The Monti Lattari
is a bumpy peninsula that somewhere south of Pompeii takes a sudden turn for
the Tyrrhenian Sea. It does so with great impulsiveness, so that cliffs and
mountainsides drop off abruptly into the blue. A spittle of land that seems to
have spilled offshore in the rush has become the isle of Capri.
But tucked away in
the wedges and the creases of the Monti Lattari, hiding from the urbanity of
Naples across the gulf, safe from the sloping boil of Vesuvius not an hour
away, insulated by the geography, the communications and the incredible roads
from the telephone, the telegraph and the tripper, are four of the world's most
romantic retreats—Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. Here in the sphere of
Neapolitan influence, baking pizzas flare the noonday nostril; the breeze is
toasted as it floats over from the hot Sicilian acres, and Neapolitan tenors
twang the love strings of their guitars as they moon away the wine-filled,
oleander-scented nights. This entrancing combination coaxed Goethe, Byron and
Oscar Wilde to Sorrento; Longfellow to Amalfi; Richard Wagner and Garbo and
Stokowski to the heights of Ravello.
The list of
romanticists who flock to Positano grows longer by the day, for Positano is the
current darling of the corkscrew strip known as the Amalfi Riviera. Maugham has
called it "almost excessively picturesque." Steinbeck termed it "a
dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly
real after you've gone." It is an old and sun-bleached village jammed into
a crevice between two mountains. Its only vehicle road is the Amalfi Drive that
hairpins along the south wall of the Monti Lattari on its way to Salerno.
Running from the
mountain-top villas down the steep incline to the sea is a pathway of hundreds
of steps that echo daily with the wooden zuccoli on the feet of the women. Said
a breathless American visitor last summer, "Positano is nothing but a
44-story building with outside staircases." And a Pan-American public
relations man, normally based in Paris and fattened by the Laperouse-Tour
d'Argent circuit, has written me from Positano, where I had directed him,
complaining that "it is a bit too vertical for men of our years."
But besides all its
natural charms, which made it a popular art colony for German painters long
before the war, Positano's present notoriety can be charged in some measure to
"Scalinatella," a hit song sung the length of Italy by Roberto Murolo,
a Neapolitan tenor. It is the story of a lover who climbs the 396 stairs of
Positano to look for his amour, who, it turns out, is forever dallying at Capri
or someplace with some foreign type while he becomes a lovesick cardiac.
In the morning the
arty foreign coterie trundles out of the pension Casa Maresca ($5 a day with
meals), from elegant little hotels like the Miramare and the Syrenuse ($8 a
day) owned by the mayor, and joggles down the scalinatella to the pebbly beach.
Here a beachmaster in a red straw hat, armless undershirt and rolled-up
bleached denims will take out his notebook and with a stubby pencil jot down
the hour you wish to be returned to the beach.
Then he will send
you out by skiff to the offshore rock of your choice. There you turn and toast
and swim until the boat chugs back to collect you.
The afternoons are
to shop in, for mortised in between the jumble of houses on the sloping roads
are a dozen ateliers where artisans can weave you a sweater, sew you a beach
jacket, or whip up a made-to-measure shirt in a day or two. The fashions are on
display nightly in a waterside den known as the Buca di Bacco where the coterie
eats and dances, then scales a rockside walk, mushes off across another pebble
beach and tumbles finally into For-nillo. Here a dance band plays sleepy music
until quitting time after which a Neapolitan tenor who performs over the
Italian TV under the name of Rino da Positano strums and sings the sad songs.
And at last the crowd sings out its own entertainment while climbing the rocky
walk back to the pensions, the hotels, the villas and the furnished rooms among
the crags. Then the town is dark and the only lights are the lampare of the
fishing boats that lure the squid and octopus from the sea with white acetylene
Things are a good
deal more peaceful down the bent-hairpin highway at Amalfi which, like
Positano, rises up a steep hillside from the narrow pebble beach which was once
its doorway to the world. A seagoing republic of 70,000 citizens in its salad
days back in the 10th and 11th centuries, Amalfi wrote and practiced the first
maritime laws, helped perfect the compass, originated the first maritime
Amalfi goes to sea
no more, except to bathe. Today it is a resort, a dowager town, a favorite of
the big burghers who come down from Switzerland and Germany and delight in its
rock-bound hotels. To get up to the Cappuccini, you take an elevator from the
main road that lifts you up among the steppes. In the 12th century this lofty
hideaway was a sanctuary of the Capuchin monks, and although it is a hotel of
premier order today, it has retained the basement chapel where services are
still held every Sunday. Some of its monks' cells, in the new order, have
become hotel rooms.