Though it has launched thousands of Instagram posts, Positano is in many ways a shy and secret place, offering itself only to those who take time to make its acquaintance, hiding in plain sight behind its worldwide fame.
Rising from the sea like a Neapolitan Atlantis, Positano’s colourful stack of houses is one of southern Italy’s best known images. Yet few of the thousands of visitors who flock here every year see more than a fraction of the town close-up. In his 1953 Harper’s Bazaar article Positano, Nobel-prizewinning US author John Steinbeck put his finger in one of the reasons for this. “There is only one narrow street”, he wrote, “and it does not come down to the water. Everything else is stairs…”
Positanesi know the issue well. Many houses can only be reached on foot, via one of the town’s famous stepped lanes. That’s testing enough when you’re carrying the week’s groceries – let alone when you’ve ordered a new sofa or fridge-freezer. The bad news is that to really appreciate Positano, you need to follow the locals up and down those steps. The good news is that by doing so you enter a different world. Even in the height of season you will find quiet corners here, little piazzas where kids play keepie-up with a soccer ball against a church wall, or lanes with views over low walls into one of the town’s well-tended many kitchen gardens or lemon groves.
Below are four of our favourite hidden corners of Positano – a town whose soul can be found up a flight of stairs, under a spreading bougainvillea where grandparents keep a watchful eye on their nipotini while talking of love, life and spaghetti alle vongole.
It’s not exactly hidden – but we’re always amazed by how many visitors never discover Positano’s ‘other’ beach. To get there, take Via Positanesi d’America, the stepped lane that heads up behind the booths of the boat companies down by the quay. In five minutes, you’ll emerge at one end of a shingle strand with a few simple beach bars and their ombrelloni. The ancient watchtower at the far end is the Torre di Clavel, once the residence of an eccentric Swiss writer, set designer and art patron. With its laid-back, driftwood ambience, Fornillo is the beach of choice for many local families when they have a few hours free.
Via Trara Genoino
This is the staircase that heads uphill from the little piazza below the mother church of Santa Maria Assunta. If in doubt, head for the Pescheria CICA fish shop – you’ll see the steps right behind it. Named after a noble Amalfi Coast family, the lane was once the main pedestrian and mule route between the town’s high districts and the seafront, in the many centuries before today’s roads were built. Giddy glimpses down narrow side lanes, and the pretty traditional houses you pass on the way up, compensate for the almost relentless climb. At the top, you can cross Viale Pasitea and continue up further charming stepped lanes to the next hidden highlight…
Via Santa Croce
In the 18th century, Positano was a remote village a whole day’s journey from Naples. Many of its inhabitants lived a hand-to-mouth existence. But there were pockets of prosperity – which will be revealed if you stroll along this charming lane that connects the Liparlati district with the cemetery and the path up to Montepertuso. Here, in what was then the Beverly Hills of Positano, four merchants whose wealth derived from Mediterranean maritime trade each built themselves a dream villa. Villa dei Fisici, Villa San Giacomo, Villa Oliviero and Palazzo Santa Croce stand as testimony of one of the town’s high-water marks, one that would come to an end when new-fangled steamships ousted the Positano merchants’ elegant sailships in the first half of the 19th century. With their ochre or pink walls and neat lemon-shaded gardens, these mansions are both grand and touchingly intimate, scaling back their ambitions to fit in with the town’s sheer vertical topography.
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