Whenever I tried to write about Sorrento, my head filled with lemons. The symbiotic relationship that the Italian seaside town has with the citrus fruit is my overwhelming memory of four days in the region.
Whether it was the lip tingling shot of limoncello served with the bill after every meal, the bright china yellows that burst out of tiny souvenirs shops, or the real deal that dangled over whitewashed walls down the quiet backstreets, Sorrento for me, meant lemons. While the town promoted its lemons in these various forms, the lemons also worked for the town; bringing in revenue from countless sales of lemon-clad cutlery, kitchenware and a range of edible delights.
From Roman times to modern romance
With hindsight, I was eager to find a Sorrento that was more than its lemons.
After all, I knew that it had been on the map far longer than most European capital cities. Initially under Roman rule as Surrentum and today part of the province of Naples, its history in between was complex. Notably, it was annexed to the independent Kingdom of Sicily for a considerable time during the late middle ages and in 1861 finally became part of a unified Italy.
Even while researching my journey, I was surprised to discover that the area had long been a playground for the rich and famous. Before British premiership footballers discovered the Amalfi coast as a wedding venue, everyone from Lord Nelson and the Hamiltons to writers Byron and Keats had enjoyed Sorrento, and yes presumably its lemons.
Sorrento was also no stranger to natural catastrophe. Sat on my modern hostel rooftop I looked towards Mount Vesuvius and thought about Pliny the younger – one of the only survivors of Vesuvius’s fateful eruption in AD79. He supposedly watched the complete envelopment of Pompeii from a neighbouring hill just above Sorrento. Remarking: “Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.”
The perfect holiday within a holiday
Times had certainly changed. As I rode the aptly named Circumvesuviana train that rattled around the Bay of Naples, visiting Pompeii itself and going for long lunches in Sorrento’s piazzas, Vesuvius lay eerily dormant. I walked to harbour cliffs and down steep steps that led all too easily to bars serving afternoon Aperol, a welcome thread that ran through my Italian adventure.
Sorrento was the only place where I had scheduled a rest day and I was smug at my foresight. Its alfresco restaurants were the perfect place to refuel, reminisce and collect my thoughts for the next part of my trip. What was the name of that famous Venetian? Had my romance with Florence only been a week ago? What did Sicily have in store for me?
Historically, Naples formed the far reaches of the traditional Grand Tour: a final chance to gather friends, lovers and souvenirs before returning home to colder climes. What’s more, adventurous youngsters who travelled further south by sea to Sicily had often stayed forever. And so I had a sense that I was, by Italian tourist standards at least, heading towards the relatively unknown.
Maybe this is why I didn’t mind indulging in holiday routine, where usually my feet would itch to see something different. I ignored the urge to head into the small villages of the surrounding hills that were just visible from my rooftop lounger. Instead, just like Sorrento’s lemons I soaked up the sun. I was content with a glimpse of the world beyond, I stared at the sea for hours on end and I embraced those midday shots of limoncello that numbed my mind to analysis for entire afternoons.
Nevertheless, I occasionally ducked into the odd cove, cathedral, and curious alleyway if only to convince myself that maybe after all, Sorrento was only about its lemons…