Return to Sorrento

by pauljennings

Sorrento is a famous seaside resort which does all the things a seaside resort usually does but better

My first sight of Sorrento was from the sea: a wall of red, yellow and ochre standing up looking straight at me. The cliff face was absolutely solid but the mellow evening light softened its appearance and as we approached I could see people walking about on the land, tiny in the distance at first, but gradually coming into focus. The hydrofoil’s engine cut out and we glided up to the landing stage.

I walked across the small, friendly port and looked at the long, steep road that would take me up to the main square and the activity of the town centre. Like many places along this coast, Sorrento is built on the very edge of the shoreline and there is a vertical drop between town and sea. Minibuses gathered groups of people and started to shuffle them up towards the town centre but some of us decided that the walk would be good exercise and we moved off in a slow crocodile, gradually becoming more spread out as the fitter people accelerated and the ones with cases began to feel the weight.

The view from the top was worth the effort of the climb. Behind me I could see the famous Bay of Naples: the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky were separated only by a thin band of coloured land, hazy in the heat. In front of me I surveyed the crowds in Piazza Tasso, the main square and the heart of the town, with its café, ice cream bar, picturesque miniature floral traffic island and hundreds and hundreds of people walking in every direction at once. As I walked around the town I overheard snippets of conversation which made it possible to identify where all these different people came from.

The British were there: couples or families on a week’s holiday, pleased to be under blue skies and warm sun. Sorrento is a famous seaside resort and the British love it, because it does all the things a seaside resort usually does but better. The lively cafés stay open until well after midnight, the friendly restaurants will serve you a glass of wine and a snack as happily as they will serve you a traditional multi-course extravaganza, and the many ice cream parlours offer dozens of different colours and flavours.

American accents were also in evidence. Many people from this area of Italy emigrated in the mid 20th century: it is said that there are as many Neapolitan families in New York as in Naples. Now the emigrants, and their children and grandchildren, are coming back to visit the area, to experience the culture and history of their own families as well as to see the sights.

And there were the Italians - young people, families, older couples, individuals: walking round looking happy and content with life. For the Italians, Sorrento is a day out as well as a holiday destination and people pour out of Naples on summer days to enjoy life in the town or to spend the afternoon on one of the sunbathing platforms created near the port.

Corso Italia, Sorrrento’s high street, is more or less pedestrianised and the pavements and roadway are like a great extended living room, with people standing around, sitting on a bench contemplating their surroundings, walking, running, chatting and laughing. The clothes shops had their lights on in the windows and were trying to attract people in with their displays of expensively desirable items and the cool air slipping out through the doorways.

I stepped off the street into a true emporium: Vizi & Sfizi on Via Fuoro is a souvenir shop but also a local institution, selling just about everything that a holidaymaker could want. I came out again with some colourful T-shirts, beautifully decorated cups and saucers to give as presents and an assortment of postcards and fridge magnets.

This town inspired the song ‘Return to Sorrento’ or ‘Torna a Sorrento’. I could hear its melody being played in the restaurants and tourist shops but I also went to a more formal musical performance at the Teatro Tasso. Held every night in summer, it is more tourist sight than high culture but the atmosphere was good-natured and totally in keeping with the holiday traditions of this part of the world.  

Sorrento stays lively, but not boisterous, until late at night. For traditional regional food, a gorgeous setting, and keen prices try L’Antica Trattoria on via Giuliani. A few doors down on, a favourite late night stop for visitors is the famous ice cream parlour, Davide, with its many combinations of tastes and colours. A steady stream of ice cream lovers could be seen carrying their treat out of the shop and walking slowly and carefully down towards the promenade to enjoy the view across the sea. When the restaurants and ice cream parlours have closed for business people continue to stroll around, enjoying the soft warm air, the scent of citrus trees and the spectacular views out to sea.

How to get there:

The nearest airport is Naples, with frequent flights from all corners of Europe. From Naples port you can take a hydrofoil to Sorrento, which is fun, but asking the hotel to send a car to pick you up at the airport is probably easier. If you are touring Italy, there are fast trains from Rome to Naples and connecting local trains run from Naples to Sorrento.

Where to stay:

The best place, without doubt, is the Hotel Antiche Mura, on via Fuorimora, near the main square. It is my personal favourite and the place I always stay in Sorrrento. The ambience is as much friend’s house as hotel but the service and faciities are impeccable.