Weekending: Sorrento in Italy
At the top of steep cliffs which drop down into a bright blue sea on the Italian coast south of Naples is the town of Sorrento. In Greek mythology Sorrento was home to the sirens, who lured passing sailors onto the rocks with their songs. And it still draws in the visitors, though less with songs and more with its panoramic views across the Bay of Naples along with its sunny weather, fresh local produce and laid-back atmosphere. It’s the most popular holiday haunt on the Neapolitan Riviera, so not exactly an undiscovered gem, but although it might be a bit touristy in spots, it’s still a charming place and the views more than make up for the odd English pub. Sorrento’s central location also makes it a great base to explore the big sights in the area – Pompeii, Vesuvius, the island of Capri and the Amalfi Coast.
Sorrento is a maze of narrow streets (supposedly pedestrianised though that doesn’t stop the locals trying to squeeze the odd car down there…) leading back from the cliffs. These Medieval alleyways are full of trattorias, bars and shops tucked away, along with a special artisan area where you can buy local crafts from workshops that make inlaid wood carvings or leather belts and shoes. You might also notice the smell of lemons as you wander. Lemons are big business around here. They grow scattered in pots or gardens wherever there’s space in the town as well as in huge netted orchards on the outskirts, and there’s even a local variety of giant lemons here that are the size of a grapefruit. They’re used in soaps and bath oils, or in Sorrento’s famous limoncello liqueur, whose bright yellow bottles fill the shops here. Made by soaking lemon peel in alcohol, limoncello is usually served chilled as a digestif after dinner, and at about 32% alcohol it has a bit of a kick.
Food and drink is an immensely important part of life in Sorrento, as it is across Italy. As well as lemons, the area is famous for other fresh produce like green olives, tomatoes, peaches, cherries and oranges which grow in the rich volcanic soil. The cuisine here is a ‘cucina povera’ – using ordinary inexpensive ingredients that grow locally to make fresh simple dishes – like the caprese salad with tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella, wafer-thin pizzas, spaghetti vongole with clams, and Delizia al Limone cream-covered lemon cakes. And don’t miss the hundreds of different flavours of gelato – grab a scoop and watch the sun go down. When the sun starts setting, both tourists and locals gather in the parks and squares along the cliffside to watch the skies turn gold and red as the sun disappears down into the sea.
With its steep cliffs, Sorrento doesn’t have a beach as such, but down along the seafront piers jut out into the water where you can swim and sunbathe. Most of them are owned by hotels or restaurants so you might have to buy a drink or hire a deckchair to bag a prime spot. But there are a few little patches of sand in between where you can dip your feet in the Bay of Naples, or you can walk around the headland to the quieter bay at Marina Grande. To get down to the seafront there’s a road down to the harbour from Piazza Tasso, and if you don’t fancy the climb up there’s a lift cut into the cliffs that’ll take you back up for €1. Down in the harbour you can get a ferry across to Capri, Ischia or the Amalfi Coast, or charter a boat to explore some of the hidden coves and bays nestled in the cliffs of this dramatic coastline.
Getting there… The nearest airport is in Naples with flights from across Europe. From there you have a few different options to get to Sorrento. Buses run from the airport direct to Sorrento, which cost €10 and take an hour and a half. Or you can get the Alibus to Naples’ main train station (Stazione Centrale) in 25 minutes. From there you can take the Circumvesuviana train along the Bay of Naples to Sorrento in about an hour for €4 (though watch out as it can get very busy and packed). Or otherwise there’s a ferry between Naples Port (one of the Alibus stops) and Sorrento. If you’re planning on driving the coast, beware that there’s a lot of traffic, especially at weekends.
Sleeping… Located at the edge of town, Ulisse Deluxe might be described as a hostel, but it’s really more like a hotel. It does have dorms but it’s mostly private rooms (doubles from €62 a night or dorm beds from €21). You might not have a view but the rooms are big and comfortable, there’s a bar lounge and you get discount entry to their spa next door. Or with an amazing cliffside location overlooking the sea is the five-star Bellvue Syrene. It’s built on the remains of a Roman Villa and has its own spa and sunbathing deck over the water, which you get to by a lift through the cliff. All rooms have sea views and balconies to make the most of the view, but it will cost you with rooms from €450 a night – or for a budget taste of luxury stop off for drinks at their terrace bar.
Eating and drinking… Sorrento’s central square, Piazza Tasso, is surrounded by bars and is a prime people-watching spot. Fauno Bar has one of the best positions and is perfect for a glass of prosecco on the terrace with some of their giant local green olives. And when it gets dark stop off at Café Latino. Hidden away off the main street, they have sofas and tables dotted amongst a garden of lemon and orange trees, lit up with lanterns and candles at night. They have a great wine list and also serve food. Or some of the best local produce can be found at Inn Bufalito. They specialise in mozzarella – either cooked in a range of dishes or eaten straight with local tomatoes and salamis – and buffalo dishes. And you have to try a limoncello while you’re here (though if it’s a bit much then you can get it in a gelato version).