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The Sorrento Coast

Who doesn’t know the tune to “Torna a Surriento”? One of the most famous Neapolitan songs, it was composed at the very beginning of the last century and has been hugely popular ever since. A timeless love song inspired by powerful emotions, it’s proof of just how much the beauty of Sorrento and the Sorrento Coast, all the way from Vico Equense right up to Punta Campanella, has influenced artists and thinkers over the centuries. It’s a captivating place with a fascinating history lost in the mists of time. When rich Romans under the emperor Tiberius started to find Capri a bit too crowded, they began to build magnificent villas along the mountain ridges of the peninsula. It was, as we would say today, a much sought-after area, described by the great Virgil and Strabo. Later, the writings of Torquato Tasso would attract Goethe, Byron, Dumas, Verdi, Leopardi, Ibsen and others. After the peaceful invasion of travellers on the Grand Tour, the Sorrento Coast welcomed more famous guests, from the Rockefellers to the British Royal Family, and from Jacqueline Kennedy to Maria Callas. Not to mention Norman Douglas, whose books were like an advert for the south of Italy before advertising had really been invented. Illustrious visitors have continued to frequent the coastal resorts and hillside retreats immersed in the Lattari Mountains and surrounded by orange and lemon groves. Talking of Sorrento lemons – a great food souvenir, a super concentration of vitamins and a fruity reincarnation of the southern Italian sun – no one who’s ever been to the Sorrento Coast will ever want to be without them.

PHOTO TOUR

VICO EQUENSE

Arriving from Naples, the first stop on the Sorrento Coast is Vico Equense, clinging on for dear life to the sheer cliffs above a turquoise sea. Dominating the landscape is Monte Faito, the highest peak (1,100 metres) in the Monti Lattari chain, with woods supporting rare trees such as the silver fir. The present-day name of the town comes from vicus, meaning “village”, and the adjective equensis, from Aequana, the name of the ancient fishing village. Vico has an atmosphere all of its own, combining the best of the mountains and the sea, with pretty narrow streets, gorgeous views and charming neighbourhoods. The municipality is the largest on the Sorrento Coast and to appreciate it fully you should start by visiting the thirteen old villages found along the road leading up Monte Faito. Each one is fascinating in its own right and has its own historical tale to tell. One such tale regards the founding of Massaquano, the oldest village, named after a group of refugees escaping from the persecution of the Turks in the 9th century. There are also several churches of artistic and architectural interest. In Moiano, the highest village, you’ll find the Chiesa di San Renato, which houses a 16th-century statue of the saint. Arola lies at the foot of Monte Ferano and is famous for the former Camaldolese hermitage, built in 1607, standing in a magnificent position in nearby Astapiana. You enter the complex through a low crenelated tower. Also worth a visit is the parish church of Sant’Antonino, the most impressive religious building of all. Situated on the side of the hill that creates a natural divide between Vico Equense and Meta, the village of Seiano is one of the largest in terms of the number of inhabitants and also one of the most interesting. Places to see include the Chiesa di Santa Maria Vecchia and the parish church of San Marco. The former cathedral or Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata is the only Gothic church on the Sorrento Coast. Perched right on the cliff edge, it was built on the wishes of the bishop Giovanni Cimmino between 1320 and 1330. The façade, rebuilt several times, dates from the 18th century. The interior is divided into a nave and two aisles; the central nave contains important works of art including paintings by Giuseppe Bonito, the sarcophagus of Bishop Cimmino and the tomb of Gaetano Filangieri, a renowned economist who lived and died in Castello Giusso in the second half of the 18th century. Also of particular interest is the Santuario di Santa Maria del Toro, founded in 1530 as a votive chapel – so the legend goes – following a series of miraculous events associated with the discovery of an image of the Virgin Mary in a cave. The shrine has a single nave. Towering over Vico Equense is Castello Giusso, originally built in the early 14th century by the Angevins. The castle was enlarged by the Carafa family. In 1535-40, Federico Carafa built the baronial palace, what is now the main body of the castle. In 1828 it was bought by Luigi Giusso and from 1935 to 1973 was home to the Compagnia di Gesù (Society of Jesus). Two other places of interest are the Antiquarium, an archaeological museum housing finds dating from the 7th to 5th century BC from a necropolis discovered in the town, and the Museo Mineralogico Campano, containing samples of around 3,500 minerals from all over the world collected by the engineer Pasquale Discepolo. Finally, down by the sea is the Scrajo, a thermal spa built in 1895 by Pietro Scala on the site of a hot spring frequented by the Romans during the Imperial Age.

META DI SORRENTO

Standing at the foot of Montechiaro along the road running along the spell-binding Sorrento Coast, Meta’s olive groves, gardens and citrus orchards seem to have been painted with the brush strokes of a colourist master. The origin of the name is unsure, but it probably refers to the fact that it marks the end of the peninsula. The exact point is thought to be the Basilica della Madonna del Lauro, built on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Minerva. Stone tablets were in fact discovered here during excavation work. A legend surrounding the founding of the town brings us to the 8th century and the history of the church. According to the story, a deaf old lady out grazing her cows came across a statue of the Virgin Mary under a laurel tree, with a golden mother hen and her twelve golden chicks nearby. After this vision she was cured of her deafness. The statue was brought to Sorrento and put in the cathedral, but the following morning it was found back under the same laurel tree. After this prodigious event, a shrine was erected on the site. It underwent several transformations until in 1206 a church was built with a Latin cross plan (which it still has) and consecrated. Rebuilt in1568 after being destroyed by the Turks ten years previously, it was re-consecrated in 1782 and given the title of pontifical basilica in 1914. The centre of the Neoclassical façade is surmounted by a high-relief of Christ the Saviour. The original solid wooden door originally had 24 carved panels with metal detailing (mostly illustrating scenes from the life of Christ), which were later moved inside the church (which has a nave and two aisles) and are an object of veneration. The bell tower dates from 1558. Of particular interest are two wooden statues decorated with gold, one of Saint Michael and the other of the Guardian Angel, by Girolamo Bagnasco. The altar and balustrade are made of fine marble. The history of Meta has close ties with the shipping industry. Alimuri, the name of the beach, owes its fame to ship-building. This centuries-long saga has links with the Maritime Republic of Amalfi, the Angevins and the Aragonese, and even Christopher Columbus. The actual shipyard was officially opened in 1650, but was completed in 1800, when the sailing ships of the Royal Navy of the Kingdom of Naples were launched. Fifty-two of them were built to make long ocean crossings and voyages to the Americas, though the ships built in Meta were mostly smaller, two-masted vessels, robust, fast and perfect for transporting oil, citrus fruits, walnuts and wine. The Società degli Armatori Metesi e Sorrentini (Association of Ship Owners from Meta and Sorrento) was founded in 1798 and remained active until 1923. The village of Alberi, partly administered by the municipality of Vico Equense, is 800 metres from the town centre and can be reached via a pretty road, quite steep and narrow in places, built over the ancient Roman Via Minerva (originally going right up to Punta Campanella).

PIANO DI SORRENTO

The area around Piano di Sorrento was inhabited in prehistoric times, colonized by the Greeks, and settled by Oscan and Campanian peoples. In the Roman age it was called Planities, meaning “plain”. The two names used by the locals, “Caruotto” and “Cassano”, refer to the effects of an earthquake in the 16th century that is said to have damaged one part of the town (cà rotto, “here broken”) and spared the other (cà sano, “here sound”). Marina di Cassano is in fact a charming old fishing village at the bottom of a tufa cliff cut through by a winding road running down to the sea. The old part of Piano is situated around the Parrocchiale di San Michele Arcangelo, dating from the 19th-20th century. Destroyed several times and rebuilt, the parish church was given the title of pontifical basilica in 1914. Designed in the shape of a Latin cross, it has a large nave boasting a fine choir with a pipe organ and two 18th-century holy water stoops. On the coffered ceiling are paintings by Solimena and Paolo De Matteis depicting stories from the life of Saint Michael. The balustrade separating the presbytery is made of fretworked marble, the work of Giambattista Antoni, with four angels from the School of Bernini. The sacristy houses three important paintings: Scenes of the Plague by Giuseppe Castellano, Our Lady of the Snows by an artist from the School of Giovanni Bellini (15th century) and Saint Thomas Touching the Rib of Christ by Pacecco De Rosa. Next to the basilica stands the Augustinian Convent with the adjoining Chiesa della Misericordia, completed in 1739. A lovely flight of steps in Corso Italia leads to the Carmelite Monastery and the Chiesa dei Santi Giuseppe e Teresa, built between 1663 and 1687. Of particular note is a large painting by Romualdo Formosa depicting Saint John of the Cross. The Chiesa della Madonna delle Grazie (or Chiesa della Madonna di Rosella) is associated with a miraculous event. A local woman by the name of Rosella, whose son was gravely ill, prayed to an old painting of the Virgin Mary for his recovery. When her prayers were answered, she had the painting restored and it became an object of popular veneration. Also of interest is the Chiesa della Santissima Trinità built in 1543, with its bell and clock tower. Finally, several grand residences are a reminder of the splendours of the past, such as the monumental Palazzo Maresca, Villa Lauro, described by Roberto Pane, scholar of architectural history, as the “most remarkable Neoclassical building in the entire region”, and Villa Fondi De Sangro with its extensive cliff-top gardens built by the Prince of Fondi Don Giovanni Andrea De Sangro.

SANT'AGNELLO

Clinging to the sheer rocky coastline, nestled between the coast and the hills, Sant’Agnello is the greenest, but also the smallest town on the Sorrento Coast. It’s named after its patron saint, protector of pregnant women and animals, a Benedictine monk to whom the Chiesa di Sant’Agnello is dedicated. The church, with a nave and two aisles, houses some important works of art, including paintings by a pupil of Luca Giordano, Giuseppe Castellano. The town is home to three secular confraternities, the oldest of which is the Arciconfraternita del Santissimo Sacramento e Natività di Maria, founded in 1824. The seafront, called La Marinella, boasts spectacular views. The lovely citrus grove called Il Pizzo, one of the largest (1 hectare) on the Sorrento Coast, is a protected natural and archaeological heritage site. Thanks to its position and breath-taking views, many magnificent villas were built in the town. One, known as Cocumella, was later turned into a hotel, and its guests included such illustrious names as the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, Joachim Murat and Hans Christian Andersen. The villa of Lord Crawford, who chose Sant’Agnello as his second home, is decorated with his collection of ancient pieces of artwork, acquired during his stay in India.

SORRENTO

The most popular explanation for the town’s name is that it was named after the Sirens who, according to legend, lived in the waters just off the Sorrento headland, from where they would lure passing sailors. It’s more likely, however, that the name derives from Surrenton, a word used by Strabo from the Greek verb surreo meaning “flowing together”, due to the abundance of rivers. Situated in an area already inhabited in the Neolithic period, Sorrento is believed to have been founded by the Greeks. It was subsequently conquered by the son of King Auson, Liparus, who was buried here after ruling for many years. Brought under the dominion of Syracuse (5th century BC), the town passed first into the hands of the Samnites and then the Romans. During the Imperial Age, it was raised to the status of municipium and became popular as a holiday resort for wealthy Romans thanks to its mild climate and fertile lands. Numerous villas sprang up along the coast, above all during the time of Caesar and Augustus. The original Roman street plan is still visible in the old town, with its grid-like pattern of cardi (secondary streets running from north to south) and decumani (main streets running east to west), as well as the remains of ancient buildings. The columns of temples can be found in church buildings, such as the Chiesa di Sant’Antonino (converted from a 14th century oratory), dedicated to the town’s patron saint. The side door dates from the 11th century, though a place of worship dedicated to the saint is known to have existed as early as the 9th century. In 1606 the church was granted to the Theatine fathers and rebuilt in the style you can see today. It has a Latin-cross plan with a nave and two aisles, and a crypt containing a silver statue of the saint as well as numerous votive offerings with a nautical theme. Paintings by Giacomo del Po depict scenes of the plague of 1656 and the siege of 1648.
Particularly lovely is the Chiostro di San Francesco (Cloister of Saint Francis), attached to the church of the same name. Originally constructed in 1500, the church was completely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1688, and finally given its current white marble façade in 1926 on the 700th anniversary of the death of Saint Francis. The splendid cloister presents a marriage of two late 14th-century styles from the. The symbol of the Sersale and Nobilione families can see seen on the capitals. In summer the cloister is used to host cultural events.
To get an insight into Sorrento’s history, you should visit the Museo Correale di Terranova, a harmonious 18th-century villa housing art collections bequeathed by Alfredo and Pompeo Correale, Counts of Terranova, the last descendants of an old Sorrento family. Opened on 10 May 1924, the three floors of the museum contain archaeological finds, paintings and examples of the decorative arts. The Sala dei Fondatori (Founders’ Hall) has a small private chapel and houses a collection of 19th-century inlaid woodwork. In the Sala degli Specchi (Hall of Mirrors) you can find portraits of the ancestors of the Correale family, sumptuously dressed ladies and gentlemen evoking the luxury of the age of the Enlightenment. There are also 17th-century Neapolitan still lifes and landscape paintings, a collection of crib figures from Neapolitan nativity scenes and 18th-century European porcelain. The beautiful gardens surrounding the villa are full of rare plants and flowers. Follow the path lined with orange trees through an underground passage to the cliff-top belvedere for spectacular views. To see Sorrento properly, you need to visit the part down by the sea as well as the other part up in the hills, as so often happens with towns along the coast. Start down at the pretty fishing village lined with lively bars, shops and restaurants of Marina Grande, with its old Greek gate (until the 15th century probably the only entrance into the town from the sea), and the harbour of Marina Piccola, where you’ll find the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Soccorso that appears in practically every print of Sorrento. Then it’s back up to the old quarters. Sorrento’s unusual topography depends on the fact that it stands on a block of sheer tufa rock. For a long time the ancient town was enclosed the sea and ravines. You can see one of them by looking down from Piazza Tasso into the Vallone dei Mulini (Valley of the Mills), a deep gulley blanketed with Mediterranean maquis marking the boundary of one side of the town. You can see the remains of the old mills that gave it its name. As previously mentioned, the town is crossed by decumani: the upper and older Via Pietà and Via San Cesareo. Via Pietà was originally the Roman decumano superiore, which later – in 1861 – became Corso Italia when the town was modernized. An interesting place to visit here is the Museo Archeologico della Penisola Sorrentina, also known as Villa Fazzoletti. The archaeological museum contains finds from the Sorrento Peninsula. In the atrium there’s a model of the Roman villa of Pollius Felix, the ruins of which are still visible in Capo di Sorrento.
In Via Pietà you’ll find a series of stately 18th-century residences such as Palazzo Correale, where the family lived until 1597, with its characteristic “corona” portal. Palazzo Veniero is an important example of the late Byzantine and Arab style from the 13th century. In Via San Cesareo you can see the remains of the Sedile Dominova, a 15th-century loggia with a majolica-tiled cupola over one of the two sedili, or “seats” (the other is the Sedile di Porta) into which Sorrento’s nobility was divided. The nobles would gather here to decide civic matters. The sedili were square-shaped buildings with large side entrances. This is the only surviving example in Campania.
No tour of Sorrento would be complete without a trip to Capo di Sorrento. At the far tip, just after the pool and cave of the legendary Bagni della Regina Giovanna, are the remains of the Villa of Pollius Felix, described by the poet Statius. It was divided into a domus and a seaside villa, with numerous rooms, terraces, landing places and cisterns. The main body of the building lay around the rocks of Punta della Carcarella. A bold design, it was almost level with the water and faced south west with stunning views from every room. The two-roomed nymphaeum showing traces of opus reticulatum on the walls is still visible in the so-called Grotta della Regina Giovanna. This strange place is a kind of triangular-shaped natural pool that can be reached either by land via a series of steep steps or by rowing boat. In the centre, other Roman ruins on the rock link it to the Villa of Pollius. Scholars don’t believe the pool was used for bathing, but rather as a fish farm. As for Giovanna, the legend tells of a woman who after every night of passion would hurl her unfortunate lover down into the depths of the marine cave. The real identity of the queen is shrouded in mystery.

MASSA LUBRENSE

The last town on the Sorrento Coast is immersed in lush vegetation and lovely gardens, such as “Il Gesù”, an old citrus grove planted by Jesuits in the early 1600s when the large college known as “Il Quartiere” was built. The name of the town appears in records from 938 as Massa Pubblica (perhaps deriving from the Lombard word mansa). Lubrense was added later, as a sign of devotion to Santa Maria della Lobra, venerated in a church built on the site of a Roman villa. The villa had itself been built over a delubrum, a small temple dedicated to Minerva. The heart of the town is Largo Vescovado, with a belvedere overlooking the Bay of Naples. On one side of the square is the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, with a fine majolica-tiled floor. The church was originally constructed in the 16th century and rebuilt two centuries later. On the other side is the 18th-century Palazzo Vescovile (Bishop’s Palace). The municipality is made up of 18 villages, and several marked trails offering breath-taking views wind their way through lemon orchards, olive groves and woods of oak and chestnut past watch towers and archaeological sites. Down in Marina della Lobra, a charming old fishing village, you’ll find a shrine of the same name, rebuilt in 1564. Adjacent to the church, with a Latin-cross plan, is a convent dating from 1583. Marina della Lobra came to fame in more recent times when in 1974 the legendary Sicilian free-diver Enzo Maiorca set the no-limits apnea world record by diving to a depth of 87 metres off a rock known as the Scoglio del Vervece. A statue of the Virgin Mary (first in glazed plaster and then in bronze) was later placed underwater by the Vervece rock, transforming the site into a shrine for scuba-divers. Another attraction is the Baia di Ieranto, a bay at the end of the Sorrento Peninsula squeezed in between Punta Campanella (it’s actually part of the Marine Reserve) and Punta Penna, directly opposite Capri’s famous Faraglioni. An area of unspoilt natural beauty, with rocky formations blanketed with Mediterranean maquis and olive trees, Ieranto owes its name to one of two Greek words: either ierax, meaning “hawk”, a bird commonly found nesting here, or ieros meaning “sacred”, due to the existence of a temple dedicated to the Sirens. This latter theory would fit in with the myths surrounding the southernmost tip of the coast, Punta Campanella, which seems almost to touch the island of Capri. This is an absolutely enchanting place with an age-old history. There once stood a temple honouring Athena here, which Strabo tells us was built by Ulysses and initially dedicated to the Sirens. It was, however, King Robert of Anjou who invented the name Punta Campanella. In 1335 he built the Torre Minerva, which in 1566 was rebuilt to act as a defence against pirate invasions (the alarm was raised by the sound of a bell, the famous campanella). The largest village in the municipality of Massa is Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi, the “pass” leading to the Amalfi Coast. It stands in an enviable position about 400 metres above sea level affording views of the Bay of Naples, the Bay of Salerno and Capri. An interesting place to visit just outside the village is Deserto, a hill where you can find a Carmelite hermitage, first a monastery and then an orphanage of the Grey Friars of Charity founded by Father Lodovico da Casoria. Some say the hill ought to be named Monte Sireniano, as ancient geographers like Strabo called it, and it seems to have connections with the cult of the Sirens. In the village square stands a church with a fine altar from 1600 brought from the old Chiesa dei Girolamini in Naples. This work of rare beauty made with mother of pearl and lapis lazuli was by Dionisio Lazzari, sculptor and architect of the School of Florence. Marina di Crapolla is part of the village of Torca. The only way to get here is by sea or by walking down a long path with hundreds of steps. According to the legend, Peter the Apostle landed here on his way to Rome. A little church built on the ruins of a temple of Apollo is dedicated to him and venerated by local fishermen.

EATING

The kind of food you’ll find on the Sorrento Coast isn’t really that much different from Neapolitan cuisine. There is, however, one very well-known dish called gnocchi alla sorrentina, made with fiordilatte cheese and tomato sauce, presumably named after the place where it was invented. This simple dish is enjoyed all over the world. If you want something different, you should try one of the local variations of classic desserts made with the wonderful local citrus fruits. Babà alla crema d’arance (babà with orange cream) is one speciality. But the top spot has to go to delizia al limone, a light sponge with lemon-flavoured crème pâtissière and cream. Another little known speciality is “fullarielli”, sultanas wrapped in lemon leaves. The much prized, local variety of lemons is called “Ovale di Sorrento” because of their oval, asymmetrical shape. Sorrento lemons were in fact given PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status in 1999. They’re grown along the coast in terraced fields, which for centuries have been a typical feature of the local landscape. The trees are protected from the elements by rigid wooden structures at least three metres high covered with netting called “pagliarelle”. The lemons are harvested by hand between February and October. They have a characteristic peel of average thickness rich in essential oils. The peel is a lemondrop yellow colour, while the flesh is a softer straw yellow. The juice is abundant with high acidity. Lemons grown for sale must weigh no less than 85 grams, while fruit under this weight can be used for processing. Another local favourite is the “Semicostoluto” (Slightly Ribbed) tomato, similar to the “Cuore di Bue” (Oxheart), but rounder and flatter. Green near the stalk, it has pinkish or red tinges at the tip. Firm on the outside, it slices easily and is very fleshy with few seeds, making it perfect for salads, such as the classic caprese with mozzarella and basil.

Gnocchi alla sorrentina (Sorrento-style gnocchi)

Simplicity itself. All you need to make this mouth-watering dish is half a kilo of gnocchi, some tomato sauce, a good handful of basil, some fiordilatte cheese, and grated Parmesan. First cook the gnocchi in a large pan of slightly salted boiling water, removing them as soon as they float to the top. Place in a baking dish and cover with some of the tomato sauce and plenty of Parmesan. Cover with a layer of slices of fiordilatte, the rest of the sauce, some more Parmesan and the basil. Bake in a hot oven (240° C) for a few minutes until the cheese has melted. Serve piping hot.

SHOPPING

As well as having a key role in the agri-food industry, citrus farming (specifically Sorrento lemons and “Bionda di Sorrento” oranges) is also important for local commerce and tourism. It’s thanks to tourism that this sector has experienced exponential growth, due to to the vast range of products that can be made from the fruits. As well as the classic limoncello, you can also find liqueurs made from herbs and laurel. Delicious cakes, mouth-watering pastries, figs stuffed with walnuts and coated with dark chocolate... such tasty souvenirs are hard to resist. The shells of locally grown walnuts are used to make a delicious liqueur called nocillo. But that’s not the end of it. Locally produced milk is used to make fiordilatte as well as many other wonderful fresh cheeses such as the plaited “treccia” from Massalubrense, little bocconcini and mini scamorze stuffed with hot chilli pepper and olives. Two other great products are Penisola Sorrentina (PDO) extra virgin olive oil and Provolone del Monaco, a superlative cow’s milk cheese from the Monti Lattari (made with the milk of different breeds, including the rare Agerolese). With its legendary name and superb taste, this cheese is wonderful even when matured for over 18 months. All these high-quality artisan products have the extra added value of being made using traditional production techniques. Which brings us nicely to what is probably the best known example of local crafts: inlaid woodwork from Sorrento, much prized by travellers on the Grand Tour. Although some techniques may have changed over the years, there’s still great skill involved in fitting the wooden pieces together. The contemporary pieces you can find today (on sale at craft shops and artists’ studios) are the heirs of a noble art dating back to the 15th century.

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