Sorrento, Italy – Travel Review
by Helen Johnston
Could the curse of Pompeii be to blame for the rise of Donald Trump? One American tourist believes so after he pocketed some stones from the ancient archaeological site to take home to show his grandmother.
Legend has it that anyone removing relics from Pompeii will be cursed, and after a series of family troubles the tourist began to think there might be something in it. But the final straw came when it looked like Trump was going to be successful in his presidential campaign.
The American hurriedly posted the stones back to Italy with a letter of apology, now on display at Pompeii as a warning to the kleptomaniacs.
The ruins of this ancient city lie in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, the source of its destruction when the volcano erupted in 79AD. The 11,000 inhabitants were stopped in their tracks, killed by the scorching heat and buried under six metres of ash and pumice, which preserved their body shapes.
Some of them are on display – an adult crouched down, a child stretched out – and there is a poignancy about the abrupt way their lives were ended.
Pompeii is firmly on the tourist trail for travellers from all over the world, their sandalled feet now treading the same paths that Roman sandals trod over 1,900 years ago.
This is a well-laid out city. There are pavements and pedestrian crossings – raised up to avoid the outflow from the drains which ran down the streets – and shops and public baths. There are houses with gardens, the wealthy ones adorned with statues and detailed paintings. Even the city’s brothels were decorated with erotic artwork.
It’s worth stepping away from the main tourist throng and wandering along some of the eerily empty streets, imagining them bustling with noisy life.
Pompeii is huge but the nearby Herculaneum – situated in the modern town of Ercolano – is much smaller and quieter, and more manageable for a leisurely wander. This was where wealthy Romans had their summer villas and it is better preserved than Pompeii.
Both archaeological sites are easy to visit by rail on the Circumvesuviana service between Sorrento and Naples. Pompeii station is right outside the site and Herculaneum is a ten-minute walk from Ercolano station. If you’re lucky your train journey will be accompanied by live music from buskers who make their way along the carriages. You don’t get that on Northern Rail.
“A perfect base”
From outside Ercolano station it’s easy to take the Vesuvius Express bus service up the mountain. Visitors are dropped off at a car park from where there is a half hour walk up to the crater. It’s a steep climb and very dusty in the heat of summer, but it’s worth it for the stunning views of Naples spread out on the plains below. There’s also something a bit surreal about looking inside a volcano, even though there was “nothing bubbling away inside” as we overheard one disappointed visitor say, perhaps missing the point that if it was bubbling away we wouldn’t be standing there. The last time it erupted was in 1944 and hopefully somebody is monitoring it so that tourists won’t be caught out next time it happens.
Sorrento proved to be a perfect base for independent travellers exploring the Campania region by public transport. The town clings to the cliffs rising steeply from the shore and is the lemon capital of Italy if the shops are anything to go by. Lemon sweets, soaps, ceramic tiles, flip-flops, Limoncello liqueur and even lemon-decorated Christmas baubles all compete for space on the crowded shelves.
A rabbit warren of narrow streets filter out from the main pedestrianised area, each one squeezing in as many cafes and shops as it can. Religion permeates the town with beautiful churches, statues of saints and other icons in abundance. The town has become a romantic magnet for British couples wanting to get married in Italy and the medieval San Francesco cloisters are a particular favourite.
From the harbour there are numerous boat companies offering trips to Capri and along the Amalfi Coast. We took the ferry to Capri and then window-shopped along the Via Camarelle which boasts a long line of top fashion designer boutiques. Getting to the town centre involves a climb up from the harbour along a cobbled footpath and steps. There is a funicular railway but the queue was so long it’s surely quicker to walk, even at a steady pace.
If you prefer to stay on dry land there is a regular bus service to Amalfi starting from the bus stop outside Sorrento railway station, stopping at various towns along the way, and it’s possible to buy an all-day ticket so you can hop off and on as you wish. We took it to Positano, clinging on at one point when we noticed the driver had his mobile in one hand, chatting away, while negotiating the mountainous hairpin bends with the other hand. The return driver drove the whole journey one-handed, his other arm hanging nonchalantly out of the window. The confidence of the Italian driver.
Positano is a picture-postcard town of coloured houses overlooking the sea, bringing to mind the Balamory kids’ TV theme tune. The bus stop is at the top of the town so getting to the small beach involves a lot of steps down, and then the inevitable climb back up.
This is a bustling, beautiful part of Italy which is easy to explore on your own, and will give your calf muscles a good work-out into the bargain. And there’s always a gelateria with a vast choice of ice cream flavours to cool down with afterwards.
With thanks to Fabiola Fasulo at Sorrento Tourist Office for guidance on travelling around Campania by public transport. More information is available at sorrentotourism.com
Top image: Amund Hestsveen