Sorrento

 

«Là dove il mare luccica e tira forte il vento…» begins the song Caruso, one of the most beloved Italian hymns to the decadent beauty of a certain southern culture. The reference (trans. ‘There, where the sea sparkles and the wind blows hard’) is to the seaside town of Sorrento, which of course also features in the old classic in the dialect of Napoli Torna a Surriento (Come back to Sorrento). Now, while it is true that the love for one’s hometown is a typically Italian trait, these two serenades suggest that the city must have something special to it. To describe in print the unique charm of Sorrento is unfortunately an impossible task. Dozens of artists who lived there from Imperial Roman times to these days have tried, from poet Torquato Tasso to the philosopher Benedetto Croce, from playwright Henrik Ibsen to actress Sophia Loren – but none of them managed to capture the many sides of what has been, throughout the centuries, one of the most charming holiday resort in Italy.

Sorrento lies about 50 kilometers from Napoli, to which it is connected by the Circumvesuviana railway line skirting the volcanic mount Vesuvius. This is also the best way to reach it, since the town is ensconced in a series of gorges, and on a 50-meters high plateau overlooking the sea. In fact, Sorrento does have a port from which ferries and hydrofoils depart for the isles of Capri and Ischia, but is best thought as a hillside place.
This unusual relation to the surrounding territory also means that it is home to several rather land-based specialities, chief among them the famous limoncello liquor made from alcohol and the rinds of the especially juicy lemons cultivated there. Other typical Sorrento foods are the local olive oil, the Gragnano pasta and several unusual charcuteries mixing pork and orange rind. Sorrento is also justly famous for its many fresh cheeses and dairy products, among which of course mozzarella made with water buffalo milk.

While it is undoubtable that the town thrives on (and exploits) its tourists, it is also true that its lifestyle is incredibly removed from the degradation and violence of nearby Napoli: like an aging countess, Sorrento exudes an air of lost aristocracy that sometimes still shines through the wrinkles and captures the hearts of those who manage to witness it.
Naturally there are ways to make it easier to catch that magic. One is to take some time to explore the ancient ruins dotting the surroundings, maybe going as far as legendary Pompei (with one ‘I’, no matter what you are used to see it written abroad). Another is to indulge in one of the many local nostalgic shows that try to save the spirit of the variety shows of old: they are tourist traps, make no mistake, yet they do offer a great selection of classic songs from the tradition of Napoli to transport you back to when Sorrento really was the crown jewel of the Mediterranean.