When you find yourself in southern Italy for any stretch of time, you owe it to yourself to spend some time exploring the area to the south of the Bay of Naples. People have flocked to the Amalfi Coast for thousands of years and for good reason. Southern Italy is a masterful blend of culture high and low. Despair turns to ecstasy at every turn and a day trip to Positano is a perfect an example of this as it’s possible to experience. Positano and the Positenesi people have exerted a pull on the imagination since time imemorial. No less than John Steinbeck had this to say:
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. Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. I believe that whereas most house foundations are vertical, in Positano they are horizontal. The small curving bay of unbelievably blue and green water lips gently on a beach of small pebbles. There is only one narrow street and it does not come down to the water. Everything else is stairs, some of them as steep as ladders. You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or slide.
Steinbeck wrote that essay in the early 1950s and you can find the rest of it at Positano by John Steinbeck. John Steinbeck’s Positano was an isolated village, a hidden spot along a forgotten coastline. 60 years later Positano still looks the same as it did when he lived there, but it and the coastline surrounding it are some of the most visited places on the planet.
Despite the fact that it’s lost its status as a secret known to a select few, it remains a marvel of a place. As spectacular as the town is, it’s matched in wonder by the drive to it.
Positano lies to the south of Sorrento and a drive along Italy’s Strada Statale 163, also known as the Amalfi Drive, remains one of the world’s most scenic (and perilous) highways.
The Amalfi Drive is a near impossibility, it’s a roadbed squeezed between the sheer cliffs of the coast and the Tyrrhennian Sea. Its foundations are said to have been set by the Romans but its incarnation as a modern road dates to 1840 or so. It’s a route of hairpin turns, blind corners and scenery too overwhelming to describe accurately.
Rick Steves hired a driver for the trek and even he has a hard time putting into words the wonders that await along that storied highway. Here’s a short video that shows part of his experience.
Even though Steves hired a driver, I say that the experience is best seen from a Sita Bus. The Sita Buses have windows large enough for you to be able to soak in the scene below you and just as importantly, see the cliffs that rise thousands of feet above you.
It’s possible to make this trip to Positano a day trip though you’ll arrive back in Naples more road weary than you thought possible. A better idea is to stay over night and come back the following morning or press on to the towns farther south. If you’re determined to return the same day, taking the Metrò del Mare ferry back to Naples from Positano might be a good idea too.
From Naples, take the Circumvesuviana Naples to Sorrento line. If you’re planning to come back the same day, buy the €6,70 all day fare. If you’re heading back the next day or later, buy the €3,30 one-way ticket.
The Circumvesuviana is a commuter train that’s used by tourists and Neapolitans alike. It’s a much-maligned means of transport that I endorse wholeheartedly. Neapolitan culture comes alive on that train and it offers travelers a terrific opportunity to try on being a local for an hour at a time. Be aware of your surroundings and then sit back and watch the show. If you know any Italian, now would be the time to use it. If you don’t know any Italian, planning a ride on the Circumvesuviana is a great excuse to learn some.
Sorrento is the end of the line so there’s no need to worry about which stop is yours. The trip from Naples to Sorrento takes about an hour and ten minutes and you can find the schedule on the Circumvesuviana’s website. Pay attention to the time the last train leaves Sorrento for Naples in the evening.
Sorrento has a modern transit station that functions as the terminus of the Circumvesuviana as well as the bus station to get you to points farther south. Once at the station in Sorrento, buy a Sita ticket at the window, then walk out of the building and down the steps. The Sita buses line up along the circular drive and they are hard to miss. Look for the Sorrento-Amalfi bus and climb aboard. You can find the Sorrento-Amalfi Sita Schedule here.
Sit on the right side of the bus and have your camera ready. Get ready to be a gawking tourist for the next hour as the bus wends and winds its way down the coast.
Here are some of my photos from the last time I rode that same Sita bus.
The bus will leave you off at the top of Positano. Positano is a small town and you’ll notice pretty quickly that it’s too steep for streets. Find a set of stairs and start down. Take your time, look around and wonder at the impossibility of the place. Once you work your way down to the beach at il Fornillo you’ll be starved and ready for a leisurely lunch. Have lunch at da Ferdinando and take it all in.
After lunch, walk south along the via Positanesi d’America to the main beach and the piazza surrounding the Church of the Assumption. The church is home to an eighth-century icon of the Virgin Mary and an 11th century majolica tile dome. The beachfront and the piazza above it are lined with shops, bars and restaurants.
Work your way over to the via Cristoforo Colombo and walk up the side of the hill. You’ll pass below such world famous hotels as La Sireneuse and the Hotel California. As you stare across the chasm, you be treated to the most spectacular view of a most spectacular town.
Work your way back to the main beach and the ferry terminal where you can take the Metrò del Mare ferry back to Naples. Check timetables and fares before you leave.
If you’re up for another bus ride, make your way back to the Sita station and repeat your morning journey in reverse.
Positano is a small town with limited hotel rooms. In season, it’s all but impossible to find a room without a reservation. If you’re planning to make this more than a day trip, plan ahead.
Naples and the entire region are filled to the point of absurdity with wonders both man made and natural and among them, Positano stands out as a sparkling city on a hill. Literally.
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Paul Anater is a US-based freelance writer and designer who writes the blog Kitchen and Residential Design and whose work appears regularly across the internet and in print. See all of Paul Anater’s Articles on Napoli Unplugged.