Positano, Italy, September 2011
I’m sitting out on the terrace of the pensione, complaining aloud in the full sun. Last night I’d peered over the ledge at the lemon and olive trees, the tiled terraces and bright white roofs. The faint voice of a thrush had caught my ear, and the familiar dark, scuttling figure of a blackbird darted across a building about twenty-five-feet below. But there was something unusual about the blackbird. The light was low and so darker tones fell to black. However, this was not a wholly black bird and I entertained the thought – could it be a blue rock thrush? I was unprepared for it, so unrefined is my knowledge of anything non-British and unfamiliar. From the viewpoint of our pensione, the houses, hotels, gardens and restaurants, immaculately packed together, are built like steps to the sky with the sweeping curve of the only road in the town cutting through them, linking Positano to Naples and Sorrento to the north and Amalfi in the south. Above all this stands dry, steep and rocky mountains with deep green woodlands below the peaks. Helicopters are taking turns to pour water from the ocean onto a forest fire that has erupted in the southern peaks. It has been going on all night, the choppers roaring, their sound unbearably loud in this mid-30 degree heat. On the terrace I watch the heat rise as the morning nears noon, the choppers ferrying water from ocean to mountain. From beneath me a butterfly emerges, and it’s the beast of European butterflies, the swallowtail, flitting between the railings like a twenty-pound note.
Having had the shadow of a swallowtail pass over me, down into the depths of the gardens where the mystery bird had scampered, I decide to investigate its flight path. I’m here for my uncle’s wedding. It’s a big family holiday and so I have relatives scattered around all corners of the town. Had they all been ornithologists or lepidopterists things might be easier for me. There’s the rumour of a path or set of stairs that runs for nearly half a mile from our pensione down to the beach. My uncle, the groom, tried it and nearly died, apparently. My sister, fresh from travels in India, walked it the other day and says there are ‘loads of butterflies’. She mentioned colours which don’t even appear in my rubbish field guide. The image in my mind is of clouds of blues dancing amid the nu-rave hue of Mediterranean wildflowers.
The temperature touches 35 degrees by 2 or 3pm, and so it becomes a time of hibernation. It feels too hot even to think, to speak. The steps down to the beach, some 400 or so, begin by a chapel outside the pensione. A black priest enters through the old wooden doors, sending an SMS with his mobile as he walks, never looking up. The stairs aren’t uniform, they dip and swerve, the height of an individual slab varying and inducing vertiginous feelings. Streaming between old, old walls the path echoes with the slap of thin, rubbery footwear and suddenly a burst of pink lanterns, bougainvillea flowers which are so evident, climbing across the blistering walls of Positano. It’s September so some are turning to seed, they appear tea-stained. The stairs descend past the front doors of people’s houses and iron gates which offer tantalising visions of Italian ornamental gardens. On the rough surface of the waist high walls either side, lizards rest and escape. They give themselves away quite easily – the sound of brittle leaves dislodged in the cavity of a wall, by neither wind nor gravity. Ants channel the iron handrails. The sun is so hot and so high, my legs tremble when I look up.
The steps snake round and flatten into a slope, I sit down in the shade of an olive tree and waft my hat about my face. A woman and a young man, probably her son, are climbing up the steps. She is visibly sweating, I smile at her and attempt a universal gesture for overheating. She’s a typical Italian mama, portly with dark hair and a cloth dress. She’s out of breath and looks at me like the stranger that I am. A man is watering his garden behind the iron railings. I sit and wait for butterflies. The olive trees pool at their bases, as if they’ve been melted by the sun. The larger oliver groves have nets tied around their trunks, ready to be rolled out in season to catch the falling fruit. It’s not time yet. In the sun of the path’s slope, a lemon tree dangles over from a garden, plump with yellow fruits. Great umbrellas of fennel grow on the perilous bank beyond the wall and a white butterfly lands to feed on one plant. I photograph it and zoom in on the crop. Positano is home to white butterflies as London is to pigeons, mostly the small white, Europe’s most common butterfly. The one I’ve pictured isn’t a small white, however. It has dark markings on the wings, a little like a marbled white, but more like a bath white. In my head I swiftly establish this perilous walkway as Positano’s first wildlife conservation area. Peering over the wall at the olives and dry grasses, there is the usual sign of plastic bottles and bags discarded. This, however, doesn’t compare with the crap around Naples airport.
The heat is getting too much for me, I glance at the steep steps back up to the hotel. I let in the murmurings of hot panic. From the lemon tree garden the gigantic shape of a swallowtail soars down onto the path and over the wall, just like it passed over our terrace. I rush out to try and get a photo but it’s too quick and I’m too far from it. Against the rocky wall a brimstone glides, a flash of orange on its outer wing. This is no normal brimstone. I look at my field guide. It’s Cleopatra’s. The sun pulsates. I dive back into the shade. The Mediterranean glimmers blue in between the olive branches holding ripening fruits, Tunisia and Algeria beyond the horizon. People have been passing me, comfortable with the sun rays, on their way down to the beach. It’s 1:30pm, the hottest part of the day. I guzzle from my water bottle and make my way back up the steps to hide.