Sorrento – Land of the Sirens

by tanktop

Excellent food, exquisite wines and wonderful walking opportunities

Sorrento

Look beyond the package tours (and there are plenty of them), and Sorrento really has something to offer the modern traveller. You just need to know where to find it…

Grand (hotel) tourism

Sorrento was once the leaping off point for every 19th-century traveller’s Grand Tour, as glamorous a destination as any along the Amalfi Coast and today, in spite of its popularity with the package-tour set, she still has plenty to recommend her. There are spectacular hotels, such as the La Minervetta, with steps to the beach, and, more recently, Hotel Palazzo Jannuzzi, both by local architect/designer Marco de Luca. With a palette of yellow, white and black, and the quirky de Luca touch, Jannuzzi offers stylish and spacious accommodation, some with terraces, and an apartment complete with its own terrace, kitchen and, er, exercise bike.

Fabulous food

And while we’re thinking about exercise bikes… there is some excellent food to be had in the Campania region, with twenty-five Michelin starred restaurants. In nearby Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi you’ll find the wonderful two Michelin-starred Don Alfonso 1890 (Corso Sant'Agata, 11, Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi, +39 081 878 0026). Many of the ingredients for Ernesto Iaccarino’s exquisite dishes are gleaned from his organic farm in the verdant Punta Campanella region, and, for those who can’t bear to leave (or are tempted by the idea of more great cooking for breakfast, or even lunch the following day), there are rooms (also designed by Signor de Luca).

Another chef who makes use of his farm in Punta Campanella is the owner of Lo Scoglio (Piazza Delle Sirene, 15, 80061 Massa Lubrense, +39 081 808 1026, www.loscoglio.com) in Marina del Cantone. A typical starter consists of a dozen of his vegetables simply prepared, followed by the house speciality of spaghetti with zucchini and a seriously good babà (a famous Neapolitan dessert). Closer still is Sorrento’s Michelin-starred Il Buco (2a Rampa Marina Piccola, 5, +39 081 878 2354, www.ilbucoristorante.it), where amuse-bouches of little sfogliatelle (typical Neapolitan pastry) filled with scarola (local greens) and a ‘doughnut’ with tomato sauce might be followed by baby tuna cannolo (another favourite pastry), lobster risotto or ricciola (local fish) with pistachio sauce.

Down at Sorrento’s Marina Grande (the smaller of the two marinas) you can have a simple freshly-caught fish, grilled and dressed with nothing more than a drizzle of oil and a wedge of lemon in one of the cafes where Sophia Loren may have lunched when she was filming ‘Scandal in Sorrento’ or ‘Pane, Amore e…’

Every meal should be accompanied by sensational local wines, many from grapes grown on the slopes of Vesuvius, such as white Fiano, and red Lacrima Christi (tears of Christ). The Cantina del Vesuvio (via T. della Guardia, 18, Trecase) is one such vineyard and it’s possible to have lunch here too: typical cheese and meat, followed by simple spaghetti and Neapolitan desserts as well as wine tastings of course. And apart from the fabulous wines of the Campania region, the lemon liqueur ‘limoncello’ is made from Sorrento’s famous lemons, and can be sampled at I Giardini di Cataldo (Via Correale, 27, 80067 Sorrento, +39 081 878 1888, www.igiardinidicataldo.it).

Walk this way

A more stimulating way of enjoying the food without consequence is to take a walk; the Sorrentine peninsula is absolutely stunning. It is said that the Sirens lived along the coast here and lured sailors to their deaths by enchanting them with their hypnotic song. The legend goes that, when they failed to captivate Ulysses, the Sirens flung themselves into the sea, where they turned to rock and you can still see them today: the islets known as Li Galli.

There is a network of paths stretching for around 100 kilometres and one of the paths is to the Punta Campanella. Guided walks and route maps can be picked up at the Sorrento Tourist Office in the entrance to the Foreigners’ Club (Via Luigi de Maio, 35, www.sorrentotourism.com) and more information can be found here: http://www.positano.com/en/i/punta-campanella.

 

tanktop

I’m a fully paid up member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and have written for and edited dozens of city and lifestyle guides for Time Out including the latest Naples & the Amalfi Coast (2009) and Time Out’s first country guide Perfect Places: Italy. Born and brought up in London, I’ve spent most of my life in the often-grimy but never-dull east end, so small wonder that when I discovered often-grimy but never-dull Naples I felt right at home (but with better food and weather). There are few cities in the world that can boast the attributes of Naples: food, wine, sights, art, history – and yet it remains seriously underrated. My mission is to change that. In between trips to Naples and Genoa (both cities have a family connection), I'm a keen gardener and discovering the delights of beekeeping!

 

Where I always grab a coffee: The coffee in Naples is the best in Italy and the coffee in Italy is the best in the world so anywhere is good but I love Bar Mexico on Piazza Dante. For people-watching you can’t beat Gran Caffè Gambrinus on Piazza Trieste e Trento.

My favourite stroll: In Naples, it’s strolling along busy Via Toledo then stepping into the quiet of Banca Intesa Saopaolo to gaze at Caravaggio’s last painting: Martyrdom of St Ursula or people-watching on a Sunday as Neapolitans, dressed up in their finest, take a passeggiata to Mergellina. Further afield it’s a walk around pedestrianised Capri looking for lunch, or a new pair of sandals.

Books for inspiration: Norman Lewis Naples ’44 is a wonderful introduction to the city. Lewis was an intelligence officer in wartime Naples and his obvious fondness for the Neapolitans is heartfelt. Less tender, but gripping nonetheless, is Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah.

Great Neapolitan films: The film version of Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah (directed by Matteo Garrone) is a sad indictment of the city. Happily, most visitors will have no more sense of its dark underbelly than visitors to London’s Soho. A more romantic view of this part of the world can be found in Roberto Rossellini’s L’Amore (filmed with Anna Magnani in the little fishing village of Furore). Massimo Troisi’s last film was the heartwarming Il Postino which was filmed on Procida and around the bay of Naples. And John Turturro's Passione promises to be a Buena Vista Social Club for Naples.

Where to be seen this summer: On any of the islands less than an hour’s ferry ride from Naples: Capri, Ischia, Procida all have their individual merits while the Amalfi Coast, a short train/boat or bus ride from the city, boasts breathtaking scenery.

The most breathtaking view: Where to start: the view from the restaurant at the Romeo hotel in Naples looking straight across the bay to Vesuvius; from the garden terrace at Villa Maria in Ravello looking across the Dragone Valley; from a chartered boat looking back up at the pretty, pastel-coloured, cliff-hanging town of Positano…

The best spot for some peace and quiet: It doesn’t really exist in Naples but a stroll around the city’s botanical gardens can be refreshing. Vomero is slightly cooler than the rest of the city and a little less hectic but the real peace and quiet is to be found on the islands, whether it’s in one of Ischia’s many natural spas or at Susana Walton’s fabulous La Mortella. Alternatively, take a boat out and find your own cove to drop anchor in.

Shopaholics beware: Naples is the home of sharp suits, handmade shirts and silk ties, and Chiaia is home to all the designer brands, but the less well-heeled head to fabulous markets dotted around the city. Kitsch-seekers love the year-round presepi (nativity crèches) and there is plenty of produce to stock up on but be warned, nothing tastes as fabulous as it does when eaten in the southern Italian sun.

City soundtrack: Pietra Montecorvino's version of a saucy song (in Neapolitan dialect) from the 1920's Comme Facette Mammeta? (How Did Your Mother Make You?) sounds like she might have a 40-a-day habit, but her voice is wonderfully hypnotic.  It's from John Turturro's film Passione.

Don’t leave without... visiting the Archeological Museum. Even the most hardened cynic couldn’t fail to be moved by its treasures, including exquisite mosaics from the archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, such as the original Alexander Mosaic taken from Pompeii's House of the Faun. Then there's the incredible 'mountain of marble' known as the Farnese Bull depicting the cruel punishment of Dirce.