As one of the world’s most beautiful and historic countries, Italy is an unforgettable experience. Some years ago I was fortunate enough to spend roughly three weeks touring the country. Not only was I overwhelmed with the culture, art, architecture and romance, but Italy offered a beautiful kaleidoscope of regions with unique experiences in food and wine.
Getting from Rome to Sorrento, a coastal peninsula looking out towards the Amalfi Coast in Italy’s southern region of Campania, is an experience. The easiest way to travel is by train, and I took a train from Roma Termini to Napoli Centrale before catching a connecting Circumvesuviana at Naples to get to Sorrento. The Circumvesuviana also stops at Pompeii, Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius, all of which I was eager to see during my time in the south. While our train to Naples was reasonably comfortable and allowed us a seat for the journey, the Circumvesuviana is anything but; graffitied, rickety and crowded with tourists commuting around the region. It has a reputation for being a good place for ‘pickpockets’ and ‘hoodlums’ so keep a close eye on your luggage and other personal belongings. But this method of travel is far less expensive that booking a bus tour, and the journey takes roughly 40 minutes.
As my time in Sorrento would close the curtain on my Italian experience, a full week had been planned and a studio apartment located in the heart of Sorrento booked.
Located on the second floor of an ancient building, with dumbwaiter for luggage but no lift, the apartment shared its entrance with the owner and looked out over Corso Italia near Piazza Tasso, Sorrento’s main square. A perfect location.
The piazza takes its name from a local poet, a statue of which can be found there, and is located high along the Amalfi coastline affording breathtaking views of the city as it unwinds below and the seascapes beyond. A number of roads veer offPiazza Tasso, making it a focal point for tourists and locals alike. In the evenings, as the working day would come to an end, the pizza would come to life and people would flock to the centre for evening strolls along the cobblestone streets. The outdoor atmosphere is definitely one to be embraced in Sorrento.
Although gelati can be found anywhere throughout Italy, it was in Sorrento that I consumed more than my fair share (and it was delicious). As I walked the narrow stoned streets down hills and terraces, and through the city’s many secluded parks, there was nothing better than holding a cone of smooth gelati in one hand and taking photographs of the spectacular views with the other.
The Sorrento locals proudly display the notable and noble members of the past and I passed many busts and statues on my daily walks. One such statue was that of St Francis positioned outside in front of the Chiesa di San Francesco. The church was restored in the 1600 and 1700s and is more modern in its architecture than many of the other landmarks of Sorrento. A convent and cloister adjoining the church are both dedicated to St Francis, and make this place delightfully tranquil to visit.
Looking down at the sparkling blue sea, teeming with sea life, is more than a little inviting (especially if you’re travelling in the warmer months like I was), and from the church views of both the Marina Piccolo and the Marina Grande can be seen. Marina Grande feels very much like like a small fishing village, and has a number of seaside restaurants. Contrary to its name the Marina Piccolo (which translates to ‘small’ port) is actually the main transport hub for those wishing to catch a ferry along the Amalfi Coast to Capri, Ischia or Naples.
From Sorrento, I joined a tourist bus to Pompeii, the partially-buried town near modern Naples, and Monte Vesuvio, the still-active volcano that erupted in AD 79 and destroyed and buried both Pompeii and Herculaneum. I’m not sure there are words to describe the beauty of Pompeii and how serious excavation work dating back to the 18th century has revealed a city petrified in time.
The most impressive and intact Roman ruins are located in the western area. Walking through the Porta Marina entrance I walked many of the original and important roads through ancient Pompeii where cobbled paths had been worn away by horse and cart merchants, on the via del Foro was the Sacrarium of the Lares that once housed the statues of the city’s guardians deitities, and at the via degli Augustali was Pompeii’s main marketplace where remnants of the porticos and kiosks that fronted this section of the city still remain. Delicate excavation of the site has unearthed carbonised loaves of bread, vases, sculptures and other artefacts, paintings and even grafitti on street walls, but nothing prepared me for the perfectly preserved casts of those who died.
Mount Vesuvius is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted in the last 100 years, but fortunately for me that was way back in 1944. There are occasional rumbles and minor earthquakes, Mount Vesuvius is one of the most dangerous volcanoes, so I must have had a bowl of ‘Brave’ for breakfast on the day I decided to climb the mountain.
A road zig-zags through densely covered ‘bushland’ as we ascend our way towards the volcano, but on clearing the incredible views of Naples all the way back to Sorrento could be seen. The bus pulls in to a parking area, which is the closest point to the volcano one can get in a car; the rest would be on foot, and a shop selling water and walking sticks came in handy for some. The trail to the top takes roughly 45 minutes and steadily rises over loose gravel and unsettled dirt. Now was not the time to be precious about one’s appearance! Let’s face it anyway, the small puffs of steam that had made their way up from the bottom of the crater were far more captivating. Tourists can walk around a partial area of the volcano’s lip, special permits are needed to venture into the unmarked areas of the volcano, and peering down into the mouth of this dormant beast definitely took my breath away. There is a warmth emanating from the volcano, and on more than one occasion I was certain the ‘old girl’ let out a grumble of disapproval that broke the eerie silence around me.
Climbing to the top of Mount Vesuvius is an experience I will never forget.
Safely back on the solid ground of Sorrento, the grumbling sounds erupted from my empty stomach. The land in this southern region is undoubtedly rich thanks to the fertile volcanic soil, and fruits and vegetables grow in abundance. There is also superb seafood and an abundance of olive oil. The area around Naples is famous for its pizza and is also home of the tomato-based pasta sauce. If you’ve been dying to indulge in the flavours of southern Italy during Italian Week, I recommend a traditional Pizza Napoletana with its delightfully thin crust and topped lightly with tomato, garlic, oregano, basil and anchovies. Sorrento is famous for the Italian liqueur, Limoncello which is traditionally made from the Ferminello St Teresa lemons (also known as Sorrento lemons) that are grown throughout the region. Traditionally served chilled after meals, so here’s a recipe in case you want to make your own.