Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sorrento notes from a broad

Well, that's what happens when you enjoy a trip to its fullest and opt out of the detailed mass email to family and friends. You start to forget. What was so funny. What was so cool. What was what. Sigh. But at least you've got those warm and fuzzy memories, right? Fuzzier than warm with the passage of time, to be sure. Here's the little that I can remember from those three wanton weeks in the land of lemons and limoncello. In bullet form, no less. Probably not even mildly exciting enough to warrant sharing (or reading), but here goes. Knock yourself out.

  • Naples had been on my list of places to visit for a long while. Mainly because it was held in such high esteem by a boy I once pedestaled. Thinking we had the same taste, or at least something similar, I was looking forward to exploring and developing my own amore for the city. Not to be. The city's allure was absolutely lost on me. While I get why other people may deeply dig Napoli, people who likely love the grittier edge and energy of New York City, for example ... I didn't dig it. The friend I was traveling with passed three attempts at having her purse snatched with admirable calm (and a vice grip on her bag). Especially in the face the big picture. I've never experienced such free-flowing chaos in a European city before. This was my first trip to Southern Italy and I scoffed at all the warnings from every Northern Italian I'd met who'd warned me away from Campania. And Naples in particular. Worth a visit, to be sure; don't get me wrong. Naples is just a whole hell of a lot poorer, dirtier, and fringe than I was expecting. I'd read so much about how the city had been cleaned up and made safer. And perhaps that is the case. But it begs the question, What was Naples like before the big PR effort? No fewer than seven couples saying at the tiny B&B (the Casa Astarita in Sorrento and I'd highly recommend it, by the way) with us over the course of sixteen nights had their wallets, purses, or bags stolen either on the train to/from Naples or in Naples itself. I'm happy to say that both my travel companion and myself came away from our two day trips to Naples with all of our belongings. Peace of mind though, not so much. As one local from the Sorrento area told us, "I don't like going to Naples. If I do have to go, I always take a shower when I get home to Sorrento. Naples makes you feel so dirty." Dirty and unnerved. A simple stroll down the street can be a triumphant, death defying experience. Try it sometime in the Spanish Quarter. I dare you. Diving into the Spanish Quarter proper isn't even necessary, if you're feeling a little chicken. Just walk straight up the Via Toledo and you'll immediately be plenty on edge navigating the onslaught of people, mopeds, and cars. All traveling at top speed, often going the wrong way (the scooters and the cars), and nearly always without helmets (the scooters). Unfortunately, a banged up moped being driven by a young woman with a kid under ten and a baby, maybe even a family dog, all without helmets, doing hairpin turns at a blinding clip against traffic down the tiny side streets and up onto the sidewalks through packs of pedestrians is not an uncommon sight. Anyway, Naples is (in a word) intense. And not in my favorite fashion. But I'm glad I went and I might even go back, someday. The frescoed and hand-painted tile cloister of Santa Chiara church, for example, is definitely worth experiencing again.

  • If you ever go to Sorrento and get hungry, I'd recommend swinging by L'Abate or Photo for lunch and/or dinner. L'Abate had the best funghi (mushroom) pizza and Photo's ravioli was to die for fresh and delicious. If you get thirsty, imbibe a drink and a sunset from the terrace of Hotel Syrene. Amazing view of Vesuvius, the Bay of Naples, and the coast. Delightful. Very romantic. As for gelato, Primavera on the Corso Italia has a dizzying array of flavors and portions fit to fill the tummy of every over-eating American in town. I actually preferred it to the much touted Davide. Buon appetito.

  • Easter week processions on the island of Procida are where it's at. Go for Good Friday and spend the day.

  • How do all these women manage to walk the uneven cobblestone streets in stilettos? I just don't understand. I'd break my neck and my ass.

  • What's in fashion at the moment are jeans tucked into boots. It's unattractive if you ask me, but everyone's doing it. And I mean everyone. All the ladies, that is.

  • The guys are rocking bomber jackets and argyle sweaters. Don't ask me why.

  • Everyone has a pair of crazy, tricked out jeans with chains and embroidery or studs or some crap decorating nearly every inch of the denim. Especially the real estate at the rear. My favorite are the jeans spelling out RICH across the ass. Turns out it's a designer's name and not necessarily about wealth. Although I'd hazard a guess that the double entendre is intended.

  • Riding a bus along the Amalfi Coast is pretty darn spectacular. A little nauseating, but in a good way. Scary, sure. But oh the fun you'll have telling friends and family when you get home. Seriously it's not so bad. My friend had a bit of motion sickness but even she was glad to take the ride. We got lots of great pics. The views are incredible.

  • Boat rides along the Amalfi coast and to the islands of Capri, Ischia, and Procida are a must. If you go to Ischia, visit the gardens at La Mortella near Forio. Gorgeous.

  • Namesake of the coast it once dominated, Amalfi is a charming town with the most incredible church. If the exterior doesn't make you swoon, the crypt surely will. Once you've been in a few European churches, they start to all look the same. Don't skip this one. The cloister isn't anything special (the frescoes and mosaics are badly damaged, though nice) and the church itself is okay, but the crypt is incredible.

  • We met three inspiring and interesting American couples who were each on marathon trips. A seriously atypical situation for stock from the United States. I go away for two, three, four weeks at a time and pick one or two cities to call home for the duration of the trip. A travel timeframe and tactic that ceaselessly impresses Europeans who are used to encountering Americans enjoying (though how is that possible?) the Grand Tour in five days; ten, tops. At any rate, I quickly envied each of the three couples in question. The first were sailing around the world. From the American Midwest, they'd paid off their house and made good on a promise to then leave work behind for unrushed, indefinite travel. When we bumped into these two in Ravello, they informed us that they'd be wintering in Turkey and had been sailing and living on their boat (saved lots of would-be hotel monies) for three years. Yup. Three years. The second couple were living in Italy for a year and traveling all over the country and to other parts of Europe as well. Visit their http://www.expatsinitaly.com/cjumbria/ for wonderful entries and photos. The last couple was in fact a family of three with a young, soon-to-be teenage son. They weren't sure how long they'd be traveling and had already been away from their home on the East Coast for over a year. The boy asked if he could windsurf in Amalfi. "Wait until we're in Aruba in a few months. The windsurfing will be great there." Some bank of childhood memories this kid's racking up, eh?

  • Yes. People talk with their hands. Moreso here than in Northern Italy, I think. There's more unabashed staring, too. Because you're attractive, because you're unattractive, because you're obviously a foreigner, because ... oh, who the hell knows. I'm used to Europeans staring, for whatever reason, but for my friend (her first trip to Italy) it was a new experience. The staring is definitely more intense in Italy. In my experience. I have no idea what exactly it's all about. But I've learned to ignore it. When all else fails, just stare back and turn it into a contest.

  • So the Blue Grotto on Capri. Should you go, should you not go. I say go. Sure you only get five minutes inside the grotto, but it's creepy and why would you really want to be in there any longer than you have to? Go in the afternoon when the sun gives the grotto its most intense and glowing blue. The color is truly amazing. But it's creepy town. I'm telling you. You take a motor boat to the outside of the grotto, hop in a row boat and pray you don't capsize and fall in, lay down flat in the boat to enter the grotto so's you don't smash your head in on the top of the cave enterance, row around for a few minutes, snap a few photos, and you're done. Seems expensive until you hop back on the motor boat and tour around the rest of the island. All in all the whole excursion takes about an hour. It's worth it. The Villa San Michele was also advisable. Not as grand as Villas Rufolo or Cimbrone in Ravello, Villa San Michele is cozy and charming with lovely grounds and a great view.

  • The Bourbon palace at Caserta, built to rival Versailles, did at one time; that much is clear. The royal apartments are spectacular, but like the rest of Napoli and the surrounding area, the splendor has fallen into a somewhat dingy bout of prime past. Work is being done to restore former glory, and I look forward to viewing the fruits of this monumental (and no doubt pricey) labor. My friend and I didn't have the energy to venture the mile or two into the famed gardens. But then that gives me another reason to return.

  • Pompeii is bigger than you think. A lot bigger. We spent six hours there and didn't see everything. The one must-see site for me was the Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries). On a much smaller scale, but far more interesting in many ways, is Ercolano or Herculaneum. A smaller, once seaside town, we saw all of Ercolano in two hours. It was fantastic. While Pompeii was buried in ash, Ercolano was done in by a pyroclastic flow of molten lava, mud, and gas. This allowed for the amazing preservation of items you rarely find from ancient times. Items like wooden doors, staircases, furniture. And papyrus "books" from the time. We're talking 79 A.D. folks. How wild is that? The Villa dei Papyri (Villa of the Papyrus) where over 1,000 papyrus scrolls were discovered in the 1700s was the inspiration for Getty's Malibu museum (the old one, not the newer one). Having seen both sites, if I had to choose just one to recommend it'd be Ercolano. Without a doubt. Smaller, but better preserved, more intimate, and to me, more interesting.

  • The surprise hit of the trip that wasn't even on the original list of sites to see turned out to be Villa Reggina at the Capo di Sorrento. A ruin of a seaside Roman villa, the site is serene and downright beautiful with a private cove, sea arch, and views to Sorrento. Take the public bus from Sorrento (short ride) and hike down to the ruin.

  • And the award for most entertaining and memorable framing of the question, "What are you?" goes to a lovable restaurant owner who asked, instead, "What's your generation? Hawaii?" Ah ha. Good times, good times.
And that's about all I can remember for the purpose of recounting. Ciao for now.

Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.


  1. Hi...I just found your blog...you hearted me on etsy, and now here I am. Really, I'm writing because I spent a painful four days in Naples in 1998. The pizza was great, the people...not so much. Nothing stolen, but sometime being hit on every three steps gets a little tiring. And Herculaneum was amazing, much more so than Pompeii. But the whole, disastrous experience makes for great storytelling, right?

  2. Glad you found me, Kelly. Thanks for reading my babble and posting a reply. And yes. Right on. The whole disastrous experience was certainly worth its weight in survival stories (well, maybe not a disaster, but surely on the dirty and dangerous end of spectrum, at times). Don't regret the experience even a hair.

  3. I love Sorrento and the coast of Italy for that matter. Great little read and wonderful photos. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Fun read. I was in Italy for the first time a couple of years ago (Venice), and fell in love with it all.

  5. Thank you for the kind words, Lorissa and Moonbindery. Glad you enjoyed my little entry on Sorrento enough to comment. Made my day.



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