Where Leisure Finds Its Sweet Spot
06/03/14
Travel Writer
The view from a cliffside terrace overlooking the Mediterranean in Sorrento.  Hilary Larson/JW
The view from a cliffside terrace overlooking the Mediterranean in Sorrento. Hilary Larson/JW

Eat, drink and gaze.

These are essentially the only activities that matter in Sorrento. The quintessential seaside resort town of Southern Italy does not have a real beach, and the cultural touchstones of Campania are elsewhere: classical ruins in Paestum, volcanic vestiges in Pompeii, archaeological marvels in Naples.

You come to Sorrento — and come back, as Caruso and so many crooners have beseeched — for simpler, more hedonistic pleasures. You sit on a cliffside terrace overlooking the sparkling blue Mediterranean, nibbling at a salad whose bright, fresh flavors taste of sunshine. In the distance, Mount Vesuvius looms across the Bay of Naples, its purply cone releasing a few wispy puffs.

I first came to Sorrento about a dozen years ago, and when in Southern Italy, I always do come back. Yes, Sorrento is mobbed with tourists. Yes, there are entire streets — and times of year — when English or German are more often heard on the boulevard Corso d’Italia than Italian itself. Somehow, though, the very worldliness of Sorrento is part of its charm: Sorrento was a resort long before most other fishing villages sold out to tourism, and the gentle rhythm of leisure finds its sweet spot here.

Sorrento is the ideal vacation spot for those who seek — as I did on that first trip — pure relaxation, without any of the bothersome cultural requisites of Venice, Florence and Rome. “I want to go to Italy,” I recall telling my boyfriend of the time, “but I don’t want to go to a single museum. No monuments. No ruins. I just want to sit by the sea and drink wine and eat well and stroll with a gelato cone.”

As it turns out, Sorrento fits that bill to perfection. And that’s why people come back. Once may be enough for major tourist sights, but there’s no quota on the amount of gelato, limoncello or tiramisu that can be enjoyed.

About that limoncello: Lemon is to Sorrento what garlic is to Gilroy, what chocolate is to Hershey, and what dulce de leche is to Argentina. Sorrentine lemons are so omnipresent that for months after a visit here, you may not be able to taste a lemon without flashing back to a dinner of grilled fish, a nightcap of sweet liqueur or a walk through a garden of lemon trees under a starry night sky.

It was one of the latter that I chanced upon a beautiful young woman, whose dark-haired form appeared amid the lemon trees like something out of a fairy tale. The air was scented with citrus; in front of her, a small table was piled high with homemade limoncello and lemon preserves, from which she offered samples.

As it turned out, her name was Elena, she was a Jew from Argentina, and she had immigrated to Italy — her ancestral homeland — during the Argentine financial crisis of the late 1990s. We chatted for a while in a mix of Spanish and Italian, and I bought a bottle of preserves, which I still have somewhere in my pantry.

Sadly, it is not as easy to eat well in Sorrento as it once was. It takes a discerning eye, and a fair bit of luck, to sort through the panoply of pizza-and-pasta joints for the simple, vibrant flavors that make Campania so tasty. If you’re lucky, you sit down to arugula-topped pizza with buffalo mozzarella that melts in your mouth and a charred crust that would give Brooklyn stiff competition. But even the less fortunate still dine amid a setting so spectacular that the food itself is of secondary importance.

Veer off the amiably noisy bustle of Corso d’Italia, with its boutiques and farmacias, and you’ll wander among Baroque-era churches, piazzas and tiny green parks. Even at night, these parks are safe for strolling — which seems incredible if you’ve just arrived from Naples, the nearest urban hub, where nothing feels safe in broad daylight. (Speaking of Naples, if you’re looking for Jewish history — or any history — that’s where you’ll find it. But this was about pure relaxation, remember?)

You may get desperate for a beach, and attempt the trek down Sorrento’s waterside cliff to where bathers dive from a rock. I don’t recommend this. If a beach is what you need, take the bus along a vertiginous cliff highway to Positano, where the shores are pebbly but otherwise inviting. Once your blood thins out from all that leisure, you could kill a week with excursions to Ravello and the other coastal villages along the fabled Amalfi Coast.

But you’ll come back to Sorrento. Caruso did — to die, in fact, as a plaque along the Corso d’Italia attests. The great Italian tenor thrilled audiences in opera houses from New York to Paris, but when the time came for his swan song, he chose Sorrento for his final view of this Earth. If you come to Sorrento, chances are you’ll understand. 

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06/09/2014 - 14:12

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