Seeing Sorrento and Ischia
By Cindy Bigras
"The Amalfi coast" -- just hearing those three words conjures up images of beautiful but expensive and crowded southern Italy. However, I recently discovered that it is more affordable than the image and exceptionally beautiful.
As for the crowds, yes, it's a crowded place with a long history of foreign tourism, and as my boyfriend remarked, our encounters with fellow tourists proved to be a special part of our time there.
English, Irish, German, and a few fellow Americans, all eager to relax and absorb the experiences that come only from foreign travel.
Arriving at the Naples Airport , called Capodichino, it's about an hour ride into Sorrento on the Curreri bus. The bus stops directly in front of the airport and a schedule of their six daily departures is posted.
There are also dozens of taxis eager to help but be prepared to pay close to 100 euros rather six for the trip with Curreri. If, on the other hand you're headed to the Naples Port or the Garibaldi central train station, look for the white Alibus which leaves every 30 minutes and costs only 3 euros.
Vesuvius in View
Whichever direction you take, Vesuvius will be within view. Considered the most important European volcano, its eruption of nearly 2000 years ago resulted in the major devastation and the deaths of over 3300 local residents. Today over a million people live in the area. If you want to explore the Vesuvius National Park and the volcano up close and personal pick up the information at the Tourist Office or visit laportadelvesuvio.it. Remember, your shoes might begin to smoke if you get close enough to the center!
Our home base in Sorrento was Hotel La Badia (hotellabadia.it), located on a hillside, looking down on the red clay rooftops of this charming coastal town. Entering into the small lobby and sunny atrium there is a sense of history and simple grandness that eludes many modern facilities.
La Badia was an abbey in the 16th and 17th centuries and later became a private residence until 1980 when it was inherited by the Gargiulo family which now operates it. Like us, many of the hotel's guests make arrangements ahead by email. You'll find large sunny terraces with sweeping views, a beautiful pool, and restful spots in the property's 40,000 sq. meters of olive and lemon orchards. The olive oil produced by La Badia's trees is available for sale and makes an authentic gift for those at home.
The hotel's interior has a well-lit dining room, and each guest room is unique. Ours had a breathtaking view of the coastline and a fireplace with an antique bedwarmer laid across the gridirons. So that's how the monks stayed warm during the winter!
La Badia is a good spot if you have a car; there is ample parking and it is located just outside the city center so you won't have to navigate the busy central streets. I imagine my parents would like La Badia. There is just the right amount of amenities yet enough charm to get a sense of being in an old Italian palazzo.
If you are up for a good walk, take the 15 minute pathway down the mountainside to Sorrento 's busiest street, Corso Italia. A fairly wide street by Sorrentine standards, it is lined with fashion boutiques and tourist shops. Follow it all the way down to the Piazza Tasso and you are in Sorrento 's bustling main square.
We decided to spend our first day becoming familiar with the city. The Tourist office on Via L. De Maio has information about the bus and train schedules and the countless tourist attractions in the area. There is also a restaurant here - the Circolo dei Forestieri, (Foreigners Club) which proved to be an excellent lunch spot. My first instinct was to walk away from such a tourist mecca for something more authentic but the open air balcony's view of the Bay of Naples proved so tempting that we decided to give it a try - happily so, for the food is excellent and inexpensive. The spaghetti carbonara was delicious and my companions gave a big thumbs up to the pasta alla siciliana with fresh eggplant.
Not far away is the Sorrento train station. It's a hubbub of activity and a fun place to people watch, especially when school lets out and the enthusiasm and sounds of Italian students pervades the area. It's cell phone central.everyone in Italy seems to have a cell phone!
The Sorrento railway station was our departure point for the next day's trip to the archaeological excavations at Pompei and Herculaneum. pompeiisites.org Both communities were still recovering from the destruction wrought by Vesuvius's eruption in 62 AD when the more famous eruption occurred in 79 AD.
Pompei was a large, well established metropolis. It's worthwhile to get the recorded headset tapes and wander among the ruins. Be sure to listen to Pliny the Younger's eerie description of the eruption from a witness's point of view. His words are from a letter to his mother and describe the eruption and it's effect on the residents of Pompei.
I was fascinated by the campaign slogans clearly visible in red ink on the sides of buildings. Yes, Pompei had regular elections! Herculaneum is just a few train stops beyond Sorrento and was a wonderful surprise. Once you exit the train station, the scavi (excavations) are a short walk down Via IX Novembre.
More manageable in size and scope, Herculaneum , with fewer visitors than Pompei, was more enjoyable. Having been preserved in thick mud, rather than the ash that buried Pompei, the site at Herculaneum is better preserved. The excavations are ongoing in both sites and many of the actual artifacts are brought to the Naples Archaeological Museum . Allow at least two hours per site.
Day Three and we're ready to explore the area south of Sorrento so back to the train station to board the SITA bus for Positano, a memorable 45-minute trip up, down, and around hairpin curves. It is a sight to watch Italian drivers navigate their tour buses along these mountainous cliffs. During close encounters, oncoming vehicles must reverse a few meters while mopeds and pedestrians continue to weave among the vehicles. Passengers in the tour bus are covering their eyes at this point.
Upon arriving in Positano you begin a similar journey by foot down around and down some more. Roller skates not needed here. This seaside resort is literally perched upon the cliffs. The buildings face the sea and their white and pastel colored surfaces sparkle in the sunshine.
Just before arriving at the port we spotted O'Capurale's dining al fresco and sat down for lunch. If you've never dined at a table placed on a decline remember that lunch ends up in your lap if you're not careful. We shared a seafood platter for 30 euros - lots of shrimp, cuttlefish, octopus, and clams.
At the port you can take a boat back to Sorrento if you want to see the seaside towns from a different perspective. There are various boat companies, each with their own kiosk in the port area.nearly everyone speaks English so your only problem will be deciding which excusions to take.
Twain Was Here
If you're American you might not have heard of the mountainous island of Ischia , (Iss-key-ah) ischiaonline.it but it is well known to Italian and European tourists. Mark Twain spent time in the area and writes in The Innocents Abroad that Ischia has "tranquil and beautiful scenery". That's an understatement! Many German travelers have discovered this oft-conquered island, where ferries are busy because there is no airport.
The ferry direct to Ischia is operated by Alilauro alilauro.it It leaves Sorrento daily at 9:30 a.m. and arrives in Ischia Porto an hour later. The ferry back to Sorrento leaves at 5:20 p.m. Alilauro also operates a 10:40 a.m. departure to Capri with the return to Sorrento at 4:40 p.m. The other ferry services operating to/from Naples and along the coast are Caremar caremar.it and Traghetti Pozzuoli
The Hotel Europa (hoteleuropaischia.it) is a short distance from the port on Via A. Sogliuzzo, the main street in Ischia. Upon walking into the reception area I was embraced by the warm atmosphere created, seemingly effortlessly, by cousins Sandro and Raffaele Buono.
Interestingly enough, the ambience is somewhat Alpine. The ground floor has a warm wood framework and cozy sitting areas. Along the stairways you'll see photos of Napoli from the late 1800's and antique etchings of Ischia.
Cooking in the Volcanic Sand
The rooftop terrace is the spot to bask in the sun and the hotel's webcam is pointed down Via Sogliuzzo towards the Aragonese Castle . The hotel offers a tour of Ischia by sea in which Raffaele takes a group by boat to a beach picnic of eggs and potatoes cooked in the island's boiling volcanic sand. Don't worry, there's more than just eggs and potatoes.and vino too!
Sandro, on the other hand, leads the "Ischia In Vino Veritas" tour to the mountains for visits to local vineyards. There are also numerous tours to all the areas we had just visited on the mainland which left us wishing we had used Ischia as our more tranquil home base.
We rented a Motorino (motor bike). We got lost. That's when the fun began. We zipped along dirt roads, by vineyards, and through picturesque towns until we dismounted for a break in Forio on the northwest side of the island. Long sandy beaches, whitewashed churches with signs in German, and nary a tourist in sight. Strolling through the town's center I was impressed by how clean and bright it was. Returning to the hotel we whizzed through Lacco Ameno and Casamicciola admiring the fancy yachts in the harbor.
The next morning we were determined to get even better acquainted with the island. Off again to Sant'Angelo - a part of Serrara Fontana - and we wandered among the town's charming streets in search of roast chicken. After a week of seafood we longed for some variety..don't even bother! This is an island in the Mediterranean, it's seafood land, and that is what you'll be offered. We found a lovely spot embedded into the mountainside and dined on seafood. Be very careful about adding salt as the chefs throughout the area use it liberally.
Ischia is a volcanic island and hence has become known for its spas, so next we went in search of Succhivo where there is a thermal spring on the shore. This is a public beach area and not too easily located. After losing our way more than once, we wound down a country road, past several residential villas and at least one orchard to a parking area at the top of a very high perch.
Below us stretched the Mediterranean 's turquoise waters. This is not a walk for anyone with leg problems. It's a hike down the mountainside steps to a small bar and beach area. It didn't take us long to don bathing suits and join the other bathers in the hot thermal waters.
Boiling water seeps out of the rocks just under your feet and you must quickly step beyond it to reach the more temperate waters a meter or two from the shore. It's advisable to bring water sandals to avoid burning the bottoms of your feet. We were delighted to share this spot with Italians from all over southern Italy.
After returning our motorino, we made plans for our final evening in Ischia. We strolled down Via Sogliuzzo towards Ischia Porto in search of a special and memorable meal to cap off a wonderful vacation. Just beyond the port.ecco!.a rosticcerria!
Finally, our desired wood roasted chicken, roast potatoes, fresh greens, all salty and tasty at the Antico Girarrosto Ischitano. We enjoyed this last meal with new friends we had met at the Mami` Camilla Cooking School in Sorrento (see article).Ischia had not disappointed us nor our friends.
Cindy Bigras is GoNOMAD’s expert on all things Italian, but she shows the same enthusiasm for Sweden or Austria or Virginia, or wherever else she decides to go. Cindy grew up in Vermont and studied and worked in Florence, Italy, for three years. It was there that her love for all things Italian was born.