If these walls could talk: Le Sirenuse turns 70

The original Positano haunt is celebrating seven decades — but it's just as lively and lovely as ever...

There’s a man walking around Le Sirenuse with a paintbrush and a pot of white emulsion. Sit long enough by the pool and you’ll see him twice. Every six hours — come rain or shine, hell or high water, influencer or honeymooner— this quiet, dedicated figure completes a somber, pensive lap of the world’s loveliest hotel. He is looking for nicks, in the parlance of his trade — scuffs, marks, blemishes, smudges; the hourly wear and tear that dropped Persols and posing girlfriends might bring about. (And he carries a portable ‘Wet Paint’ sign with him wherever he goes, in elegant serif font, lest someone gets litigious over a Missoni kaftan.) There is a Zen-like calm to it all — like one of those Buddhist monks who spends an entire day crafting an intricate, perfectly symmetrical floor sculpture made of sand, only to watch the evening winds blow it all gently away. The task is never done — a painty Sisyphus rolling his boulder constantly up the hill. (Only the hills here are far lovelier, and hum and whine with grandmothers on Vespas who really wouldn’t think twice about laming an errant Californian.) This vigil tells you all you need to know about Le Sirenuse — an institution which remains improbably pure and sweetly caring, while the rest of the world grows murkier and more disinterested by the fortnight. “Nearly always when you find a place as beautiful as Positano, your impulse is to conceal it,” wrote John Steinbeck, whose words are unavoidable in these parts, like Kafka in Prague. It’s 68 years since the writer first visited the town, and 70 years since Le Sirenuse originally became a hotel. And the impulse on such an anniversary is simply to shut the hell up before it’s too late. 

The word, however, is out. You’ll have seen Le Sirenuse on Instagram because it is more photogenic than God. Its handsome form cascades down over the cluttered hillside of Positano in shapes of piercing white, overripe terracotta and flashes of a very specific turquoise that only seems to exist down here, and there is a sense that all the other buildings in town have aimed at this look and missed. The hotel itself was just a single house when it first opened in 1951. But in the decades since, the neighbouring buildings have been happily subsumed into the body of Le Sirenuse, which means everything has a pleasingly warrenous feel, and you’re never sure, in some tipsy way, of what floor you’re on at any given time. (The lobby, by way of illustration, is on floor four of six. I think.)

In the early 1950s, the palazzo was the summer retreat of the aristocratic Sersale family from Naples, and Positano itself was little more than a fishing village, barely reachable by the switchback mountain roads that the Nazis missed. Marchese Paolo Sersale became mayor of the town in 1944, aged 25, and Steinbeck remembers him as “an archaeologist, a philosopher and an administrator,” who “dresses in tired slacks, a sweater and sandals” and “holds court anywhere he is.” Soon, Paolo decided to throw open the doors of the family pile to the elegant grand tourers of the era and a few returning Americans from the War, who came to show their sweethearts the little idyll they’d found among the horror. (One taxi driver told us, with quiet authority, that this probably accounts for the enduring American presence in the town. Two important but unrelated facts about our impromptu guide: he drinks 12 espressos a day, and just the week before had driven Kendall Jenner around but didn’t know who she was.)

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