Sunday, 29 March 2009

Italy - Day 1, Come Back to Sorrento

There is a famous song called ‘Come back to Sorrento’ that finishes with the lines: “Then say not 'goodbye', Come back again, beloved, Back to Sorrento, or I must die.”

When I first went to Sorrento nearly twenty years earlier the plane landed at the military airport base near to the city of Naples and we were firmly warned against taking photographs. It wasn’t an especially welcoming sort of place as we passed through a rather austere passport control and baggage reclaim hall both decorated in drab grey and in dire need of a welcoming makeover. By 2004 it had been spruced up a little but it was still not a red carpet sort of place and we progressed through customs control and baggage reclaim as quickly as we could and made our way through to the coach that was waiting for us.

The coach nudged its way through the noisy morning traffic and then the twenty-five kilometre drive to Sorrento took about forty-five minutes along a busy road running alongside the Circumvesuviana railway and on the way we got our first look at Mount Vesuvius, which towers up perilously close to the city. Naples, we learned, was dangerous for a number of reasons and most obvious of all is its perilously close proximity to Vesuvius, which looms large over the city. The volcano has a tendency towards unexpected explosive eruptions and has a major eruption cycle of about two thousand years and as the last one was in 1946 the next one is overdue.

It is difficult to be precise but scientists think that Vesuvius formed about twenty-five thousand years ago and today is rated as one of the most dangerous in the world not because of its size but because of the proximity of millions of people living close by and if it was to go off again with a similar eruption to the one that destroyed Pompeii in 79 then it is estimated that it could displace up to three million people who live in and around Naples.

The Italian Government and the City of Naples have emergency evacuation plans in place that would take nearly three weeks to evacuate the entire population to other parts of the country but as Pompeii was destroyed in less than three days or so they might want to work on speeding that up a bit. Many buildings exist ludicrously close to the summit in what is called the red zone and there are ongoing efforts being made to reduce the population living there by demolishing illegally constructed buildings, establishing a National Park around the upper slopes of the mountain to prevent the erection of any further buildings and by offering a financial incentive of €35,000 to families who are prepared to move away.

Then as we swooped down around the Bay of Naples we could see the Mediterranean Sea and the Island of Capri. When the coach arrived in Sorrento it started dropping off the passengers at their various hotels and it finally drove to Sant’ Agnello which is a town next to Sorrento and those guests staying at the Hotel Parco Del Sole were invited to leave the coach. This was our stop and we were immediately impressed with where we would be staying and we congratulated ourselves on a good choice.

It had been an early morning flight and it was still only late morning when we checked in to the Parco Del Sole, which was a four star traditional Italian hotel with attractive gardens at the end of a long narrow driveway that at the top of which was a beautiful fountain. It was a friendly sort of place with a marble floored reception and a cavernous lobby with stairs up to the rooms. Ours was at the back of the hotel with a good view of the mountains behind the town and on account of facing south had a gloriously sunny little balcony. Best of all there was a complimentary bottle of sparkling wine in an ice bucket on the table.

We stayed long enough to unpack, change, drink some of the wine and admire the view over the hills beyond the town and then we went outside to explore. At the end of the drive was a busy main road that went straight to the main square in Sorrento and we followed it for a while before heading off down a side street in the direction of the sea that we reached after a few minutes. We walked a little way along the cliff tops looking down over the small beaches of black sand and the wooden bathing platforms built out into the sea and the colourful fishing boats bobbing lazily on the occasional gentle wave. On the balustrades were plant pots full of gaily-coloured geraniums and every few metres there were seats to stop and sit and admire the views.

Finally we reached the town, which resembled a racetrack because Italy has some different driving rules to the rest of Europe and the traffic was murderously hectic this morning. Traffic lights are a good example of these different rules because each set resembles the starting grid of a formula one Grand Prix. At an Italian traffic junction there is an intolerant commotion with cars impatiently throbbing with engines growling, exhaust pipes fuming and clutch plates sizzling whilst behind the wheel the driver’s blood pressure reaches several degrees above boiling point. A regard for the normal habits of road safety is curiously absent in Italy so although the traffic light colours are the same as elsewhere they mean completely different things. Red means slow down a little bit, amber means go and green means carnage!

According to EuroStat, in 2004, there were thirty two thousand, nine hundred and fifty-one road deaths in the European Union and five thousand, six-hundred and twenty-five of them were in Italy. That is about 17%. In the ten years up to 2004 the Italians slaughtered sixty-five thousand, one hundred and twenty five people in traffic accidents so it pays to have your wits about you when crossing the road and why if you want to be sure of avoiding death on the highway in Italy it is probably safest to visit Venice.

After negotiating the road we stooped at the Bar Ercolano, ordered some beer and sat in the warm October sun and watched the people and the traffic going backwards and forwards through the main square. Afterwards we walked back to Sant’ Agnello and took the coastal path all the way until we came to the Hotel Mediterraneo where I had stayed twenty years earlier with dad. It looked smarter now with a fresh coat of paint, smart green shutters and a refurbished interior. Opposite, the little bar where we used to drink was still there but it had changed as well, gone were the plastic chairs, the cheap aluminum tables and flimsy sun umbrellas to be replaced with modern canvas parasols and cane furniture. We stopped for a drink of course and this brought back memories of that previous visit.

It was late afternoon so we went back to the hotel to buy some trips to Amalfi, Pompeii and Herculaneum and then we sat around the pool for a while before going back to the room to finish the sparkling wine and get ready for dinner.

This turned out to be a very disappointing affair with a poor choice of food that wasn’t especially tasty so we ate it quickly and then went back into Sorrento to find a nice bar for the evening. We didn’t stay out late because Jonathan wasn’t feeling so good and anyway we had an early start tomorrow to do the famous Amalfi drive.

1 comment:

Jane said...

We were in Naples last autumn and wernt very impressed to be honest - although we loved Pompeii. We are planning on returning this summer and will definitely visit Sorrento this time, it sounds and looks lovely.