My second morning in Italy dawned. Not content with almost passing out in Positano, I decided that my still-recovering body required a bit more punishment, and set my alarm for 6.20am. I could relax when I’d finished exploring! (“when I’d finished exploring” turned out to be an hour after I’d packed my bags to return home, five days later. I am nothing if not dedicated, apparently.) I pushed open my balcony doors, and relished the feel of a new Italian day. It was a Sunday: an occasional Vespa puttered up the road outside. The sky was lightening, as a cool breeze came down from the olive grove-covered hillsides. A cockerel crowed every thirty seconds and made me appreciate just how good the hotel’s double glazing was. It would be a good day.
After my hotel stuffed me to the brim with another cooked breakfast – “no, signori, I couldn’t possibly take any more of that delicious crispy bacon” – I headed into town, and made my way towards Marina Grande. Church bells rang to welcome the Sunday faithful, as souvenir shops slowly began to open up, placing their racks and tables of wares outside, welcoming the retail faithful. Stopping in a quiet piazza near the hospital, I noticed that the town, in common with a lot of places in the area, seemed to be encouraging more public art pieces, which I approved of very much. Good art pieces can really enhance a public space if they’re in keeping with the area. Unlike my own hometown, which has opted for a sculpture which I can only describe as looking like broken pair of hair straighteners which have been plunged into the ground in a fit of sheer rage by a teenager who has a hot date planned for the evening, Sorrento provided a somewhat Romanesque head emerging from a wall, seemingly with the same expression I have on my face on a typical Monday morning.
But onwards to Marina Grande. If your language skills are marginally good, you’ve probably correctly guessed that this name means “Large Harbour”. So that’ll be where all the ships and boats go from, with throngs of Ralph Lauren-clad yachtsmen and tourists off to Capri, right?
Not quite. Sorrento is a town that likes to defy your expectations. It’s a resort town that is still small and friendly. Its shopping heart isn’t the main street with its glass-fronted properties, but the side streets. And its harbours are named the wrong way around. Marina Piccola, further along the coast, is the “Little Harbour” which is actually big. Marina Grande is the “Big Harbour” which is a sleepy fishing village. And it’s definitely worth a visit.
Marina Grande acquired its name well before the tourist trade planted a flip-flop upon its cobblestones, and was, as you’ve probably guessed, the main port for the town of Sorrento in the past. Cruise ships and ferries have opened up and expanded Marina Piccola: Marina Grande has instead been left to its own devices, and is now a community of small hotels and seafood restaurants clustered around a picturesque harbour where the views stretch out across the sea and over to Vesuvius, whilst fishing boats ply their trade and supply the restaurants. You can eat fish on the beach, and look at the sea from where your meal was pulled wriggling a couple of hours ago. Today, I had a long-awaited date with one of those restaurants, though I had no intention of eating.
One of the ways I like to amuse myself in life is to read some reviews of truly heinous establishments on TripAdvisor. Partly so I know what kind of places to avoid, and partly because some of the most terrible reviews are hilariously sarcastic. I urge you to do yourself a favour, and read some of the one-star reviews for a restaurant in Sorrento called The 5 Di Leva Sisters. Now, I’ve never eaten there, so I can’t judge the food. But, as you’ll see, the place is notorious for having one of the sisters standing outside, and trying to cajole punters into stepping in for a bite, whilst hurling abuse at anyone who turns down the kind offer of gracing their establishment and getting overcharged for it. I’d fallen foul of them on previous trip, scuttling off into the Sorrento sidestreets with not-so-friendly Italian ringing in my ears, like I’d just been caught seducing her son and feeding him pizza with pineapple on top. However, this time, things would be different. I’d been learning Italian for two years. I knew how to say “no thank you, I’m not hungry”. I knew how to say “I’m sure your restaurant is very nice, but I do not wish to eat there”. I knew how to say “fuck off and die”. I would no longer be intimidated by the one rude person I’ve ever encountered in Sorrento. I strode purposefully towards the restaurant, past cats who were snoozing on fishing nets, unaware of the moment of Taking Back Control that was about to explode into the world like a supernova.
The restaurant was shut.
I stared at it a while, and sat on the beach instead.
I definitely recommend seeking out Marina Grande. It’s a lovely little slice of fishing village life at the edge of a bigger town – it’s surrounded by the modern day, but feels somehow like you’ve entered a time warp as soon as you set foot on the harbourfront. Plus there’s also small boat tour operating from there, which speed you along the coast. I watched one now, churning up a languid blue sea, with a sleek hull and comfy-looking leather seats. Plus this is definitely the place for good seafood restaurants – just don’t pick the 5 Sisters. Gathering up my bag, I headed up a gentle staircase, and into the small streets that lead to the centre of Sorrento.
I love the backstreets of Sorrento. Apart from being unbearably scenic, with cobblestone lanes and shrines to the Virgin Mary set into walls, bright purple bougainvillea bursting with colour and thriving in the sunshine and sea breezes, and walking past private gardens with trees which groan with lemon and pomegranate, it’s also where you bump into the locals and see their everyday life. Going for a walk, on their way to work or church, going to college. My favourite was a young woman talking frustratedly into a mobile phone, looking imploringly at the English Bulldog at the end of the leash she held. The dog was built like a suitcase with legs, and had splayed himself out across the pavement with an expression which suggested that he wasn’t going to expend any more energy than was absolutely necessary. I walked past, trying to eavesdrop, hoping that the woman was ordering the services of a forklift truck.
Oh by the way, the views are stunning from there, too.
I walked around the Piazza Vittoria, outside the town hall, examining the war memorial there – so many young men from the area had lost their lives – and was struck by a bench on to which someone had rather crudely spray-painted “FUCK EVERYBODY SUCKS”. In particular, it struck me that it was written in English. Was it an Italian who just felt it sounded better in English? Was it someone who preferred not to write the expletive in their native language? Or was it aimed at visitors to the town?
Now, this isn’t an aspect that some travel bloggers or instagram influencers are keen to highlight, but I think it always has to be considered – as much as we love travelling to places that are beautiful, that have wonderful sights and weather, how much does it impact the people who live there? Are we a nuisance? Do we get in the way? I think that the answer in a lot of cases is yes. Not all the time, sure. But I’ve seen a lot of travellers who don’t give a damn about their behaviour abroad. They’ll treat locals, who are just doing their jobs, like shit, and assume they’re stupid because they don’t speak flawless English. They’ll trample over historic sites – I’ve seen people jump the barriers at Pompeii for a selfie. They’ll amble aimlessly in the middle of the road, and look offended when a local honks to get past. All of this behaviour must be deeply frustrating for the people who live there, and who are just trying to live their lives without accruing unnecessary stress and/or getting arrested for a machete rampage. I myself live near a seaside town in England, and you can spot a tourist a mile off – they’re usually walking as slowly as possible, staring into the middle distance, or at the tops of buildings (seriously, what’s up there that’s so fascinating?) whilst you frantically try to get past as you’re late for your dentist appointment.
Obviously, not all travellers are like this. But we all owe it to our hosts to act as polite guests – courteous, patient, mindful of our surroundings and other people. Okay, rant over, on to the good stuff.
The shopping heart of Sorrento is the backstreets between the Corso Italia and the sea, just off the main Piazza Tasso – and if you’re thinking of visiting Sorrento, it’s a must-do. The narrow streets are beautiful; your head fills with the sounds of Italian chatter and Vespas trying to buzz through the crowds, you smell fresh fruit – cherries and lemons and strawberries. The stalls themselves contain every fruit you can imagine, huge and succulent and colourful from having grown in the volcanic soil that Vesuvius spewed over the surrounding landscape, like a fresher at his first party. Sellers call out for you to take a look at their jewellery, crafted from coral or Vesuvius stone. The familiar scent of lemon lingered around all of it, ever-present.
I also thoroughly recommend the shops that I visited that day. The first was Libreria Tasso, where I stocked up on essentials – a cat calendar, a small colouring book of cats, a bar of Nesti Dante soap which promised to make me smell like a Tuscan monastery, and an Italian language edition of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.
Second was F. Petagna, a small shop that sells the inlaid wooden boxes which Sorrento is famous for. I’d been tasked with bringing one back by my mother, who already had a small purple one, and wanted a slightly bigger one in the same colour. A tour of pretty much every single inlaid wooden box shops in Sorrento (and there’s quite a few) had drawn a blank – apparently purple is considered an unlucky colour for the boxes. I opted not to tell my mother this, and kept looking, until F. Petagna appeared like an oasis in the desert. Not only did it have an excellent choice of boxes, including purple in the exact size that I needed, the proprietress Giuliana is absolutely lovely, and will give you tips on what to do and where to eat, whilst she sells the boxes that have been made by her family for generations. If you want an inlaid box, and you should, because the music boxes which play Torna A Surriento are adorable, go see Giuliana.
My third stop, and one for the sports fans, was the appropriately-named Football Shop, which sells all the Italian league soccer merchandise that you could carry, as well as some rather reasonably-priced Ferrari gear. It’s also worth it just to see the mannequins dressed up as Maradona, Messi, and Ballotelli, who glared balefully at me as I examined an AC Sorrento shirt.
And so, back out into the streets, and after a late lunch at Franco’s Pizzeria (which I shall give a full account of another time), I headed for the church of San Francesco, which is another must-do. Situated on the cliffs by the sea, if you continue walking past the church you’ll be greeted with a gorgeous view of the sea, with Vesuvius lurking on the horizon (vendors sell selfie sticks here; that’s how good the view is), but double back and pop into the cloisters of the church. The gardens are gloriously established and cared for, greenery cascading down past stone columns. The sun streams in from above. Being a Sunday, the church was in full swing with a wedding taking place, and the lucky Italian couple were having their photos taken, happily posing together. Tourists having a look at the cloisters didn’t get in the way, calling out “Auguri!” and “Congratulations!”, to which the groom called back his thanks. This was exactly the kind of traveller behaviour that I thoroughly approve of, and it was lovely.
After a quick look in the church’s souvenir shop (my boyfriend’s sole request for souvenirs had been “something tacky with the Pope on it”; however, all the gifts on sale were quite touchingly lovely), I popped down to the Marina Piccola for a check of the ferry times to Capri. There, I was reunited with some familiar faces – not human ones, but the adorable fuzzy faces of the commune of cats who live by the harbour. It’s difficult to describe them as feral because they’re so sociable – unbothered by humans, content to sunbathe, and extremely well cared for, I’ve seen these kitties every time I’ve visited Sorrento. Two black cats nuzzled heads. A grizzly grey patrolled around the harbourside. An orange tabby and a grey were fed by an Italian lady, who hopped the fence they were behind and put bowls of food down for them. Another orange tabby nibbled biscuits by the marina, completely unconcerned.
There was one last thing I wanted to see – the Valley of the Mills. This is right in the middle of Sorrento, just off Piazza Tasso, and I love it. Viewed from above, it gives you a sense of a) vertigo, and b) the history of this place. It sums up Sorrento for me – it’s surrounded by modernity, but it has pockets hidden underneath, of history, of tradition, of an everyday life away from the tourist trade which is there if you look for it. And it’s utterly beautiful.
Have you been to Sorrento? Are you feeling that you’d like to go there? Are the eyes of the football mannequins burning into your soul like they are to mine? Let me know in the comments!
Next up: Capri! Glamour! Glitz! Selfies! And yet more staircases of doom.