We were on an intrepid mission and there were risks: blisters, arguments, financial ruin and a 4am wake-up call before dragging our cases on to a National Express bus at Golders Green, and then queueing for an easyJet flight to Naples.
It was tough: traipsing around Mafia-imbued streets, reading and then abandoning all guide books.
Then, stumbling upon a dusty backstreet containing a shiny gem of a parlour, we found it. The best ice cream we had ever tasted, so good that each of the 50 plus flavours - including wild strawberry (my favourite), Nutella, caramel (which got my boyfriend’s top vote) and Amaretti - was identifiable in one lick. At Sorrento’s Gelateria Augusto Davide, hidden down Via Marziale, a winding street that falls from the main Piazza Tasso, our mission was completed. We made the pilgrimage every subsequent evening for a post-dinner treat.
It was mid-September and whilst ice-cream was a great reason to travel to Italy, there were others, too. Let down by the elusive barbecue summer, we wanted some late summer sun but not a lengthy flight. We wanted some culture, and I was desperate to take to the streets with my new SLR camera to indulge in some arty photography, but wanted, too, to collapse by the pool with a book.
An hour away and an entirely different atmosphere from the famously rough and ready Naples, Sorrento, a bustling coastal town in the foot of Italy’s boot shape, was a natural choice. We checked into the Hilton Sorrento Palace, a Guggeinheim-esque building atop a hill that became our main form of daily exercise and gave spectacular views from our seventh-floor balcony. Our executive room was spacious and modern, with terracotta wall panels reminding us that Pompeii wasn’t far away, but firmly rooted in the 21st century with a bedside gadget panel to open the curtains and dim the lights.
We began planning our six days in town, wanting to include visits to Pompeii, the nearby upmarket seaside resort of Positano, a Caprese salad-tasting on the island of Capri, and shopping and cultural exploration in Naples. But our first afternoon was devoted to Sorrento. Making the five-minute stroll into the town centre from the hotel, we wandered through stony streets, surprised by Sorrento’s size, with each street unfolding onto another piazza or unwinding into yet another path. It was a great place for people-watching.
We worked out the town’s odd relationship with the sea. There was a big port, where thousands of mopeds lined up begging to be photographed, a few cruise ships docked and some hotels hosted ‘beach platforms’, where wide boardwalks stick out into the sea offering steps down for a dip or loungers for sunbathing. But from most areas of town, the water is a long, long way down. More noticeably, it was also a long way up again under the 28-degree sun we gratefully enjoyed during most of our visit.
There were a few local museums, and landmarks like the Sedile Dominova, a domed, open structure covered in 15th-century frescoes, but Sorrento alone will not satisfy full-on culture vultures. Luckily it’s easy to take the Sita bus (around £3) on a scenic, hour-long drive along the Amalfi coast. (Don’t go straight after eating.) We disembarked at Positano, witnessed a beach-side wedding and were awe-struck at local villages and houses that appeared to be precariously close to falling off the cliff edge.
We endured one day of terrible, stormy weather, which cancelled a visit to Capri, but we instead chilled out in the hotel. Since Sorrento isn’t a traditional seaside resort, try to book a hotel either with a private beach boardwalk or a decent sized swimming pool. The Hilton had two, a huge outdoor one with plenty of lounger space despite the hotel being very full, and an indoor pool adorned with romantic frescos and green foliage — although it could have done with a bit more heating. We liked thwacking balls around the free tennis court too, as tall grape vines and groaning lemon trees looked on.
The food at the Sorrento Palace was also good, a happy mix of Italian quality and American quantity, with huge breakfasts including Nutella-filled croissants, and chefs making pancakes, waffles and omelettes to order. There was also an ‘executive lounge’, where an endless free supply of fresh fruit, snacks and drink (including wine, champagne and beer) atop a terrace with wonderful views was a lovely way to kick off an evening.
Elsewhere, we were disappointed with Sorrento’s food. Many restaurants were tourist-dominated, offering pizzas and pastas and the same fish and meat dishes over and over. The exception was La Basilica, down Via S. Antonino, where we returned twice for ricotta ravioli (around £8) as well as main meals of chicken, veal and dover sole for around £13.
On the main Corso Italia, Ristorante Parrucchiano had a wonderful setting in a huge lit-up garden, while Il Leone Rosso had good pizzas and pastas for around £6.
Mid-week, we took a day trip to Pompeii. Wear walking shoes and consider following a guided tour — the huge site can be overwhelming, and over 65s and under 25s should take photo ID to pay around £5 instead of £10. We then went to Naples, a very urban city with its fair share of squalor, including dilapidated buildings strung with washing, but it had rough charm and beautiful churches.
There were also decadent sites for fashion worshipers: Via Toledo had the best shops, and while it’s hard to know which of the cheap pizzerias on the side streets really did invent the pizza, they all offered tasty pick-me-ups.
With loud markets, the crammed Centro Storico, fairytale buildings like the Castel Nuevo and endless opportunities for art-lovers, Naples was fascinating — but its screaming core, terrifying drivers and dangerous underbelly meant we were glad to take the hour-long train trip back to Sorrento.
Lucy Tobin stayed in the Hilton Sorrento Palace (0039 081 8784141, email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Rates start from €109 for a double guest room, including breakfast and taxes. EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) fly to Naples from £54 return. British Airways (www.britishairways.com) fly there from £119 return
Naples’ Jewish history is thought to have begun under the Romans in the first century. By the 15th century, Jews were well established, thanks to Spanish exiles. The community was expelled in 1541, and not allowed back until 1735. By 1920, there were close to 1,000 members. Today, it has around 200, with a Sephardi synagogue at Via Cappella Vecchia 31.