Italian road trip: Sorrento, speedily

by Jeanette.Scott

The lemon-scented package-holiday haven won’t leave a sour taste during a splendid short break

I’m doing Sorrento massive disservice here. Yes, it is a popular package holiday destination, especially with Brits, but it doesn’t reek of English fry ups and Union Jacks don’t flap above every bar doorway, as they do in some Spanish coastal resorts. Sorrento is a charming small town and was once a shining light on the Grand Tour, luring the glitterati of the 18th century on their way to the Amalfi Coast.

These days, you’re more likely to find holidaymakers holing themselves up in fancy hotels with swimming pools on the roof than you are the fashionable aristocrats that ventured here from the grandiose sights of Venice and Florence some 200 years ago.

You will find some “English” pubs, and there isn’t really a beach, and there’s not really much to do.

But none of that takes away from the allure of this charming lemon-flavoured town on the Bay of Naples.

My disservice of Sorrento also ran to my visit – being the one-day and one-night affair that it was. There really isn’t a lot to do, but my fleeting visit felt wrong somehow. So I was determined to make the most of it.

Day one – afternoon

Sorrento is a mere hop, skip and a jump from Pompeii, so much so that day trips to the ancient Roman city from Sorrento are perfectly do-able. It was from Pompeii that we travelled by car to Sorrento – the only town on our Italian road trip where we drove down almost every street before finding our hotel, Grand Hotel La Favorita (have a map or sat-nav on standby If you’re driving in Sorrento).

The heat of the day beckoned us to the first pit-stop on our whirlwind tour of Sorrento – the hotel’s roof-top pool. I could claim it was for research purposes, but after being trapped in a car for three hours on what should have been a 45-minute journey (the summer coastal traffic plus an accident plus narrow roads equals frustration), the swim was a treat; as were the drinks, and the snacks, and the short snooze on the roof as the world whistled by a few storeys below.

Day one – evening

We strode out just in time to catch the sun dipping out of sight from the vantage point at Piazza della Vittoria. There is a grid of sorts in the spider web of roads in and out of town, and within that grid you’ll find narrow lanes lined with shops and bars and cafés. Here is where lemon-scented souvenirs can be found in abundance. Lemon soap? Lemon perfume? Tea-towels with lemons on? Spoons with lemons on? Lemon sweets? Whatever kind of lemon craving you have, you’ll be satisfied here.

But we were after a less sour foodstuff. They don’t make a big song and a dance about it, but the friendly manager at the hotel, Mario, told us about a local legend – the home of cannelloni!

It was around a hundred years ago that Enzo Manniello’s relatives invented the popular dish at the La Favorita – 'o Parrucchiano restaurant on busy Corso Italia (081 878 1321; www.parrucchiano.com). The business does a decent trade off the legend, but the restaurant is usually packed out thanks to delicious food, a great family team of staff, and the most delightful “enchanted garden” where you’ll enjoy your cannelloni – if you can tear yourself away from the beauty of the candle-lit citrus trees under which you can choose to sit. Enzo himself was simply enchanting, and even though we left with lighter pockets (three courses and wine will set you back around 80 euros for two), the experience was well worth it.

There are lively bars and places to dance the night away in Sorrento, if that’s your thing, but we opted to sit out in the warm evening air and sup a cool beverage instead. Try Spinnaker bar on via San Francesco; it gets great reviews, despite the tourist-luring English breakfast on offer, and offers a great spot in a less busy part of town to drink in the local flavours.

Day two: morning

I was falling for Sorrento by now, and regretting our tight schedule which would drag us down the Amalfi Coast by midday. So at 5.30am the alarm sounded - we would see the dawning of a new day in Sorrento if we couldn’t stay for another. I love my bed, but I love nothing more when on my travels than getting out early and watching as somewhere new stirs into life in unfamiliar and enthralling ways.

With cameras bouncing off hips, an equally chirpy receptionist (obviously starting the early shift, rather than ending the late) waved us off at the hotel. Street sweepers made Sorrento beautiful as the sun began to peep over the mainland, casting incredibly long and dark shadows over the land. It’s a magical hour: market sellers string their wares out in the streets; coffee shops buzz into steamy life; and the busy streets of the previous evening are filled with nothing more than birdsong, a few footsteps and the occasional drone of a mini pick-up truck dropping off fresh goods. Including lemons…

The lemons

The lemons grown here, by the way, are famed for their use in limoncello, the “Marmite” of the liqueur world, as in you’ll love it or hate it. You might feel the same about Sorrento. I’m in the “love it” camp.

Where to stay

The four-star deluxe Grand Hotel La Favorita lies at the heart of the town’s historical quarter and - once you find it! - the staff will usher you in with a warm welcome. It’s a central and extremely comfortable place to lay your head in Sorrento. The rooms are large and tastefully decorated in pastel blues and yellows, and all have balconies with terrific views. The roof-top pool is its biggest selling-point, though the huge and delicious breakfast spread, with suited waiters serving tea and coffee from silverware, comes a close second in my book. (And it was a welcome indulgence after two hours treading the streets of Sorrento at dawn.) Expect to pay from £95 for a double in low season.

The next leg

The stunning Amalfi Coast would be the next stop on our Italian odyssey. We hired a car through Avis to get around. The guide to the next leg of our journey will be available soon.

Jeanette.Scott

As a travel writer and photographer I've contributed to the LA Times, Lonely Planet, Real Travel, The Australian, The Herald Sun (Australia) and, of course, as an editor and writer on www.simonseeks.com. Following a stint in hospitality, I started my media career in 2002 in newspaper journalism, and I've written for the Guardian, Metro, Coventry Telegraph, Coventry and Warwickshire Times and Living magazine.

According to a fairly pointless Facebook application, I've visited 24% of the planet. Good to know, although there are ten minutes of my life I'm never going to get back. I'm fascinated by our planet and whenever I visit a place that's new to me - be it Barbados, Burkina Faso or a previously unvisited corner of Britain - I want to capture it. I want to keep the confluence of smell, noise and vision; the expressions on the faces of the people; the layers of history; the unfamiliar food and drink. I fasten it in my mind's eye - but when my memory fades, I've got a stack of photographs and a thousand furiously jotted notes to remind me.

Favourite places - my home town of Chester, New Zealand's south island, Malaysia, Fiji, Melbourne, Norway's fjords, Italy (mainly the restaurants), Greek Islands, London, Edinburgh, the Lake District, and home (Chester, though my true "home" will always be Warwickshire).

My Chester

Where I always grab a hot drink: A coffee with the grand (and quite surreal) decor of Oddfellows as the backdrop is a treat; but when my sweet tooth is raging the Blue Moon Café can’t be beaten for hot chocolate with lashings of whipped cream and marshmallows.

My favourite stroll: Treading the wooden slats of the Queen’s Park Bridge is pretty unique. I cross it every morning and evening to and from Simonseeks HQ. For a look at real life in Chester, cross the bridge from the city, drop down to riverside and head away from the direction of the racecourse. You’ll find grand homes and, eventually, the meadows (the scene of a very special New Year’s Eve midnight picnic for me).

Where to be seen: At the races of course! After a day at The Roodee get your hands on one of the coveted Bedouin tents to dine/drink/people watch from in the outdoor space at Oddfellows.

The most breathtaking view: Get the lift to the fifth floor of Abode and check out the view from the Champagne Bar. It’s both unique and breathtaking. If you’re not thirsty, stand on the steps of the High Cross (the pointy monument where the four main streets – Watergate, Eastgate, Northgate and Bridge – meet). Behold The Rows and let the history of the buildings and the buzz of modern life around you slip into your memories.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Grosvenor Park is perfect in winter but the first rays of sunshine draw picnicking crowds. Act like a local and cross the Queen’s Park Bridge to find your haven in the meadows.

Shopaholics beware!: Visit any of the stores (ground and first floor level) on The Rows and shop accompanied by centuries of history.

Don’t leave without...clocking some time with the Eastgate Clock. Put your shopping bags down, take a picture if you must, but make sure you climb the steps and simply stand and watch the world go by for a while.