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Italy's Slow Cities

I'd been in Positano barely 10 minutes and already the challenge of parking my rental car had given me a bigger headache than a month's worth of alternate-side searches in New York. Positano may be the most celebrated town on Italy's Amalfi Coast, but it's no joy to drive in. The town is set precariously on a cliffside, its white and pink houses rising from the sea in tiers like a giant wedding cake. One single-lane, one-way street runs through it, and by the time I'd unloaded my bags and carried them to the hotel, a line of 20 cars was reaching all the way up the hill. I was saved by the hotel owner, who freed me from my motorized albatross and whisked it away to some hidden garage.

It could have been worse. Had I arrived in high season, May through October, the police would have fined me $100 for blocking traffic. That's just one of the rules Positano has enacted since becoming a founding member of Cittˆ Slow, or Slow Cities, an organization aimed at preserving the quality of life in Italy's small towns. Yes, it's ironic: in order to ensure "slowness," Positano insists that you keep moving. This, as I was to discover, is only one of the ironies of a movement that's trying to codify the unwritten rules of la dolce vita.

Slow Cities was founded in 1999, but its roots are in Slow Food, an eco-gastronomic group established 16 years ago by Carlo Petrini, a journalist and activist. Petrini was protesting the opening of a McDonald's next to the Spanish Steps in Rome--and what he presciently identified as the surge of a global fast-food culture. He published a manifesto that read, in part, "We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, invades the privacy of our homes, and forces us to eat Fast Foods"-- a phrase directed not just at McDonald's, but at a world that had forgotten what it's like to succumb to the rich, all-enveloping experience of leisurely dining.

Over time, Petrini's movement grew into a global force of its own, with 70,000 members working worldwide to preserve such traditional foods as Piedmontese veal, Sicilian goat cheese, and Chilean quinoa. Positano and 22 like-minded municipalities in Italy have taken the philosophy a step further, applying it to all aspects of urban living. Member cities must have a population under 50,000 and adhere to a raft of policies aimed at two principal goals. The first is to maintain a pleasing pace and tone for city life by reducing motorized traffic, banning car alarms, and restoring old buildings before constructing new ones. The second is to promote the traditional foods, wines, and crafts of participating towns. By creating a united front, Slow Cities believes it can guarantee the survival of its members' artisanal endeavors--cheese making, ham curing, embroidery--even as they struggle against the Krafts and Starbucks of the world.

The places that i planned to visit--Positano, Orvieto, and Chiavenna--represent the different strengths of the Slow Cities model. Positano is trying to maintain a serene way of life while upholding its reputation as one of Europe's premier resorts. Orvieto, in Umbria, is working to protect its traditional foods and wines from the global marketplace--and its medieval walled center from the effects of mass tourism. And Chiavenna, in the Italian Alps, has saved a unique local product, a cured goat's-leg ham, from obsolescence, even turning it into a financial success. Like all Slow Cities, the three hew closely to a consummate image of Italian life. Their piazzas have pretty little cafés, the espresso comes with the perfect schiuma, handmade pasta is exactly al dente. Positano still has the striking azure sea, jet black sand, and fresh seafood that John Steinbeck rhapsodized about in 1953, when it was a mere fishing village. "Positano bites deep," he wrote in Harper's Bazaar. "It is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone."

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