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Sorrentino Splendour

By Susan Claremont-Smith
6th September, 2009

Friday 5th - Friday18th August 2006

Sorrentino Splendour

Italy, an enchanting country; I had longed to return since my first visit over two decades ago.

  For days, stacks of holiday brochures had spread across our inlaid wooden dining table, which coincidentally originates from the southern region of Italy.
  Thumbing through the pages it was difficult to form a decision. Florence, Venice, Lake Garda, Sardinia, Sicily. They all held their own special appeal, but it was Sorrento, the very same town that I had fallen in love with years ago that received the final seal of approval from my thirteen year old son. Probably due to my reminiscing over the years, of Mount Vesuvius and the ancient town of Pompeii, amidst many recollections.
  My husband found the holiday on the internet and once booked, our excitement mounted and thankfully the time flew by and our departure day arrived at last.
   The plane landed at Naples airport, a basic and slow airport, which proved a vast contrast to the countryside we past through on the coach ride later to our resort. Quickly I remembered the fresh green landscape rising in terraces on our left, which replaced the tired but intriguing layers of Neapolitan buildings.
  The sea glittered to our right, below a mountainous region in the distance, clustered at the base with white, red roofed buildings.
  Our courier from Direct Holidays pointed out the islands of Ischia and Capri. And then rising skyward, immense, dark, but not sinisterly; Mount Vesuvius; crested at its crater with a mass of white swirling clouds. My memories and tongue, had thankfully not amplified its greatness over time. 
  The coach rolled to halt at a busy junction. Cars and motorbikes hooted. Our hotel at last, The Metropol, (or Metropole, there seems to be confusion over the spelling). Terracotta pots, topped with a filigree of geraniums lined the marble steps to reception beneath Palm and Pine tree branches forming a canopy of welcome shade.
  After finding our room, I discarded bags, slipped off my sandals and padded to the French doors, feeling the coolness of the white floral ceramic tiles. The shutters pushed wide onto the balcony which was situated over the main entrance.
  The view was magnificent. Bands of foliage, speedboats leaving white trails across the sparkling bay, distant buildings, like tiny reproductions blended from the shoreline into the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, which was central and dominant in our panoramic view. The drone of traffic winding its way below blurred into insignificance and I was sure that we were going to enjoy our Mediterranean retreat.
  Welcome meetings are always met with trepidation by my husband and I and Sorrento’s was no different. But we are enticed every holiday. Maybe it’s the fear of missing out on something that everyone else will know about except us.
   We were collected and driven into town to the largest meeting that we had ever attended. Hundreds of us filed into a refurbished cinema, where two representatives spoke and a power point presentation was shown. After approximately thirty minutes of excursion hype, some of which was useful. We booked two trips through Direct Holidays and decided that we would find our own way to some of the others via train.
  An organised walk around Sorrento town centre was planned at two-o-clock. We had time for a brief wander around the town beforehand.
  Instantly we were impressed. Narrow streets, which we later discovered were built in quadrilles, were festooned with Italian flags, a remnant of Italy’s recent 2006 World Cup win. Small shops selling local produce, butchers, greengrocers, their entrances garlanded with chilli and jalapeño peppers were trading beside gift shops.
  Yellow radiated from various shop fronts and soon the aroma of lemons drifted our way and we were lured into them. Bottles of Limoncello, a local liqueur lined the walls, clear or crème liquid in unusual shaped bottles glinted and a sample was speedily proffered. Mmmm… delicious; I preferred the crème and my husband the clear. My son by then had noticed the array of citrus candy in attractively wrapped bags and lemon design dishes. But that was not all. Marmalade, jam, candles and soaps… the list endless and on that very first day we had decided upon the gifts for our folks back home.
  We found time for a refreshing drink at a bar on a shady side street and then headed back to meet up for the walk. It was long and tedious and although informative was designed to push the businesses that we visited, which is slightly unfair of me to say because we enjoyed many free samples on the way, including the ice cream of our choice. I had never tasted apple ice cream before and it was a tangy, delicious choice. Men paid for their ice cream (2 euros), but it was free to women and children.

“I had never tasted apple ice cream before and it was a tangy, delicious choice.”

   At the end of the day we were hot and tired. A splash in the pool was the remedy, unheated it quickly cooled us down. Sun beds and tables were plentiful and we soon nestled down for a siesta.
  By this time we were very hungry. Dressed for dinner we were welcomed into the stylish and plush dining room by the waiters and shown to our table. At breakfast we had chosen our evening meal and were served promptly with our choice, traditional Italian fare. I convinced myself that all the extra swimming and walking that I did would help eliminate extra weight gain.
  We couldn’t wait a day longer. Our first excursion was to Mount Vesuvius. It was an early start to avoid the main walk in the midday sun. The coach arrived and Luigi, the tour guide chatted along the way about the picturesque villages and the fact that Sophia Loren hailed from the Sorrento peninsula.
  The nearer to the volcano that we drove the greater it seemed. The coach wound its way through the tapered roads. Soon we were driving around the inside crater of Mount Sumo, a secondary dormant crater on the left slope of Vesuvius. The coach stopped half way up and the rest of our journey was on foot. A cool breeze helped, but the incline was steep, although my son sprang up there and waited impatiently for us at the top.
  The view down into Vesuvius main crater was even more spectacular than I had ever imagined. My previous visit, many years ago had been on a cloudy day. Glancing cagily over the edge the full circumference stretched wide. The smell of sulphur rose and steam spiralled from some of the ashen grey crevices. Devices on the outside edges monitored the stability of the volcanoes movements. Its last eruption had been in 1944 and history tells us that it wakes up from its slumber approximately fifty to sixty years. Technology gives a two week warning of an impending eruption so we knew that we were safe.
  Solidified lava flows from previous eruptions are wide, vast, seeming to cascade statuesquely down the sides of Vesuvius like grey fondant icing. Tiny mauve flowers amongst sparse vegetation push their way through the dry pumice type soil.
   It’s amazing that so many people choose to live in the volcanoes shadow, but with land limited in the Campania area, to some, it is the only option. They probably hope that when it erupts, and that could be at any time, that the lava flow will take another route away from their homes. 
  The trek was a lot easier down and broken up by the shanty of gift shops, about ten in all that sold unique gifts at reasonable prices. My son bought a volcanic mineral set containing twenty types of rock and two glass files taken from various volcanic strata in a wooden hinged box. Attached to the inside lid there are four photographs of Vesuvius and at ten Euros the keepsake was a bargain. I settled on buying a natural fragment of jet jutting rock, and a polished hematite bracelet crafted with rock from Vesuvius, both were reasonably priced.
  Tuesday morning, market day in Sorrento. We purchased our bus tickets and squashed onto the bus, which stopped along the way where more passengers crammed in. We followed them when we alighted, in droves up a hill until we found it.
  Locals and tourists crowded the rows. It wasn’t huge, but big enough to browse around for an hour and wasn’t full of holiday tat. Instead there were stalls of local cheeses, Mediterranean spices and olives, textiles, stylish clothes; including silky ties and of course shoes, some glitzy, some plain.
   Exhausted from our shopping spree we sank in to the wicker seats of a café. The lemon ice slushing around in a mechanical glass container was irresistible and served with a spoon; refreshingly it shot zesty icicles along my tongue.
  The bank was close, with a cash machine, so changing money was easy and it felt safer as it was situated in a vestibule enclosed within the bank.
   We needed information from the train station, which was a short walk away, we were eager to plan our Pompeii trip.
   On our way we were surprised to see a spacious modern supermarket. The travel representative had told us that locals preferred to shop daily at neighbourhood stores. There we discovered that food was reasonably priced including the local wine; and Limoncello was a fraction of the price. Our carrier bags full with snacks for the next few days we at last wended our way to the station, passing orange and lemon laden full boughs. The oranges are for decoration as they do not taste good from the region, but lemons are used and the trees bear fruit, surprisingly every three months.
  A mini cruise to Capri was our second intended excursion. We would have to start out early. The sound of rumbling thunder throughout the previous night kept me awake. I began to wonder why it is that whenever I prepare to sail the seas, storms always choose to break out. It had happened in Ibiza, and Morocco years before.
   Some of the thunder was in my imagination according to my husband, so we continued to the dining room for breakfast which included travel sickness pills. Lightening flashed and thunder jangled my nerves, which was unusual as I usually love thunderstorms. I gingerly ate cheese and ham, muesli yoghurt and meringue; I needed to ensure that my stomach was lined.
  Backpacks packed with food and swim wear for the day we awaited the coach at the front of the hotel sheltering in the entrance from the slanting rain. At reception the phone rang and then it was with relief that we were relayed the message that the trip had been cancelled. We hoped that it would be rescheduled for another more suitable day.
  We refused to let the weather ruin our day, so instead sat in our room watching the natural pyrotechnics across the bay and dozed off for an hour or two. The travel sickness pills had made us drowsy, but we awoke refreshed and after lunch we decided upon a walk.
  Since arriving we had heard and read about Regina Giovanna, a swimming beauty spot nearby, where the ruins of a Roman villa, probably belonging to the Augustan era can be seen. We were expecting a few walls, but after a treacherous walk along the busy main road, we found a winding cobbled lane which looked Roman, although I could not be sure, but it was pretty and sheltered from the sun by high walls and olive trees.

   The villa is split into two buildings, including a seaside villa with out-buildings; some of the roofs are still in place. On one of the footpaths small sections of mosaics have been exposed and it is evident that with excavation there are more.
  One part of the villa ruin is built around a natural basin which we gazed down upon watching a swimmer and two people paddling a canoe in jade and turquoise water. A natural archway, reinforced with roman brickwork led out to the sea and we guessed that this was the only access.
   Imagine our joy when investigating an overgrown pathway, which descended and opened out onto rocks to the waters edge and a tiny pebbly beach.
   The canoeists had left, but an Italian couple called out ‘cala’ (Italian for warm) and splashed in the water. They pointed and said ‘mouse’ whilst taking photographs of the archway and joist holes where the terraces of the Roman villa had once fixed. We were confused at first, but thought that they probably meant house.
   My husband and son snorkelled in the same water that Romans had spent their leisure time in thousand of years before them, whilst I sat taking photographs, mesmerised by the beauty, and day dreamed of bygone days.
  The day of our Pompeii trip arrived. The train swayed from side to side, a gentle breeze blowing through the carriage on our way. We had been pleasantly surprised by the price of our tickets, which amounted to just over eleven Euros for the three of us.
  After half an hour we reached our destination, unsure of what to expect next as we exited the railway station. Thinking we would probably have to find a bus to take us on our final part of the journey, but signs pointing to the right informed us that Pompeii was only 50 metres away, so we joined the throng of happy holiday makers. The road was lively and colourful. The stalls decorated with oranges and giant lemons, also selling pizzas, souvenirs and ice cold water. We didn’t stop.
   The entrance area, similar to a huge courtyard buzzed with excitement. We requested our tickets and were asked if we were British. “Yes,” we replied.
  “Passports please,” the ticket office woman said. We hadn’t brought them with us.
   “Driving license, credit cards, anything to prove your nationality?” We were perplexed and had left them all in our safe at the hotel. Our son flipped desperately through his wallet.
  “Yes that will do fine. That grey card!” The students’ identity card was proof and meant that he could go in free.
   Unofficial tourist guides bombarded us. Their rates reasonable, but one of the reasons we had found our own way there was so that we could walk around at our leisure, although we did hire one audio hand set between us, which was extremely useful.
  At last we were set to enter Pompeii.
  Once through the double arches, the ancient town spread before us. The sun beat down on the large cobbled roads where chariot wheel ruts were engraved forever. We passed ruin upon ruin, large and small, where rich and poor folk from 79 AD had lived and lost their lives. The excavations reached for as far as the eye could see. The perimeter approximately 3kms and every piece of land within it full of history. Each day excavations continue to unearth treasures and buildings.
  We were there for six hours, enthralled by everything we saw. Intricate columns, beautiful frescoes, villas with pools, temples, three amphitheatres, a sports ground, the list is endless. Many of the statues and artefacts have been removed and are exhibited at Naples museum. We were sad at first, but reflected that to leave them on site would cause their deterioration and some have even been replaced with replicas now.

“The sun beat down on the large cobbled roads where chariot wheel ruts were engraved forever.”

  We sat in the villa gardens of prosperous citizens, including Venus, protectorate of Pompeii, depicted with dolphins in a fresco. One garden even had its own little canal and the plants (asparagus, ivy, oleanders, roses…) are the same as those from far off days, as pollens, seeds and woods were discovered and revived, grown and transplanted in original layouts.
   Grape vines that form a canopy have been replanted too, scientifically reproduced, re -tracing the original descendants. Whilst aromatic herbs grow, such as laurel, lavender, myrtle, sage, and thymes fragrances float around, their freshness cooling the air.
   We were weary at the end of the day, but completely in awe of everything we saw. Relaxing in the evening we studied the book that my son bought and realised just how much more there was to see, but we will have to leave that until another time.
  Cancelled because of thunder storms last week, our mini cruise to Capri and Amalfi eventually came into fruition.
  The electric mini bus collected us from the hotel and we arrived at Marina Piccolo, a bright and busy quayside. Passing vendors of manually prepared lemon iced drinks; we were directed to our vessel. Not quite the small cruiser that my husband had anticipated, but a large wooden boat. The decks of The San Valentino were lined with blue deckchairs, but because the sea was looking choppy we opted for static seats in the centre and out of the direct sun.
  Italian music jiggled us along, interspersed with words of information from the captain in English and Italian. With the wind blowing through my hair, the sun warming my cheeks and hypnotised by the sea I became lost within myself, and more relaxed than I have been for years.
  The Isle of Capri loomed before us, its white cragginess rising majestically. The rock formations jutting out of the true blue sea were a wonder. A spectacular one formed a natural archway with turquoise sea foaming through and around it.
   The boat stopped and passengers were invited for a swim. My husband and son launched themselves from the side of the boat and probably it was the most memorable swim that they have experienced. Gazing down from the top deck I envied them.
  It was time to about turn. We headed towards Positano, a beautiful town on the Amalfi coast, but we were able to choose whether to alight there or remain on the boat. We decided to stay aboard and continue on to Amalfi.
   Rows of houses, built in higgledy piggledy terraced stripes welcomed us ashore. And soon we were swallowed up into the heart of Amalfi.
   Through an archway, gold rays from a church roof glinted and radiated towards the sky, drawing us into the town square. Like a fairy tale town, fountains tinkled and splashed. Small friendly shops lined a narrow hill and we were enticed along.
   Warm herbaceous aromas abounded, but we didn’t have time to stop and enjoy the flavours. Instead we were tempted into an ice cream bar and licked our ice cream, banana, and rum, as we wandered around.
   To our surprise the prices were inexpensive and we completed most of our gift shopping in the time we spent there. Loaded with bags we headed for the boat. This time choosing deckchairs on the main deck, where we were lulled by the sea until we docked in Sorrento.
  Our exciting excursions were interwoven with relaxing evenings at The Metropol Hotel. Tuesday evenings on the patio, just below the pool terrace were filled with melodic music. Talented local artists sang, and played keyboard and guitar, on one occasion a guest joined in and surprised us with his charming tones. Saturday – Gala Night and we were in for a treat. A multi course meal was served, by the waiters who circled the dining room, dancing in time to Neapolitan music and exhibiting the meal in out stretched hands; guests clapped rhythmically and were rewarded with the tastiest of local cuisine. Other evenings we spent socialising with fellow guests, our off spring, mainly young adult’s, enjoyed one and others company too, having met at the pool on quiet days at the hotel. And at the end of their holidays they swapped MSN addresses; they had gelled so well.
  Many evenings we walked into Sorrento and caught the bus back. Wandering along… Marina Grande, a tiny fishing hamlet at the bottom of the escarpment, the sea lapping its shores, and the lights of the boats twinkling, illuminated by the moon. To our right the ascending rock face embroidered with flowers and shrubbery. And the rich smell of cappuccino – the perfect welcome into the town. 
  A memory to treasure and to last a life time. My son echoes our views too. So all in all, our holiday was a remarkable success.

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