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Italy's Slow Cities

I can attest that Positano's natural ability to seduce is intact. It suffers, however, from the cumulative effects of that good fortune: the year-round population of 4,000 swells to more than 12,000 in summer, creating a conga line of cars inching through town. Hence the decision to discourage traffic by liberating overnight tourists from their rental cars and forcing day-trippers to park far from the center of town. "In the summer I don't see my car for three months," declared Lorenzo Cinque, the owner of my hotel, Albergo Casa Albertina, without adding what he obviously meant: So don't whine over losing yours for a few days. Having wrestled my keys away, Cinque, who also serves as Positano's tourism coordinator and a liaison to the Slow Cities organization, showed me the best shortcut to the beach--by stairs.

At the foot of the steps (I lost count at around 420) an old fisherman was smoking a cigarette in the February sun while making winter repairs to his nets. He wasn't the only one preparing for the coming season. Throughout town, construction workers, painters, and electricians were working against the clock--all major repairs to businesses and homes here take place in the off-season. On the beach, faced by a series of open-air restaurants, a group of schoolchildren were playing soccer. Would this be the kids' last match before the beach was overrun by visitors?Cinque had told me the town was in a fight to maintain its age-old lifestyle. "Positano is the real challenge for the Slow Cities movement," he said.

Part of the way it is meeting this challenge is by applying strict traffic laws and a 58-decibel noise limit on restaurants and clubs. Coming from New York, I could applaud such rules, but did the locals resent them?I'd read that some residents of Greve in Chianti, whose mayor, Paolo Saturnini, founded the Cittˆ Slow organization, feel overwhelmed by visitors who come to experience Slow living. That wasn't Positano's complaint--its tourist problem started long before Slow Cities. Here, the controversy was over the mayor's recent proposal to ban Vespas during peak hours, an idea about as Italian as, well, a Big Mac.

"Slow Cities imposes certain laws, which is difficult in an individualistic country like Italy," explained Antonio Sersale, the general manager of Le Sirenuse, one of Positano's premier hotels. "Everyone is out for himself." Opened in 1951 by Antonio's uncle Paolo Sersale, Le Sirenuse, more than anything, launched Positano's worldwide reputation. The hotel sits majestically above the Gulf of Salerno; the lobby, with its stone walls painted a crisp white and its ornate tile floor, exudes Mediterranean plushness. Sersale and I were standing by the pool, overlooking the islets where, legend has it, the sirens for whom the hotel is named once lured sailors to their deaths.

I asked Sersale about something I'd discovered on my walk up to the hotel. Several boutiques were selling the handmade resort wear for which Positano is known--exactly the sort of cottage industry that Slow Cities is supposed to champion. But each time I popped into a store to ask about the movement, I was greeted with a blank look. Finally, one shop owner seemed to recognize the word. "Slow?" she said. "This is Positano, of course we are slow! There's no pressure to run around in this town."

Sersale wasn't surprised. Having worked in the United States for many years, he knows life both in a Slow City and in the fast lane. The local people take their way of life for granted, he said. They have very little sense that it could be in jeopardy.

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