As spring turned quickly into summer this year, it started to be "that" time again - the time when, after 11 months of abstinence, I begin feeling that if I don't get down to the Amalfi Coast I will simply burst.
It is not that I don't adore Rome, where I've lived off and on now for almost seven years, and the rest of Italy as well. But the Amalfi Coast (along the Mediterranean and below Naples), and in particular the small fishing village of Positano, have always cast a special spell over me that I am powerless to resist.
It may have something to do with the fact that the Amalfi Coast is easily one of Italy's most beautiful areas, and that Positano - with its white, red and rose-colored cube-like mountainside houses - is a minor architectural miracle. Or it may be that after almost a year my desire for rose from Ravello and for spaghetti with zucchini becomes simply overwhelming.
But the almost morbid attraction that forces me to make an annual pilgrimage of at least three or four days probably dates to my first visit to Positano years ago when I was just 19. After four months study in Florence, a boyfriend and I had set out to see Europe . . . by Lambretta. One of our first stops was Positano, and addicted as I was then to the Mediterranean books of Laurence, Durrell and the Greek writer Kazantzakis, I was simply dazzled by the trip along the steep and rocky coast that winds along 43 miles from Sorrento to Salerno and by the sight of this mostly white fishing village sculpted into the stone of the Lattari mountains.
Nineteen is an impressionable age and the drive along roads flanked with orange and lemon groves, olive and almond trees, camelias and oleanders had made my head spin. Unable to sleep, I remember going out on the terrace, naked, at about three in the morning and being almost struck dumb by the star-filled Mediterranean night and the moonlit curving coast.
The famous Amalfi Drive, a cliffside road that hangs over blue inlets and rocky promontories still dotted by the remains of Saracen lookout towers, has changed little since then. So, as soon as I could get my workaholic traveling partner away from his typewriter, I set out on my yearly quest.
This time - like the other eight or nine visits I have made there - was no disappointment. Some former habitues of Positano, which was first settled before the 6th century, complain that the sea is not as clean as it once was and that the many flourishing boutiques have overcommercialized the town.
But in July, near high-tourist season for foreigners and Italians alike, I found restaurants with immediate seating, no crowds, and water that for me would have been perfect if seaweed did not exist.
Another pleasant thing about Positano are the still-moderate prices. My favorite place, a small hotel called Casa Albertina, gives a loverly double room with bath, and a terrace over-looking the sea, for only $23 a night.
With 2,000 beds available in hotels and pensioni , where singles range from a low of $6 to a high of $23, it is clear there is something for everyone, including several hundred privately-owned apartments or houses that are rented by the month or the season.
The same goes for the food. To complement the $20 full-course meals for two at any of the shore-side restaurants (whose specialties include cozze alla marinara, grilled scampi, zuppa di pesce and plates of tiny fried fish called fragaglie) there are pizzas and salads for those with less to spend.
Furthermore, prices for renting chairs and umbrellas on the small but well-organized, partly sandy, partly pebbled beach are also modest: I paid 1,000 lira a day (about $1.25) for an umbrella, two beach chairs and a super-large rubber air mattress.
Actually, the vantage point of a floating mattress (or a boat) is probably the best from which to view the town as a whole. The beach is dotted with blue umbrellas on one side and brightly-painted fishing boats on the other. Behind them, in the center, one can see the Byzantine-style dome of Santa Maria dell'Assunta from which the two sides of the town climb steeply up the mountains to a height of 500 meters above sea level. The overall impression is one of an artist's palate; the blues and greens of nature are punctuated by the colorful stucco facades of the houses and the hotels, while fuchsia accents are provided by the ever-present bougainvillea flowers.
For those who don't like walking and climbing, however, Positano can be a problem. A yellow minibus circles the town at regular intervals, but along the meandering asphalted road or the thousands of stone staircases carved by generations of "positanesi ," legs are the major form of transport.
For the tourist who wants to combine sea and sun with touring, the best news is the short distances between Positano and other places of interest. Rome itself is only 183 miles away by flower-lined autostrada, Naples is 37 miles away, and Capri, Sorrento and Ischia are respectively 10, 18 and 42 miles by sea. By car Sorrento is only 7 1/2 miles up the coast, while the seacoast town of Amalfi and hill-top Ravello are only 9 and 12 miles in the opposite direction. The Greco-Roman ruins of Paestum are 53 miles south, while for those who haven't yet been there Pompeii is only 20 miles away.
Ravello, perched high above the sea in the midst of mountains and vineyards of rare beauty and once the home of Wagner, is a must on the list of anyone familiar with the area. But Positano's major rival for tourists and boaters alike is nearby Amalfi. A Spanish-looking town with a population (6,000) twice the size of Positano's, Amalfi was founded in the 6th century but grew by the 11th to become, along with Venice, Genoas and Pisa, one of Italy's four maritime republics.
Amalfi's claims to fame include the Amalfi Tables, reportedly the world's oldest seafaring code; the supposed invention of the compass by a native named Flaio Gidia, and the construction of the era's largest galley ships - up to 120 oarsmen - which took part in the transport, eastward, of the Crusaders.
Today, however, Amalfi lives mostly on the profits of its tourism; its magnificent bay is too small for today's freighters but just right for fishing boats or pleasure craft. Because of its larger size and flatter terrain, it is somewhat better known than Positano, but to my mind is worth no more than a day's visit. Compared with Positano it is too crowded, has too much traffic and lacks the Mediterranean impact that first hooked me way back then.
An English friend and I have been arguing over the respective merits of Positano and Amalfi for years. But while neither of us has been able to convince the other that Positano, or Amalfi, is more appealing, we do agree that the Amalfi Coast would rank high on anyone's list of vacation musts.
As an elderly Englishwoman who, despite the steps, has been going to Positano for years, put it. "This part of Italy gives one that very special mix of natural, almost wild, physical beauty; primitive-looking architecture, and the comforts of modern leisure life that is hard to resist." Add I, sipping ice-cold rose and eating my spaghetti with zucchini while an enormous orange moon crept timidly out from behind the furthest Saracean tower, could only heartily agree.