Falling In Love With Italy; It’s Easier Than You Think

Monday, November 3, 2008

A trip to Southern Italy is all it takes to show why it’s so hard not to love Italy, even when it’s not even trying that hard.

By Hillary Richard

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s impossible not to love Italy, but that’s not due to a lack of trying on its part. Between the erratic driving, unhelpful local directions, and perpetually closed tourist offices, it’s the very definition of organized chaos, and the Campania region of Southern Italy is no exception. It’s very often confusing, at times frustrating, and never predictable, but always with an unparalleled, simple beauty that makes you forget everywhere else. With mild temperatures even at its coldest and a lack of tourists during the off-season, Campania is a great destination even during the fall and winter seasons.

Sorrento has become a popular tourist destination because of its vibrant, zesty feel and close proximity to other favorite spots in Southern Italy. Stereotypes abound in this ancient Roman town, glaring into the face of an increasingly fast-paced, global culture. People of all ages drive mopeds with reckless abandon; large Italian grandmothers hang their washing out in the middle of the city, beating the dust out of rugs from their balconies; and you can’t turn a corner without stumbling upon a lemon or orange tree sprouting from the ground. Flowers, wine, and food tempt you at all times of the day.

While Sorrento has plenty of history and many sights to see, it’s better to try to get a feel for it rather than go mad thumbing through a tour book. The architecture of the city still reflects the many civilizations that have settled in Sorrento throughout history: the Etruscans, the Greeks, the Oscans, and the Romans. For example, if you visit both the the city center as well as the nearby ruins of Pompeii, you’re going to see traditional Greek design at its best.

It goes without saying that eating is a hefty part of Italian life, and discovering new delicacies while you’re here should be at the top of every visitor’s to-do list. Special handmade pastas and pizzas are no more costly in Sorrento than any other dish, and the local house wines are an inexpensive must with meals. After dinner, follow local tradition and pour yourself a glass of chilled limoncello, the locally produced aperitif made from lemon rinds, water, sugar and alcohol. The taste is very strong, but it grows on you surprisingly quickly. And of course, any flavor of gelato will help you beat the heat — it’s creamier and more flavorful than regular ice cream without being too sweet.

If you’re in the area for more than a couple of days then a few excursions are in order. There are a number of fantastic full-day trips in close proximity to Sorrento. The drive along the Amalfi Coast is known as one of the most scenic in all of Europe, and you can reach it in less than an hour from Sorrento. The drive follows the coast, cutting along the mountains and sea cliffs, and passing through beautiful little towns along the way.

You can reach the swanky island of Capri in under an hour as well, but be prepared for the inevitable hordes of day-trippers. To avoid the crowds, try taking a guided boat tour around Capri followed by a ride on the funicular to the top of the island, which is far more beautiful and upscale than the lower port area.

The ancient city of Pompeii is only a short train ride away from Sorrento. It was buried in 79 AD at the height of the Roman Empire when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted and was accidentally discovered 1600 years later and is now both a UNESCO World Heritage Sight as well as one of Italy’s most popular attractions.

There would have to be something fundamentally wrong with you to want to drive while in Italy, especially given the availability of their public transportation system. The buses go all over and tickets cost under €2, but the price rises in accordance to the distance once you leave the outskirts of Sorrento. The Circumvesuviana rail will take you anywhere from Sorrento to Naples, including the ancient ruins of Pompeii. You can reuse the tickets anywhere from 60 to 120 minutes after validation, but they cannot be purchased on the bus or on trains. Drivers won’t even entertain your non-Italian questions as to where to buy a ticket, so take it from me and find them in any shop on the street displaying the SITA logo.

If you’re looking for somewhere to experience the best of Italy’s culture, countryside, history, and cuisine, the Campania region is a great choice. Regardless of whether you decide to use Sorrento as a base or to spend a few days exploring the town, you’ll come away with a new appreciation for Italy and all it has to offer and who knows, you may even fall in love.

How To Get There

SORRENTO – The nearest international airport to Sorrento is Naples Capodichino. From Naples, you can take the Circumvesuviana train line straight to Sorrento or you can opt for the more expensive hydrofoil.

CAPRI – Numerous ferries (around €12 for round trip) and hydrofoils (around €18 round trip) leave from Sorrento’s marina each day. The hydrofoils run more frequently than ferries and travel time is much shorter, but the trip costs more. You should seriously consider avoiding this option if you suffer from any kind of motion sickness. However, plastic bags are available from the crew at any point during the ride.

AMALFI – Certain SITA busses go to Amalfi via Positano. Your best bet is to get the bus from the Circumvesuviana station — this is the bus’s first stop and there’s always a crowd of people waiting for the window seats. If you’re lucky enough to get one, you’ll be able to see the great view of the famous Amalfi Coast on your ride. Take a tranquilizer if you panic easily because the way drivers deal with oncoming traffic on the narrow roads just might send you into cardiac arrest.

POMPEII – Take the Circumvesuviana train to the Pompeii Scavi stop. The ruins are in walking distance from the station and entry is €10 per person.


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