Positano, Italy: Where the Path of the Gods Ends

Positano, Italy immediately exerts its fascination the first time you see from afar its colorful cascade of houses and villas perched above the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.  And the fascination only deepens as you arrive in the town and begin to explore its labyrinth of streets and alleyways with their fashionable shops and boutiques – or just relax upon a terrace admiring the view.

Positano: Italy’s Pride

A few steps up from the beach sits the church of Santa Maria Assunta with its characteristic cupola in colored majolica.  Close by are the remains of a Roman villa which, scanty though they are, speak of the town’s ancient origins.  Adding to the picturesque beauty of the scene are the three small islands situated a few hundred meters offshore, the legendary haunt of the Sirens who tempted Ulysses and his men.

But what really captures the heart is the maze of tiny streets and alleyways, always promising some new vista or interesting sight (an eruption of scarlet bougainvillea, a sample of Moorish architecture, a tempting boutique – or even just a Positanesi cat lazing on his terrazza beneath the Mediterranean sun).  Exploring this labyrinth is a real treat (though your legs better be ready for all the stairs!).  And afterwards, you can cap off your exploration by watching the sun set over the sea from your own terrazza while sipping an ice-cold limoncello.

History of Positano

The territory around Positano displays traces of Paleolithic settlements, especially in the caves situated above the town.  Tradition has it that Positano was founded by Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, as a tribute to his beloved Pasitea.  More certain is that the area was visited by Phoenician and Greek sailors during their journey west, at a time when the town was still a Picenese settlement.  Later, the Romans arrived and built near the beach a rich patrician villa.  With the fall of the Roman empire, Positano became part of the Republic of Amalfi, the first maritime republic, and enjoyed a period of growth and prosperity through trade with the other towns of the Mediterranean.

With the arrival of the Normans in the second half of the 11th century began a period of decadence, punctuated with attacks by Arabian and Turkish pirates and constant changes of rulers as new invaders replaced the old.  In order to protect themselves, the Positanesi built three fortified towers that today are still visible, especially the one on the coastline towards Capri.  The towers may have kept the pirates somewhat at bay, but various despots, famines, plagues and earthquakes during the ensuing centuries provoked a drastic reduction in the population.  The earthquakes of the 16th and 17th centuries especially served to create the picturesque town we see today, as the older buildings fell to be replaced by the then current baroque styles, with ornate exteriors and terraces facing towards the sea.

With the unification of Italy and the new opportunities for emigration, both nationally and abroad, Positanesi joined the flux of southern Italians who left their homes in search of a better life elsewhere.  Later, during World War I, Positano paid more than its share in blood, since young men preferred risking losing their lives in the army than languishing and possibly dying of famine at home.  Only with the end of the Second World War did Positano begin to attract artists, film directors, writers, and the rich, attracted to the magic atmosphere and sensual beauty of Positano.  These began a new wave of restoration and building, from which arose the colorful, exotic Positano, Italy we enjoy today.