Saturday, November 28, 2015


Sorrento is our home for two weeks in southern Italy. We use it as our base for touring Naples, Pompeii, Herculaneum, the Amalfi Coast, the Isle of Capri, Paestum, and Matera. While we had good weather mostly, the days we thought we might go to Capri turned out to be windy, cloudy, rainy, or all three so we never made that trip. One always needs a good reason to return to a place and that is certainly one. We would find many more before we ended our stay. We also found a couple of days to just relax and pretty much do nothing but eat and read.

Sorrento's  main street
We arrived in Sorrento in the afternoon, so after unpacking we walked down the hill to get a feel for the city and find a place for dinner. We first noticed as we crossed under a bridge a deep ravine. At the bottom the stone walls have doors and windows carved out of them. Obviously, not used in any way today, they were clearly lived in many centuries ago. The ravine leads to the beach which today is the marina where we would have caught a boat to Capri or even Naples.

We reached the Piazza Tasso and looked around deciding to take a narrow street that looked interesting. It turned out to be a fun shopping street where yellow is the dominant color. Our travels have led us to two fabulous liqueurs. First we discovered Amarula in South Africa. Made from the Amarula nuts and mixed with cream it is a bit like Bailey’s only better. We were already enjoying Lemoncello after having dinner at an eponymous Lemoncello restaurant in Boston. Lemoncello was served as a complementary after-dinner drink and we were hooked. Sorrento is the home of lemoncello. About every third store on this little street features the drink in several formats including a cream version. Many offer free tastings. Other stores sell lemons of various sizes and shapes. It seems that there are a lot of variations, something we aren’t used to in our homogenized produce sections at home. What we did not know and will have to try on our return home is that it is made from the rind, not the fruit inside.

Other stores sell clothing or souvenirs and there are even a few restaurants one of which we chose for dinner. More than a few restaurants around town have closed for the winter limiting the choices a bit. This one we liked enough to return to a couple of times. The most interesting building on the street is the Sorrento Men’s Club housed in an old palace. The entry way is a 16th century frescoed domed alcove. The frescoes are amazingly fresh made even more interesting by the tables of men sitting underneath playing cards or just drinking and talking. This really is a men’s only club, a nice retreat for the retired men who frequent it.

The Sorrento Men's Club
We started our first day as we often do by doing a tour of the city. We use a guide book when possible, but might just head out on our own and see what we see. We are fortunate here to again have a great location for our stay. We are just about four blocks above the main Piazza Tasso around which everything in Sorrento revolves. While the road is narrow for two lanes of traffic and pedestrians, it is safe enough as long as you watch and listen. The only real danger then becomes the silent bicycles and electric scooters. A nice thing about Italy everyone is used to the narrow streets so drivers and pedestrians are attentive to each other. As long as you don’t make any sudden, erratic moves you should be safe. The only negative really is that at the end of the evening we do have to walk uphill for those four blocks. At least our building has an elevator and the store is only one block away.
Not even wide enough for two cars, but we had to walk it in the dark.
We began our walk by heading towards the beach. A couple of viewpoints along the way provide great view of the bay all the way around to Naples on the other side. As one would expect, it is really just one long city divided by imaginary boundary lines for administrative purposes only. We walked down to the marina where we had lunch and admired the view before heading back up. We decided to spend €1 each and take advantage of the elevator back to city level.

From there we walked back to Piazza Tasso and down the main street to the cathedral. The beautiful inlaid wood doors remind us that this is also a town famous for inlaid wood furniture and decorative items. We decided to buy a lazy Susan and a couple of coasters as something we could actually use and not have to find a place for in our small condo. The Stations of the Cross are also made of inlaid wood which makes them among the finest we have seen among the dozens of churches we have visited. The manger scene is one those we see so often in this part of Italy with the Holy Family surrounded by residents of the local community. This one even includes a table with local foods and drink and Mount Vesuvius in the background.

One of the door panels
 On another day, I took a walk by myself ending up in Marina Grande. The other is Marina Piccola even though Marina Piccola is larger and the one that gets the larger boats to Capri and Naples. Marina Grande is a small fishing village with only a few shops and restaurants. I chose to eat at one of those still open during the winter where I had an appetizer of marinated seafood that is one of the best meals I have ever had. Seven different fish filled the plate: anchovies, smoked tuna, mahi mahi, swordfish, octopus, salmon, and shrimp. Each was elegantly prepared and presented. The octopus, much to my surprise, was the best item on the plate. Each piece was tender and juicy with a great flavor. The shrimp was like a shrimp cocktail with large chunks of shrimp instead of those little things that we usually get at home. Marina Grande has no elevator to the top, so I walked back up.

This is a real fishing community, so I was sure the fish was fresh.

We spent our last full day in the apartment before going out to dinner. Across the street we were entertained by three people harvesting the olives from their two trees. They worked by hand without any of the power tools we have seen before. One man climbed up in the tree knocking olives out of the tree with a stick and pruning the tree mercilessly – or at least it seemed to be without mercy as he cut limb after limb. Two others worked down below stripping the olives off the branches and carrying them off to somewhere for crushing. The two trees took most of the day.

Stripping the olive branches with bare hands.
I'm staying out of her way.
We are most certainly happy with our choice of Sorrento and this particular apartment. It’s hard to know without having been somewhere before if you have chosen a good spot, but we have done very well this trip. We hope our good fortune continues.

They still have traveling sales trucks.
A few honks of the horn brings out the customers.
Christmas in Sorrento. 
This store had one of the best Christmas displays ever. Each room had its own theme and everything was for sale, even the houses in the train set.

Friday, November 27, 2015


Naples may be the most interesting city we visited. The third largest in Italy, this port city on the southern coast of Italy is a city some people really hate. It certainly is different. With the fewest parks and squares of any city in Europe, it is easily the most crowded. It is also dirty and rife with pickpockets and organized crime. Rick Steves spends a couple of pages on how to avoid the dangers of pickpockets and describing the criminal element. We were sure to use our money belts and  watch carefully as we made our way through the crowds. Linda wore a backpack which was opened by the man coming down the escalator behind her in the train station. Fortunately, she had nothing of value in the pocket he opened, but it did put us on our guard and we turned the backpack around so no zippers were accessible just to make sure that it did not happen again. As far as organized crime goes, that really is not anything to worry tourists. That is more about government influence and control of neighborhoods within the town. The likelihood of any tourist getting in the middle of anything like that is virtually zero just as it would be in New York, Chicago, or Boston.

We arrived on the train and found our way to the subway which was both clean and on time. The station was well-lit, looking much better than many of the stations in New York City. We got off at our stop and asked a gentleman on the street which way to go to the museum. The trouble with subways is that you never really know where you are or what direction you are facing when you get above ground. He smiled and pointed us in the right direction along one of Naples’ few parks. A couple of blocks later we reached our destination, the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. This is where we would find the artworks removed from Pompeii.

Emperor Caracalla

Lifelike drapery on this Aphrodite
These Greek and Roman marbles were collected during the 16th-18th centuries begun by Alesssandro Farnese, Pope Paul III. Many came from the Rome’s Baths of Caracalla found as workers were scavenging building stone for the Pope’s family palace. They were brought to Naples by his grandson.

The two most impressive and important statues stand a opposite ends of a long hall. One is the Farnese Hercules. Hercules is posed after he has finished his eleventh labor and collected the golden apples only to be told he must do one more thing which means he must descend into hell. He is leaning wearily on his club with a tired and resigned look on his face. Copies of this statue have been made since the 16th century and are in palaces and gardens all over Europe. The curly-haired look has become the iconic way we see Hercules.

At the other end of the hall the Toro Farnese tells the Greek myth of Dirce. Dirce bewitched King Lycus who abandoned his pregnant wife Antiope who proceeded to give birth to twin sons. When they grew up they killed their father and tied Dirce to the horns of bull so he could bash her against a mountain. The statue, carved from a single piece of marble over 13 feet tall shows Dirce being tied to the bull while Antiope looks placidly on from behind.

I think she looks satisfied


These two powerful pieces are supplemented by dozens more on the ground floor of the museum. Actually, we would have been happy to have visited this museum if that were all it had to offer. We should also mention the statue of Doriforo. This 7 foot statue once stood in the Pompeii gym where is served as an example of the ideal body. It is so full of motion and realism that Donatello and Michelangelo would find inspiration from it at the beginning of the Renaissance.

Nevertheless, the reason we came (and most people come) is to see what is missing from Pompeii and Herculaneum. The middle floor holds the lovely 20 inch Dancing Faun who gave his name to the largest house in Pompeii. This is one of the few surviving Greek bronze statues dating from the 4th century BC. Another highlight is the Battle of Alexander during which he defeated the Persian king Darius which opened up the rest of Asia to the conqueror. Unfortunately, the exciting mosaic is no longer complete having been damaged as it was removed from the home in the floor of the House of the Faun.

Darius running away from Alexander
The real highlight is the “Secret Room” where the erotic frescos, mosaics, and statues are kept. No longer really a secret, it has only been fully open to the public since 2000. Prior to 2000, they were kept behind a variety of levels of rules allowing only certain people to view them. At one point, the Bourbon owners actually discussed destroying them. Now they are simply housed behind the enigmatic name and a sign that those under 14 may only enter with a parent. The variety of scenes and statuary, from the sublime to the grotesque is definitely worth the visit.

 The top floor has the rest of the frescos and statuary from the two cities. Scenes range from mythological stories to market scenes to landscapes and geometrical patterns. Household artifacts and decorative statues complete the picture of life in Pompeii before the eruption covered everything.
As we left the museum, we again followed a Rick Steves guidebook tour of a city. It was already early afternoon and we needed sustenance before walking too far so we found a nice restaurant off the main street where we had a pizza and pasta and a bit of wine to fortify ourselves for the walk back to the train station. Because it was Sunday, or perhaps just because it is, the Galleria Principe di Napole, a covered shopping gallery was closed. We’re not sure it is actually in use because there was no sign of life at all and one end was fenced off.

A variety of artifacts from the museum. We were especially impressed by the mosaics because the pieces were so small, much smaller than we have seen elsewhere.

Another view of Dirce getting her just desserts
We walked past the Bellini Theater and four and five story apartment buildings created from former palaces. Piazza Dante features an imposing statue of Dante. Neapolitans still feel a bit of sting from the unification of Italy. It fell from being the capital of a kingdom to a rather backwater city as its treasure and much of its bureaucracy was transferred north to Rome. Dante replace the statue of the king as a symbol of unity, something not appreciated by all Neapolitans. Some argue that having to deal with the distant Roman bureaucracy is what kept up the strength of organized crime here in Naples. One block later we shortcut Rick’s tour to head back to the railroad station. We intended to return to Naples on another day to finish the tour and visit the Royal Palace and waterfront area, but the weather did not cooperate. Walking through a city in the rain just doesn’t have that great appeal.
Typical street side cafe


We spent the next 90 minutes walking about a mile and a half along the Spaccanapoli (split Naples), a long straight narrow street that bisects the city. We passed a couple of major churches and small squares, but mostly we passed shop after shop after shop and wormed our way through the crowd that simply did not end until we reached the end of the street. The street is not wide enough for more than one small Italian car with its side mirrors pulled in. But it is wide enough for six or seven people to squeeze by one another for its full length. Linda is not fond of crowds so she did not find this as entertaining as I did, but even I got a bit tired of seeing the same shops and the same (not really the same; it just seemed that way) people again and again.

Remnants of the past in one of the squares
Christmas is definitely in the air with Christmas music in the background. At least half the shops were completely focused on selling Christmas items. Ornaments and toys led the list, but most interesting were the manger scenes and their accouterments. it seems that the thing to do here is to purchase a rustic scene made of wood, stone, twigs and moss with space for a manger and many additional characters. Then people will purchase the Holy Family as a start and gradually fill in the rest of the space. Depending on size this can take a few of several dozen characters which sell for up to €30 or €40. We saw several of these that were in a finished state which I suppose people could buy, but it seems the main idea is to populate it over the years.

When we finally reached the end of the Spaccanapoli, we had to ask a policeman the way to the train station. I misread the map thinking we were by this time within just a couple of blocks. It turned out to be another half mile and we ended up using the iPhone GPS to get there. Once in sight of the station we had to pass the gauntlet of hawkers selling all the usual stuff (using a nice word here) before we could actually reach the station and begin to try to figure out where to catch our train. Naples’ central train station is actually two stations and a metro stop, one on top of the other. The train from Naples to Sorrento is not a part of the national system for some reason. Signage is not obvious, but we knew we need to get downstairs to catch our train. So we wandered a bit and had to ask three times where we needed to go before we finally got to our train. Fortunately, we still had about five minutes before our train left and did not have to wait another hour. The ride home was uneventful.

Finishing with a couple of the more graphic erotic art. Remember that these would have been in people's homes, not just the taverns and brothels.