. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Basking in the Sun On the Amalfi Coast

There's a now-famous moment in the movie "Pulp Fiction" where John Travolta's character, just back from a thugging trip to Europe, says to his car-mate: "You know what's great about Europe? It's the little differences." Travolta's character, the dim-witted offspring of American pop culture, is particularly impressed that the French call their Quarter Pounder a "Royale with Cheese."

Positano, an amazingly beautiful little town on Italy's Amalfi coast, has its own set of "little differences," but thankfully the menu at McDonald's is not an appropriate reference point for any of them. My favorite revelation was the beaches, which are located on the aqua-blue gulf of Salerno. They are not covered with sand but are littered instead with colorful pieces of glazed ceramic tile, worn and rounded by the sea. So a walk on the rocky shore of Positano is more than an exercise in collecting exotic tile fragments -- it gives the imagination a much-needed chance to work its mischief.

A chip of old, pink floral pattern becomes a little mystery. It might be a cast-off from the 1970s-era remont of an Italian woman who decided to get rid of the bathroom's flowery theme and go with something more tan instead. And a shard of shiny sea-green glaze might be all that's left after a drunken plate-hurling night by some of the famous people who have been vacationing in Positano for decades.

This was the town where Jackie O. sought refuge when she was still Jackie K. She and her sister, Lee Radziwill, would rent a villa on the coast, eat (a little) good food, take the sun and look marvelous. In fact, it was on one of these trips that Jackie allegedly had an affair with Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat heir. She did this, of course, to get back at Jack, who was in the White House carrying on with Marilyn Monroe. I know all this because I supplemented my vacation with a trashy Jack-and-Jackie book. And I now understand why a woman of such excruciatingly good taste would choose to summer here.

Located on the southern flank of Sorrento's peninsula, the Costiera Amalfitana, or Amalfi Coast, is nothing short of spectacular. An hour and a half from the urban sprawl of Naples, past Mount Vesuvius and the buried city of Pompeii, the highway ends with a 50-kilometer ribbon of asphalt that swirls and curves along the rocky cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Salerno. Coming up over the crest of a hill, with Positano framed by the windshield, our taxi was filled with audible "oohs" and "ahs."

Built on sheer cliffs that jut out over the sea, the houses in Positano look as if they were carved out of the mountain by giant ants. The windows of the faded, whitewashed homes have French doors that open to face the sea in the morning and then close in the afternoon to shut out the baking sun. And almost every door is marked with one of those ubiquitous ceramic tiles featuring an intricate, nautical motif such as a seagull, lighthouse or fish. The warm air in autumn smells like any beach town -- like the ocean. But because lemon, olive and fig trees grow like unwanted weeds, there is also a ripe, fruity smell everywhere. Trails that wend down to the beach are dotted with little black spots -- olives that have fallen from trees brimming with fruit, which grow wild out of crags in the rocks.

One of the only daily decisions we had to make revolved around which trail to take to the beach. Should we choose the sharp, jagged trail or the scenic route through town? The latter took longer but didn't leave our legs -- which hadn't felt anything resembling exercise since we came to Moscow -- with the shakes.

The jagged trail usually won -- leg shakes notwithstanding. Its rigid steps led past a tiny alley we named "Cat Corner" because twice a day a small army of cats and their tiny, stumbling babies gathered there to be fed by an old Italian fisherman. We'd turn Cat Corner and see 10 wild fluffies staring up at us, as though daring us to come closer. When we tried, they scampered away.

The precarious trail also took us through the back side of town and gave us ample opportunity to peak behind the fences at the extraordinary grape vines and basil-filled gardens of the Positanans.

Besides the voyeurism that comes with vacationing in a village where half the life is lived out of doors, part of the intimacy of the place is thinking of the others who have walked the narrow steps before. Not just Jackie K. but a slew of culturally elite Russian emigr?s. In the 1920s, it turns out, Positano was a magnet for Russians. In particular, the famous Russian ballet patron Sergei Dhiagalev founded a ballet school on an island off the coast. Rudolf Nureyev later took it over.

Our predecessors were probably just as enamored of the local food. Mornings started with a walk down the curvy road to the bakery, where we would buy crunchy, still-warm bread. We'd bring it back to our rented villa, make some coffee and eat the buttered bread with ripe melon from a neighborhood garden topped with razor-thin slices of prosciutto. The villa had a huge kitchen filled with pots, pans and those colorful ceramic plates that eventually end up on the beach, so we mostly cooked rather than dine out in Positano's numerous and first-rate restaurants, where a meal usually costs about $25.

Sometimes we'd go down to the fish monger and buy mussels or clams or shrimp for pasta; one day we bought a salmon to broil at home in the oven. And after our midday meal, feeling self-satisfied because we'd had our morning exercise and swim, we'd sit for long hours at the round wood table drinking red wine garnished with fresh peach slices, talking and playing cards.

On my favorite night of the trip, we sat at a local caf? -- in front of us the giant ant houses built into the cliffs, behind us the great sea sparkling under a million stars. The local specialty of the region is a drink called limone, a sweet-and-sour concoction that doesn't go down as brutally as vodka. Served frozen in tiny frosted mugs, the icy, syrupy drink is slowly sipped over the course of the evening. This particular evening, we had four. We watched the local musicians -- one a mandolin player, the other a guitarist -- as they played Django Reinhardt melodies and sang songs such as "That's Amore." The town floozy enthusiastically joined in on the tambourine. Watching the scene, drunk from limone, with a stomach full of fresh pasta and shellfish, I was feeling about as happy as a person possibly could.

Day Trips

One of the best aspects of Positano is its location, just a two-hour boat ride from Capri. This island on the Bay of Naples was once the playground of Rome's Emperor Augustus. His successor, Tiberius, retired here and has gone down in history as a raucous orgy-thrower. Today, tourists travel there to spend time peeking behind the gates of lovely villas, eating seafood at cliff-top trattorias and swimming among the caves and coves in the same water where Tiberius and his nymphs once splashed.

The journey over to Capri from Positano is a fun day in itself. We took the hydrafoil and stood in the very front of the boat, breathing deeply and letting the wind whip our hair into knots. All boats going to Capri dock at the Marina Grande, a crowded place full of souvenir shops and posters advertising trips to Capri's famous "Blue Grotto."

Skip it. The Blue Grotto is a tourist fiasco. After paying a fee, the traveler is shuttled out in a small boat to the inside of the renowned cave. There is only a small opening -- so light refracts off the walls, and in the half-darkness anything glows beneath the surface of the aqua-blue water and above the white sand on the ground. But the white sandy floor and crystal water are just as dramatic outside in the sun.

And swimming in the Bay of Naples through rock formations, and under diving young Capricians, is preferable to sitting in some boat. Take one of Capri's 1950s-era Fiat convertible taxis from the Marina Grande to the Marina Picollo. Sit at one of the bustling waterside restaurants and order the salad of the island -- insalate caprese: fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil strewn with olive oil. Then walk a few steps to the sea and pretend you're Tiberius.

There are other side trips to take from Positano, although we didn't get around to taking any of them. Mt. Vesuvius, the still-active volcano that looms over Naples, is about an hour's drive away. Vesuvius is the volcano that erupted with great force in A.D. 79, destroying the town of Pompeii. There is a Mt. Vesuvius observatory, where seismologists carefully monitor the great mountain, and you can walk around the top of the crater and experience vertigo.

You can also, of course, visit the town of Pompeii, about a 45-minute drive from Positano. The entire area was completely covered by a layer of lava when Mt. Vesuvius erupted, and up to 20,000 inhabitants are thought to have perished. Because the volcano's eruption captured a moment and held it frozen forever, Pompeii is thought to be the richest insight into the daily life of a typical city in the Roman empire. Whole murals and mosaics were perfectly preserved under the lava -- as were homes, the utensils used inside them, and the bodies of the Pompeiians themselves.

Getting There

All roads lead to and away from Rome. Flights to Rome from Moscow are plentiful. Aeroflot offers non-stop service to Rome for $425. Malev Hungarian Airlines offers a trip via Budapest for $490.

Upon arrival in Rome, take a bus to the train station for about $2 -- cabs cost about $40 -- and then take one of the 30 daily trains to Naples. First-class seats cost about $30, and second-class costs around $13. At the central station of Naples, you can take a bus to Positano for $7 or a taxi for about $94n It's about a 45-minute drive.

Don't worry about making arrangements, even if you don't speak a word of Italian. You can get by with English.

Where to Stay

Hotel Pupetto (tel. 875-087) is located on the beach and has doubles with views for about $45. It also has a great caf?. Villa Nettuno (tel. 875-401) has doubles with balconies and views and half board for about $50. If you are with a group, consider renting a villa through International Chapters in London (tel. 44-171-722-9560). Villa Mosconi is a castle of a place, with marble columns, ceramic tiles from the area on each of its three floors, huge terraces filled with plants for breakfast, a giant kitchen and a dining room. The cost for the entire villa, which can sleep six comfortably, is $300 per day.

Travel Tips

We went to Positano in early October, when most of the summer crowds had gone. At the height of the summer season, Positano is packed. The temperature in June and July hovers around 30 degrees Celsius, but from mid-April through May and from early September through mid-October, when the crowds are thinner and the temperature is around 25 degrees Celsius, it is paradise. In the winter, Positano shuts down.