I had the great pleasure to holiday with Lady Barton St Mary in Sorrento, Italy, accompanied by our good friends The Sexton and Pen. Therefore, it was inevitable that I would write my usual informative, insightful and smug blog, showing how well travelled and sophisticated I am. Or, at least, how a rather confused Englishman with no addition language skills blunders his way around a European country trying to avoid making a fool of himself or offending the locals.
Lady BSM, as usual, had organised the entire trip with a frightening efficiency that would put any of those orange faced teenagers pushing buttons on a desktop computer in a travel agents to shame. The only slight worry she had was the quality of the hotel we booked in Naples for the first night before travelling by train the following day to Sorrento, which was described as ‘boutique’.
Indeed, having acquired a taxi amongst the normal Italian organised chaos at Napoli Airport and confirming the agreed €19 fare, we were driven dodgem style into Naples, to the aforementioned lodgings. Which was situated down a very narrow side street, where several characters sat on the side of the road, the lights of Napoli airport radiating out at the end of the road. The taxi driver pointed to a roller shutter door as he unloaded our cases and pocketed his €25 fare. As he disappeared into the distance, we surveyed the roller shutter door, with a very narrow door built into it. I rang the bell marked Hotel Sayonara. A muffled voice answered.
“Hello, we’re staying at your hotel!” I announced, before being reprimanded by Lady BSM. I was unaware of what I’d done wrong, but I think she feels its safer to reprimand me abroad, just in case.
The small door clicked and swung slowly open. The street residents continued to stare at us; the majority of them appeared to be of African origin, in vests and track suit bottoms. One or two other white characters were also present, one with torn trousers revealing a crotch devoid of underwear, walking on the spot.
We crammed our bodies through the narrow doorway, squeezing cases after us. Narrow doorways are a common theme in Italy, we discovered, along with very narrow, small lifts, wooden in construction, like antique telephone booths. They’re ideal for Italian supermodels on a hen do, but not so forgiving when it comes to four well developed English people trying to travel together. By the end of the week, getting in the similar lift at the hotel in Sorrento meant that our bellies touched after all the Italian food.
Walked across the courtyard and looked up at the five storeys above us – similar characters to the ones we’d seen outside stared back. The Hotel Sayanora was on the third floor. The helpful receptionist booked us in and showed us to our room. Here’s a picture:
“Do you think it’s a homage to Sponge Bob Squarepants?” I asked Lady BSM. She just stood and stared. As somebody has remarked, I shouldn’t have been taking pictures the bed, rather Lady BSM’s face.
As it turned out, everything was OK, we managed to find a small restaurant up the road and had our first pizza and Peroni of the week. Many more to follow. The following morning, the sun was bright and from the balcony of the hotel, you could see Mount Vesuvius looming nearby, just behind Napoli station. Below, the characters we saw the night before laid out their wares in the street market. Napoli’s answer to the King’s Cross district wasn’t so bad in the daylight.
Naples to Sorrento – Using the railway
The journey from Naples to Sorrento takes about an hour and a half on the romantically sounding Circumvesuviana, because that is what it does – circumvents the brooding volcano to get to the coast. It’s not quite that. It’s packed with passengers and there are 34 stops from Naples to the train’s termination in Sorrento, so standing was compulsory, giving you the opportunity to sample the heady aroma of deodorant (or not) of strap hanging travellers from around the world.
Lots of people get out at Pompeii (to follow) and by station 23 we were all seated. To add to the entertainment were the buskers, who would scramble onto the train with saxophones, accordions and a speaker playing a backing track, before demanding spare change for their art. The performances were short, due to the fact that the buskers would hop from carriage to carriage to avoid the ticket inspector before eventually bailing to avoid paying any fare.
We stayed at The Carlton International Hotel in a room with a stunning view, overlooking the ever present Vesuvius (it is a natural photo bomb), the Isle of Capri and Amalfi in the distance. The hotel had a swimming pool, which we all used, especially Pen and I, but it was on the chilly side. I think they had a man out there early in the morning with a net on a long pole fishing out the penguins.
Sorrento was delightful; bustling, busy, pretty and somehow relaxed. This was off season, so I should imagine that peak holiday times are more stressful. Lovely shops and great
food. There is a lift down to the harbour and a road train. The demographic of Sorrento holiday makers tended towards the older generation and the train was popular. Hence, we christened it ‘The Grunter Train’.
Positano and Amalfi
We booked the tour bus, joining the rest of the grunters. It was good value and gave you a great view of all the sites as it took the winding, narrow, hilly road to Positano. Positano and Amalfi reminded me of some of those old romantic films starring Sophia Loren or Audrey Hepburn.
Again, back onto the Circumvesuviana from Sorrento to Pompeii with the other intrepid passengers and buskers. I always thought Pompeii was a few ancient dwellings containing several gruesome plaster cast figures in their death throes. How wrong was I. Pompeii is enormous, magical, thought provoking and takes hours to see. The forum contains some amazing examples of modern art.
There is an amphitheatre that had crowd trouble in AD59 and games were banned there for 10 years. I studied the photographs of the archaeological digs in the early 20th century. Imagining finding a wall with painted adverts from 2000 years ago sent shivers down my spine. Of course, after 5 hours of audio guidance and wondering at the thermopoliums – ancient fast food joints, which are scattered all over Pompeii – you start to wonder – where are the bodies? The ones they discovered and poured plaster of paris
into the holes to replicate the victims buried remains (genius). We didn’t know, but a rather elderly Italian man with a fake laminated staff badge was happy to show us for ‘a drink’ (€5 approx).
I lost the others for half an hour after discovering the ‘Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii’ exhibition. I spent the rest of the week in my downtime listening to the album on Spotify.
A jet boat takes you over to the island of Capri, a beautiful island that is or was the holiday destination of choice for lots of Hollywood stars. Everything is smaller to accommodate – tiny buses and cars, trucks and electric buggies. We wanted to visit the Blue Grotto, but unfortunately the weather and tides were against us and it was closed. We had a very nice meal overlooking the sea, where Pen told us about the song ‘The Island of Capri’, which none of us had heard of, but Pen insisted it existed.
“There was a girl from the Island of Capri,” she crooned, before forgetting the next line. I’m still dubious.
Is it impossible to dislike Italian food? Usually my diet is very low carbohydrate – no bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, low sugar intake. I decided to forgo this for the week and wasn’t disappointed. Most meals, I ordered pizza and Italian beer. Both are of an astounding quality in almost every establishment. The pasta dishes are simple and very tasty, with discerning and pleasant waiting staff. On one notable occasion, Pen ordered a seafood linguini.
“Can I have some grated parmesan, please?” she politely requested.
The waiter gave her a steady stare.
“No,” he said, straight faced, ‘you a have a seafood linguini, you have a no cheese on a dis.”
She laughed, thinking he was teasing. He wasn’t. Sprinkling parmesan onto my bolognese, he strode away, still looking at poor cheese less Pen.
We had one historic night in a taverna with tapas – lots of olives, cheese, meat – watching a very entertaining guitarist. We were the only ones in the taverna for an hour or so, but it gradually filled up with more English and American diners. The evening must have been entertaining, as the Peroni beers kept coming, along with the wine and the inevitable limoncello. Everywhere you go along the Amalfi coast, you will encounter lemon based products.Whole shops selling lemon everything, except real lemons.
Limoncello – a vodka based lemon drink- is compulsory at most eateries. It’s not my drink of choice, but I bravely carried on that night.
The drinks bill came to €85 and we made our way onto the narrow streets of Sorrento.
Where we discovered another Italian highlight – gelato. Ice cream. Even at 11pm, ice cream can be ace, like an Italian version of a doner kebab. There’s a myriad of flavours, too. I was hoping for liquorice, but instead made another wonderful discovery – parma violet ice cream. I was in gelato heaven.
Napoli Museum of Archeology
On our final day, we returned to Napoli and visited this museum. You see, most of the beautiful stuff from Pompeii is housed here. Statues, frescoes, mosaics and artefacts. It’s an amazing place. Another of those venues that make you gaze into the middle distance and whisper, ‘gosh’.
There is also a secret room containing the best of Pompeii’s porno collection. By the time we entered the secret room, two rather flustered teachers from France were trying to extract their bemused and giggling pupils. It’s nice to know that other Europeans share our humour for tits, bums and willies. Apparently, the best way to dispel evil spirits was to display either a model or drawing of a penis and
testicles on your building. Very impressive they were, too, although I think it may take time to catch on in the UK. I should imagine the WI would take a dim view of somebody hanging a huge wanger on the entrance to the village hall.
As we sat together in the airport, waiting for the flight home, we discussed the things we hadn’t done. We hadn’t been to Herculaneum, allegedly just as impressive as Pompeii; the ‘Walk of the Gods’, a 7km hike along the cliffs of Amalfi; eaten more pizza, drank more Peroni, sampled more Limoncello. We’d have to come back, despite The Sexton’s fears of Vesuvius erupting at any moment.
I researched the song, ‘The Island of Capri’. Sorry Pen, for doubting you.