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Steinbeck's Positano

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

Four hundred and fifty stairs.

That is what stands between me and a cool shower. A bed. A glass of water.

A reprieve from this unforgiving sun.

Four hundred and fifty stone steps, carved into the side of a steep hill, rising up before me in a vertical procession that reaches for the heavens.

Behind me the Tyrrhenian Sea reflects a majestic shade of turquoise in the afternoon sun. A ragged white cat with piercing yellow eyes sits on the first step, staring at me while he licks his paw. I take a deep breath and glance down at my suitcase. Forty-eight pounds and change. The woman at the airport had chuckled and said “Almost had to charge you more for that!” I now stare down at the ridiculously oversized bag, sweat trickling down my back.

I am deeply regretting my decision to bring fourteen pairs of shoes to Italy.

John Steinbeck visited this place in 1953 and described his adventures in a piece entitled Positano. He observed that any woman daring to climb the stairs here “dressed as a languid tourist-lady-crisp” might arrive at her destination “looking like a washcloth at a boy’s camp.”

Sixty four years later and here I am, dressed in an impractical yet beautiful skirt and stylish leather boots, hair freshly curled, dragging my suitcase under the merciless sun.

By the time I reach the 449th step, I feel like a washcloth.

I pause outside the entrance to the hotel, wiping my brow and fanning myself in an attempt to look half-presentable. When I finally enter the lobby, I am met with a friendly face and a large glass of ice-cold water. The receptionist smiles apologetically. “Just another fifty steps and your room will be on the right.”

Fifty more steps.

I down the glass of water, lift my hair into a ponytail, and roll up my sleeves.

I can do this.

I fight a wave of light-headedness and step back out under the glaring sun. Thud, thud, thud. My suitcase bangs against each step. My heart feels like its about to explode and I can feel threads of sweat snaking down every part of my body.

At last I arrive, fumbling with my key, hands shaking. A familiar feline face peers out from a step overlooking my room, yellow eyes blazing.

My journey that day began a lifetime ago at a train station in downtown Rome. Rome was hot and crowded. The station was a giant maze of tracks and signs in Italian and rigid men in uniform, standing guard. I was lost and more than a little overwhelmed when a slender woman with dark curly hair approached me.

“Scusami?” she spoke shyly. She asked me which train went to Salerno, her Italian slow and broken. My response wasn’t any better, my knowledge of the language stemming from a few lessons on tape I’d reviewed in preparation for this trip. We continued for several minutes, struggling to communicate in a language that neither of us knew, when I finally asked “Di dov’e lei?” Where are you from?

Los Angeles” she replied.

“Los Angeles?” I repeated, dropping my Italian accent. “…you’re American?”

We stared at each other for a moment while our minds put the pieces together, then erupted in laughter. It turns out that this woman was also trying to get to Positano from Rome. She was just as confused as I was.

We became instant friends.

Together we navigated the Rome station and, with seconds to spare, hopped on the train that took us to Salerno, a lively seaport on the southeastern edge of the Amalfi Coast. There we made our way down to the ferry dock where we sat and drank warm wine, discussing travel plans while we waited for a boat to take us to Amalfi.

A group of tanned, leathered men sat at the end of the dock, casting fishing lines out into sea. Laughing and conversing amiably, old comrades in a familiar routine. One peppy old gentleman leapt about nimbly, helping tourists on and off the boats, smiling a toothless grin, the faded remnants of an ancient Speed-O clinging to his tiny frame. When our own ferry arrived, he helped us up the steps into the boat, then waved and blew kisses as we headed out to sea.

An hour later we arrived in Amalfi, where we followed the crowd, only to realize we were at the wrong destination just as the ferry headed back out onto open waters. It was the last ferry of the day. We were told not to worry, we could still take a bus to Positano, only an hour’s drive away.

Back in 1268, Positano was raided by Pisan forces, compelling the town to strengthen its defenses by only allowing access via the sea or steep, narrow roads. As a result our big modern-day bus careened through the hills along a one-way highway that was once designed for mules but now, against the laws of physics, allows two-way traffic. Before every sharp turn, the driver tapped aggressively on his horn to warn on-coming traffic and then, without hesitation, plunged blindly around each bend into imminent doom. Tires squeaked in protest as the bus teetered precariously against a sheer drop into the sea. On the right side we flew past homes and parked cars with mere inches to spare, surely taking off a few side mirrors along the way.

This is it. I thought. I’m going to die.

In 1953 John Steinbeck hired a driver to take him and his wife to Positano. “Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast,” he wrote, describing his own harrowing journey. “We didn’t see much of the road,” he recalls. “In the back seat my wife and I lay clutched in each other’s arms, weeping hysterically.”

I, too, felt like weeping.

I tried to call my mother. No service, of course. I wondered who would take care of my dog if I never made it home. My fear was gradually cast aside as my body was overcome by a more pressing feeling of nausea. With every turn and slam of the brakes, I felt my stomach flipping and flopping like a fish out of water. I focused on my breathing. I cursed whoever told me to watch the road to prevent motion sickness. What road? All I saw was the sea, taunting me from a thousand feet below, promising to swallow me whole if the driver made one wrong move. Just as I was wiping away tears and summoning up gratitude for my wonderful, albeit brief, life, we arrived at our destination.

I leapt off the bus, rumpled and gray with nausea, and found that I had stumbled upon a little piece of heaven.

Colorful, antique homes stacked seemingly one on top of another all the way up the narrow hillside. The buildings merged into a tiny town center, accessible only by foot or boat, with roads narrowing down into walking-room only. A single golden church steeple rose up before the shore, marking the heart of the town. Elegant restaurants lined a tiny horse-shoe shaped beach, where fishermen worked on their boats and a hefty Labrador lay in the sand, merrily chewing on a stick. Beyond the town center lay the vast, magnificent turquoise sea. I felt my stomach slowly settle and the color return to my pallid cheeks.

I began to think that maybe this journey had been worth it after all.

“Nearly always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano,” Steinbeck wrote, “your impulse is to conceal it.” With this statement he touched on the irony and challenges of authentic travel.

The best places to visit are those that have not yet been trod upon by others in search of the very same thing.

And yet Steinbeck felt confident enough to share his discovery, certain that the town’s remote and somewhat inhospitable location would dissuade the average traveller; the rigid hills and close proximity to the sea forever preventing any expansion into a true tourist destination.

Legend states that Positano was founded by Poseidon, the Greek God of the Sea, in honor of a nymph named Pasitea. The earliest Greek vessels arrived in 500 B.C. It wasn’t until 100 B.C. that the first Romans established themselves. Fortified walls were built and impressive watch towers were designed to warn the villagers of pirate attacks. While it once prospered as its ships conducted trade across the sea, by the end of the 19th century it could no longer compete with the new steamships, and gradually atrophied into a simple fishing village.

While its unique beauty may make it a prime vacation destination, the town was never designed to accommodate outsiders. “It would be difficult to consider tourists an industry because there are not enough of them” Steinbeck said. He said this with conviction, certain that Positano would forever be kept safe from outside exploitation.

But Steinbeck spoke in a time before social media, before mass globalization and the subsequent shrinking of the world.

Today the world knows about Positano, Italy, and everyone wants a piece of its unique beauty.

Yet Steinbeck was right about one thing. Despite its growing popularity, Positano holds on to an authenticity that similar places have long since abandoned with the rise of tourism, and much of this is likely due to its remote location. The restaurants and shops are all still family-owned. The beaches, although somewhat crowded during the day, are quiet and peaceful after sunset. The old buildings and prominent watch towers speak of a different time and place.

The magic that Steinbeck was tempted to conceal is still here, seemingly unpolluted by the changing times.

Night has gently fallen when, back in my room, I rise from a long, dreamless sleep. Muscles I didn’t know I had ache in protest. From a little patio off my room I watch as a stunning sunset casts a blanket of pastel over the town center and burns brightly over the horizon. Fishermen are returning to shore with their catch, anchors thrown down. Lights from surrounding buildings flicker on, glowing warmly against the incoming darkness.

I step outside and make my way back down the steps, suddenly drawn to the sea. Along the way I see the same omnipresent white cat, this time accompanied by a gang of equally ragged cohorts. They all stare at me defiantly as I pass. They are locals. I am a foreigner, merely passing through.

The relentless heat of the day has been replaced by a cool breeze and I find myself skipping lightly down the winding steps, free from my previous burdens. I make it to the beach just as the sun disappears over the horizon and darkness descends, a pale moon now reflecting off the calm waters. Fishing boats are lined up neatly in the water, tethered in place, their only movement coinciding with the gentle lapping of the waves against the shoreline. A few lingering visitors are gathering their belongings and heading back to their rooms, and in a few moments I am alone.

I slip off my shoes and walk to the shoreline. Smooth, round stones under my bare feet, the water cool against my skin. Occasionally a fish breaks free from the water’s surface, momentarily airborne, before disappearing into the depths once again. The dark silhouette of an ancient watchtower rises in the distance.

I close my eyes and breath in the fresh sea air, marveling at that fact that I am here.

“Positano bites deep” Steinbeck wrote in 1953. “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”

I know exactly what he means.

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