|La dolce vita
The living is indeed good on Italy's enchanting Sorrento Peninsula
By MONIQUE FRETTO HEENAN, Special
to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, July 1, 2001
After an initial drive through Sorrento, my husband, Walt, and I pause in front of the Grand Hotel Riviera. Perched atop the rocky Italian coastline, its tropical gardens and pale blue exterior loom behind a grand white iron fence.
A few days on the Sorrento Peninsula and you understand why this nub of land, according to Greek legend, was known as the Temple of the Sirens, those maidens/monsters who supposedly lured sailors to their deaths on the peninsula's reefs with songs of irresistible beauty. Homer wrote that Ulysses escaped that fate by tying himself to the mast of his ship and plugging the ears of his oarsmen. One legend even asserts that Liparos, grandson of Ulysses and the witch Circe, founded Sorrento.
But all you'll find in Sorrento, as far as history is concerned, is a monument and Piazza dedicated to Torquato Tasso, regarded as one of the great 14th century Italian poets, the Museo Correale's small collection of 17th- and 18th-century Neapolitan art and Greek and Roman artifacts, and several plaques honoring Ernesto De Curtis, who wrote "Come Back to Sorrento,'' the popular Neapolitan song boasting Sorrento's many charms.
Look at the sea of Sorrento
such treasures in its depths
Even who traveled the whole world
never saw the like of this.
As we stand on the suite's terrace, the Mediterranean gently sways below us, and the expense of the room grows more insignificant by the moment. To the right, Mount Vesuvius hovers like a smudged charcoal drawing over the city of Naples. To the left, the Island of Ischia floats on a pillow of mist in the middle of the sea. Smitten by the view, we book the room for five nights and unpack our bags.
Seeking the sun
Walt and I arrived in Sorrento without reservations, physical or otherwise. After spending two dank days in Paris and having nearly all of our credit cards stolen in Rome, we stopped at a rest stop on the autostrada with two guidebooks and a map of Italy sprawled out before us.
Our goal: locate sun, friendly folks and good food. We found all that, and more, in Sorrento.
Lying just 15 miles south of Naples, the Sorrento Peninsula will woo you. From the operatic drama of its landscape to the soulful abandon of its people, there is nothing subdued about this thumb-shaped piece of land that sticks out of Italy's eastern coast. Ragged limestone cliffs plunge into the sea, and olive trees blanket the hillsides.
Its people revel in a sort of passionate chaos: ignoring stop signs and red lights, growing lemons the size of footballs, serving dessert even after you've declined.
The peninsula's northern coast is home to the town of Sorrento plus a hodgepodge of kitschy resort towns and a few residential villages. The town of Sorrento's most prominent feature is its proximity to the crown jewels of Italy's Campania region -- the Amalfi Coast, Isle of Capri and the excavation sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
Many guidebooks sell Sorrento as the ideal base camp for day trips to these tourist destinations. They're right. If you haven't heard of the Amalfi Coast, located on the south side of the peninsula, you've surely seen it, either on an edition of "Life Styles of the Rich and Famous'' or in some romantic Hollywood flick. Roger Moore has a villa here, so does native Sophia Loren.
The village of Positano, one of three towns on the Amalfi Coast, attracts the most attention from tourists because of its reputation as a resort for the rich. Layers of pastel buildings are practically stacked on the coast's vertical slope. The walk down to the harbor is charming. Tiny brick and stone streets are shaded by overhead arbors. Quaint boutique after gelato shop after quaint boutique, you wait for the payoff, but Positano's harbor, peppered with alfresco dining options and a postage-stamp-size pebble beach, just doesn't live up to the hype. The only thing Positano possesses that Sorrento and the other Amalfi Coast towns don't are inflated prices.
Back up on the coast's curvaceous 50-kilometer stretch of road, it seems that Positano's beauty is better appreciated from afar.
Look, look at these gardens
Smell these orange blossoms
A scent so fine
It goes straight to your heart
Off to Capri
It's 10 a.m. on our third sunny morning, and Walt and I descend the winding cobblestone road to Sorrento's Marina Piccola to catch the hydrofoil. The speedy passenger boat whisks us across the choppy Mediterranean, and just 20 minutes later we disembark in the Marina Grande on the Isle of Capri.
The town of Capri, which sits at the top of the island, can be reached by bus, cable car or the route the locals prefer: walking up a snaking paved street, which meets up with an outdoor stairway of a hundred or more steps.
We arrive at the top of the steps with sweat on our brows and enough scenic photos to go home happy tourists. We find a cafe table and plop down in wicker chairs in the middle of Capri's Piazza Umberto 1, also known as Piazzetta. Four outdoor cafes fill up the Piazzetta, surrounded by swanky boutiques (Tod's, Cartier, Prada).
A petite male waiter wearing black pants and a chamois double-breasted suit jacket approaches us. I order a cafe freddo. Pigeons fly overhead onto the domed cupola of the Church of St. Stephen, and through the blasting sun I spy a middle-aged woman at an adjacent cafe. She is dressed in black from the wide-brimmed hat on her head to the open-toe, fine leather slides on her feet. Black gloves protect her hands from sun damage, I presume. I poke my husband in the ribs to take a look. I swear she's been plucked straight out of the pages of an Agatha Christie novel as she reads her newspaper, eyes masked by black Chanel sunglasses, and fusses with the leash on her miniature Pomeranian.
My cafe freddo arrives (espresso with crushed ice and sugar) and our waiter, a native of the island, recommends an itinerary for the day. We heed his advice and embark on a two-hour walk around the southern tip of the island.
Undeniably a playground for celebrities and the mega-rich, the Isle of Capri offers much more than just its two five-star towns, Capri and Anacapri. On our walk, our senses our bombarded by the island's distinct geography and lush, perfumed flora. The Natural Arch, a rock formation overlooking the Mediterranean (and accessible only by stairs carved into the land), is a primal work of art. Stare at it from varying angles and it offers different interpretations on the ocean below.
And there's the easily identifiable Faraglioni, the mammoth rock formations that rise out of the water just off the southern shore. The Blue Grotto is a geological marvel. The coastal cave, which is accessible by boat, is home to a cobalt-blue halo, caused by a diffusion of sunlight under the mirror of the water, framed on its arched ceiling.
Look at the Sea,
It's so beautiful it inspires such a strong feeling ...
Just like you do to him, who thinks of you
You make him dream even awake!
Physical beauty saturates the town of Sorrento. Gorgeous women and men blessed with creamy skin, onyx eyes and silky hair riddle the crowded streets. Their jeans tight, their shirts cut low. With a rhythmic swing in their walk and "come hither'' wildness in their eye they announce their availability.
"For every ugly girl you see here, there's nine beauties,'' Tony, a college kid from Kentucky, tells me as we wait in line for the restroom at a local pub. "My cousin came here on his honeymoon and he said 'Tony, you gotta go. Then come back and tell me what those women are like!'
Lust is public. It's not uncommon to see lovers in the piazza, their pelvic bones pressed together, or even a roadside dalliance poorly camouflaged by sparse trees.
these mermaids look at you as if spellbound,
they love you so much,
they would like to kiss you!
"Bone Ah Peh Tee Toe,'' my husband proclaims with gusto before digging into his dinner. "I think I'm becoming Italian.'' In our weeklong courtship with Sorrento, the food is the hired violin virtuoso, the dozen roses and the tender kiss on the hand (the cheap prices are a nice touch, too). And the slow, lingering pace of the meals adds to the romance.
Two meals stand out. A fresh catch of mussels steamed in olive oil, white wine and garlic and a plate of pommes frites (double-frying them in extra-virgin olive oil results in a totally new french fry experience); and pink king prawns sauteed in yellow curry, poured over risotto and served with crispy potatoes Lyonnaise.
In Sorrento, however, eating and drinking is not simply eating and drinking. It's theater. At Chaplin's Pub, owners Luigi and Maria treat every patron like a long-lost family member. Like an Italian Ricky and Lucy, Luigi works the tables with his booming voice, while Maria tends bar flashing her rapscallion smile.
"Are you ready? Are you really, really ready?'' Luigi demands at the top of his lungs. After the crowd's response reaches an acceptable level of decibels, he presses play on his tape deck and Dean Martin's "That's Amore'' reverberates through the narrow, wooden-beamed pub. We sing, laugh and drink. Then comes Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano'' and we all sing some more. The crowd participates so willingly that I'm convinced they're regulars. But, in fact, they're just like us -- seduced tourists.
But don't leave me,
Don't give me such a pain ...
Come back to Sorrento
Let me live!
Copyright 2001, 2002 Walt Heenan