Perched high on dramatic cliffs that rise out of an azure sea, at the very start of the Amalfi coastline, Sorrento has been described as the land of colours, mermaids, myths and legends.
It is on these shores that the sirens tried to lure Odysseus’s ship onto the rocks with their song, and the Romans chose it as the perfect place for their holiday-making.
Many civilizations have passed through this beautiful place, including the Etruscans and the Greeks, who gave the city its urban layout — still clearly visible today in the historic center.
One of Sorrento’s precious jewels is the five-star Hotel Excelsior-Vittoria, which stands on the very same spot where the Emperor Augustus built a beautiful villa at which to spend the summer. Built onto volcanic rock, with the Bay of Naples stretching in front of it and Mt Vesuvius as the central backdrop, it’s not surprising that most of the cosmopolitan high society of the last couple of centuries, including Goethe, Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde and the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso have come to take summer and winter holidays here.
The hotel’s glorious past is instantly evident as we walk into the lobby, where we’re greeted with old-fashioned Italian hospitality and a glass of ice-cold, freshly squeezed orange juice.
The splendour of the building has been maintained perfectly, and there is no trace of the impersonal homogenization that affects many hotels today.
Our room, complete with antique furniture, crystal chandeliers, gilded mirrors, heavy drapes and a huge lavish bed, has the most stunning views across the Bay of Naples.
The first thing I do as I walk in, is to throw open the French windows and step out onto the balcony. With the warm summer breeze on my face face, I feel as if I’m suspended over the bay: sky and sea here unite to engulf you in a breathtaking blue during the day, crimson red at sunset and the inky black of night with a myriad sparkling lights sweeping across the entire bay.
This pure Italian grandeur continues to attract today’s celebrities and among those who have visited in the past half-century are Isabella Rosselini, Robert De Niro, Luciano Pavarotti, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe. The late Princess Margaret, once a regular visitor, has a suite named after her.
Positioned right in the heart of the city, on Sorrento’s main square, the hotel is an oasis of tranquility.
After a busy morning trekking around the town, we walked through the heavy, ornate, wrought-iron gates into the hotel’s garden, and all the buzz and noise of the street faded away and we were transported into a fragrant, enchanted secret garden.
In fact, fragrant is a word well suited to describe Sorrento and, indeed, all of the Amalfi region.
Acres of orange and lemon groves are cultivated here and the entire area seems to be one huge scented orchard. Even the streets are planted with lemon trees, and when in full bloom their scent obscures even the smell of the petrol fumes.
The city’s narrow cobblestone streets are packed with restaurants, bars and shops filled with everything you want to buy, from souvenirs and beautiful hand-made shoes studded with jewels, to bottles of the local liqueur Lemoncella, and jars of citrus fruit preserves — a specialty of the region.
The food is exquisite here and if you have any thoughts about watching the calories then forget them — Italy is the land of culinary indulgence. After a wonderful dinner we sat in the main square in one of the many bars, sipping Amaretto or sometimes Grappa, and people-watched well into the small hours.
Despite the fact that it is one of Italy’s most popular holiday resorts, Sorrento has maintained its authenticity and beauty. It buzzes with life and has many archeological sites, churches and museums which you can spend time exploring. Or you can hire a car and discover the Amalfi coastline which is considered one of the most beautiful in Italy.
Amalfi itself, and Positano, are just along the coast, while Naples, Pompeii and the smaller ancient city of Ercolano — also destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE — are around the bay.
Sorrento is also perfectly located for a visit to the island of Capri which is just 30 minutes away by boat and a fabulous way to spend a day.
Frequented by the rich and famous, Capri was, in my imagination, indelibly associated with glamour. I had pictured a small, elegant island with clubs, cafés, restaurants and casinos, each one full of beautiful people wearing dark sunglasses and sipping cocktails.
The reality, as our boat drew into the tiny port, seemed somewhat different. All we could see was a rugged, apparently deserted island with dramatic rocks rising out of the sea-mist.
Only when we were much nearer did the harbour become visible and we could see the buzzy little port. And the heart of the island — where you find all the hotels, restaurants, shops and bars — is perched high on the cliffs and can be reached by bus or train.
Alternatively, you can walk up the several thousand steps that wind through the residential part of the island. It takes about an hour to climb, and as the stone steps twist between houses, you glimpse beautiful gardens and lemon orchards and catch breathtaking views of the sea. At the top, the Capri of my imagination emerged in all its glamorous glory, complete with wonderful piazzas, fabulous cafés, luxurious hotels, elegant shops and beautiful people sipping cocktails!
There are organized tours that will take you all around the island, which is a fair size, but we decided to explore it on our own even if it meant missing some of the tourist attractions. We walked up through twisting, winding streets, peered over treacherous cliffs for stunning views of bays and coves, listened to the sound of birdsong and the buzzing of bees, till we arrived at the locked gates of the most beautiful villa and could go no further. We sat on the ground and rested under the cool shade of the trees before descending to the harbour to catch our boat back to Sorrento, just in time to climb between cool, crisp sheets for a delicious siesta before dinner.