After a couple of weeks in Campania: Naples, the islands of Ischia and Capri, Positano, Amalfi and Pompeii, we wrapped up our visit to Campania in the city of Sorrento. I’ll be the first to admit, I knew absolutely nothing about Sorrento. Isn’t there a ham that comes from here? No, that’s Serrano.
Sorrento is a gateway to the Amalfi coast and the islands of the Bay of Naples. Smaller and tamer than Naples, it is a city of moderate size, surrounded by the Bay and Mount Vesuvius to one side and the mountains dividing this peninsula from Positano and the Amalfi coastline on the other.
Sorrento is ideally situated for exploring Campania which explains the overwhelming abundance of fellow Americans and British tourists, Irish and English pubs and fish and chips places here. It almost feels as though English is the primary language. But don’t let that deter you, it’s not.
The Heart of Sorrento. We had missed our friend Rick Steves after a two week hiatus and while he didn’t have an audio walking tour on his app, our Airbnb had his Naples & the Amalfi Coast book in it so we lugged it along for his walking tour of Sorrento. It begins in the main square, the Piazza Tasso, takes you to the cathedral with its interesting and unique presepe manger scene set in Sorrento with Mount Vesuvius on the horizon.
Down through the narrow lanes of old town we went past the Men’s Club, where older Sorrentine men play cards under the frescoes of its dome, to the Villa Communale park and it’s views of the Bay of Naples. Inside the cloister of the Franciscan church, adjacent to the park, is a photo exhibit of photographer Raffaele Celentano’s, a Sorrento native, black and whites from the region and further around Italy. Definitely worth a stop and the €5 admission especially to help conjure up the recently developed memories from our visits to Naples, the Amalfi Coast and the islands and to enjoy some great posed and “stolen secret” moments (the photographer’s words) captured in the photographs.
The walk concludes at Marina Grande, one of the nicest little port side areas we’ve visited. It’s the authentic fisherman’s port with a small beach and lots of dining options. We chose Porta Marina, a four generation restaurant, for its grilled fish. Operated by the fishermen and their families (the mothers and daughters were the hosts and waited the tables while the fathers were out catching tonight’s dinner and the husbands or sons grilled up our lunch). Recommended by Rick Steves, our Airbnb host and the internet, you can add ours to the list.
Above Sorrento. On the cliff, behind our Airbnb, I found a cool little trail of rugged stone steps climbing atop the hill from the Church of Sant’Antonio to a little chapel. Along the way, you’ll find a set of hand painted tiles depicting the fourteen stages of the cross while you climb. I was seeking out views of the bay of Naples and found some as I wandered through the streets among the citrus and fruit farms of the village of Priora above Sorrento. While the views I sought weren’t exactly obtained, the cardio I wanted was.
For dinner that night, we tried Benvenuti in Casa. Don’t let the strip mall exterior fool you, this is excellent Sorrento dining in a family-run joint, albeit on a loud and busy road into town. The menu changes often, according to the owner, but suffice it to say that you won’t be disappointed and after your antipasti you’ll forget about the sounds of traffic and horns a few meters away.
Final Fling in Campania: the “New” town. Both Rick and our driver from here to Positano and back recommended Pizzeria da Franco, a locals joint not far from the train station where we had lunch on our final day. As promised, it was filled with more locals than tourists with cured ham and garlic hanging from the ceiling and it is bench-seating dining at its best. Rick recommended the saltimbocca sandwiches but the pizza looked fantastic too.
And what better way to conclude a trip to this region than with a visit to a Lemon Grove Garden…. It seems totally inept that I’ve yet to mention the lemons in this region. Welcomed to Campania in Naples and Ischia with gratis limoncello shots each night, on to Positano where lemon adorned souvenirs dominate the shops to Sorrento, the home of limoncello. As you wander past lemon and orange farms, houses with lemon trees planted in their yards or down streets lined with fruit trees the smells waft up at you, welcoming you to town.
After lunch we visited the Giardini di Cataldo where we tried to tour (alas, advance reservations required) and settled for sitting in the garden in back with some limoncello spritzes. We began our garden visit with a hyperactive blonde Italian boy running back and forth and screaming. Not to be deterred, we waited him out and joined the Germans from Munich, who endured blondie’s shrieking far longer than we did, sitting under the pergola amongst the lemon trees. As we polished off the spritzes we were joined by a group of twenty from Atlanta who posed with the lemons and critiqued each other’s selfies. The ones that were “trash” immediately erased from memory and iPhones and the ones that were “fire” were immediately uploaded to Insta, no doubt. While you can’t recreate a visit, this one would be worth trying.
Holy Thursday in Sorrento. Our final night in Sorrento was Maundy (Holy) Thursday. For you non-Christians, this commemorates Jesus washing the feet of the Disciples and the day of the Last Supper. To commemorate Mary’s search for Jesus on the night of the passion, the confraternita (Catholic religious brotherhoods) march through the streets of Sorrento and other Sorrento-coast towns in white hoods, carrying crosses (and I read that they carry purses symbolizing Judas’ coins and/or washbasins to commemorate Jesus’ washing the feet of the Disciples, though I didn’t catch that in person). In Sorrento, the processions occur at 8:30pm on Thursday, 3am and 8pm on Good Friday. We waited and waited (for the 8:30 one, not the 3am one), not really having a good source for the schedule and procession route, we staked out a position early (very early, it turns out) in the main Piazza Tasso. It became a little too much with some jockeying for position and aggressive (dare I say, non-Christian) behavior of new arrivals pushing towards the front for a better view of the coming procession (none of these folks were Italian, I might add). We gave up and headed for our dinner reservation which we’d already moved twice to a half hour later while we waited the arrival of the parade. That, it seems, was a happy accident. As we approached our restaurant, the procession appeared coming down the narrow street. Destined to be even more late for dinner, we paused and waited while it passed. The peaceful quiet is somewhat indescribable.
While white hoods with crosses marching through the streets at night conjure up a different image at home, here the procession was moving, beautiful and peaceful. When we booked time in Sorrento, we had no idea this lay in wait for us. Holy Week is a pretty good time to be in Italy to see all of the various rituals (more to come on this in later posts). The history of the hooded costume is “that in the mid 12th century, Christian brotherhoods were formed (they consisted) of laymen who had made a life conversion of faith without entering monasteries: few material possessions, fasting and celibacy, while adhering to rules against gambling, womanizing, drunkenness, and profanity. Pope Gregory IX recognized these groups in 1227 as they carried out charitable activities. The pointed hoods and robes were worn to hide their sinfulness and identities – they chose to remain anonymous for their charitable works.” Source. For more info on Sorrento’s processions click here.
Following the procession, we had dinner at Fuoro51 in the heart of old town. Because we were late, we assume, we were relegated to the upstairs area with its television playing current music videos (yes, folks, in Europe the MTV channels still play music videos) and a strange compilation of 80s hits (and misses) which didn’t match the video. We left the wine choice in the capable hands of our waiter (a good tradition we’ve picked up which has not failed us yet), tried the duck crostini on the advice of the Irish couple next to us (also didn’t fail us) and polished it all off with a tasty pistachio mousse. A delicious end to our time in Campania.
When we came to Italy 10 years ago, Positano stole my heart and my soul. I looked forward to our return for a decade and it continues to hold a special place in my memories, new and old. But this time, Sorrento stole our hearts and it is a place to which we are excited to return. Melissa wrote in her journal that Sorrento “embodies Campania with its beauty, chaos, tourism and charm”. Mix that in with local flavor and convenience and that’s Sorrento. Bravissimo Sorrento, grazie mille.
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