Where Gods Walked

Where Gods Walked© 2007 by Patricia Bracewell

It was nearly twilight as I navigated my way on foot down the steep curves of the only street that winds through Positano, Italy. I had arrived by ferry the night before, but had had little chance until this moment to experience Positano itself. Now, having watched from my hotel terrace as the late October sun turned the town’s cream colored houses to gold, I had ventured out to see what the place had to offer. The sun had disappeared behind the limestone cliffs that ring the town when I emerged from a stairway into a little piazza. To my surprise I found myself facing a large ceramic plaque proclaiming that John Steinbeck had once lived there, and that he had immortalized Positano in an essay that he wrote forHarper’s Bazaar in 1953.

Jolted by this appearance of a fellow Californian in a place where I hadn’t expected to meet him, I made a mental note to look up the Harper’s essay when I returned home. As I write this, three weeks post-Positano, my memories of the town still fresh in my mind, I find that Steinbeck’s fifty year old assessment of Positano still rings true:

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. John Steinbeck.

I spent only a single day in Positano, and I left wishing that I could linger. Steinbeck lingered for eight years, turning his writer’s eye on everyone he met. His essay is filled with an assortment of town characters: the mayor, the postman, the shoemaker, even the town healer. He throws in a little history and a handful of hilarious anecdotes, and he pinpoints Positano’s attraction to writers:

Nothing in the little town is designed to disturb your thoughts provided you have a thought. John Steinbeck

I formed my own thoughts about Positano not in the town itself, but high above it. I had come to Italy on a walking tour, and our Positano itinerary took us to the finger-like limestone cliffs that tower above the Bay of Sorrento. We spent the day on the Sentieri degli Dei, the Path of the Gods, walking through a rolling fog that obscured Positano and its tiny harbor far below. Our group of fourteen was guided by a rugged Amalfian named Vincenzo, a man with a passion for the beauty of this coast. Although Vincenzo fretted about the clouds that shrouded the vistas he’d promised us, it seemed to me that the fog imparted an eerie loveliness to our trek. On previous days we’d hiked in the sun past the farms and lemon groves of Sorrento and Capri, our passage punctuated by barking dogs, crowing roosters or bleating sheep. But on this day we walked in near silence, the fog cupping us like a gloved hand. Trickling water blackened the walls of fissures that gaped in the limestone rocks. Cypresses rose through swirling mist like dark sword blades. It was impossible to walk through this landscape and not think about the ancient past of this place and of the people who’d walked these hills over the centuries – peasants, soldiers, perhaps even emperors. I pondered the name, Sentieri degli Dei, and wondered if the ancient inhabitants of Positano believed that the gods themselves walked here. It certainly had a hushed, otherworldly feel to it.

We met few other hikers this late in the season, but one local fellow, walking purposefully towards town with a bag clutched to his side, paused when our guide addressed him. After a brief exchange the man agreed to show us what he had found in some secret dell far off the path. Furtively, as if he feared we might snatch away his treasure, he opened his bag and gave us a quick glimpse of an enormous porcini mushroom. Highly prized by mushroom lovers, the porcini has been called one of God’s great gifts to humanity. I began to wonder if the name of this trail might have less to do with the ancient gods and more to do with its proximity to porcinis.

Further on we rounded a ridge and saw the centerpiece of our walk, Monte Pertuso. It means “hole” Vincenzo explained, and sure enough, there is a huge hole in the center of the cliff. It looked to me as if an angry giant had thrust his fist through it. Local legend offers an even more dramatic explanation: the Madonna, in a contest with the Devil, made the hole by simply touching the rock with her hand.

Returning to Positano, we climbed down stairways clinging to houses that seemed to be piled on top of each other. Steinbeck’s description of the town is still apt:

Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. John Steinbeck

He predicted that Positano’s inaccessibility would keep the tourists at bay, but he was only half right. The tourists come all summer long. Ferries deposit them at the foot of the town and tour buses disgorge them along the coast road high, high above it. From both directions they tackle the steep passageways to browse in shops that sell clothes, jewelry, pottery and art. The tourists don’t stay, though. They continue on to Amalfi or Sorrento. Perhaps, like me, they wish that they could linger. I wonder how many of them notice Steinbeck’s plaque and, upon returning home, track down his essay. For me, it was like bumping into an old friend in an unexpected setting, and discovering in his words the same sense of timelessness that I’d felt in Positano.

Roadwork Editor and Oakland writer Patricia Bracewell has written non-fiction for Skirt Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and American Baby.

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