Napoli –> Sorrento –> Napoli, with plenty of condiments, was the delicious holiday sandwich (ahem – panino) I devoured last week, almost literally. Armed with my elementary Italian, vaguely Italian looks, very Italian surname, and backpack crammed almost to bursting with the bare minimum of supplies (here’s glaring at you, insane EasyJet cabin luggage policy), I managed to fit quite a lot into six days without rushing around too much or being murdered by the mafia (more on the latter, below).
Day 1: London –> Napoli via EasyJet. I landed late, and poor Napoli’s reputation is so bad I’d booked a place near the train station so I wouldn’t have to find my way around in the middle of the night in the event of a delay. Despite that, I assumed the stories were worse than the reality, and they were: the city center felt perfectly safe. A bit worn, a bit grimy, a leering fellah here or there, but absolutely nothing that made me feel I needed to be wary of anything but petty theft, as I would in any crowded city. Re: the mafia, what a ridiculous thing for a tourist to worry about. The city is the historical stronghold of the notorious Camorra crime syndicate, yes, but if you think you’re going to have mafia troubles on your vacation you probably need to rethink your planned activities…
Anyway all I did that first night was discover the beauty of Italian grocery stores (so many things I like to eat– sun-dried tomatoes, fresh bread, very fresh produce, cheese– all at bargain prices) and get my bearings.
Day 2: Napoli –> Ercolono –> Sorrento. Pompeii gets all the glory, but it wasn’t the only town to be overcome by Vesuvius and interred for centuries. One of the others is Ercolono Antica (anglicized: Herculaneum), a smaller site in the Neapolitan suburb of Ercolono just 45 minutes to an hour or so from Napoli Centrale train station and 11 well-worth-it euros to visit. Because of the way it was buried, it’s actually better-preserved than Pompeii in some ways, and it’s a bit eerie to walk down its streets and realize that part of the reason ancient artifacts feel so primitive and foreign to us is solely down to the extent of their degradation. I don’t know exactly how much to attribute to modern preservation and restoration efforts, but take a peek and I think you’ll understand the lump I had in my throat as I walked around:
From Ercolono, I continued out to Sorrento. Sorrento: narrow alley-streets thronged with tourists and dotted with tidy, lovely churches, a port filled with old men fishing and repairing nets, trees heavy with oranges and lemons.
One of the best things about Sorrento was the B&B I stayed in, Il Giardino Segreto. An off-season rate got me a huge room and bathroom with very comfortable bed and plenty of free snacks, an adorable couple of owners ready to give advice and feed me home-made baked goods, and a massive smart tv. Plus, MY OWN PRIVATE TERRACE!
That afternoon, I ate gnocchi alla sorrentina, which I highly, highly recommend:
Also, it felt necessary to at least re-try limoncello, a lemon liquor that is a specialty of the region. I’m still not really a fan (I like my candy to be candy and my drink to be drink, with not so much overlap…).
Day 3: Sorrento –> Capri –> Sorrento. The ferry from Sorrento to Capri was pretty quick but pricy (~40 euro round-trip) and unsettlingly overcrowded even in late March (to be fair, it was Easter break/Holy Week). The euros and crowds were worth it, though: not having looked at many pictures beforehand, I was dazzled by the sheer cliffs, white birds wheeling along them so small in comparison they looked like flower petals swirling off trees in a breeze.
I planned to walk from the marina to Anacapri, which looked doable on my guidebook map; it was for the best that my way was blocked due to construction above after only about a half hour of climbing, because it turns out Anacapri is on the side of a hill about 10 meters shy of mountain status, one it would have taken me hours to climb. Suggestion, guidebook: if you don’t go on foot yourself, don’t forget to at least eyeball the altitude before you start throwing phrases like “just up the hill” around.
I took the “bus” (van tall enough to stand up in) all the way up, up, up to Anacapri, listening to locals greet each other and gossip, enjoying the moment the bus hit a traffic snarl being managed by an overwhelmed-looking cop two passengers clearly knew personally and felt was not the best choice for the job (“oh, it’s Armando, oh what a mess, Jesus Christ…”).
The chairlift you can take from Anacapri to the top of Monte Solaro, the highest point in Capri, ensured I was just about the only one on the footpath:
At the top of Monte Solaro: vertiginous cliffs to one side, to the other a gentler slope toward the Faraglioni– jags of rock off the coast that look a bit like spine plates of a giant, ancient dragon, the rest of whom has been hiding underwater ever since people arrived on his island.
I wanted to spend the rest of the day on foot, so I followed a Spanish tour group down the other side of the mountain, consulting with their guide– fit, sun-tanned, bored of keeping track of group stragglers– to figure out how I could walk to Capri town.
There was a trail, but it was overgrown with wet vegetation and not very well-trodden. For good reason, it turns out: the “trail” basically tumbled down a wooded cliff. Light rain on smooth rocks made for hazardous going, and at one point I took a fall so dramatic I was actually surprised when I stood up in one piece.
I finally made it to Capri town, muddy and sweaty in comparison to the tourists shopping Capri’s famously designer-oriented streets (story of my travel life…). The rain began to let up as I continued through Capri back down to the marina…
…where I decided to reward myself with an all-out feast at L’Approdo, just next to the water:
Then I rolled my fat self onto the ferry back to Sorrento.
I’d like to say I settled for one giant meal that day, but I’m weak and had a huge dinner, too, at Inn Bufalito (highly recommend). Food was my biggest expense on this trip aside from that ferry ride– trains were cheap, hiking was free, off-season accommodation was reasonable– but if you don’t splurge at least a little on food in Italy… you’re missing out.
Day 4: Sorrento –> Sentiero degli Dei –> Sorrento. I took the bus from Sorrento to Praiano to access Il Sentiero degli Dei (The Path of the Gods), a cliffside trail running along a portion of the Amalfi Coast. I did a bunch of needless stair-climbing before finding the tourist office in Praiano, where I was told it would be unwise to try the trail that day. It had rained earlier and was still foggy, so they warned I could slip on a rock and go over a cliff. Also, by the way, the trail was closed because of a rockfall/landslide (but “everybody just goes through it anyway”) and maybe I should just climb the 1,000 stairs up to this convent for the view and then decide if I wanted to continue.
So I did. And I did:
Sure, a sunny clear day would’ve been nice, but the mist was beautiful, too. My only real regret is not buying freshly squeezed lemonade at a stand near the top of the 1,000 stairs back DOWN, in Nocelle. Speaking of 1,000 stairs up and 1,000 stairs down, I was sore for three days…
Holy Week in Italy means decorated altars and store windows full of giant chocolate eggs, banners rejoicing resurrection, special Easter cakes. Across southern Italy, it also means several nights worth of atmospheric processions. Around dusk in Sorrento on Holy Thursday after I got back from my hike, a besuited brass band began a slow tramp through the streets playing music so haunting my heart hurt. They were later joined by figures in white robes with pointed hoods (to an American, this sight was most disturbingly reminiscent of the KKK, though there’s no intentional connection), some carrying candles, torches, flags, or staffs and others shouldering crosses or swinging incense, a men’s a cappella choir, some little girls carrying flowers, and a group bearing one of those portable altar thingies common to Italian parades, this one capped by a Madonna statue surrounded by flowers and candles. The procession wound through all the streets in the city center, ushering people into and out of churches, early in the evening, then took another tour of the town around 3:30am, passing just below my terrace, for which I then felt doubly lucky.
Day 5: Sorrento –> Napoli. I ferried back to the city, a quicker and less-crowded option than the local train, albeit an infrequent one. Still tired and hungry from my hike the day before, I made a beeline for pizza. I’m not sure I believe in God, but I certainly believe in pizza, and I knew in my soul that the city of my ancestors couldn’t possibly make a bad one. Therefore, I skipped the most famous pizzerias (something about waiting in a two-hour line for pizza sends me into existential crisis, especially when the line is full of people there because they want to channel Julia Roberts) and headed for La Figlia del Presidente– certainly still popular, but not so much of a tourist magnet.
“So was the pizza good,” you ask?
Pizza-charged, I headed back along the street known as “Spaccanapoli”: like a furrow through the city, it’s shaded by balconies and awnings and lined with kitsch and gelato shops and counters selling cones of fried vegetables and seafood and cheese. With only a day and a half left to my trip, I set out to see as much as time (and my sore calves) allowed.
I ducked into the city cathedral, Cattedrale di San Gennaro, known for a mix of architecture and decor as well as for a vial supposedly containing the blood of Saint Januarius, and was wowed by the ceiling of one of its chapels:
I also went to the chapel topping every must-do Napoli travel list, Cappella Sansevero. I’ll be honest: if you don’t go first thing in the morning to have the place to yourself and bring along a guide of some kind, I’m not sure it’s worth it. It costs 7 euros to get into the rather small, rather crowded space– I had no idea what I was looking at and was in and out in less than 10 minutes, the hair on the back of my neck rising as I passed “the anatomical machines of the Prince of Sansevero” near the exit.
I should reiterate that Napoli did not feel dangerous at all, aside from the motorbikes whizzing around corners down the too-narrow streets. No one bothered me, unless you count tourists thinking I was Italian asking me for directions.
Day 6: Napoli –> London. I took myself out for a sfogliatella and caffè alla nocciola breakfast at the famous Gran Caffè Gambrinus just off Piazza del Plebiscito first thing in the morning. Sfogliatella is a regional pastry: thin layers of pastry shaped a bit like a clam shell, with a ricotta and orange filling (though there are variations on this). Caffè alla nocciola is espresso with hazelnut cream. Gambrinus was indeed grand and the coffee heavenly, but I was a bit let down by the sfogliatella, which did not taste at all fresh. As the great-granddaughter of a Neapolitan baker and someone who paid a pretty euro for that pastry, I think I’m entitled to be a bit offended.
I crossed the stately piazza to visit the Palazzo Reale, once home to the Bourbons. There were few people inside the unbelievably massive space and my boot heels striking the marble and wood paneling were the only echoing sounds as I wandered from one grand room to the next. Never have I seen such incredible opulence, except perhaps in a Newport mansion or a Loire chateau. Why did the Queen need not one, not two, but THREE parlors? There was a private theatre, a throne room, a chapel, a library, and every last inch was stuffed with riches: paintings, statues, chandeliers, marble floors and walls, ornately-finished furniture and ceilings.
In contrast to this spectacle of wealth, the entrance fee was a bargain – just 4 euros.
I walked down from the palazzo and along the port, popping into Castel dell’Ovo, a many-century mash-up the public can walk up into for free to enjoy a bit of history and excellent coastal and Vesuvi-ews. There isn’t much posted guidance, so it’s useful to read up a bit before visiting.
My last act in Napoli before my miserable EasyJet flight back to London: more pizza, of course. I ventured outside the margherita box this time and ordered a salami and zucchini blossom pizza at Angelo & Angelo – a delightful spot full of Italians just across from Castel dell’Ovo:
Stomach full and legs aching is pretty much the best way to end a vacation. I will lastly offer three take-aways to those thinking about planning their own Napoli/Amalfi coast visit:
- Go off-season for lower rates and fewer people. It was already crowded enough in March, frankly (although again: it was Settimana Santa, Easter week).
- If you’re not going to hike or shop for designer clothes, you may want to skip Capri in favor of another island or Amalfi town. I loved Capri, but the hike was everything.
- Transportation in the region can be a bit fussy, so plan ahead and, whenever possible, kill two birds with one stone (e.g. hit Herculaneum/Pompeii on your way out/into Naples).
Bonus tip: Just eat. Eat everything.