26 August 2016

Sorrento: Sun, Sea and Sandals

Sorrento is a small but attractive resort town famous for its lemons. It lies about 30 miles south of Naples — not close enough to see its northern neighbour, although you can usually see Vesuvius looming across the Gulf of Naples. To reach Sorrento, we took a hydrofoil from Molo Beverello, which takes about 45 minutes and cost about €13 with a suitcase. On the way back to the airport, we took a car, which took just over an hour; the Circumvesuviana train takes a similar amount of time and passes through Pompeii and Herculaneum. The ferry was very pleasant, though, and offers great views of Pompeii and the islands.

Where we stayed
We spent four nights in Sorrento, although I didn't have that much free time in the city because of our day trips to Capri and the Amalfi Coast and the events surrounding my cousin's wedding (the reason for our trip). Despite being a popular resort town, with frequent cruise ship arrivals, Sorrento is notable for its near absence of a beach. Several of the restaurants and 'beach' clubs have small pontoons, as did our hotel, the Bellevue Syrene, which is one of the most beautiful hotels I've ever stayed in.

The building dates to 1820 and it is quite literally carved into the cliffside — if you walk down to the pontoon rather than taking the lift, you will wind down a steep tunnel inside the cliff. Most rooms have a sea-view and many also have balconies: even after four days, I didn't get over the excitement of opening my curtains to see the Mediterranean, Sorrentine peninsula and Veusvius; I have about 50 photos of essentially the same shot. The rooms are also large, comfortable, bright and elegant, and there is a 'club lounge' where complimentary drinks and snacks are served all day.

We spent most of our free time on the sun loungers on the hotel's pontoon, dipping into the cool, clear sea for a refreshing dip from time, although I also paid a couple of visits to the hotel's small but gorgeous swimming pool. I also managed a couple of trips to the outdoor gym. The staff were extremely professional: friendly, courteous and helpful. My only complaint was the wifi, which was so awful that it would often take 15 minutes to upload a single photo; and yes, I probably should have been taking my holiday time to switch off from the internet!

What we ate
We ate at the hotel's 'snack bar' a couple of times — the grandest snack bar I've ever seen: a leafy colourful tables with a panoramic sea view, under the shade of a leafy pergola. I had pasta both times — the shrimp and lemon tagliolini was particularly good — followed with an espresso. The crockery was so beautiful, I wished I could have taken it home with me. One day, I also stopped for a Bacio (chocolate and hazelnut) gelato at Momi; it was ace.

We dined at two other restaurants in the city. I impressed the staff at L'Antica Trattoria by calling up to make a reservation in Italian. We had a lovely table on the bustling, pedestrianised Via Padre Reginaldo Giuliani, and struggled to choose among the tempting options on the menu, which advertises itself as classic with a twist. In the end, I went for prawns in breadcrumbs with sardine sauce, tomato and capers; it doesn't sound like much but the prawns were incredibly flavoursome and the textures were spot on. For my main course, I had the 'chicken roll' (not a chicken sandwich, I learned, but perfectly juicy chicken stuffed with mozzarella and sundried tomatoes. My mum's beetroot (barbabietola in italiano) risotto looked great too. The waiters were very friendly and the food was great.

We liked Ristorante Il Buco so much that we went there for dinner twice. The first time, it was almost 10 o'clock and we were starving after a cocktail reception with the wedding party. Luckily, Il Buco was near by and they found a table for us in the cavernous former monks' wine cellar where the restaurant is located. We went back again with my brother and sister-in-law when they arrived in Sorrento the following day. I couldn't resist ordering three courses both times — there are also a couple of palate-cleansers/pre-puddings included. The best dishes I tried were the scallops, the lobster and the perfectly cooked chateaubriand that I shared with my dad, and the 'enjoyment of chocolate' (chocolate mousse, gel, brownie and...something else, with passionfruit and strawberries). They also have a seriously impressive gin library and I tried a Czech gin with my tonic called OMG; I hadn't heard of it before but with its wide range of botanicals, it tasted great. The service both nights was impeccable.

What we did
The town centre of Sorrento is small and very walkable — as long as you don't mind the inclines and steps (pro-tip: there are several elevators down to sea level that charge €1). The buildings are colourful and, in summer at least, the town has a lively energy. There are also several churches and a couple of small museums.

As I mentioned, we didn't do very much apart from shop, eat and sunbathe (it's a tough life). Corso Italia (pictured first below), in the town centre, is home to many of the towns shops and boutiques, while Via Fuoro (pictured second), a narrow pedestrianised street one block north, and the alleyways that stem from it are the best places to shop souvenirs. When I say 'souvenirs', about 90% of these involve the lemons for which the town is known: lemon sweets, lemon soaps, lemon crockery and, of course, Limoncello.

I was on a mission to buy some leather sandals (leather is another big product in the town), but the only pair I really liked didn't come in my size and I didn't want to get them made for me in case they didn't fit. I must have visited several dozen shops selling variations on the same theme — most places will customise everything from the colour(s), to the design and decorations, but the prices were steeper than I expected.

In the end, I went to Ca Gi Sa at Via San Francesco 24, just opposite the Convento di San Francesco. They made me a pair of sandals with bronze leather straps in about 15 minutes, which fit very well (the woman also showed me how to readjust them so you don't have to keep undoing the clasp). Total cost: €35. Not cheap, but reasonable for the quality (some of the bejewelled designs can go for €150). I didn't get the name but there was a gorgeous leather bag boutique on Via Torquato Tasso, near the junction with Via Fuoro; they had great modern designs and I particularly liked the turquoise bags.

I wouldn't eat at the tourist-trap restaurants on Piazza San Antonio but it is a good spot for people-watching. I had wanted to pay homage to the 16th century poet Torquato Tasso, for whom Piazza Torquato Tasso is named. I struggled through his most famous work, La Gerusalemme Liberata, in the only Italian literature class I took at university ('visions of hell'; Dante was more fun). Piazza S. Antonio is a better place for watching Sorrento go by, though.

Five minutes further east from the centre along Via Corso is L'Agruminato, an attractive citrus garden. I suspect it is more impressive in the spring rather than the parched days of August, but it was nice for a quick, shaded wander; they also do Limoncello tastings. There are also two marinas, Marina Piccola to the east of the town centre and Marina Grande just to the west. We walked down to the latter one evening and it was very pretty all lit up by night. We would have liked to eaten at Da Emilia one night but ran out of meals.

The wedding
My cousin and her new husband had their wedding ceremony at Villa Fondi in Piano di Sorrento, in the hills just to the east of Sorrento and overlooking the sea. It was a small but beautiful outdoor ceremony, after which we travelled further up into the hills to Villa Eliana for the reception. It is one of the most glamorous wedding venues I've ever been to — we could almost have been in LA with the outdoor pool and palm trees.

It was really hot so everyone — including the bride — had the urge to jump into the pool. We all enjoyed some excellent martinis from the martini bar while we waited for the couple and then had a delicious wedding breakfast. We were even treated to a perfect sunset. My cousin did a great job of organising everything and it was wonderful to see her and her new husband so happy together. A fitting end to a wonderful week in Naples and Sorrento.

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