Saturday, June 12, 2010

Positano: Lemon Smiles and Midnight Ramblers


Did you hear about the midnight rambler?
Well, honey, it's no rock 'n' roll show.
Well, I'm talkin' about the midnight gambler,
Yeah, the one you never seen before.

It’s 1968. The world is in turmoil. The youth counterculture movement is in full swing. Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated, and this writer will soon take his first breath. In this sleepy, conservative fishing village clinging to the side of a cliff on the Italian Amalfi coast, I can imagine it must have been a bit of a strange sight. One of the men in the cafe, rail thin with wiry arms, shoulder length sandy brown hair and rather distinguishing facial features was playing the harmonica and working on the lyrics. The other surely looked like the 1960’s rocker that he was. In my mind’s eye he’s wearing a weathered velour jacket with a gauzy scarf or two around his neck and he’s working through the chords on a guitar. At just twenty-five, he looks much different than the grizzled musician we’ve been listening to for 45 years.

Why Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were in Positano when they wrote the song Midnight Rambler (about the Boston Strangler who murdered a dozen or so people earlier in that decade) I may never understand. There is nothing ‘rock n roll’ about Positano (which doesn’t mean it isn’t cool.) The only thing you’ll find in Positano that even remotely relates to the bacchanalian lifestyle the Rolling Stones were living at that time is the never ending supply of Amalfi Coast vino on every seaside table in the Comune.

I came to Positano for a vacation from my vacation. After nearly a month in Morocco and several more days on my feet touring museums, churches and ruins in Rome, my visit to the no-longer-sleepy seaside resort was intended as a relaxation break. It was also to be a base for learning about southern Italy’s Neapolitan cuisine. Pictures do a much better job than words describing how stunningly beautiful the entire region, and Positano in particular, is. The village itself is somewhat remote and takes some effort to get to. In the heart of the summer, ferry boats run from Napoli to the dock at the base of the village, but at this time of year, it took a regional train and a couple of bus trips to get to the place where I was staying.

The first thing you’ll notice on the bus from Sorrento are the brilliant yellow lemons brightening trees in every back yard. Their cheery disposition reminds me of those friendly yellow happy faces which used to smile at us from bumper stickers and tire covers decades ago. This plump, juicy citrus plays a prominent role in the local cuisine, and is the subject of post cards, portraits and hand-painted pottery that line the shelves of the Positano merchants. It is also the key ingredient in the ubiquitous local Limoncello liqueur that challenges the stability of many tourists after a few rounds. When Danny Devito showed up hammered for his interview on The View one morning a few years back, he blamed it on the “last seven limoncellos” he’d had when out with Clooney the night before.

Amalfi Coast Wine and the View From My Balcony

The second thing you’ll notice as the bus winds its way along the side of the cliff on the way into Positano is your own knuckles. They’re white. The reason they are that way is that for the past twenty minutes, you’ve been clutching the back of the seat in front of you, holding on for dear life as you try desperately to avoid unavoidable glimpses out the side window of the bus. Straight down 1,000 feet, the Tyrrhenian Sea is glaring up at you, hoping for just one mistake, and licking its lips like a Roman lion awaiting a Christian. If you have the room in your seat, you are now curled up in the fetal position, wondering why you are there. Your head is spinning a little now so the bus driver, of course, sees this as the perfect opportunity to accelerate to even faster speeds while dodging oncoming vehicles on a road wide enough for one bus at best. As a typical Italian driver, he is adept at launching his massive steel vehicle into corkscrew corners at 100 kilometres per hour while leaning on his horn to frighten off oncoming drivers who might seek to challenge his spot on the road, all the while, arguing on his cell phone with his wife (or more likely, his mistress.) Once your hysteria abates, you realize that this road makes California’s Highway One between San Francisco and Big Sur look like a gentle drive in the country.

Day Trip to the Island of Capri

Today, Positano is a breezy resort town that seems to exist primarily to service visiting tourists and appear in Hollywood movies like Under the Tuscan Sun, and The Talented Mr Ripley. Artists line the shady bougainvillea-covered lane ways, cobblers custom-make sandals in their tiny shops while customers wait, and seemingly independent fashion designers hawk colourful linen and cotton summer ware throughout the village. The town is tailor-made for that special romantic getaway you've been saving for.

It wasn't always just a tourist town. The few remaining battlements along the shore recall the days when pirates were a constant threat to the busy port. I wonder how many tourists who trudge up and down to the beach, are aware that the original stairways were built here to provide an easy escape route for Positano's women and children, fleeing Saracen pirates looking to plunder? Back in the days of the Amalfi Republic, Positano was one of the most important sea ports on this stretch of coastline, even rivaling Venice in significance as a mercantile power. Then, when the steamship was invented, Positano could no longer compete and its riches fled the area. During the course of ten years in the late 1800s, 75% of its 8,000 residents emigrated to the US. Until tourism caught on in the past 40 years or so, the town languished.

In addition to the hike along Sentieri degli Dei, which has been written about separately, I took some time to connect with the local food culture. The Neapolitan cuisine of the Campania region is where many of the Italian dishes that we’re most familiar with in North America originated. Perhaps the most common, of course, is pizza, which was the primary reason for the next leg of my trip to Napoli, and the subject of my first cooking class in Positano. Believe me: making pizza dough by hand is a terrific way to build upper body strength and endurance.

Pasta is the other core Neapolitan food group. Unlike the northern Italian cuisine, meat has never been a big part of Neapolitan cooking. This is probably because historically this was a poor region and the menus reflected the available, affordable ingredients. Fish and seafood plays a big role (on their own and in pastas), as do locally available vegetables (peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant), herbs (basil) and especially, cheeses. The region is famous for its delicious Provolone and Mozzarellas. Incredible, fresh ricotta is also used in countless dishes. During my stay, I visited a local cheese factory in the hills above Sorrento and tried my hand at finishing their specialty, Fior di Latte. This is similar to mozzarella except that it is made with cows’ milk instead of buffalo milk. Unlike some other cuisines, the food is quite simple without complex sauces or long cooking times. Its greatness derives from the incredible freshness of the ingredients and the masterful pairing of simple flavours (basil, tomato, and ricotta for instance.)

I had a great stay in Positano, met some wonderful people during my cooking experiences and on day trips to Capri, and Amalfi. I didn’t want to leave, but the pizza of Naples was calling. As John Steinbeck wrote after visiting Positano in the 50’s:

“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.”

That's exactly what I was going to say.

Spigola all’Acqua Pazza


  1. Heike and ChristopherJune 13, 2010 at 3:15 PM

    Hi Craig,
    it's me again. If you like to meet us in Germany feel free to contact me on facebook.... :-)
    Heike Seewaldt..
    Christopher an me are looking forward to hear from you!!
    Nice trip

  2. Craiger,
    That place looks awesome, I will definitely be parking my ass there in August. I look forward to rapping with you before I head out.

  3. Craig,
    I don't know you but I have been following your blog and have been enjoy it immensely.
    Your post are a true delight to read and yes as John Steinbeck wrote: Positano bites deep.

    Such a beautiful city. You will never forget it.

    Enjoy your travels. Safe journey

  4. Thank you very much! I'm glad you found my blog and are enjoying my stories.

    Best wishes.