Beyond Sorrento

by stokel

Once you've relaxed as much as you possibly can in Sorrento, it makes a great base for further exploration, with Capri, Vesuvius, Pompeii and Naples all just a day trip away

Sorrento is one of the most tranquil places on earth, incongruously positioned in one of the most hectic countries in the world. But you can begin to get antsy about staying in a single place and exploring the small backstreets of the city. The pebbly beach is nice, but you'd like to go further.

Day trips are the answer. You can stay in Sorrento but take in the high and low moments of modern and ancient Italy, from Roman ruins to the mean streets of Napoli and, if your wallet is thick enough, the decadence of Capri. Here are some Sorrento-based days out in southern Italy.

Cross the water to Capri

It's best to get the most expensive day trip out of the way first. Capri is the Monte Carlo of Italy: beautiful people, fast cars (but nowhere to drive them) and expensive boutiques. Loved by film stars and millionaires, this little island is less than an hour's sail from Sorrento. Boats and hydrofoils leave the mainland frequently and for about €10 you can find yourself living the lifestyle of the rich and famous.

Capri was once part of mainland Italy, but broke off geographically and culturally, creating its own niche. It was the playpen of the Emperor Tiberius, whose Villa Jovis became a hedonistic paradise for him and his younger concubines (both male and female) when he was effectively banished from his own empire. Sitting at almost the top of the island, the Villa Jovis is a lengthy walk along impossibly narrow roads, past locals' houses. Expect to engage people in conversation on the way - and dodge the small trucks and cars that ferry goods from the port to the shops to people's homes. It is a beautiful walk from the main square (easily accessible by funicular, and full of cafes and shops), which gives you unparalleled views of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Once you've made your way down from the Villa Jovis, past lemon groves and the odd shop or restaurant dotted between houses, you can fully explore the quaint centre of Capri. Prada sits alongside a cheap cafe and tourist shops, a nod towards the extravagance that comes with the mantle of being a celebrity playground. You can quite easily spend a full day here, soaking in the atmosphere and being amazed by the Capri way of life. The boat ride back to Sorrento gives you time to try to figure out how the locals survive on such a small island with such poor transport links.

Visit Pompeii and Vesuvius

You're unlikely to have missed Vesuvius looming large over Sorrento. It's imposing and dramatic, and it's a must-see location, especially when coupled with the ancient town upon which it wreaked so much havoc.

As almost anyone who studied Latin at school knows, in AD79, pumice stone and ash rained down on Pompeii in the middle of the day. Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger were members of just one family caught up in the natural disaster. Thousands died and a whole town was perfectly preserved under feet of ash.

What was an incredible tragedy became an archaeological goldmine. Two thousand years later, you can literally wander the streets of Pompeii in much the same way that the locals would once have done. You can walk in and out of private homes and shops, and read ancient graffiti daubed on walls and etched into stone. You can see the weights and measures used by local traders in the forum, and you can go to the Villa of Mysteries, lying just outside the walls of Pompeii, and marvel at the murals painted on the walls of a house for which even the best historical minds cannot figure out a use.

From here, move to Vesuvius, ground zero of the volcanic eruption that perfectly preserved the bodies displayed in horrifying poses in Pompeii. Understand fully what happened that day - and marvel at the foolhardy spirit of the locals who live and work around Vesuvius even though its next eruption is long overdue - and likely to be catastrophic.

Pizza and crime in Napoli

Napoli is a dirty city: rubbish covers the (unwashed) pavements, and the sides of the Circumvesvuiana train, which you can catch from Sorrento to Napoli for only a few Euros, are almost impossible to see underneath the acreage of graffiti. It is, however, fascinating to take in - a gritty, working-class Italian city that is proud of its heritage but certainly not willing to trip over itself to welcome you.

The Greeks named it Neapolis, the New City, and since its founding it has certainly aged. What you will see is well-worn streets with many ornate churches, beautiful though fading in lustre. You'll come across hawkish sellers of suits off main roads and, deeper in the ghettos, the strange romance of washing lines hanging high between buildings. It's sufficient to just wander around the city and stop for a pizza - Neapolitans did invent the dish - but you'll likely want to take a look at the unusually clean Piazza del Plebiscito, the Museo di Capodimonte (home to many of Caravaggio's works but with a strangely pernickety opening policy) and the National Archaeological Museum, which fills in the missing jigsaw pieces of Pompeii and Herculaneum, another victim of the Vesuvius eruption.

Finish up with a further wander down the back streets (but be careful, as Napoli has a reputation for two things: immovable traffic jams and pickpockets) and pick up a snack from a small bakery before hopping back on the train home to Sorrento.