Monday 20 August 2018

Sorrento: An Italian box of delights and 'a town designed for pleasure'

 

The coast around Positano is rugged, but sun-kissed and seductive
The coast around Positano is rugged, but sun-kissed and seductive
Eilis in Pompeii

Eilis O'Hanlon

There are two types of holidaymakers. The first just wants to relax and have a good time. The second type is desperate to cram in as much historical and cultural activity as possible.

The Edwardian essayist GK Chesterton was firmly in the first camp.

He thought that mixing holidays with education was as idiotic as trying to combine sleep with exercise, and my youngest daughter wholeheartedly agrees. Why, she wants to know, would anybody want to do "school stuff" on holiday?

Her elder sister takes a different view. She likes nothing better than drawing up itineraries of ancient ruins and museums to visit.

Both have a point. Magically, Sorrento offers the best of both worlds.

Our flight out of Dublin left early in the morning, which meant that we arrived and checked into our hotel in time for a late lunch, thereby getting the holiday off to the perfect start. We stayed at La Pergola, a small, friendly, modern hotel with good sized rooms. It's only a leisurely 15-minute stroll into the heart of this almost impossibly pretty, enchanting little town, an essential stop on the Grand Tour since the days of Lord Byron, though there is a free shuttle bus that brings guests in and out.

Eilis in Pompeii
Eilis in Pompeii

With its narrow cobbled streets and array of quirky shops, it's easy to while away a good few hours here just wandering around with no particular destination in mind. Everywhere you go, there are plenty of street vendors eager to entice you in with offers of free biscuits, sweets and limoncello, though it's not so easy to escape without buying something. One could easily spend a day just exploring the maze of streets around the central Piazza Tasso, named after a renowned 16th Century poet, and consider it well spent.

It may sound like a stupid thing to say, but there's something so gratifyingly, life-affirmingly Italian about Italy that never fails to lift the spirits.

Sorrento is busy with people, cars and scooters, but somehow the town seems to manage all this bustling activity with finesse. The most stressful bit seems to be crossing the road. Italy has its own rules for this so we waited for other Italians to lead the way and followed them into the traffic. It can be a hairy experience.

The one thing about which all three of us could agree was the need for good food. Fortunately, Sorrento has an abundance of delicious, well-priced restaurants to choose from. This is Italy, so naturally pizzas, gnocchi and pasta form the backbone of every menu. Seafood is big on the menu here, but they cater for a wide range of tastes and increasingly you'll find vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options, which makes all the difference if you've ever tried to satisfy the need for non-traditional fare in some other destinations.

Crucially, there are also plenty of ice cream shops, including quite a few with vegan options. These places are definitely worth a few scoops daily and, as I soon found out, are ideal candidates for peace offerings between warring factions.

Meanwhile, I deployed all my diplomatic skills to carve up the week between companions with very different demands and expectations.

When it comes to immersing oneself in ancient culture, Sorrento couldn't be more ideally situated. Getting to Herculaneum and Pompeii, twin towns famously destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, is agreeably easy from the railway station in town. We made sure to arrive at each site early in the morning to avoid the worst of the crowds and the punishing sun, but even though we reached Pompeii just after 9am it was still fairly busy.

My youngest daughter wasn't all that keen on these visits, especially since she'd been to Pompeii before, and couldn't understand what was so interesting about a "pile of stupid rocks". We dragged her along anyway.

Pompeii is large, with lots to see, and some areas still remain unexcavated, so it can quickly become overwhelming, especially in the heat, but it's still an essential destination. Herculaneum, while less famous than its neighbour, is arguably even more rewarding. If you have time to visit only one ancient site, that's definitely the one to pick.

The town was smaller and wealthier than Pompeii, and has been better preserved, so here the wall paintings and floor mosaics are still on site, rather than in the museum in Naples, which is where most of Pompeii's treasures have ended up. It's also easier to get around, especially since fewer people go there, making for a much more relaxing day.

Wandering through these ancient streets, it's easy to see why there's still such a fascination with the Romans. Their love of art is in evidence on every wall. Even the bricks which they used to build their houses were painstakingly laid on top of each other in fantastically straight lines, despite the fact they were then going to be covered with plaster and decorated anyway. Both towns even have surviving bars, complete with marble counters with spaces for terracotta pots.

So much beauty almost spoils the eyes, and the same ticket that gains you access to Herculaneum also grants the holder entry to the Villa Oplontis a few train stops away. This villa is thought to have belonged to the wife of mad Emperor Nero and, again, if ancient ruins are your thing, it is well worth a visit. The wall paintings are magnificent.

Aside from antiquities, Sorrento has plenty more to offer by way of general sightseeing. We took a boat trip to the nearby island of Capri, which was good fun, though, at €55 per person, possibly a tad expensive. Before landing, we were taken on a tour of the coast, with various places of interest pointed out to us, including the Grotta Azzurra (aka the Blue Grotto), a sea cave whose water is illuminated by the sunlight that peeks through the narrow entrance.

Once on the island itself, lunch naturally took priority, then we had five or six hours to ourselves before the return to Sorrento. Spying a sign pointing to the town centre, we innocently climbed the few steps that we could see. Twenty minutes later we were still climbing. Well, the magnificent cliffs we'd seen from the sea as we approached probably ought to have been a clue to how steep the island would be...

Having finally reached the top, I'm not sure it was worth the exertion, unless you're into expensive designer shops. If not, there is an abundance of other places along the coast to visit, including Amalfi (favourite playground of wealthy aristocrats), as well as the gorgeous fishing village of Positano (named after Poseidon, Greek god of the sea), both of which I'd highly recommend. Not forgetting Naples, Italy's third largest city, which is best entered, our guide assured us, by boat, as it brings visitors right into the heart of the old town.

At this stage, I can almost hear my youngest daughter sighing again at all this relentless sightseeing. Off to the beach we go then. There is an entrance charge of €5 per person, and it's extra for sunbeds and parasols - which might be a culture shock for the Irish, but considering how busy Sorrento gets in summer, it was never madly busy - perhaps the fee keeps the crowds to a manageable level?

The water is a lovely refreshing temperature, and my youngest daughter was in her element, though distinctly unimpressed with our efforts during races. ("I don't mean to be rude, but you're not very good, are you?")

La Pergola has its own swimming pool to help guests cool off during the height of the day, as well as a small garden area at the bottom where, in the evenings, we played cards and had some drinks. Mostly though we ended up having early nights because we were so exhausted.

That's the thing about Sorrento. No matter what kind of holidaymaker you are, one's desires cannot fail to be fulfilled by its various delights, historical and contemporary. It's a town designed for pleasure and, for all three of us, leaving was definitely a wrench.

And Vesuvius didn't erupt. Which was nice.

Take two: Top attractions

Villa Of Mysteries

This Pompeii landmark is renowned for its stunning frescoes showing the initiation of a young woman into a boozy cult. Sounds fun. It also has a resident cat, every bit as attractive for our party as the art.

La Marinella

The heat of southern Italy is so intense that the chance to splash about in the cool, gentle water at this beach is irresistible. We’re Irish, after all. When else can we swim in the sea with no risk of hypothermia?

Getting there

Eilis travelled to Sorrento, with Sunway, the REAL Package Company, staying six nights in the three-star La Pergola Hotel on a bed and breakfast basis.

Package holidays for seven nights to Sorrento start from €629pp in a three-star hotel and from €729pp in a four-star hotel. Packages include flights, seven nights' accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis, transfers, 20kg baggage and services of a Sunway representative.

Half-board upgrades and five-star options are also available.

Prices are based on select August departures and subject to availability.

Call Sunway on 01-2311800 or visit sunway.ie.

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