Friday, 7 September 2012 9:41 AM
Seen from afar, Positano appears to cling to the Amalfi Coast. With absolutely no flat land between it and the sea the town has developed on vertical rather than horizontal lines – the only town to have done so, as artist Paul Klee famously pointed out. It doesn't seem real. It doesn't seem plausible. High above, the town is dwarfed by the green and grey of the looming Italian hills.
Positano sits nestled in a corner of the bay underneath the steep slopes. And nestled in the centre of Positano is the Hotel Palazzo Murat, a four-star boutique hotel. It's close to the beach, which the town's brightly coloured houses tower over, and is reached by one of the main cobbled pathways that lead down to the water. Somewhere among the art galleries and fashionable shops is the entrance to an L-shaped villa. This 17th century Neapolitan baroque building was once the romantic getaway of a very romantic king.
Napoleon's brother-in-law chose this palace in the centre of Positano as his favoured spot for romantic getaways. Joachim Murat was a dashing figure who thought he could be the catalyst for an independent united Italy; he ended up being executed in a courtyard in Calabria. But before his grisly end he was the ruler of the kingdom of Naples. And when he wasn't fighting with the French emperor, his time in this romantic getaway was spent with his mistress.
Two centuries have passed since then, but the old building in which they used to meet has lost none of its charm. The oldest rooms, with oak beams and four-post beds, are furnished with period wardrobes, canopy beds and antique mirrors. The rest are in a newer wing; our room was one on the first-floor. The bright blue Mediterranean sea peeps out behind Positano's main church, its roof at eye-level. Vivid red bougainvillea flowers, which the hotel's walls are covered in, draw attention down to the garden below.
In the middle of so many vertiginous drops such a large flat space seems surprising. The garden is the product of a labour of love by one Donna Carmela Attanasio, whose grandfather acquired the property in 1905. It has been in the family's possession ever since, but only became a hotel in the 1950s, after Allied forces working their way up Italy against the Germans had discovered the beauties of the town.
I spoke to Vito Attanasio, Donna Carmela's nephew, who is the current manager of the hotel. Roman ruins have been discovered underneath the garden, posing new challenges as a new swimming pool is put in place. Murat would have approved. "He used to come here secretly for his love affairs," he says of the king. "Nowadays, many people are coming and celebrating honeymoons and being romantic. He has set the trend."
The garden, full of oranges and citrus trees, is certainly romantic. It is now the setting for the hotel's restaurant, open to the public as well as guests. The majolica dome of the St Mary church is framed by the blue horizon in the distance; amongst enormous tropical plants guests can enjoy the fruits of the garden's tomatoes, herbs and vegetables. The vermicelli with clams caught locally was delicious, as was the ravioli with meat and ricotta. It is a place to leave only reluctantly.
As for the garden, so for the hotel and the town itself. Positano, according to the author John Steinbeck, "is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone". Yes, Vito admits, it can become a little busy nowadays with large numbers of tourists. But his hotel provides a refuge from all that. When he returns from his own holidays, he's always "shocked" by the beauty of the place. "I come back and fall in love with my place again and again," he says. The rest of the world – the real world – seems a very long way away.
By Alex Stevenson
For more information on Hotel Palazzo Murat visit the hotel's website.