Saturday, October 10, 2015

Bitten deep by positano

Sunday 28–Tuesday 30 September 2014

Positano steinbeckons

Here we are, over a year since Til and I were in Positano, and I'm still yet to sort all my photos and notes and memories into posts and albums and videos. But I persist, inching my way through whenever I get the chance. It's quite an efficient way of remembering, really. And Positano, of all places, seems a fitting way to recommence, given those famous remarks of John Steinbeck's about the town, which, I'm sure, must adorn almost every travel blog post ever written about it. But once more won't hurt:

     '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.

This still rings true sixty years later, despite the changes to the town. I'm pretty sure both Til and I have found ourselves uttering the phrase 'Remember in Positano ...' disproportionately often, especially considering how short of a time we were actually there. In my memory it feels like days and days ...

'Come back to sorrento'

After our epic, uncomfortable, almost entirely sleepless overnight bus trip from Munich, we arrived in Rome, grimy and groggy, at around 7am, and found our way via the Metro to Roma Termini, where we would board another train to Naples. Of all the places we'd been so far in our travels, this sprawling, bustling train station was actually the first place we'd already been to in the past, three years earlier on our exchange trip. The experience of being somewhere so foreign and so insignificant to us – just a functional point of transit, nothing sentimental – and yet simultaneously so recognisable, was thoroughly surreal to me. Like spotting a familiar stranger you recognise from your hometown in a completely different city: you know them, but you also can't claim any ownership of them. You only know their face. One of the subtler quirks of travelling, I suppose. We reminisced about all the stressful, harried moments and travel disasters we'd experienced in that same station before like wise old folks looking back on the follies of youth. The inception of smartphones in between this trip and our last had practically obviated travel disasters from this trip altogether.

While I waited with our bags for Til to come back with some breakfast, I got talking to an older Australian woman waiting for her own partner about how she worked in security, and all the places we were about to go. You really can't go five minutes in Europe without bumping into another travelling Australian.

After that we boarded our train to Naples, sidling through the hallway and into an empty compartment and unshouldering our backpacks. Before long we were joined by a pleasant, voluble Neapolitan, Antonio (who might've been a surgeon?), with whom we had a long discussion about all sorts of things for the duration of the journey (see the video at the end of this post). It makes me wish it was so easy to talk to people back home.

From Naples it was another – this time pleasantly soporific – train trip to Sorrento. I slept the whole way, but I remember it so vividly from the winking interstices in my sleep: a shift in position here, a bleary glimpse around the carriage there. It was a raucous journey, despite my somnolence, the racking and clacking of the old carriage over the tracks shunting us around in our seats. I recall the open, empty space of the carriage being filled with such bright Italian light as it throttled through the famed countryside of Campania, mountains on one side of us and sea on the other, almost like that brief, glorious stretch of railway between Stanwell Park and Thirroul back home that never fails to pull the gazes of surfers checking out the water and phone-fixated commuters alike. Periodically the magnificent views would be obscured as we flickered through umbriferous caves of vines encasing the fences that divided the train line from the backyard gardens of houses on either side, all bursting with produce in the typical Italian fashion, nurtured by the region's rich Vesuvian soils. I almost felt guilty sleeping through it, but I really needed it after the previous night, and I knew there'd always be the way back.

Ciao, positano

In Sorrento we found our way to a bus that would take us the rest of the way to our hostel in Positano,  a small town nestled in the cliffs of Italy's stunning Amalfi Coast. Supposedly it was struggling to survive until Steinbeck wrote his (highly recommended) Harper's Bazaar essay about it, full of amusing details and characters and anecdotes, and since then it has been a popular tourist destination, despite Steinbeck's predictions that it could never become such. Of course, this sets up the impossible task of trying to write about a place that has already been written about by Steinbeck. You'll excuse me if I refrain from this task where I can and, instead, refer you to his infinitely superior prose:

     Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and
     corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two
     cars side by side. And on this road, the buses, the trucks, the motor scooters and the assorted 
     livestock. We didn't see much of the road. In the back seat my wife and I lay clutched in each 
     other's arms, weeping hysterically, while in the front seat Signor Bassano gestured with both 
     hands and happily instructed us: "Ina da terd sieglo da Hamperor Hamgousternos coming tru
     wit Leeegeceons". (Our car hit and killed a chicken.) "Izz molto lot old heestory here. I know.
     I tall". Thus he whirled us "Throt Italy". And below us, and it seemed sometimes under us, a 
     thousand feet below lay the blue Tyrrhenian licking its lips for us.

I'm not sure how much the roads have changed since Steinbeck's days, but I can assure you that hairline, cliff-hugging track was quease-making for more than one of the passengers on that bus, including a Canadian girl, Christa, sitting nearby, who would be staying at the same accommodation as us. The views were enough to make up for it for me, though, especially as we came within sight of the town and it kept hoving in and out of view as we skirted each protruding cliff (see the video).

For want of any space to pull over once we finally reached the town, the bus stopped in the middle of a bend in the road to spit us out, holding up traffic while we collected our bags. Impassive locals watched from their cafes, sipping their coffees and smoking their cigarettes while we oriented ourselves and headed uphill for Hostel Brikette, making the acquaintance of Christa on the way. Once we arrived we were welcomed by a warm, breezy British woman put into what seemed like a perpetual good mood by her sun-kissed existence here. She ushered us onto the balcony to await our check-in, where we took in the mandatory astonishing view and chatted with Christa and – surprise, surprise – another Australian couple living in London. Across the road was an inexpensive little pizzeria, C'era una Volta, that did incredible marinara pizzas,* which we were obliged to try out immediately after our long journey (an overnight bus, three trains and another bus, in case you weren't counting).

*The memory of that pizza has just driven me out to my local establishment in the hopes of recapturing that magic taste but, alas, I fear even the fine woodfires of Summer Hill cannot compete with true Southern Italian fare. 

After pizza and beer in the sun we went for a stroll down through the town and some seven hundred stairs to Spiaggia di Fornillo for a refreshing afternoon dip, sharing sympathetic looks with huffing and puffing tourists coming back the opposite way all the while. Let me refer you to Steinbeck, once again, for a word on stairs in Positano:

     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 come 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 [...] Positano is never likely to attract the organdie-and-white linen tourist. It would be 
     impossible to dress as a languid tourist-lady-crisp, cool white dress, sandals as white and 
     light as little clouds, picture hat of arrogant nonsense, and one red rose held in a listless 
     whitegloved pinky. I dare any dame to dress like this and climb the Positano stairs for a 
     cocktail. She will arrive looking like a washcloth at a boys' camp. There is no way for her 
     to get anywhere except by climbing.

These morning glory flowers were familiar from home. They're everywhere in Wollongong.

The site of the Positano Nativity (Presepe), which is brilliantly decorated and illuminated in December every year.

On the way to the water's edge.

The pebbly beach.

After sunset we made our way back up the stairs (the likes of which we hadn't tangled with since our foolhardy scaling of the Great Wall of China) and headed into town to find some dinner, ending up at Il Grottino Azzuro, where we'd exited the bus earlier, for a pasta and a salad each before bed.

Our extremely well-polished plates.

That tyrrhenian feelin'

The next morning we were slow to emerge from the hostel after the travails of the previous day, but when we finally did we sauntered into town in a very relaxed fashion to find somewhere with a magnificent view for brunch, settling on the very suitable Da Gabrisa Restaurant & Wine Bar (see the video for a sample of the view). I enquired about vegan options and the lovely old Italian waitress was very enthusiastic and accommodating, and recommended a vegetable risotto. I'd heard southern Italy was supposed to be fantastic for vegans, because a lot of the food is already accidentally vegan, and because it is anathema to Italian restauranteurs to put anything additional into a meal that wasn't listed on the menu, so there is no surprise cheese sprinkled atop a pasta or salad, or milk solids hidden inexplicably in a sauce, ruining an otherwise perfectly edible meal. They use fresh, whole foods here. 

When my meal came out, though, I admit I was slightly disappointed. It just looked like a plain, bland risotto with some limp vegetables languishing throughout. That all changed when I took the first bite. I hadn't accounted for the fact that we were in Italy. If that meal had've come out in Australia, it would've been awful, but since we were eating Italian cuisine in Italy, cooked by an Italian with Campanian produce, it was somehow out of this world. I don't know how they cook things that are so simple and yet so, so, so delicious, but somehow they do. Bellissimo!

Til with our view.

After brunch and a quick stop to drop off some clothes at a launderette, we wandered through town taking in the sights and then down to the main beach, Spiaggia Grande. The weather was beautiful, but we refused to pay fifteen euro each for a beach chair and umbrella, so we just slummed on the pebbles with the rest of the plebs, taking turns to alternately sunbathe and swim so no one could steal the camera. 

After a few hours we decided to head back, and we passed a very vegan-friendly-looking organic café. Til was still surfeited from brunch and I wasn't exactly hungry either, but I was really craving a salad roll (my old quotidian staple and favourite back home). I allowed Til to talk me out of it and kept walking, but by the time we'd reached the top of the hill I was determined to get my salad roll, especially since I'd seen they weren't going to be open the next day. So I left Til to sit on the side of the road (her choice), while I went back for my prize, and it was so worth it!

What would Steinbeck think if he could see these 'languid tourist-lady-crisp, cool white dresses' which he predicted could never be sold here, but which in so doing he helped to bring about?

As we carried on our way, Til was taken by the notion of watching the sunset over the water with a few beers, so we stopped in at Ristorante il Capitano for a cocktail and a beer. The place looked right over the water, and it was vast and empty in this interim hour far too early for an Italian dinner, so we found ourselves in command of it. The staff kept bringing us free nuts, which for some reason prompted us to try and create a male version of Women Laughing Alone with Salad (see below).

Men laughing alone with nuts.

Unfortunately, detracting from the fun was the presence of the restaurant's mascot, a brilliant blue macaw named Capitano, kept in a tiny cage nearby. His chest was de-feathered, as though he'd been plucking himself out of boredom or some other mental issue arising from his captivity, and every time he made even the slightest noise, the ogre-women of the proximate office would scream belligerently at him. What a horrible existence. Who ever thought it was a good idea to cage birds? It's absurd. See the video at the end of this post for some footage of Capitano.

Poor Capitano.

That night we had more delicious pizza from C'era una Volta with Canadian Christa, and she told us about her lifelong dream of going to Bali, which was obviously weird to hear as Australians because it's so achievable for us. But she said from Canada you can't get flights for anything less than thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars, which is crazy! Not long after that watched a quick episode of Grand Designs before bed.

Ciao, positano

And the next morning, all too soon, it was time to leave Positano already. Our schedule for our tour of Italy was brimming, so we weren't spending too long in any one place, but I comforted myself that we would be able to go to beaches all the way up Italy. Unfortunately I had somehow overlooked the fact that practically none of the places we were going was on the coast. I think I just didn't want to believe that that beautiful Tyrrhenian feeling was coming to an end. 

We loaded up on snacks for our journey, missed our first bus because it was overloaded, and squeezed onto the next one, winding away over the cliffs back to Sorrento, Naples, and onward to Rome and Tuscany, Siena-bound. But even now, a year later, I think I can still feel Steinbeck's Positanesi bite marks.

Here's a video I threw together out of random scraps of footage from Positano:

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