Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Walk Along Via Positanesi d’America

A Walk Along Via Positanesi d’America 

There are times when we have the urge to retrace our steps along familiar routes.  It can lead to returning to our favorite haunts from time to time.  Motives vary from once again enjoying a particular hotel, restaurant, venue, or can simply be to confirm that things have merely remained the same, as we want to remember them.  For us, there are many worthy of a return visit.  Take Paris for instance, not to the Louvre, but in our case to the not as renowned Musée d'Orsay.  It is there that a painting by Fernand Cormon entitled “Cain Flying Before Jehovah's Curse fills a wall-space the size of a highway billboard.  Its size goes
along with the scope of the bleak, pre-historic scene captured in the brushstrokes.  In epic detail, as if it were an actual photograph, it presents an old and haggard Cain, condemned to perpetual wandering, leading his stone-age tribe, the future Cainites, through the desert.  Possibly because the wheel hadn’t been invented yet or due to the sand, they lug a stretcher loaded with women and children.  I wouldn’t call it a schadenfreude moment but I’d certainly enjoy seeing this struggle for survival again.  
Another return visit would include reviewing Rome again from the top of the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Basilica where around us stretched eternal Rome, a study in beauty and abundance, cradled within the palm of the distant Sabine Mountains and Alban hills.  However, to repeat the three hundred twenty-seven step climb along a spiraling staircase inside the tallest dome in the world to the gallery at the base of the Lantern 500 feet above the Eternal City is wishful thinking, certainly these days.  We did it once which will have to suffice, for I doubt our tired knees would consider ever cooperating again for a repeat performance.  Let that one occasion stand as we enjoy the reverse view looking up from Saint Peter’s Square at the Lantern instead.  
   Indeed, our wish for repeat visits are especially plentiful in Italy, where we have tramped around enough to know what we like best. One especially alluring place, beckoning as did the mythical Sirens, first to come and find and later to return and explore, lies along the coastal extension of Salerno to include the ever-popular, ever- crowded Amalfi Coast, the Costiera Amalfitana.  Convenient, we can get to this much-celebrated coastline from Calitri in just over an hour.  The peninsula is a pleasing freak of nature.  A series of huddled stunted spurs jut into the sea from ominous cliffs to be fondled in return by a probing sapphire sea, beckoning from the knurly chasms far below that we joint with it.  Fjord-like, these ins and outs of land and prying sea account for the spectacularly picturesque coastline and its twisting, turning thread of a road, cleaved from the ridgeline that travels its length in serpentine fashion.  It takes a steady hand and focused mind to run the gauntlet from Vietri sul Mare all the way to Sorrento where a soothing libation, possibly two, may be in order to shore-up the nerves. Along the way, the pronounced awe of nature is everywhere - round a bend to some gorgeous flash of scenery where selfie’s come easy if only there were room enough to stop and click.
We returned to the Costiera Amalfitana  
recently on an excursion from one of our favorite hotel haunts, Hotel Olimpico, in nearby Pontecagnano.  The hotel occupies hallowed ground, once the focus of world attention during “Operation Avalanche”, the 1943 WWII amphibious invasion of mainland Italy.  For the most part, I’ve given up on making the drive on my own, although I’m still all for the end of journey libations.  Not willing to tame the roads that day, we opted for the hotel operated shuttle bus, where throughout the day, its driver faces the demands and congestion of the road as he ferries guests to and from Salerno.  The choice of drop off (or pick-up) is either the train station or the
port.  It’s a great service and keeps me off those crazy congested roadways.  Along the way we got to see some of the back streets of Salerno without having to pull in your mirrors.  It was mid-morning and with the demands of driving traded for an opportunity to enjoy glimpses into big-city Italian life, the exuberance of Italians on the street was palpable.  Oh, we’d seen it before, many times, yet watching the action … storefronts coming alive, motorcycles flowing every which way, double-parked delivery trucks, pedestrians oozing onto the street to join the melee, and the discord and cacophony of it all … was at least entertaining, if not mesmerizing.  In the past, we’ve walked Salerno from the train station but that day our destination was the port and the ferry to Positano.
The port is sheltered behind a breakwater just off the seafront “Lungomare” tree-lined promenade, a wonderful place to stroll at night with a gelato topped cone.  Walking in along the breakwater causeway, we passed the local fleet, a mix of fishing boats and private craft just shy of the chichi yacht class (save that for Capri or Sorrento).  You quickly get the sense that it is a working port, busy with motor repairs, net-mending, fish mongering, and the application of the latest bright-color paint schemes.  It’s a walk to the far end where the ferry boats to the various ports tie-up and tickets to ports-of-call are sold.  Right on time, our ferry arrived and while most passengers clambered to the top deck for the most unrestricted view and most sun, we sought out seats on the fantail under a sheltering overhang
for the least sun – Dr Watson, our dermatologist, would have been proud!  
It was a beautiful day, just right for cruising the Amalfitana coast.  Our destination, Positano, was a little over halfway out along the underbelly of the peninsula.  There was plenty to see beside the white frothy wake shooting out like a contrail behind us.  From the sea, it was easier to appreciate the rugged spine of mountains that form this headland.  Passing along the ins and outs of the coastline, we caught glimpses of the heights of Ravello, the narrow cleft of Amalfi, ancient watch towers peppering the shore, terraced grape vineyards clinging to the ridges, and multi dollar sign hotels and fabulous homes perched atop seemingly unsurmountable precipices.  Though we’d made this run before, there were new sights that day, spectacular vistas afloat.  
Like an apparition from some Pirates of the Caribbean movie, there appeared alongside, what I later learned was the largest, most fully-rigged sailing ship in the world.  This 439 foot tall-ship, Star
Clipper Limited’s Royal Clipper, was at anchor with the sails of its five towering yellow masts tightly furled.  When underway, there is room for a total of 42 sails sporting 56,000 square feet of canvas, some of it as much as 200 feet above the deck.  Its sleek white hull had a blue strip running its length at the level of its deck and another at the waterline.  Interspersed between the two were blue squares that from a distance looked like cannon ports.  It was an amazing apparition that surpassed every other vessel we passed to include the massive Oceania cruise ship, Riviera.  This mega-liner was busy disgorging passengers ashore with its fleet of orange tenders skimming along, ship-to-shore, like water bugs.  Positano would be busy this time of year and
no doubt crowded with eager tourists, but we’d anticipated that.  
The flotilla left behind, the dense cluster of Positano, filling one of the ravines that breach the mountainside, loomed into view.  It spreads wide along a V-shaped gash in the coastline that runs up from gravelly-gray Spiaggia Grande beach.  Soon we could make out its wharf, and as we docked, caught sight of the ever popular Chez Black restaurant flanking the beach.  I imagined Signore Black, the owner, already
sitting there as he does every day surveilling his empire.  But saying “Ciao” to Signore Black or strolling downtown Positano was not in our immediate plans. We had a different plan.
Stepping onto the marina’s wharf, we headed toward the ticket booth directly ahead.  Beyond the booth, circling around to the left of the fashionable, five-star Covo dei Saraceni restaurant and hotel, was a ramp walkway leading west along the coast away from downtown Positano.  This short, paved pathway, that I’d estimate to be less than a quarter mile long, leads from the main beach of Positano, the famous Spiaggia Grande, to a lesser known beach, Spiaggia di Fornillo, tucked away from the crowds of Positano.  More than a simple path, however, this walkway affords some breathtaking views and interesting stops in addition to a respite from the hectic rhythm of Positano.  Corkscrewing our way through the wharf crowded with those coming and going, we made for it.
The name of this seaside trail is Via Positanesi d’America, a name that clearly associates Positano with America.  Positanesi” refers to the people of Positano, while the concluding “d’America” is easily decipherable as “of America”.  In fact, the appellation is a reference to the town's large number of 19th-century emigrants to the United States and is dedicated to all those who moved to the USA in search of a new life.  Following that 1943 invasion mentioned earlier, the retreating German army destroyed the bridges that made travel possible along this mountainous peninsula.  The people faced starvation, if not tough times.  It was the American GI, especially General Mark Clark, who stepped-up and helped these people, something they have not forgotten.  Following World War II, Positano virtually survived thanks to the money and packages the descendants of these expatriates sent home from the States.  America had and retains a positive image among these people and Italians in general.   

   Beyond the name, this prettiest of seaside paths has the added distinction of being the most romantic lane in all of Positano.  Daylight or starry night, it makes little difference but for the distance you can see out across the sea.  But if romance is the intent, choose a moonlight night.  For the most part, a rustic timbered handrail following the contour of the trail is all that separates the path from a nothingness down to the sea, busy hurling itself onto the rocks far below.  Stone walls, some with convenient built-in stone benches, occasional replace the railing and allow travelers to sit a spell and take in the vistas from their cliff-side perch.  Impossible to fully remove yourself from the commercial aspect of Positano just a few turns away, we came upon a peddler.  He’d taken-up a convenient spot under a shading pine to offer his merchandize laid-out on a rock outcropping beneath ledges lined with racket-sized prickly pears.  The elderly gentleman was offering doilies hand-made by his wife, not as he explained, by machine.  Maria Elena, unable to resist, needed only to decide. 
I find this walkway far more picturesque than the Via dell’Amore seaside path which connects Liguria’s Cinque Terra town Riomaggiore with neighboring Manarola.  While both meander along the coast, here we found a panoramic beauty far more dramatic and composed.  In addition to cliffs and the sea, this terrace vista takes in the Li Galli Islands (once home to Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev), includes colorfully umbrella beaches, former watchtowers that once warned of Saracen pirates, a shrine hollowed into the hillside, a family run hotel, and what I consider one great restaurant.  Additionally, its perfectly paved surface twists and turns through a natural landscape of trees and vegetation that urge you to relax a moment at this or that turn or on an occasional bench and take-in its many camera-ready vistas.
    It is only a short walk along the path before we arrived at the first stone watchtower, Torre Trasìta (Trasìta Tower), the most distinctive of Positano's three coastline defense towers.  Here is an example where echoes and ripples, left behind by past events, collide with the contemporary.  For over 800 years, towers such as this one warned area inhabitants of an impending pirate assault. Pirates plundered coastal villages like Positano with incredibly ferocity, leaving behind a trail of blood, devastation, and imprisonment.  The tower, sitting as it does suspended over the sea, affords unobstructed views. 
 Today it has been transformed into a luxurious private residence occasionally available for summer rental.  From its base, one can only imagine the views of the sea and Positano that fill every window and the magic of the circular spaces that follow the perimeter of the tower.  From its fashionable tower-top terrace, for renter and owner alike, it continues its warning mission, but these days, only of the arrival of another cruise mega-liner and the impending assault on Positano’s narrow streets.
Just steps beyond the tower-turned-villa, we came next upon another not to be missed site that we first stumbled upon in 2003.  It is an open-air restaurant that combines the unique charm of a restaurant and a tree-house.  Back when we discovered Via Positanesi d’America, we also came upon jovial Massimo and his wife, Reneta, owners of Lo Guarracino Bar, Ristaurante e Pizzeria.  While not Michelin rated, it oozes atmosphere and wonderful food.  This treasure of a place is a perfect spot to sit both during the day and on those romantic evenings.  Try the mussel soup, stuffed squid, fish grilled on lemon leaves or simply enjoy the view and any of the pizzas once the pizzaiolo (costumed pizza chef) has arrived and enough embers have been scooted to one side of the wood-fired oven.   In addition to the extensive menu

offerings, you can pick your dining environment from a variety of available rooms (new since last we visited).  The ‘Great-room’ of Lo Guarracino, is a large capacity room in a white tablecloth traditional décor.  The ‘Garden-room characterized by olive trees and magnificent prickly pears, is fresh, rustic and cozy.  Finally, and best of all, is the romantic ‘Privé-room’.  It is dedicated to those who want quieter intimacy, but for the waves colliding on the rocks below, boats bobbing at anchor, or the occasional meteor that has traveled some thousand-thousand years to add its special ambiance. 

Unfortunately, Massimo had managed to sprain his ankle and wasn’t about the day we popped in.  Instead, we met is son whose smile was as broad as his family’s sense of hospitality, home-like atmosphere, and courteous attention to detail attained from nearly forty years of business.  

   As we continued farther along Via Positanesi d'America, we came upon a tiny sandy inlet in an emerald cove before the broad span of Spiaggia di Fornillo beach came into view.  We’d never before ventured this far along Via Positanesi.  Right about there, the path turned toward the sea, down a staircase that served to separate the tiny from the larger beach.  It was the kind of scene reserved for travel brochures, the kind with great pictures of alluring beaches you’d love to visit, if only they gave their names.  Sun drenched Fornillo Beach, in fact this entire area, is far more laid-back and less trendy than Spiaggia Grande beach at the doorstep of Positano.  It offers the advantages of being isolated from the hordes of tourists in Positano, has clearer cleaner water, less boat traffic, is less costly, and to make getting there easier, there is a water taxi service you can use to transport you to and from Positano’s Spiaggia Grande if you rent a beach spot from the Fratelli Grassi Lido Ristorante & 
 Bar when you arrive at Fornillo Beach.  Like any Italian beach, we found it lined with umbrellas painstakingly arranged as though a surveyor had laid them out.  Their green, orange, and blue tops sprout from the sand to distinguish one bathing establishment from another.  
It has its drawbacks of course, the greatest being its tumbled, sea-washed, rocky surface that would suggest the use of water shoes when moving around, in and out of the water.  This rather long scree of large pebbles will slow you down, but there is really no hurry in this calm sanctuary by the sea.  I imagine it more like Positano once was before it made a splash for itself on the world travel scene.  Not prepared to rent a space for a refreshing dip in the sea, we instead chose to refresh ourselves, especially after our walk, with a cooling drink.  For that drink, we chose the Da Ferdinando Beach Club set just behind their umbrella farm, a family-run business with a fun atmosphere tucked under a shading thatched bamboo roof.  From the palapa umbrella decorations you might think some Caribbean refreshments in order, but this definitely being Italy, we sipped on Aperol Spritzes as we took-in the view.  
For a lunchtime treat, a piatto del giorno (dish of the day) from one of the beach bars like Da Ferdinando or the Fratelli Grassi will do the trick or go large at Albergo Restaurant Pupetto.  We found this secluded hotel at the head of Spiaggia di Fornillo in the midst of a wonderful seaside setting overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. 
This quiet slice of heaven sits in a huge green space that was once a lemon garden.  The garden borders the sloping mountainside and features an inviting panoramic terrace beneath a thick twining arbor where you can savor various seafood specialties as well as tasty pizzas toasted in a wood burning oven.
In the May 1953 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, John Steinbeck put it best when he wrote, “Positano bites deep”.  As we discovered, Positano has more to offer, bites deeper yet, than its glitzy maze of shopping streets.  For that “Made in Italy” moment, many moments in fact, spend a carefree afternoon relaxing to the soft sighs of the wind and the murmur of the waves, while from a lounge chair watch boats dwindle in size as they move off to distant ports.  It’s to be found along Via Positanesi d'America, that magical path carved from mountain cliffs edging the sea, considered the loveliest of seaside walkways on the entire Amalfitana coast.  Walking along this trail from touristy Spiaggia Grande to Fornillo Beach, afforded a pleasurable escape into nature and its historic past from the crush of Positano’s crowds.  It’s a place where feelings can’t be properly expressed in words and must be experienced.  It is a setting that assaults our senses - the aroma of seafood and the smell of briny sea-air, the refreshing feeling of shade as you pass from brilliant sun to shading umbrella pine, on hearing the caw of soaring gulls over the crash of the sea to the tattoo of your footsteps scuffing along the stone pavement, and above all, with every turn, the sight of those stunning coastal vistas.  They are all here for the taking when we slow down the parade we call life by simply taking a walk along Via Positanesi d'America.

From That Rogue Tourist