Sorrento: Equidistant from Everywhere You'd Rather Be
There's very little to the town itself other than the general Mediterranean lovliness that it shares with most towns in the area—citrus groves and grape vines, that clear and rich seaside light, fresh seafood, and warm welcomes. There's nothing wrong with Sorrento per se (other than a thick tourist veneer of souvenir stands and pricey cappuccini), but very little that's special, either—especially considering its massively more intriguing neighbors. In fact, a phrase we once used to describe Columbia, Missouri is just as apt here: Sorrento is equidistant from everywhere you'd rather be.
Sorrento is close and convenient to many great things, but it manages it without being all the great in of itself. It exists mainly to absorb the region's tourist influx, and it's been making a living off that role for nearly two millennia. This has been a middle-class resort ever since Imperial Roman times, when wealthy Romans built villas out here in pale imitation of Tiberius' imperial pleasure palace on the nearby island of Capri, barely visible in the smoggy haze today.
Sorrento, sitting in a pretty clifftop position 165 feet above the sea, became a fixture on the Grand Tour of wealthy Brits. In 1843, a sensory-overloaded Mary Shelley proclaimed "This is Paradise" and claimed to have found Italy, the real Italy, for the first time at Sorrento. Later, it became part of the scene for Italian celebrities (Enrico Caruso was fond of the place), and throughout, Sorento remained the favored regional base for tour packages and groups from Cook's to Rick Steves'.
But Sorrento has no great cathedrals and no great museums—just the usual small-town collection of second-rate baroque paintings and ancient artifacts, plus a new center devoted to the local artisan craft of wood inlay. It's not a charming fishing village or hill town, and it boasts no truly ancient quarters, just a grid of narrow lanes following the ancient Roman plan.
The city's most famous son, the poet Torquato Tasso, made his name in Rome, and its biggest cultural endeavor would appear to be the local "folk show" of costumed folks dancing the tarantella (about which I heard one American coo to her husband, "Ooh! Let's do that. I hear it's, like, the Italian flamenco!").
This town is on the Med, and it doesn't even have a decent beach, just a string of $10-to-walk-on piers built out on the breakwaters surrounded by green waters. There are a few scraps of black sand at the base of the cliff, but those get no sun and as such are ignored, left to collect the refuse tossed overboard by ferry passengers and folks crisping on the breakwater piers.
Sorrento does have a trio of churches providing a mild diversion (more on those later). But most visitors spend their time washing back and forth along the narrow Via San Cesareo—the old decumanus maximus of the Roman city—shopping for trinkets that aren't even local, like ceramics and lace, and scoring free hits of limoncello. These come from dueling purveyors on opposite corners of the cross street Via degli Archi, where young employees sling plastic shots of the lemony liqueur to a chorus of "Please, to take a taste," and proclaiming "No problem, is included in price!" When a browser knocks a bottle off the shelf and it shatters.
The bottles themselves are a riot of shapes and sizes: globes, mermaids, sneakers, pagodas, grapes, anforas, male torsos, pulcinellas, fluted columns, prancing ponies, the Italian "boot," violins, sailing ships, hearts, smiling suns and grinning quarter-moons, pineapples, beer barrels, and all sorts of geometric shapes. And what's in them isn't just straight lemon liqueur. There's the even tastier crema di limoncello creamy variation, as well as alcoholic infusions of peach, walnuts, fene3l, melon, mandarin orange, liquorice, chocolate, and bay leaf. (Yeah, I've had that last one before, and believe me, there's a reason you've never heard of it.)
Tipsy on free booze and wired from its high sugar content, the parade wanders on to the Sedile Dominova to take furtive pictures of the old men playing inscrutable and eternal games of cards at little wooden tables surrounded by 18th century frescoes. The men are members of the Worker's Society of Mutual Support—Italy, especially in the south, is full of these union-like clubs for retirees. Their communal living room is a high porch, raised above street level and open on two sides, built in the 16th century as the seat of power for one of the two ruling noble families in town. If you step to the far side of the little square and peek over the café umbrellas, you can see the 17th century cupola, tiled in shiny ceramic dragon scales of green and yellow and sprouting weeds.
That's it. A few hundred feet later, the trinket shops peter out, and most folks turn around to wander aimlessly back up the street again until it's time to go in search of dinner.