Songs of Sorrento

Sorrento, the elegant grande dame of Italian resorts, is a perfect spot from which to explore Naples, Pompeii, the romantic island of Capri and the Amalfi Coast.

Sorrento has long been a favourite of Irish holidaymakers and its laid back atmosphere justifies its popularity. Just south of the city of Naples and north of the magestic Amalfi coastline there are a myriad of opportunities to explore the surrounds or you can just relax and enjoy the Mezzogiorno (Southern Italian) famed hospitality and excellent cuisine.

There is plenty to do in Sorrento, but the most pleasurable is to just relax over a meal or drink at one of the restaurants or bars. It retains some of its elegant almost colonial feel with narrow streets, elegant architecture and those painted changing cabins and umbrellas down at the Marina Grande. Your hotel, if you are lucky, is likely to be perched on a clifftop with sweeping views of the Bay of Naples.

Most tourists don’t venture into the city of Naples and they often miss out on what is a fascinating, if a bit rundown, city. The old adage “See Naples and die” may leave some people in puzzlement as to why bother at all, but the place does have a certain rustic charm and excellent museums. The old part of the city remains almost medieval with dark narrow streets and buildings that seem ready to crumble. The pedestrianised street of Spaccanapoli cuts the historic centre of Naples in two and is where you should spend most of your time exploring. This is where you can get a real flavour of local life as it is lived out on these ancient streets filled with Italian flags and washing hanging from balcony windows. The old Quartiere Spagnoli, on the far side of Via Toledo, is a place where you need to be particularly vigilant during the day (don’t go in here at night!) as crime is a problem.

Two museums in Naples are a must for any tour itinerary of the city. The Museum of Anthropology contains the excavated treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum and helps put that trip out to the ruins in perspective. The second is in the Capidomonte Palace and it contains some priceless works of art. Some of the Neapolitan churches and monasteries are also national treasures. The Gesu Novo church has an interior that is an opulent blaze of gold ornament. A little further on is the 14th century Santa Chiara monastery with the painted majolica cloisters of the Poor Clare nuns. This is the place for some peaceful respite from the chaos of the city.  The main cathedral on Via Duomo is also worth checking out, especially to see the small church dedicated to Saint Gennaro the patron saint of the city. Two dramatic castles dominate the Naples seafront, the Castle Nuovo in front of the harbour and the older Castell del’Ovo (egg castle) along the promenade called the Lungomare.

The influence of the Vesuvius volcano on the region is obvious, as it dominates most of the views south from Naples. It lies dormant like a great sleeping violent giant. Vesuvius is inactive and the climb up to the rim is not as rewarding and risky as a climb up the side of the currently lava-belching Mount Etna, the Sicilian volcano. The two towns (Pompeii and Herculaneum) that were buried under a previous Vesuvius eruption are definitely worth a visit. Pompeii is much more famous as it was a much bigger town (you might get lost wandering around) and there is much more to see with some of the original extravagant frescoes and mosaics still intact and on their original walls and floors. But Herculaneum (called Ercolano now) has still more treasure hidden away as only half of it has been excavated to date. Both provide a fascinating insight into ancient Roman life.

From the Marina Piccola in Sorrento you can catch a hydrofoil out to the island of Capri. Immortalised in legend and by the glamour of its former residents (including Roman Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, Oscar Wilde and Gracie Fields to name but a few), Capri is a jewel in the azure Tyrrhenian Sea. But it is a popular jewel and it does not escape, rather it attracts, the tourist hordes that come here on daytrips. The main attractions are the Piazzeta or town square of Capri Town (it has been called Italy’s most public living room), the Il Faraglioni rocks (on every postcard), and the magical blue grotto. To experience the true magic of the place you have to either get up really early in the morning before any of the tourist boats arrive or perhaps plan a visit out of season.

There is not a more spectacular drive in all of Italy than the thirty or so miles along the Amalfi coastline. The vertiginous ribbon of a road skirts along the edge of steep cliffs and towns are glued to rock above an azure sea that is thousands of feet straight down below you. To say Italian drivers behave with an abandon that seems to place little emphasis on the value of remaining alive is an understatement. There is no logical reason why they don’t plunge en masse to a watery grave, but they don’t. If you are brave enough to hire a car you will be rewarded if you look precariously over the edge now and then to see one of those most spectacular stretches of coastline on the planet.

The first major town en route southwards is Positano. You can’t drive into the centre as the streets are too narrow and steep. So you need to park you car and head down steps and through cobbled streets to its famed beach, which is the only piece of flat ground in town. The best view of the town is when you look back up at the pastel-coloured cubed houses, which seem to defy gravity. It is a lovely place but it has attracted an exclusive wealthy set with large yachts and has thus lost a bit of its former charm. Thus everything is a little pricey and the atmosphere somewhat pretentious and if you stay in Praiano, a few miles south, you will get better value and a little more authenticity as it is still a working fishing village.

Amalfi was the oldest maritime republic in Italy, but now it is one of its most popular tourist resorts. A little more accessible than other Amalfi coast towns, it can get crowded in high season. The focal point of the town is the multi-patterned cathedral (il duomo).

Ravello at the southern end of the coastline is a magical place with sensational views. The highlights of the medieval town, apart from the vistas, are the two villas – Rufolo and Cimbrone. The garden of Villa Rufolo, more like a castle, is filled with old cypresses and pines and a terraced garden filled with flowers. The terraced garden seems suspended from the sky above the gulf of Salerno and it has a view that inspired Wagner to write an opera. An English Lord built Villa Cimbrone and the garden is also the special attraction. At the end of the sculpture garden is the Infinity Terrace with a line of busts of Roman emperors. You can see why it gets its “infinity” name on a clear day, as the colour of the sky and sea merge into one and the blue in front of you seems to stretch forever and beyond.


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