The relatively few Americans who dared venture to "crime-ridden" Napoli and beyond in past years were scholars attracted to Pompeii and cognoscenti headed for the once-exclusive isles of Capri and Ischia. They usually came to stay, spending weeks, even months, studying ruins at Pompeii or the archaelogical museum in Napoli, or basking in the sun on the lush island resorts. These days, tours give groups an hour or two whirl of the ancient ruins, rush them to Capri for an in-and-out glimpse of the Blue Grotto, are often headed north again by late afternoon.
Peccato. Sorrento merits as much time as you can possibly give her, her treasures slow to fully reveal themselves. Pompeii, Capri and Ischia remain seductive, shouldn't be missed of course, regardless of the fact that mass tourism often results in human herds elbowing their ways through the "must-see" celebrated attractions. But Sorrento itself, the town, is so much more than a jumping-off spot. Linger in her lovely Piazza Tasso, the town's al fresco living room, have an espresso there at one of the cafes, meet the citizens. You'll rarely encounter a Sorrentino who isn't friendly, and often slight knowledge of the Italian language will win you companions who behave like old friends. Wander away from centro into narrow streets and ancient lanes where heavy traffic can't penetrate, where walled old villas, orange and lemon groves, public shrines transport you to a world which wasn't all that different a hundred years ago. Stroll the lovely parks overlooking the Bay, utilize the terraces and benches for the reason they were put there -- to lazily gaze on the astounding panorama: Vesuvius and Napoli across the Bay (On a Clear Day you can see Capri), the fishermen and pleasure-craft on the dazzling waters.
By all means, go down the cobbled walks to Marina Grande, hidden from view when you're in the upper town, unknown to most of the day-trippers and the "This Is Tuesday We Must Be In Sorrento" crowd. Marina Grande remains a working port, its quays lined with the nets under daily repair by fishermen, its brightly-painted houses looking out to sea, windows often graced with womenfolk scanning the horizons for first glimpses of their men returning from extended sailings. If you go often enough, you'll get lucky, see one or more of the boats come in, watch in amazement at the huge catches of spada and tonno disgorged from deceptively small craft. Visit Marina Grande's church of Sant' Anna, lunch at the rough cafe where amenities are few but the food superb. If there in late July, don't miss La Festa di Sant'Anna -- food booths and concession stands, colorful lighted arches lining the quay (sparkling reflections in the Gulf), fireworks, fired cannons, bands, costumed children and members of religious congregazione. And the procession -- the wonderful procession -- the statue of Sant' Anna borne aloft from her church, carried along the waterfront, followed by practically the entire citizenry. Then up the steep twisting paths to Sorrento itself, through Piazza Tasso, through the streets. Traditional hymns and chants, the mysteriously haunting strains of the Napolitan dialect. When the statue of Sant'Anna is finally returned to Marina Grande, she's held facing the dark sea, the crowds around her praying thanksgiving for her blessings on seamen over the past year. Cannons thunder, and then, distantly at sea, fireworks blaze into the sky from an anchored barge. Fireworks illuminating the Bay for miles, spectacular aerial displays which don't cease before midnight. I've never heard a tourguide mention La Festa di Sant'Anna, or met any casual tourist who'd heard of it.
The Peninsula is made up of a string of towns other than Sorrento proper, all of them worth exploring. Look in on Meta di Sorrento, Piano di Sorrento, Sant'Agnello di Sorrento, Massalubrense and Sant'Agata. Get off traffic-clogged Corso Italia, the main drag which links most of these towns, wander into the narrow back streets where Sorrentini live, experience vistas and lifestyles you thought no longer existed in Western Europe.
Headquarter in Sorrento for a month and you'll not exhaust the opportunities for rewarding day-trips. Napoli is less than an hour away on a local train, Pompeii only 40 minutes over the same route. Both demand repeated visits for even partial appreciation. As does Herculaneum. Shed your fear of "crime-ridden" Napoli, which is probably no more threatening than other of the world's large cities. Practice the same caution and attentiveness which you would in New York, Los Angeles or (these days) Moscow, and you'll be all right. Most of the treasures from Pompeii are now in Napoli's superb National Museum, as are renowned collections of Greek and Roman sculptlure, including the monumental Farnese marbles. Museo Capodimonte's vast storehouse of paintings includes works by Titian, Masaccio, El Greco, Breughel, among others. Capella Sansevero, tucked away in a narrow street (persist in finding it) features the awesomely beautiful sculpture Il Cristo Velato by Giuseppe Sanmartino. You'll find yourself repeating "How could I have not known these marvels are here?" Even art-history classes in American colleges have too long ignored the masterworks waiting to be seen south of Rome.
The Amalfi Drive is justly famous. But don't just do the drive, turn around and return to your hotel in Sorrento or Napoli. Linger. Overnight, if possible. Another day visit the great ducal palace at Caserta, look on the splendor which once served as background to Lady Hamilton's and Lord Nelson's notorious love affair. While in Caserta, see the ampitheatre, second in size only to Rome's Colosseum, and site of the great slave revolt led by Spartacus. Go farther south another day, marvel at the golden ruins of Paestum's magnificent Greek temples. If possible, hire a boat or (if lucky) accept an invitation from a newfound friend who owns one, and cruise the coast. Anchor in hidden coves, swim the turquoise waters. Listen to the sirens, understand why Odysseus had himself tied to the mast of his boat to resist their enticements. Better yet, don't have yourself tied to a mast. Succumb to the sirens, surrender to Sorrento.
And on and on. It may take a lifetime to see Rome, as its citizens justifiably boast, and I won't make the same claim for Sorrento. But after many visits to this enchanted campania, first recognized as an ideal resort by the Caesars, I've far from exhausted its wonders and pleasures. I love all of italy, and for many years gave most of my time there to the Byzantine, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque centers which so enriched my life. But I bless the day when Odysseus' sirens, Bruno Venturini's poignant cry Torna a Surriento, or simply the desire to seek long-lost maternal roots lured me south. I'll return and return, come back to Sorrento, Dio disposto, whenever I can.
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