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A familiar perch

Up and down in style, annually

Email|Print| Text size + By Cynthia Thomas
Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2007

POSITANO, Italy -- We have been going to Positano for seven years , and plan on going back this year and the next, as well. We stay at the same bed-and-breakfast, La Fenice, in the exact same room, sleeping in the exact same bed.

We watch the sun come up over one group of mountains, and at cocktail hour, drinking local wine and eating the world's best mozzarella cheese, we watch the sun set over another.

Located about a half-mile from Positano proper, La Fenice's rooms sprawl down the mountainside, tucked into nooks and crannies. Go down a flight of steps and you are at one room. Go down two more and you are at another. The rooms are all white on the outside and basic but charming on the inside. No fancy soaps, just standard hotel- issue skin-drying bars.

We always meet friends in Positano. We say we are going to be there and then we go. Sometimes the same friends come, sometimes new ones.

One reason is Costantino Mandara. He and his wife, Angela, own La Fenice and make returning feel like a family reunion. Dressed in oddly matched shirt and checkered shorts, Mandara nonetheless has many attributes of a concierge at a five-star hotel. He makes dinner reservations for guests, gives travel advice on trips to the Roman ruins at Pompeii (an hour's drive away) and classical concerts in the beautiful hill town of Ravello (an hour in the other direction).

Then there is the food. We basically go to the same restaurant, La Cambusa, and order from the same waiter, Mario Petrucci, every day. He never lets us down.

Another reason we return is that Positano, simply put, is spectacular looking. In the town itself, pastel-colored buildings tumble down the moutainside almost into the Mediterranean Sea. Every vantage point is different and is usually framed by fragrant bougainvillea .

There is no room for cars in central Positano. Most of the streets are just alleyways and many of them have steps. You are either going up or going down. In Positano, you are going to get a workout, whether you want it or not.

We have never rented a car, because you can get everywhere by boat, bus, or taxi. The main road, the Amalfi Coast Highway, is two lanes. On one side you have a cliff that goes up, on the other side, a cliff that falls away dramatically, and in between you have a series of hairpin turns.

On our first visit, our friend Dagmar, who was living in Frankfurt, met us in Naples. When we arrived at La Fenice, Mandara took us down many steps to our room and deposited us on a patio with orange and blue tiles overlooking the rocky coast. To our left, we looked down on a pool with a waterfall. Beyond that was a cliff that is home to at least two goats.

While taking in the setting, Dagmar said, "Did the chancellor of Germany stay here recently?" I found it hard to believe that a head of a state would stay here, in a room lacking basic amenities like a TV set.

"Yes!" said Mandara, who proceeded to show us the trellis he had built to keep paparazzi with zoom lenses from taking pictures of the chancellor in his bathing suit.

A typical day at La Fenice begins with a walk up several flights of stairs, a dash across the highway, and up several more flights of stairs. When the bits of Beethoven, or Andrea Bocelli, or cheesy Italian songs playing on the inn's stereo system start to drown out the sound of your own breathing, you know you are almost at the top.

While catching our breath, we sit under a canopy of carob on the breakfast patio waiting for rolls, cafe latte, and fig jam made from La Fenice's fig trees.

"Buongiorno," says Angela Mandara.

"Buongiorno," echoes Salomone, a 13-year-old mynah, from a nearby cage . "Where's Harry?" squawks the bird, which then makes a sound like a cellphone ringing.

So what should we do today? Should we go to a concert in Ravello? Take a hike in Montepertuso ? Perhaps it's a beach day, which is 200 steps down, or a day spent by our pool, which has the advantage of not being 200 steps down.

Or maybe it's a lazy day, with a stroll into town to buy pottery and write postcards. We could take a boat to the beachside restaurant Da Adolfo for lunch, where we once ate the best mussels in tomato sauce we had ever had, followed by grilled fish caught that morning and squirted with juice from lemons for which the Amalfi Coast is justifiably famous.

But sometimes it is best when we put ourselves in other people's hands. At La Cambusa, Petrucci has been our waiter for the past seven years. The meal always starts with glasses of prosecco for the table, bruschetta with tomatoes, or sometimes, bruschetta with salmon or freshly caught anchovies.

"Mario, what we should eat tonight?" we say. He decides for us depending on how hungry we are.

Some nights he brings antipasti of mozzarella grilled on lemon leaves along with stuffed artichokes and grilled peppers. Then there might be the tiniest sweetest clams along with mussels sauteed in garlic and olive oil. Pasta one night could be a local dish Positano is famous for: spaghetti with zucchini. He might bring to a table a whole fish the kitchen will then bake, perhaps with potatoes. If there's dessert, it could be a profiterole, a puff pastry filled with lemony cream.

We've eaten at every other restaurant in town and we've decided that La Cambusa, while pricey, is the place for us. We always eat outside on the patio, which is basically on a town square at the edge of the beach. Our friends come and they want to try other places, so we let them. But they always end up back at La Cambusa.

However, we will make an exception for a restaurant called La Tagliata. Everybody calls it the "meat restaurant." It's the one non-seafood- focused meal we eat.

La Tagliata's van drives us up the windy road above Montepertuso. The place is rustic, one of the few filled more with Italians than tourists. The delicious and enormous meal is the same each year: antipasti of buffalo mozzarella, proscuitto , and local salami; a pasta course of ricotta-filled ravioli and cannelloni; followed by a mixed grill of lamb, rabbit, chicken, and beef accompanied by chickpeas, salad, and other vegetables. The wine is a jug of red.

Among other famous visitors to Positano was John Steinbeck. In 1953, he wrote: "Nearly always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano, your impulse is to conceal it. You think, 'If I tell, it will be crowded with tourists and they will ruin it, turn it into a honky- tonk and then the local people will get touristy and there's your lovely place gone to hell.' "

While his words have the ring of foresight, Steinbeck could not have foreseen the tourist boats that now pull up and disgorge troops of day-trip sightseers into the tiny streets of Positano.

But there are many things about what Steinbeck might call an overcrowded tourist town that we have come to love: the intricately tiled tables in the Conwinum Internet cafe; escaping into parts of the town we haven't yet explored; winding down steps that lead to paths that lead to more steps that eventually lead you to the center of town. We love the fact that from our perch at La Cambusa -- where we can see the tourists and the locals going out for dinner and with steps going down to the beach behind us -- the town feels like a movie set. We love it that the people in Positano appear genuinely happy to see us, as if Mandara gave them advance warning that we would be coming their way.

And then there's Mandara himself. He always has a new adventure for us. Last year it was a ride on a boat at night to a restaurant in Praiano that gave us sparkling views of both towns.

The year before, it was "the walk of the gods," a mountaintop hike from Montepertuso to Praiano. We passed a goatherd and asked him how many goats he had. He spoke no English. We asked him in Italian and he said, "Duecento capre." We doubted his claim of 200 . Then as we hiked on, we saw and heard them jingling on the cliffs.

This year, who knows. Something will make new memories of Positano.

Cynthia Thomas, a freelance writer in Boston, can be reached at cynthomas@verizon.net.

If You Go

Where to stay

La Fenice Via G. Marconi 4

011-39-089-875-513

fenicepositano@virgilio.it

One of the cheaper yet nicest options in Positano. The one downfall: When it's raining, you're stuck in your room. About $175 a night.

Hotel Marincanto Via Cristoforo Colombo 36

011-39-089-875-130

marincanto.it

If you don't mind entering through the parking lot, the rest of the hotel is lovely. It also is built into the cliff. You get in an elevator and it takes you down to the lobby and down to your room. From about $275-$540 a night.

Le Sirenuse Via Cristoforo Columbo 30

011-39-089-875-066

sirenuse.it

One of the most famous and swankiest hotels on the Amalfi Coast. With a pool in front of ceramic tiles, Turkish saunas, lovely dining room, and lots of places to hang out when it's raining. From about $560 to more than $4,500 a night.

Where to eat

La Cambusa Spiaggia Grande

011-39-089-875-432

Fresh local fish is the specialty, though everything is great. Other specialties include spaghetti with clams and spaghetti with zucchini. The wine list is dominated by local wines from the Campania region. A couple of courses cost about $55 a person, with wine.

Da Adolfo Spiaggia Laurito

011-39-089-875-022

daadolfo.com

The best way to reach this restaurant is by boat (a five-minute ride from the Positano dock) and it's only open for lunch. You can spend the afternoon here, swimming and eating some of the world's best mussels. About $40 a person.

La Tagliata Via Tagliata 22, Montepertuso

011-39-089-875-872

info@latagliata.com

Also known as the "meat restaurant," in a part of the country where fish reigns. Everything is cooked on a grill. And be prepared to eat large: antipasto, pasta, meat, and dessert. The restaurant will send a taxi for a ride up the mountain to Montepertuso. About $40 a person.

What to do

Visit Montepertuso

The bus ride up the mountain, which costs about $1.30, is fun just because the road becomes even more narrow than the highway, which always leads to interesting combinations of one car backing up to make way for the bus. Once you get there, there's a town square with two restaurants, a deli and a cafe.

Take a private boat

Private tours to Amalfi, Capri, and the Galli Islands start at about $130 a person for a full day that includes a multi course lunch in Nerano . Go to gennaroesalvatore.it.

Take a hike

From Positano, you can hike up to Montepertuso and then over to Nocelle. It takes about 45 minutes up to Montepertuso and it's mostly on steps. The hike to Nocelle is about a half hour. This is an easy walk, but hard on the knees because there are so many steps. Many people prefer to start in Nocelle; you can take the bus there, which runs every two hours and costs about $1.30 .

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