The West

Positively Positano
View from balcony in Positano. Picture: Kate Emery

It seems like sacrilege to do anything in Positano, the seaside village on Italy's Amalfi Coast, where the dictum to do as little as possible is all but baked into the brickwork of the houses cascading down the surrounding hills.


That's what I'm thinking as I stand beside the small, unremarkable Church of Something-or-Other, waiting for the walking-tour guide to arrive. It's cool for spring - cardigan weather - but there is a steady stream of tourists heading towards the beach, some ducking into shops en route.

I could be sitting by the water with a rolled up slice of pizza and my copy of The Talented Mr Ripley, or curled up on the balcony of La Rosa dei Venti, drinking the hot chocolate that is delivered to my room every morning. I should be doing nothing and yet here I am breaking the rules by trying to do something: worse, trying to learn something.

That this one-time fishing village-turned-tourist hotspot discourages much in the way of activity is made clear from the moment a visitor arrives to find that the narrow streets make driving a car all but impossible and riding a scooter a lesson in what it is to know true fear - although plenty seem willing to experience the latter.

This is a town in which locals and tourists alike are so reluctant to leave that in the height of summer it can apparently take half an hour to get out by car as drivers stop to chat with passers-by and shop owners, willingly deaf to the protest of horns.

Visitors disappointed by a lack of Italian voices on the street should probably blame author John Steinbeck. Steinbeck, well-known for his downer Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, did his bit for Italian tourism in a famous 1950s essay in which he described Positano as a "dream place" that isn't entirely real when you're there, but becomes "beckoningly real after you have gone". In the intervening years, it has become one of Italy's more popular tourist destinations.

As a result, it's probably not the ideal place for those who are easily irritated by the presence of other tourists or who are looking to do much more than eat, drink and sit in the sun. But for visitors who are interested in those latter three pursuits it would be difficult to find somewhere more picturesque, more calming, and more lazily happy for you to have your way with it, than Positano.

Which brings me back to the tour, established and run by an Australian-born woman, Christine, who meets us with a smile on her face that barely slips for the next three hours. According to Christine - who met her husband Vincenzo in Positano six years ago under circumstances that will either strike you as adorable or worrying, depending on your views about where courting ends and stalking begins - she started the Discover Positano walk because she saw a market for a tour that combined history, shopping and gastronomy.

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The result is a charming, not-too-exerting walk that takes in everything from the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, with its famous Black Madonna, to various shops peddling shoes, ceramics and clothes. The most notable of these is run by an ageing dressmaking matriarch affectionately dubbed Mama Lightning, whose walls are adorned with photos of her posing with, among others, Colin Farrell and Dustin Hoffman.

The best part of the tour, however, takes place in the quiet storeroom of Christine's family food store. Surrounded by packages of dried pasta and rows of wine bottles, Vincenzo appears and systematically reduces the women present to puddles on the floor by virtue of being handsome, affable and handing out an array of foodstuffs, from slices of chilli-spiked pecorino to sundried tomatoes on slabs of oil-slicked bread and the best olives I have ever eaten.

That evening we meet up with Christine and Vincenzo again for an optional wine tasting. Vincenzo, who trained as a sommelier, goes to great lengths to explain the necessity of pairing food and wine correctly. If the wine is too strong for the food it overpowers it; too weak and it is itself overpowered.

On the page this sounds like so much common sense but Vincenzo's enthusiasm is as infectious as his wine servings are generous.

There was no time to conduct a straw poll but, as we spill tipsily out on to the street later that night, I feel confident most of the women in our small group would, if asked, make the same choice Christine did and uproot their lives to come here. For me, at least, it is less about wanting to grow old with Vincenzo and his amazing olives, and more about an awareness that to grow old in a place like Positano could be very relaxing indeed.

I should be doing nothing and yet here I am . . . trying to do something: worse, trying to learn something.

The West Australian

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