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Sorrento in a day - it's all you need
Member Name: fizzywizzy
Advantages: Pleasant enough town, nice scenery
Disadvantages: Lack of decent beaches, paying to bathe, very touristy, expensive
Sorrento was one of my must-visits when in Naples for a week in 2004. An easy to negotiate hour or so train journey from Naples (only 25KM but stops everywhere), Sorrento offers a very pleasant alternative to the hustle and bustle of southern Italy's largest city.
The train journey itself is integral to the day out. You travel on the Circumvesuviana line which passes very closes to the Mount Vesuvius and the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum which were famously devastated by an eruption of the mighty volcano. (Both of these towns can also be accessed on this route). Initially you pass through the outskirts of the city, later going through some rather attractive looking suburbs with spacious homes with roof terraces overlooking the sea. This gives way to rural scenes and as the train approaches Vesuvius you can see the vineyards climbing the slopes - home of the Lachrymi Christi wine so typical of the region. Just before Sorrento the track becomes a dramatic viaduct crossing a fantastic valley and as the train arrives at the outskirts of Sorrento lemon groves line the track on both sides. Swathes of netting are hung just under the branches - a giant canopy to catch the bright yellow fruit. Now and again you can spot someone perched precariously on an unfeasibly long ladder gathering the harvest.
As you leave the station you cut through a modern shopping centre with a very cafes and souvenir shops. This is not the real Sorrento! Do not be tempted to stop but carry one following the main road which takes you past some of the loveliest hotels in the area, to the main square, Piazza Tasso.
The first thing that struck me about Sorrento was that it's geared very much towards the English - cafes offering all-day breakfasts, English football games live on television and most shop notices written in English. Not really my cup of tea but early on in the day before the organised coach trippers arrive, the streets of Sorrento are quiet enough to stroll around and enjoy.
Our target in Sorrento though was the beach - well the sea, anyway. This area of the Italian coast has few sandy beaches and most that are sandy are private - you either can't use them or you have to pay an extortionate fee to use them. Amred with this knowledge we headed for an area which we had been told comprised of small lidos where, for a more modest fee, we could rent a bed and enjoy relative quiet.
The town is situated on the cliff tops and so you have to descend the winding path on foot or take the lift (for about a Euro) to Marina Piccola. We decided to walk down and take the lift on our return. At the bottom several options present themselves. You can join Italian teenagers crammed together on a tiny patch of concrete and sit on your towels (free but not very comfortable), sit on a tiny area of sand which is overrun by families (also free but I don't enjoy lying on the beaches surrounded by screaming kids) or take advantage of one of the lidos (there are two). There was really no choice so we paid 7 Euros each and made our way to the furtherest part of the jetty and settled down. The jetty made two sides of a square with the beach as the third and the fourth side opened out onto the sea. Some people were taking small boats into the sea but since the ferry and hydrofoil terminal is so close I wouldn't advise swimmers to do this. The passenger vessels arrive with some regularity throughout the day and while you can hear their engines as they move into place at the harbour it doesn't create too much of a disturbance. There are secure steps from the jetty into the water and a freshwater shower to rinse off all that salt after a swim. The steps are great becuse they mean that adults can climb from the jetty without having to swim from the crowded beach, picking through the children in the shallow area - perfect.
If a swim has worked up an appetite there's a reasonably priced cafe serving both alcoholic and soft drinks and the food available ranges from sandwiches to pizza and pasta dishes. You can either sit in front of the cafe on a covered terrace overlooking the sea or take your food away with you. We ate there and enjoyed an excellent pasta dish and a fantastic aubergine bake with a couple of cold beers.
Mid-afternoon saw us pack up and head back into town. We decided against the lift when we found you had to wait for its arrival in a very unsavoury-smelling tunnel! After the steep walk we deserved a beer so headed for the old town where pavement cafes abound. However so do tour groups, so you are continually being stared at by tourists being led through the narrow streets by their guides. This is something you quickly realise about Sorrento. Its not the locals staring - its other tourists! The locals are so used to it they barely notice the tourists and the reason for that is because Sorrento is FOR the tourists.
The narrow alleys and lanes are heaving with people keen to buy a little something to remind them of the fact they once spent an afternoon in Sorrento but mostly the goods on offer are tawdry and unimaginative - tea towels, plastic lemons and "I saw Sorrento in an hour" t-shirts (actually I made the last one up but I reckon it would be a big seller!).
You see, Sorrento, whilst it is beautiful and quaint and scenic and all those things tourists expect from Italian towns, is really not very important at all. Granted it has a couple of pretty palaces and some attractive churches but not really enough to grab your attention for any significant amount of time. The narrow lanes in the old town have some interesting shops - until you see the same things again and again. Don't get me wrong, Sorrento is lovely but it almost feels as if it's all been manufactured so that day trippers can take it all in in one day - a kind of micro tourist town with just a bit of everything thrown in.
What I could see, though, is why Sorrento proves so popular with package holiday-makers. It is in a great position to facilitate easy travelling around an area that has alot to offer - Naples, the Amalfi coast, the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, Mount Vesuvius, the islands of Capri and Ischia and many more.
If you must go to Sorrento and, please do not be discouraged by me, do not expect a packed itinerary or even a varied range of options for sightseeing. See it and enjoy it whilst having a glass of locally made limoncello but like this sharp and refreshing citrus liqueur don't expect it to last long!
Summary: Italy's answer to the Sex Pistols - pretty vacant!