an afterthought. The shower in our bathroom was the smallest I've ever seen. You had to step out to turn around. It was so tiny that doing anything ordinary, like washing, forced the shower curtain open. By the time we were both finished the bathroom didn't need a mop, it needed a bilge pump.
The hotels generally serve you breakfast. You can eat it in the dining room, or if you like they will bring it to the room, generally at no extra charge. Our room faced the ocean and had a wonderful view from the balcony. Since the city is located inside a gorge with steep hills on either side, the sun doesn't make it's formal appearance until the middle of breakfast. It is wonderful to be sipping cappuccino and eating croissants, taking in the cool sea air, as the first rays of the sun slowly bring the town to life.
During the off season you may eat at the hotel, but you eat whatever they cooked that day. The price can be a bit high, too. During the high season the room rate is "half board", meaning you are supposed to eat either lunch or dinner at the hotel. They tell me it is included in the price. We chose to eat at the restaurants on the main beach. We walked down the winding street, doing a bit of window whopping along the way. We ate sandwiches at one of the lower priced restaurants. The local youths entertained us by dry-humping on the beach.
On our way back we decided to take the stairs. After a quick riposo, we headed out to do a bit more exploring. Finally it was time for dinner. We headed back down to the beach, where decided to avoid the cheap restaurant, but also avoid Chez Black, the restaurant all the guidebooks list as being quite expensive. We settled for a restaurant almost directly above Chez Black. The food and the service were excellent, and the price was reasonable too.
If you look closely at the picture, you will notice what looks like a road snaking from the beach along the base of the cliff. This is actually not a road, but a wide stone footpath. It is lighted at night, and winds around from the main beach to the smaller, more secluded beaches on the other side of the ridge. After dinner we strolled along the footpath for a while, watched the stars, and listened to the waves. It was so peaceful it seemed a shame to leave.
Once again we decided to take the stairs back. We figured the vertical climb was the same, but going back on the road added distance as well. This time I counted the stairs. If I counted correctly, it was 429 stairs from the beach to the hotel. We had made that journey twice, and had climbed from the highway to the hotel when we first arrived. All told, we had climbed 900 steps, or the equivalent of 90 stories. Needless to say, we slept well that night.
Before leaving the next day, we had one last choice to make. We could walk back to the beach for lunch and have another 429 step journey. Or we could eat lunch in the hotel and pay another $40 for a meal. We didn't like either choice. We decided to get a couple panini (sandwiches) from the deli in the mercato (market) just down the street. We found a spot overlooking the siren islands on the drive back and had a nice picnic lunch. All in all, it was a quick but relaxing trip.
I recommend Positano during the low season. It is quiet and un-crowded. I must say, however, that I was not bowled over by its charms. You may have heard about or read John Steinbeck's 1953 article on Positano in Harper's Bazaar magazine, but the Positano of John Steinbeck's day no longer exists. What remains is still charming, but in a tourist trap sort of way. The people seem genuinely friendly, which is in itself a major change from Napoli. The town is clean, the air is clear, and the animals are well taken care of. To my mind, that last says quite a lot about the good character of the Positanese.
Don't buy anything in Positano. Positano is famously expensive, mainly because nearly everything has to be imported from somewhere else. Some of the fashions are unique to the area, but unless you have money to throw away I wouldn't bother. And stay away from most of the ceramic shops. The prices are much too high. If you want inexpensive ceramics take a bus to Vietri sul Mare, a small town located at the intersection of the Autostrada and the Amalfi coast highway. If you want somewhat better quality ceramics, check out the stores in Ravello.
If you want to stay in Positano, you might want to check out the Hotel Savoia as well. The views aren't as impressive, but it is right on the main road through town and not too far from the beach and restaurants. The price is right as well. In the low season a double room can be had for between €99 and €155. In the high season double room rates range from €104 to €207.
I had wanted to stay in the Villa Flavio Gioia. It wasn't open until the high season, although the website didn't make that clear. The villa is right next to the main cathedral and just moments from the beach. It would be quite a walk from the Villa to the main road, though.
I copied the text of John Steinbeck's article on Positano from Positano Casetta Renata, along with the three pictures on their page. The original site I copied the text from no longer exists; the current text has a couple errors, probably due to translation, but I left it as is.
Last edited on December 31, 2005