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All eyes on Italy
Make Sorrento your base for day trips around a peninsula that looks like a painting
Down narrow streets from the Italian town of Sorrento, the tiny harbour of Marina Grande slumbered in the late October sunshine. Fishing dinghies that were at work before dawn netting sardines and anchovies were drawn up on the beach, their owners chatting nearby. A cruise ship lurked offshore in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, but few passengers ever find their way here from the town. There are no souvenir shops, just a few restaurants; none of them were busy, even though it was warm enough to lunch on the patios outside.
Marina Grande is a 15-minute walk from the centre of Sorrento, so the end of the tourist season was even more apparent there. Visitors were thinning everywhere and it was a great time to use the town as a perfect base for touring an area rich in history and natural beauty. Pompeii and Herculaneum, the island of Capri, Naples, the Amalfi coast and the Greek temples of Paestum are all within an easy day’s reach of Sorrento. All you need to do is find a nice hotel, unpack once and stay for 10 days or so. And what’s not to like about a town with not one, but two restaurants dedicated to local diva Sophia Loren?
Pompeii and Herculaneum
It’s impossible to truly appreciate Pompeii, caught in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE (and 45-minute train ride from Sorrento), without walking its cobblestone streets: streets that still bear the wheel ruts of carriages made over seven centuries before being covered in as much as 20 metres of scalding lava.
Courtyards of gracious homes still have mosaic pavements and wall paintings. Perhaps most astonishing in a city the size of Owen Sound, Ontario, however, is the spacious Forum. A plaza barred to wheeled traffic that was bounded by temples and law courts, it served as the city’s principal market. With the fall of the Roman Empire the world would not witness such well-ordered cities for a thousand years or more.
Herculaneum, a former seaside resort, is much smaller than Pompeii, but arguably offers a better understanding of what daily life was like in Roman times. It’s also better preserved.
In one villa, for example, an astonishing sliding door of carbonised chestnut wood is almost intact. While many mural paintings have been revealed, mosaics had a better chance of surviving. Particularly beautiful is the mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite in Room 10.
A guide joked that Herculaneum’s artifacts are in the museum that doesn’t exist. “A new building is ready, but there’s no money to open it,” he shrugged. “People in other countries have a better chance of seeing our treasures than we do.”
The most repeated comment of a Pompeii guide, pointing to an artifact, was: “Of course this isn’t the original. That’s in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.” Reason enough to spend at least a day in the city (an hour-train ride from Sorrento; beware of pickpockets).
The museum has the world’s greatest collection of artifacts from ancient Rome, and the finest finds from both Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Alexander Mosaic, from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, is not to be missed.
Too often Naples has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Rife with crime and corruption, the densely populated city had become virtually ungovernable with mountains of uncollected garbage clogging the streets. Fortunately, a new mayor has been working hard to clean things up — including the garbage — but many UNESCO sites are in sad repair and the bus service recently ran out of gas. On the bright side, stations of the subway system (which Neapolitans say will never be finished) have become stunning galleries of contemporary art.
A 20-minute fast ferry ride from Sorrento, Capri is certainly worth a day trip — more if you have the time. But it’s become the place for the rich and famous to see and be seen so prices are much higher than in Sorrento.
Ferries arrive at Marina Grande on the island. From the harbour a funicular climbs to the town of Capri and shuttle buses climb the cliffside to Anacapri. Near the drop-off point at the Piazza Vittoria, a chairlift can take you to the highest point on the island for spectacular views over the impossibly aquamarine sea.
But you might want to take a pass on the famed Blue Grotto. The sun shining through the water casts a vivid colour of blue in the cave, but to get there you’ll likely endure a long wait — especially if a cruise ship is in — before transferring to a small rowboat so that you can squeeze into the grotto for just a few moments. Better value is a boat trip from Marina Grande around the entire island.
More rewarding than the Grotto is San Michele, a dazzling white villa perched high above the Bay of Naples in Anacapri. It was built by Axel Munthe, a Swedish physician born in 1857. While working in southern Italy during typhoid, cholera and earthquake disasters, Munthe came across the ruined Tiberian property. With the help of a local family, and doing much of the work himself, Munthe uncovered skeletons, ancient coins and long hidden mosaics as his new home took shape. When Munthe ran low on funds, he set up a practice in Rome serving foreign dignitaries and neighbourhood families. In 1929 he published The Story of San Michele, a hugely popular memoir of his fascinating life that has been called one of the best loved books of the 20th century.
Before heading back to Sorrento, put on your dark glasses and take a seat at an outdoor table in the Piazza Umberto I back in Capri town. This fashionable plaza, known simply as the Piazzetta, is the heart of the island and sooner or later everyone goes there.
The Greek temples of Paestum (about 100 kilometres south of Sorrento) are ignored by many visitors and that’s a pity. Getting there by train and then bus is time-consuming, however, so instead pick up a day bus tour in Sorrento with a guide.
Paestum’s peaceful rural setting is in utter contrast to pollution-ridden Athens where crowds go to see the crumbling Parthenon. In Paestum, there’s a light breeze from the sea and the only sounds are of songbirds. Other than a few lizards, we almost had the site to ourselves. It’s this quiet atmosphere that makes Paestum so compelling.
In the Middle Ages a malaria epidemic drove people from Paestum and the temples were forgotten until rediscovered by a road building crew in the 18th century. Built in the 5th and 6th centuries BCE, the three Paestum temples are the finest Doric structures in existence. With heavy columns and squat capitals, the superb Temple of Poseidon appears less graceful than the Parthenon with its taller and more slender columns, but it’s much more complete. It’s unique in still having an internal colonnade surmounted by smaller columns to support the roof. And if you have time for lunch, there’s nowhere better to sample the local buffalo mozzarella cheese. The water buffalo here live a charmed life. To get better milk at the nearby Tenuta Vannulo Buffalo Farm they are gently massaged and relax to classical music each afternoon. There’s no word on what the effects of listening to Justin Bieber rather than Mozart might do to the quality of the cheese.
Positano and the Amalfi coast
In 1953 John Steinbeck wrote: “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” Lucky John Steinbeck to have seen it before the Amalfi coast became one of Italy’s most popular attractions. Regardless, it’s still a “must-do” trip from Sorrento and in late October most of the crowds have gone.
The best way to get there is by local bus, which drops passengers above the village. Forget about renting a car. It’s a hair-raising road and parking is almost impossible.
Half the fun is getting to the beach down stepped alleys and staircases lined with cafés, bars and galleries. Shops sell ceramics, linen, handmade sandals and more things than you can imagine made from lemons. Looking back from the beach, the pastel coloured houses climbing the cliff are crammed together in a single organic form. Steinbeck’s words still ring true.
After a leisurely cappuccino, one option is to take a small boat along the coast to Amalfi. The morning sun gleams on the cliffs and terraces of lemon groves cling to the sides of the valleys. Close to Amalfi, the guide will invariably say, “That beautiful house on the left is the former summer home of Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti.”
Amalfi harbour is busy with ferries from Capri and Positano. A few metres inland the stunning polychrome Duomo at the top of a flight of steps overlooks the Piazza Duomo. If it’s time for lunch restaurants along the Via Pietro Capuano will be happy to serve up marinated anchovies and sea bass sautéed with the best tomatoes you’ve ever tasted.
Just east of Amalfi is the quiet little town of Ravello, situated on a terrace high above the sea with stunning views of the coast from the gardens of the Villa Rufolo. Among the many artists who found inspiration in Ravello, German composer Richard Wagner said that he found the garden of Klingsor in Parsifal at the Villa Rufolo.
At the end of these day trips go back to Sorrento each evening. Have an aperitif in the Piazza Tasso. Walk the now familiar lanes back to your hotel and maybe return to a favourite restaurant. And, on your final evening, head for the Villa Comunale for a last look over the Bay of Naples as lights twinkle below the outline of Vesuvius. All you need to make you cry is the distant strains of that song urging you to “Come Back to Sorrento.”
Oh, and did I mention that in the far distance is Pozzuoli where Sophia… I did? Sorry!
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