As a well-established tourist trap, Sorrento has many ways to separate euros from billfolds. Those visitors to the town who expect beaches and waterfront views should expect to pay for the privilege. Sorrento is constructed on a plateau overlooking the sea. Unfortunately, due to the hotels and private villas crowding the top of the cliff, there are only a couple of places to look out over the water from the town level. If you want to dabble your toes in the water, you must climb down the side of the hill, following a pedestrian walkway that brings you to sea level.
We like water, and so we decide to make the attempt. After consulting our guidebook, we choose to try the Marina Piccola (little harbor) first. It is a long climb down. When we reach the bottom of the stairs, we discover private “beaches” (actually raised platforms running out over the water with sun loungers placed upon them). Most of these beaches have already been winterized: the 2x6 wooden planks that make up the platform have been removed, leaving only a rusty framework of steel girders running out to the sea.
In any event, it is all off-limits to the casual traveler. Walking beneath these man-made bathing platforms, we eventually stumble across the public “beach,” a narrow ribbon of gray sand, shaded by the overhanging cliffs. The girls dabble their toes into the water, and pronounce it cold. A motley gaggle of Italian teenage boys—evidently a school group—whoop and gibber like Barbary Apes from the top of the cliff face. Charming.
There appears to be no way, at sea level, to walk from the Marina Piccola to the Marina Grande, so we are forced to climb back up the hill to Sorrento. We work our way through the back streets, trying to stay as close to the cliff face as the hotels will allow. Eventually we reach a point overlooking the Marina Grande, which is where the commercial fishing boats stay (as opposed to the pleasure craft of the Marina Piccola). There is no enthusiasm among the younger members of the team for climbing down to the Marina Grande, so we return to town and the souvenir shops, for which there is always energy.
In the afternoon, I decided to hike west of Sorrento, out to a cape that juts into the sea. This cape is alleged to offer two attractions, the foundations of an ancient Roman villa, and a natural bathing pool enclosed by rocks.
The guidebook claimed that the road to the cape, the traversa punta capo, passed through scenic olive groves and lemon orchards. In fact, ultimately it did so. Before I reached the scenery, however, I had to walk along a narrow two lane road with virtually no shoulders, pressing myself flat against concrete abutments or thorn bushes whenever a car raced by. It was thoroughly unpleasant and I muttered curses and imprecations against mad motorists and the writers of guidebooks as I tangoed with the Grim Reaper.
Finally, my route took me off the main road and I turned down a stone-walled, single lane track that did run through olive groves and citrus orchards. The olives were growing dark on the trees, and the cobbles of the lane were discolored with early droppers. I have long wanted to try an uncured olive, and I probably should have availed myself of this opportunity: olive road kill.
The lane terminated at the cape, a solitary rock rising from the sea. The villa of Pollius Felix, once stood on this picturesque point, but today only ruined foundations remain. The villa was situated on a large basalt mound that is separated from the mainland by a natural rock pool. Traces of masonry work, rotting stone foundations, and the white tesserae of a ruined mosaic can still be seen on the cape.
I explore the grounds, and then descend to sea level to snap a few photos of the bathing pool. This pool, Il bagno della Regina Giovanna, is named after a Neapolitan queen, Giovanna D'Anjou (1328-1382). According to the stories, she used to bring her lovers to this marine bath, where she would disport naked in the waters. No one was in the pool when I arrived, naked or otherwise. The bath is a sea-hollowed circle in the stone. A small slit in the northern wall of the formation allows for the exchange of water. Every time a boat passes outside, a wave of water flushes into the bowl.
After taking a few more photos, I hike back to the road and play “dodge them cars” with the local traffic. It's not much better in downtown Sorrento, where hordes of tourists fill the streets. Progress is slow. I suppose that if you lived in Sorrento you would quickly learn the back streets and side alleys that are so vital to quick travel (much as I have now mastered some of the trickier, non-tourist routes through Venice). But when you don't know the city, the going can be slow.
The day has been interesting, but I remain unconvinced that Sorrento has a chance of making it onto my top ten list of Euro2008 Tour recommended destinations.