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A Week in Sorrento, Italy

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Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2012 12:30 am

England was having the coldest and wettest spring in one hundred years, so when my friend Lesley —with whom I was visiting in Devon — suggested we go down to Italy, I was very much in favor of the idea. Our impromptu booking at last moment turned out to be a real money saver. Lesley’s travel agent found us a charter flight going direct from Bristol to Naples with a week at the Jaccarino Hotel in Sorrento plus half board (breakfast and dinner) for just £461 or about $725 a person including airport transfers.

It was quite a good deal as we later discovered others at our hotel were paying double this.

I hate flying out of crowded Heathrow, so it was nice to fly from Bristol’s much smaller airport rather than having to go all the way to London.

Our hour-and-a-half drive up to Bristol was quite pleasant, a bright and sunny day, and we began to wonder if we were making a mistake leaving this beautiful English spring weather behind. When we arrived in Naples it was pouring rain. That though was the end of the bad weather. For the rest of the week, Italy basked under the golden sun. Meanwhile back in the UK the foul weather returned, and the Queen’s regatta pageant on the Thames was marred by cold rain, which was probably the reason why Prince Philip wound up in the hospital before the Jubilee ended.  

A charter bus took us from Naples to the Sorrento peninsula and began to drop tourists off at various hotels. After seeing three lovely and modern hotels go by, we finally came to the Jaccarino, which at first glance appeared to be an old and ramshackle building. Quaint would be a more apt description.

Hallways ran at odd angles and the floor plan was quite confusing. The promised view from our room turned out to overlook an alley. It could have been worse. Another couple whose room did have a spectacular view of the Bay of Naples was up in the attic. At least our room was quite comfortable.

We never spent much time lounging about our room anyway. Every evening we’d sit on the veranda looking out toward Naples and Mt. Vesuvius across the bay and have a bottle of wine from the bar. The lights of Naples would twinkle on, then we’d head upstairs to the restaurant with the remnants of our wine to enjoy the same spectacular view along with a repast as only the Italians can prepare.

Our maître d’hotel would welcome us each night with a flourish of flatter (“You are my favorite guests! Sit. I have something very special for you tonight”). Salad was from a buffet, but our waiter would bring us our choice of appetizers.

 I learned after a couple dinners to pick soups and spurn the pasta appetizers as they were so filling that I’d barely have room for the entrée let alone the dessert. And the desserts were out of this world, also from a buffet, save one night when the maître d’ really did have a special surprise for us and had pastries sent to us straight from the kitchen.  

The Jaccarino sits up high overlooking Sorrento far below. It is situated high on the spine of the peninsula. On the other side of the hotel was a small village beyond which was a steep descent to the Amalfi Coast. That high up made for delightfully cool sleeping weather, an Italian version of our Koke‘e.

The hotel ran a free shuttle bus down into Sorrento, or one could walk down a trail into town through olive groves. The walk took about half an hour so normally we’d take the bus.  

The town of Sorrento is perched on cliffs above the Bay of Naples. We spent one day simply exploring the town, admiring the beautiful views, and looking into the richly decorated churches.

I arranged for an excursion to Vesuvius and Herculaneum, a Roman town destroyed in 79 AD along with Pompeii by the volcanic eruption. We ascended the mountain first before clouds could move in to obscure the view.

The bus goes to within a mile of the summit requiring a fairly easy walk to reach the caldera. It still hisses steam and presents a never ending threat to Naples far below. Herculaneum itself was covered by a mudflow during the eruption rather than by ash as was Pompeii and so is better preserved.

 It was once right on the bay, but thanks to all that volcanic debris, it is now over a mile from the waterfront.

I didn’t bother signing up for an excursion to Pompeii because it is very easy to reach this ruined city on my own. All I had to do was go to the central train station in Sorrento and ride for about half an hour.

The train station at Pompeii is only about 100 feet from the archeological site entrance.

I missed my train to Pompeii because I had to first exchange some money, but when I finally did arrive I found the gates to the site still closed as the attendants were on some sort of strike. The Euro crisis has caused problems like this in Greece, Spain and Italy. Just as I feared my day was ruined, the strike — or whatever it was — ended and the gates thrown open. Fortunately I’d bought a Pompeii/Herculaneum pass at Herculaneum so I didn’t have to stand in line with the huge crowd at the ticket window. Instead I went directly into the ruins and for a delightful half hour or so had them virtually all to myself. I felt like Indiana Jones exploring a lost city.

When Vesuvius erupted, some people in Pompeii were covered by volcanic ash. Their bodies decayed leaving behind hollow cavities. Archeologists poured plaster into these cavities to create morbid casts of these doomed folks.

These casts were displayed at Pompeii, a frightful reminder of the horror of that terrible day.

While in Sorrento we took a day trip out to the island of Capri. The boat takes about an hour to get there, but the ride is very scenic so I enjoyed every minute.

Upon arrival, we walked to the far east end of the island to Villa Jovis, the ruined palace of the Roman emperors. The Emperor Tiberius used to throw people he didn’t like off the cliff here, and he didn’t like a lot of people.

After walking back to Capri’s center square we boarded a bus to the other town on the island, Anacapri. The trip there was hair raising with a shear drop on the right side of the road giving my stomach butterflies as the huge bus pushed far too close to the edge of the cliff.  

In Anacapri, we took the cable lift to the highest point on the island. This was quite similar to a ski lift minus the snow. From the top the view was awesome, the entire island now visible below with the Sorrento peninsula off in the distance and far, far away the volcano Vesuvius looming over everything.  

Upon our return to Anacapri we decided to shun the hair raising bus trip and took a staircase to Capri town far below. Lesley began to regret not having taken the bus as all those stairs proved to be a great challenge to her knees.  

On another day we sailed back to Capri but did not make landfall. Instead we swam in the waters below the cliff where Tiberius would cast his victims. An interesting grotto unseen from Villa Jovis above was now visible in the rock face. Then we sailed eastward and headed to Amalfi on the south side of the Sorrento peninsula passing Positano where some passengers disembarked.

We were entertained along the way by a musical troupe of Italians, singing and playing their instruments.  

At Amalfi we stopped for a couple hours, which gave us time to explore this colorful town.

 I especially enjoyed the church which had a museum filled with jewel encrusted relics.

Every evening after dinner we would sit in the Jaccarino lounge and compare notes with our fellow guests. Everyone except for me was British. Apparently the hotel was favored by Brits on chartered excursions.

It was from our fellow guests that I’d get ideas on what to see in the area. One couple suggested a walk to a remote cove on the Amalfi side of our hotel, so on my last day I descended down the steep path there. The last part of the trail had nearly 1000 steps, but the reward was well worth it. I had the entire cove to myself (Lesley and her knees abstained from this trek). Being Sunday, the idyllic isolation did not last. Three Italian boys soon arrived with their dog, and all headed into the water to make noise and frolic. Still, later, the ever present English tourists started to arrive as well, and at that point I surrendered and began the long hike back up.  

The next day we flew from Italy and said goodbye to the warm sun. It was back to England and more cold and rainy weather.

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