early always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano, your impulse is to conceal it,” wrote John Steinbeck in the May 1953 issue of Harper’s BAZAAR. At that point, the American author was at the height of his fame – East Of Eden had been published the previous year, and The Grapes Of Wrath was already part of the literary canon – and so his widely read article in BAZAAR drew immediate attention to this small town on the Amalfi Coast. Yet, for the reasons that Steinbeck himself identified at the time, Positano has remained as appealing as it was when he first visited, protected by its extraordinary position on the precipitous hillsides above the bay, where there is no space to build tourist resorts, car parks or new roads.
“Positano bites deep,” observed Steinbeck in BAZAAR. “It’s 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 … 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.”
This description still holds true today; and the hotel where Steinbeck stayed, Le Sirenuse, remains at the heart of Positano, as alluring as its name suggests. In every bedroom, there is an elegantly bound copy of Steinbeck’s essay, along with another small book, entitled A Journey To Positano, its pages blank, inviting each guest to write their own story. Much is unchanged since Steinbeck’s day, when he and his wife were enchanted by “an old family house converted into a first class hotel, spotless and cool, with grape arbors over its outside dining rooms. Every room has its own little balcony and looks out over the blue sea to the islands of the sirens from which those ladies sang so sweetly.”
Now, as then, Le Sirenuse is owned by an aristocratic Neapolitan family, the Sersales, who converted their 18th-century summer home into a hotel in 1951. When Steinbeck visited, it was supervised by Marchese Paolo Sersale, at that time the mayor of Positano, and a connoisseur of antiques and paintings, whose collection of heirlooms continues to give the hotel its remarkable charm and character. Since then, Paolo’s nephew, Antonio Sersale, has taken over from his father Franco, who died in January this year. Franco’s photographs of his journey around the world – to Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, Tibet, and Afghanistan add another element of interest to the distinguished family portraits that hang on the walls (one of the venerable Sersale ancestors was a cardinal; another a sea-faring nobleman of the 16th century). Meanwhile, Antonio and his wife Carla (who is also responsible for the hotel’s stylish boutique) are adding to the eclectic collection with contemporary pieces, including a new work by the Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed that will be installed later this year.
A charming sitting area to take in the majestic views of Positano
The poolside at Le Sirenuse