Popular fiction in Positano

John Steinbeck fell in love with Positano's dramatic scenery, traffic-free tranquillity and colourful characters. Fifty years on, and Richard Knight can see why, too
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The Independent Travel

I knew what Franco, the concierge, would say before he even said it. "Perhaps you should ask Signor Capraro?" Everyone had said the same thing. The matronly woman who smelt of limoncello had said it. The girl selling ferry tickets in a distractingly tight T-shirt had said it. And a bird-like old waiter had said it that very evening. My problem was that Signor Capraro didn't appear to exist.

When John Steinbeck explored Positano in 1953 for Harper's Bazaar, he described the ancient rivalry between Positano and its neighbour, Praiano. Both are startlingly beautiful. Both are near-vertical stacks of whitewashed houses, piled up like boxes in a supermarket promotion. Both overlook the striking blue-green of the Tyrrhenian Sea. And both, in the Fifties at least, relied on the fish in that sea for food and income.

Steinbeck records a fishing code designed to prevent fighting between the two competing towns. If a fisherman saw a shoal (lookouts were posted), he would set out to reach it first. If he managed to complete a circle around the shoal before a rival boat arrived, he could fish there alone and keep the entire catch. But if a rival boat got there before he could complete that circle, the shoal would be shared.

Did this endearingly sporting code still apply? That was my simple question. A question to which the answer was, without fail, "Ask Signor Capraro". It seemed that Capraro was Positano's oldest and truest fisherman. All questions related to fishing should be directed to him. But where was he? "Oh," they would say, "stand on the dock at 10, that's when he'll come in." I would keep these appointments - at 10 after dinner, before breakfast, around noon. Capraro stood me up every time. I began to smell a rat.

No matter what trades flourish in the back streets of a coastal town, it's the fishing fleet that is the source of the most civic pride. Such a town does not want to admit that its fishermen have hung up their nets to take jobs in bars and boutique hotels. Had the townspeople of Positano, for the sake of their collective amour-propre, found it necessary to invent Signor Capraro?

I've had a similar feeling once before. I was at a wildlife park in Kerala that claimed to have a small tiger population. Everyone celebrated the animal. Restaurants near the park had such names as "Tiger Café" or "The Big Cat". Rangers would scan the horizon, urging visitors to be silent, as if a tiger could emerge at any point. The park was not particularly scenic. No one would go there if it wasn't for the promise of tigers. As we filed out of the park that evening, disappointed, I asked a ranger when a tiger had last been seen. "Oh," he said vaguely, "a while ago." When pressed, he reluctantly admitted that no tiger had been seen in that park since 1973.

The Steinbecks were a little shaken when they arrived in Positano. Their driver, a Signor Bassano, had not prepared his American guests for the Italian roads. "In the backseat, my wife and I lay clutched in each other's arms, weeping hysterically," wrote Steinbeck, "while in the front seat, Signor Bassano gestured with both hands."

When the future Nobel laureate reached Positano, however, he was immediately impressed. He might have been relieved to find respite from the "deafening, screaming, milling, tyre-screeching mess which is ordinary Italian highway traffic". There is no traffic in Positano. There can't be: the streets are steps cut into the cliff. It is one of the few places in Italy free from the endless buzz of scooters and small Fiats. And Steinbeck was delighted to find in Positano a cast of characters every bit as eccentric as those who populate his Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat: the occasionally communist mayor; the paranoid shoemaker who becomes the confidant of great men; and the healer who, from his beachside perch, takes away the ills of the town.

"Positano bites deep," Steinbeck wrote. "It is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you've gone." Perhaps because he felt that Positano was "never likely to attract the organdie-and-white tourist", Steinbeck submitted to Harper's an account so glowing that it triggered a sudden, and so far unabated, surge of interest. His prophecy was flat-out wrong. Positano today is crowded with well-spoken visitors in straw hats and linen trousers. They clatter up and down the town's steep thoroughfares and along its dark beach. If Steinbeck could see it now, he might have wished that he'd trusted his first instinct. "Nearly always," he wrote, "when you find a place as beautiful as Positano, your impulse is to conceal it."

Despite the crowds, Positano remains a deeply seductive place. There is an easy elegance about the town and, indeed, its residents. It is expensive, though. I had considered staying at Le Sirenuse, which was Steinbeck's choice. In the Fifties, it was a stately villa with rooms to let. Now it's a very upmarket hotel with fiendish rates. To stay there would be not so much to push the boat out as to point it at Capri with a brick resting against the throttle. The town's restaurants aren't cheap, either, and, in truth, the selection is surprisingly limited. But it's not too hard to find a good meal, particularly if you like seafood.

I decided to stroll along the beach early on my last morning in Positano. As I walked, I wondered grumpily where that seafood had come from. After all, I'd seen no fishermen. I had not found Signor Capraro. Perhaps the twisted economics of our global village made it cheaper for the restaurateurs of Positano to import their fish from Indonesia or some such place.

But then I saw him: a lone figure on a small boat chugging slowly towards the harbour. Signor Capraro! Lobster pots were stacked on the deck. As he cut his engine to allow the boat to drift gently into the tyres slung over the harbour wall, a couple of men jogged over to help the old man unload his catch. Capraro pulled himself up the stone steps and I darted forward. "Signor Capraro," I said, "is it still true about the fishing code? You have to race to the shoals and complete a circle?" "Si," he said, "of course." He started walking towards the town, then turned. "But it's been a while since anyone has raced me."

Steinbeck loved Positano for its history, "rich, long and a little crazy"; its characters, "Positano's greatest commodity"; and its stories. He found all this set in "a bay of unbelievably blue and green water" which "lips gently on a beach of small pebbles". The town has changed since 1953. It's more developed, there are more visitors, it's on the map. But Positano still bites deep. Even the most hard-to-please visitor would struggle to leave without, at the very least, faint teeth marks.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Naples is served by BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) and BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.co.uk). To reduce the environmental impact, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Naples, in economy class, is £2.70. Trains run from Napoli Centrale station to Sorrento, from where buses depart for Positano.

STAYING THERE

Le Sirenuse, Via C Colombo 30, Positano (00 39 089 87 50 66; www.sirenuse.it). B&B from €450 (£321).

Il San Pietro di Positano, Via Laurito 2, Positano (00 39 089 87 54 55; www.ilsanpietro.it). B&B from €380 (£271). Most hotels close for winter.

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