Sorrento, Italy is ‘the best place on earth’

Sorrento is a terrific base to explore the likes of Pompeii and the Isle of Capri, says Tony Clayton-Lea.

Sorrento, Italy is ‘the best place on earth’

It’s one of those winding, snaking uphill drives from Naples airport along the coast to the small town of Sorrento.

Our taxi driver is telling us that we’re part of the first wave of tourists to the town, and that he’s looking forward to making some money by the end of the summer season.

It seems that from October to April, Sorrento is a native-only zone. That, or a place for stray visitors with hopes of some winter warmth. And so Mr Taxi Driver is happy.

He tells us he’s from Sorrento, which is, he proudly relates, the best place on earth.

We wonder what he does during the winter months — work in nearby Naples, perhaps?

A cloud covers his face, and his answer is short and to the point: “No way, I make sure I save enough money to get me through the winter months, and if I need more I can always work a night or two at a bar or restaurant.”

As we leave Naples behind in our rear view mirror (we know it has a reputation, but if even the locals don’t want to work there, then maybe we won’t pop in for a day’s look-see), the coastal line stretches ahead.

The twists and turns — and a couple of the longest tunnels you’ll ever drive through — acclimatise us quickly to the sense of giddiness we’ll be experiencing over the next few days.

As will the drive itself, which is spectacular as it takes us on narrow bridges over steep gorges, past quiet villages and swanky cliff face villas.

We check into our hotel (see Panel), and then head out into the town; an early flight means we’re tired and hungry, and so what better way to replenish than to walk a few minutesto the town square.

It’s the epicenter of Sorrento, a crossroads that is garnished with restaurants and bars, as well as the usual network of gift shops.

It sounds tacky, but it isn’t, and we think the reason for this is because of the size of the town. It’s large enough to make you want to stay for a few days but small enough not to be overrun by too many visitors.

And, besides, there is a scent of jasmine that infiltrates the senses to an almost heady degree.

Fresh breads, cheeses, a carafe of wine, and it isn’t even 2pm. A good start to the weekend? Oh, yes.

From the next morning, we quickly discover that Sorrento is more a terrific base for further exploration than a fascinating place to stay put (it’s beautiful to stroll around calmly at night, but there isn’t too much to do or see during the day).

This is good, we reckon, for the likes of Positano, Pompeii and the Isle of Capri are minutes away.

One tip we learned from even casual observation is that if you’re the kind of tourist that likes to pay through the nose for bus tours to Positano and Pompeii, then away you go.

Taking the train from Sorrento train station costs you much less, you’re there just as quickly, and you can leave as and when you like.

This said, we decide not to traipse over to Positano — we have three days here, and don’t want to go tourist-crazy if we don’t have to. Pompeii and the Isle of Capri, however, are must-sees for us.

The former (now almost a suburb of Naples, such is the urban sprawl of that city) is beautifully preserved, and quite overwhelming.

What is truly amazing, however, is the size and intactness of Pompeii — it’s huge, with houses, street cobblestones, even drains, preserved as if the past 2,000 years hadn’t existed.

As you walk along the central avenue, you can see the side streets left and right, and everything is lined with houses and buildings.

It is, not to emphasize it too much, a very strange experience — an ancient ghost town, discovered in the mid-18th century by the Bourbon rulers of Naples — that looks peculiarly contemporary.

When we say contemporary, perhaps what we really mean is how little has changed — there are embalmed restaurants here with tiny pizza-like ovens; the larger houses have big gardens and baths. There is even a brothel with very graphic wall paintings. Up Pompeii, indeed.

The next day we make our way to the small harbour for a ferry trip to the Isle of Capri.

Sadly, we are captive tourists, and so are obliged to pay €35 per return ticket for a 20-minute ferry trip — there is no way out of it: if you don’t cough up the cash, then you don’t go.

Even sadder to say that when we landed on the isle of Capri, we weren’t too impressed.

It looks lovely, of course — as any island languishing off the Sorrentine Peninsula would — but we felt underwhelmed from the very beginning.

There seemed to be more tourists than residents, and those that worked in shops (many of which were of the high-end variety) appeared to have, even before the height of the tourist season, a weariness about them that was understandable if off-putting.

We strolled high and low, and had a pitifully poor lunch in La Palette Ristorante, which had amazing views of the bay but little else. We walked back to the harbour, where we waited for the ferry back to Sorrento, and paid €9 for two small coffees.

We were, dear readers, royally ripped off with those prices, but it seems Capri still clings desperately to its former status as a compact arena for 60s/70s Hollywood royalty. The truth is that it’s as dated as a used stamp.

Back in Sorrento for the final day and night, we drift around with the smell of jasmine and lemon in the air (as well as seeing actual lemons the size of melons).

We chance upon a side street restaurant that is just divine, order wonderful food and heady wine, relax, and say what too many people say at such moments: we’ll be back. But you know what? We’ve booked our flights already.

For further details about Sorrento visit: www.enit.it

www.sorrentotourism.com

capritourism.com

GETTING THERE

Where to eat

Two options here — budget and blowout. The former is Tavern Allegra (Via Della Pieta, off Piazza Tasso, www.tavernallegra.com ), which is a simple traditional regional restaurant with an added bonus: the owner serenades you as you eat.

Corny? A bit, but it’s great fun. Great food, too. You want blowout? Try Il Buco, 2a Rampa Marina Piccola, off Piazza San Antonino, www.ilbucoristorante.it

This is a high-end, fine-dining establishment that takes itself very seriously, with an indoor basement (vaulted) section that is worthy of a Bond movie. Make sure to budget up for this one. it’s pricey but worth every euro.

Where to stay

We stayed at the 5-star Grand Hotel La Favorita (Via Tasso Angolo, Piazza Vittorio, www.hotellafavorita.com ), which is no more than several minutes walk from the centre of things, but which is also hidden away from everything that could disturb a good night’s sleep.

The Bay of Naples is the backdrop, and though we didn’t really have time to make use of its superbly located rooftop swimming pool, we made sure to pay a visit to its bar, which is as classy as they come.

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