Italy's Earthly Paradise: Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast
By Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller

“Not to worry, we won’t be visiting Naples,” Chiara announces as we race through the Campania countryside, past giant wind turbines whirring above wheat fields, by well-tended farmsteads stretching far into the horizon, on our way to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. Ah, Naples! Italy’s notorious wild child and third largest city has a long reputation for being wicked, even ungovernable. But I think we should cut it some slack. Yes, we’ve all heard about its crime syndicates and pickpockets, its nocturnal squalor and open-air drug scene. But how about its colorful markets, museums and palaces packed with treasures, plus a labyrinth of eerie tunnels and crypts? And let’s not forget the best pizza in the world! Naples pulses under the brooding presence of Mount Vesuvius, an explosive volcano that has wreaked havoc in the area through the centuries, yet also preserved some of the world’s finest archaeological riches. “Maybe we’ll brave Naples on another trip,” I suggest to my husband.

Sorrento’s indented coastline overlooks the Bay of Naples and the Tyrrhenian Sea.
It’s the ideal base for exploring the entire Amalfi Coast area.
Chiara dips into her tour director’s arsenal on Italy as we approach our destination: “The Sorrentine Peninsula is a UNESCO-designated site for outstanding Mediterranean landscape,” she boasts. I can almost visualize it: sheer limestone cliffs plunging into an aquamarine sea, majolica-tiled villages glinting in the sun, endless citrus orchards and splashes of bougainvillea. Here, each bend of the coastline provides balcony views of jagged rocks and islands, with Vesuvius looming in the north and the Gulf of Salerno in the south. This area first became a playground more than two thousand years ago, when Emperor Tiberius built several villas on the island of Capri, and the world’s literati and glitterati plus hordes of ordinary folks have been coming here ever since. “Wow, this place sure exceeds my expectations,” says our friend Kathy on the final stretch to Sorrento.

“Odysseus put wax in his sailors’ ears so they would not hear the song of the Sirens as they sailed past this coastline,” notes Chiara, “for if they did they would be doomed!” She points toward the shimmering bay where a tiny islet was their legendary home. I can spot the bigger islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida rising in the distance. We trail behind an endless line of vehicles inching their way to town. “Finally!” I sigh as we arrive at Tasso Square, the center of town where our hotel, the four-star Antiche Mura, sits back in a lemon grove complete with pool and solarium. “You will love our huge buffet breakfast,” they announce at the desk as we rush out to explore.

But Sorrento is wall to wall people in late afternoon, its cafes and bars jammed with visitors from all over the world. We head toward pedestrian-only Via San Cesareo, a cobbled street lined with souvenir stalls, boutiques and gelaterias. On my right rival shops are offering tastes of locally-made, iced Limoncello, purportedly Italy’s best. I smile at a group of English matrons who have commandeered a huge barrel of lemon soaps, counting out purchases for their entire gift list. Minutes later they rush off, shrieking with shopaholic glee, to a booth stocked with knock-off designer handbags. A few doors away, a music box is blaring Verdi’s Aida. It’s a shop selling intarsia, traditional inlaid wood products including jewelry boxes, chests and table tops that are a specialty of Sorrento. “Entra per favore,” motions the solicitous proprietor. “Too many people,” my husband replies. “We’ll come back on another day.”

On the north side of Tasso Square an iron gate leads to the luxurious Grand Excelsior Vittoria, the oldest hotel in Southern Italy and an exclusive watering hole for world leaders and celebrities since the 1830s. Here one can sleep in Enrico Caruso’s favorite room and finger his piano keys, or gaze at frescoed ceilings in the palatial dining room where Otto von Bismarck and Admiral Nelson entertained guests. “If only these walls could talk,” I muse, envisioning Luciano Pavarotti, whose bed had to be enlarged as he gained in girth, and Hollywood luminaries Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn, who alternated between the Excelsior and villas in Capri or Amalfi. Just recently George Clooney and Daniel Craig stayed here, and according to the concierge, the Excelsior’s lavish 180th anniversary party will be hosted by Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli. The hotel’s interconnected buildings are surrounded by lush Mediterranean gardens plus a swimming pool and boutique spa. A dramatic bar-terrace hangs on the edge of the sea over Marina Piccola, accessed by a private elevator. We stroll along the sea wall, lingering past sunset. Lights streak the darkened bay and Vesuvius hides under coastal clouds.

Mt. Vesuvius hides behind night clouds as lights shimmer on the glamorous Sorrento promontory.

Lunch was hours and hours ago and Zi’Ntonio, a Michelin-starred restaurant with wood burning ovens has been highly recommended. In its barrel-vaulted cellar, two veggie pizzas with delicate smoky crusts arrive sizzling at our table. “Delicious,” says Eric, taking the last crumb off the platter. On our right, I catch a whiff of seafood being served to a group of locals, an abbondanza of lobster claws, shrimp and mounds of clams, oysters and mussels artfully arranged in a huge serving bowl. We sit back and decompress, sipping our Peroni Nastro Azzuro beers, as refreshing as a dip in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

In the cool of morning, we make the short journey to Pompeii, surely the most evocative archaeological site in the entire world. Once a bustling Roman port of some 20,000 souls, it was stopped dead in its tracks on August 25, 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius blew its top, covering this industrious town in ash and pumice, its sulfurous sky and intense heat suffocating those unfortunates who had stayed behind beseeching the gods to save them. “But neither amulets nor deities could protect them,” says our local guide, Patritsia, as we begin our exploration of the site. “The scorching gases and ash were instantly asphyxiating,” she emphasizes. “Today, thanks to an ingenious plaster cast method that fills the empty spaces left in the ash by their bodies, we catch them as they died, with horror on their faces!”

There is a less-crowded approach to the ruins, down a long path lined with sycamores and cypresses. We pass through Stabia Gate near two theaters and the Temple of Isis, not far from the heart of the town. Patritsia points in the direction of Nocera Gate where Pompeii’s well-preserved amphitheater is sited, a venue large enough for 20,000 spectators who came to cheer gladiatorial combat, wild animal hunts, and public executions. ”Pompeii was situated right on the Bay of Naples at that time,” she comments, “but so much ash fell that it filled in the harbor area completely.” About two-thirds of the site has been excavated and work has been going on here continuously since the middle of the 18th century. “I wonder what‘s still buried waiting to be discovered?” asks Kathy.

At Pompeii, visitors make their way on streets paved in volcanic basalt stones. A unique archaeological site,
this provincial Roman town reveals a myriad of detail about the lives of its residents.
Irregular basalt stones pave streets edged with narrow sidewalks. Apparently, sewage ran right in the middle of the streets where ruts from the wheels of chariots can still be seen. We enter Menander’s House, the opulent home of a wealthy merchant where a horde of silver was unearthed. It name refers to a painting of the Greek dramatist in its peristyle. A small atrium features an enclosed herb garden where a sunken tank collected rainwater. I can make out faded frescoes in red, orange and black depicting scenes from “The Iliad.” There is a small triclinium for dining, and a shrine room for household gods. “About 25 people lived in this domus (house),” says Patritsia. “The slaves slept above and the family and guests on the main floor.”

We continue on Via dell’Abbondanza, the Rodeo Drive of Pompeii, to the Stabian Baths, one of several bath sites in the city. Wall frescoes, statuary and niches create a sense of opulence. To the left in a room for dressing and undressing, two body casts covered in a dusting of ash are displayed in cases. The hot room (caldarium) has tanks for boiling water and terra cotta pipes to channel steam into the room. The spaces are airy and elegant, in amazingly good condition. “With a little refurbishing they could almost be ready for business today,” says my husband. “The baths were a great place for socializing and gossiping,” Patritsia injects, “and people usually bathed at least twice a week.” Locals also loved to frequent brothels, the lupanare, so named for the wolf calls vocalized by prostitutes to attract business. In its heyday Pompeii had about 25 such establishments. At a corner lupanar, we join a line of visitors gaping at erotic wall murals, probably a menu of services offered. There are several built-in stone beds. One is overhung by a giant phallus, probably the domain of a popular hooker.

“Street food was very big in Pompeii,” Patricia remarks as we explore a broad avenue. Here, amazingly modern food shops were shaded with front awnings draped above brick counters with built-in receptacles from which plebs could select hot and cold dishes. Fried fish, pork sausages, stews and boiled greens were served up with coarse bread and often accompanied with garum, a pungent fish sauce, plus plenty of diluted wine. “The city had numerous public fountains and water was channeled from the Lower Appenines by an aqueduct,” she explains as we stop to admire a sculpted horn-of-plenty fountain. “Water was always available for free.”

Pompeii’s victims were instantly asphyxiated, and as their bodies decomposed, they left a hollow area in the ash. Modern scientists developed a unique cast method to fill that space, even capturing their facial expressions.

Within minutes we arrive at the Forum, the epicenter of Pompeii’s public life, where the city’s religious, commercial and political buildings are sited. “Notice how the forum is encircled on three sides by the remains of a double shopping arcade with Doric and Ionic columns,” says Patritsia. To the northeast is the macellum, once the city’s fish and meat market area. But as we approach it, I see that it is something else now: a repository for assorted plaster casts of Pompeii’s victims! Nearby are remnants of the Temple of Apollo, and to the east, rising on a platform, the Temple of Jupiter, Rome’s highest divinity. “I have to be honest,” admits Patritsia, “when it came to gods, the local people here much preferred the Egyptian Isis. She was their beloved mother-goddess, and they considered her to be very compassionate. Of course, they also loved Bacchus, the god of wine!”

Back in Sorrento, Pompeii’s dust all washed away, we head out to a late afternoon cooking class at Masseria Fondo Galatea, an organic farm in the hills above town known for its olive oil and liqueurs. The views are breathtaking in all directions on our ascent. At a nondescript gate, a shuttle awaits to take us to the farm. Galatea uses traditional methods to produce quality products that are sold to the public on the premises. I survey the steep four-acre site planted with some 300 olive trees: “It’s a pretty vertical farm! How can they harvest in this terrain?” Interspersed are numerous lemon and orange trees covered with protective netting and I find their fresh scent energizing. “Benvenuti, amici!” chirp Inana Aiello and Mary Lu Masturzo, our hostesses this afternoon. “Our farm has been in one family for several generations,” they begin, proud of the English they mastered in school. “We grow fruits and vegetables and make jams and liqueurs. We also sell fresh eggs and milk. But our specialty is DOP cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil. We produce about 1700 liters per year.”

We stroll down a steep drive to a fenced area housing cows, goats, pigs, ducks and chickens. “All our animals have names,” brags Mary Lu, patting a plump cow. “I like this place already,” I tell my husband. She leads us to their centuries-old, stone olive press. “To get cold pressed oil we use only green olives. Out of each batch, the yield is about twenty percent. You can appreciate why good olive oil is expensive. Purple olives are just for eating,” Mary Lu explains. At the farmhouse shop, bottles of limoncello, wine and olive oil are lined up next to jars of marmalade and jam. “Now, let’s go upstairs for some tastings,” Inana announces. We sample their flavorsome bruschetta, salami, tangy olives and chunks of soft caciotta and firmer caciocavallo cheeses between sips of house wines.

Aunt Zianna is in charge of our cooking class in the farm’s well-equipped kitchen. “Today we are making potato gnocchi and Sorrento’s famous lemon tart,” she says. We gather around a stainless work table, mashing pre-boiled potatoes, adding salt, flour and eggs, quickly kneading the mixture into a ball. “Now I am turning this ball into a cylinder and I will pinch off small bits which I will shape with a fork,” she explains. We follow her directions, dropping our finished gnocchi into a huge pot of boiling water. “When they are done, they will rise to the surface,” Zianna remarks, “ready to be served with a sauce of fresh, crushed tomatoes and chopped basil.” “Salute!” We lift our glasses to our hosts in their spacious dining room. The gnocchi are delectable, accompanied by steamed escarole plucked the garden and dressed with currants, pine nuts and sliced olives. Our lemon tarts are fragrant and tangy. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” says Chiara, quoting an Italian proverb.

Capri’s rugged limestone cliffs plunge into a limpid, aquamarine sea.
It’s a perfect morning for a sea journey. Sorrento’s harbor is already swarming with day-trippers bound for Capri, a 40-minute hydrofoil ride away. Even though it is early May, we expect the island to be mobbed. “There is always a very long wait for the Blue Grotto boat trip, so we will skip it,” Chiara advises. “Instead, we can hike beyond the town to a secluded spot where a dramatic natural arch overlooks the water.” Ahead of us Capri appears craggy and intensely green, with massive rocks rising above a turquoise sea. Squawking sea gulls soar overhead. There is an air of exclusivity and mystery, qualities that appealed to Russian writer Gorky and the Chilean poet Neruda who found inspiration here. Rumor has it that in the early ‘60s Jackie Kennedy, a guest on the Onassis yacht, came here to buy capri pants and was secretly wooed by the shipping magnate. “Paul Allen has a secluded villa here, and the Ferragamo family keeps several yachts in a secret cove,” Chiara reveals. “They exemplify the rich and famous who come here to hide and relax,” she adds. “I’ve heard that Capri has a very naughty side, with wild parties and other unmentionable excesses,” I whisper to Chiara. “The naughtiness must be a direct legacy of Tiberius’s habit of tossing discarded lovers off the cliff at Villa Jovis,” she smirks.

Capri is about three times the size of New York’s Central Park, crowned by two rugged mountains where the towns of Capri and Anacapri are sited. Its marina is teeming with activity: waterfront cafes packed with rowdy tourists in Capri T-shirts and hats, ferries and hydrofoils moving in and out, luxury yachts maneuvering between fishing skiffs. We wait in line for the funicular that transports visitors to Capri town, breaking into a good humored rendition of Luigi Denza’s campy Neapolitan song, “Funiculi, Funiculà,” a staple of Italian schoolchildren. The ascent is spectacular: villas, vineyards and citrus groves give way to wide valleys and precipitous cliffs, the pellucid sea lapping the shoreline and the Bay of Naples etched on the horizon.

Capri’s Piazzetta is the number one hangout, a place to see and be seen. Here, four busy bars are catering to the needs of customers relaxing on padded chairs. Above the usual tourist chatter, I overhear a super-charged conversation from a table of bejeweled matrons and unbuttoned-to-the-waist businessmen sharing the latest local scandal over their newspapers and espressos. Dozens of designer shops await ahead, including Gucci, Prada, and Carthusia Perfumery, the latter famed for Fiori di Capri, the island’s floral fragrance. Specialty stores display art glass and jewel-studded sandals, and enotecas showcase Italy’s finest wines. The lineup of luxury hotels and restaurants is staggering. We wind our way to Augustus Gardens, a series of manicured, flower-filled terraces overlooking the sea, built by German industrialist Friedrich Krupp a century ago as part of his residence. At the top is the island’s favorite picture spot, a 180 degree view encompassing Marina Piccola, the Bay of Naples and the iconic Faraglioni, three towering rock formations sculpted by wind and sea. I gaze at the middle one with its archway passage, watching sea spray shoot up, unleashing hues of iridescent blue. Below, Krupp’s switchback road, originally built to connect the gardens to his yacht, is closed today due to falling rocks. I turn back and sit on a tiled bench, surrounded by beds of geraniums, wondering how many gardeners it takes to maintain this slice of paradise.

Chiara leads a few of us beyond the town, far from the glitz and polish of the shops, on rolling Via Matermania lined with country villas and more modest houses where many locals live, toward arco naturale, a limestone arch formation, all that remains of a collapsed grotto from Paleolithic times. Snippets of island life unfold: gardens planted with vegetables, a rooster crowing behind a hen house, two tethered English bulldogs barking under a lemon tree, bougainvillea spilling over crumbling walls, church bells tolling on a distant hill. We turn to the left, passing Trattoria Le Grotelle, the only spot for lunch in this remote area. “Keep walking. It’s about 100 steps down to the arch, and there is a stunning view of the sea below,” says Chiara. It’s too many steps for some of us and especially for my husband’s sore knee. We find a table for nine and peruse the menu until the others return. “Spectacular! Arco Naturale is about 18 meters high and 12 meters wide,” Eric reports after the exhilarating walk. We feast on Caprese salads with tiny tomatoes, followed by house-made spaghetti with octopus. I turn toward the shimmering bay. A small fishing boat creeps in the distance. There is a gentle breeze and the scent of the sea wafts above the coastal pines. “This is the Capri I will inscribe in memory,” I tell myself.

It’s a balmy Saturday night in Sorrento. Our party of six heads to Ristorante La Favorita “O Parrucchiano,” founded in 1868 by an ex-priest on Corsa Italia. Popular with locals for special occasions, its spacious rooms are spread over multiple levels. “This almost looks like a greenhouse, a huge one,” says Kathy, admiring exotic potted plants and walls of glass opening to the garden. Even though the restaurant is world famous for inventing cannelloni, the seafood on the menu proves irresistible: warm calamari salad, grilled prawns, sea bass with lemon sauce, and a memorable seared tuna with oregano. “Let’s take a stroll,” suggests Eric, “the stores are all open late.” Less crowded in the evening, Sorrento’s shops are especially enticing and we pick up some last minute gifts. At Gelateria Zini, hazelnut and pistachio are standouts among some two dozen flavors, the perfect finish.

On the breathtaking Amalfi drive, fashionable Positano clings to its hilly terrain connected by steep stairs
that tumble down to the beach.
“I am glad someone else is driving!” I hold my breath and release a shriek as our fearless bus driver dodges passing cars with barely an inch to spare! But what else would you expect on Amalfi’s white-knuckle coastal drive? It’s a perfect morning and we have started out early to catch all the highpoints. As we cross the spine of the peninsula toward the Gulf of Salerno, the tiny Galli islands rise ahead. “This is where the most dramatic part of the Amalfi Drive begins,” Chiara explains. Clinging to tortuous cliffs, the road is often cantilevered over the turquoise sea below. We wind from one breathtaking cove to the next. There are narrow inlets resembling tiny fjords fringed with mini beaches. At every turn, the transparent sea glints beneath terraced hills planted with lemon trees. We stop to admire the view of Positano, once a quiet fishing village and now a posh resort famed for its majolica church domes and upscale shops. The streets are almost vertical, a cascade of pastel-hued houses connected by hundreds of steep steps that tumble down to the beach area.

Amalfi’s imposing Cattedrale di’Sant Andrea contains the relics of its patron saint. A blend of Arab, Norman,
Byzantine and Romanesque styles, it is approached by a sweeping flight of stairs.

“Amalfi was a great maritime power centuries ago, along with Pisa, Genoa and Venice,” Chiara explains. “Today it is the touristic epicenter of the Salerno Gulf.” We make our way to the central piazza, a large space with an elaborate fountain surrounded by shops and cafes. Here the main attraction is the Cathedral of San Andreas, a mélange of Arab-Norman style with Romanesque additions. Our eyes are immediately drawn to its steep staircase and façade gleaming with Byzantine mosaics. The apostle-saint’s relics, brought to Amalfi from Constantinople, are buried inside the crypt. In the 16th century, the locals beseeched him to save Amalfi from an impending pirate siege, and the saint conjured up a huge storm to keep them away. This miraculous event is celebrated twice yearly with a grand procession.
A sea breeze kicks up. The air is suddenly redolent with coffee and pastries. We follow the scent to Pansa Pasticceria, situated next to the cathedral and dating from 1830. A crescent-shaped sfogliatella with cheese curd is rivaled by a lemon-infused pasticiotto alla crema. We share one of each and sit on the rim of the fountain, surveying the action in the piazza. There is enough time to explore some side streets, but Ravello’s lush gardens and its 13th century Villa Rufolo will have to wait for another visit. The afternoon is free, but we have plans.

“Your driver Vittorio speaks perfect English,” says Chiara, who has arranged for a private van to take seven of us to Paestum. We are headed to the largest Greek archaeological site on the Italian mainland, boasting three intact temples and an exceptional museum. Vittorio does double duty as driver and guide. “I love America!” he admits, boasting that he has visited New York, Boston and California. He motions toward the towns of Atrani and Maiori, followed by Minori, his personal favorite. “You must stay there on your next trip!” he shouts against the wind. The coastline grows wilder, pocked with deep ravines dense with pines and cedars. A sign marks Vietri sul Mare, famed for its polychrome ceramics. Bypassing Salerno, we zoom straight to Paestum, sited in a vast agricultural plain where the buffalo literally roam. “You will pretty much have the place to yourselves,” says Vittorio as he goes off to lunch. “Look for the van in the parking lot in about two and a half hours.”
First built in the 6th century BC in Doric style, Greek Poseidonia was conquered by Romans three centuries later, when it became known as Paestum. The Romans made extensive improvements to the site, adding a forum and an amphitheater. As Rome degenerated, Saracens took control, and when Paestum’s springs silted up, turning the site into a malarial bog, the remaining inhabitants left for the coast. It was rediscovered in the 18th century, hidden in overgrown but protective swampland. “Unlike Pompeii, Paestum is not on everyone’s tour circuit,” comments Eric. “Better for us,” says my husband as we enter the museum.

A fascinating new exhibit explains the use of color in ancient temples, but the highpoint of the museum is a series of tomb paintings discovered in 1968 at a small necropolis near Paestum. Among them, the Tomb of the Diver is the jewel, painted in classical style and depicting a young man diving into the waves, symbolizing the passage from life to death. There is much more to see, including a series of archaic metopes from a small excavation near the River Sele, but we’re eager to explore the site.

Paestum’s oldest Doric temple was dedicated to both Hera and Zeus.
Built around 580 BC, it has simple capitals and sense of horizontality.

We head straight to the oldest temple, dating from about 580 BC and more archaic in style, with simple capitals and a sense of horizontality. “Once there were cult statues of Hera and Zeus inside,” I remark. Nearby is a second temple where Hera was also worshipped, built around 460 BC. Up until recently, it was erroneously called the Temple of Neptune. It is considered the best preserved Doric temple in the world, coming closer to our expectations of that style. “Look at interior,” says Kathy, pointing to a double-stack colonnade within. Lizards dart out of bushes as we stroll through the Roman forum area toward the Temple of Ceres. Recently excavated votive offerings prove that this temple was actually dedicated to Athena and not to the Roman goddess of agriculture. It is quite handsome, built out of golden limestone, with a high pediment and remnants of a Doric frieze. I step away from the site to view it from afar. It surpasses what I had previously imagined, a brilliant example of human aspiration.

“There is still a little time left,” says Vittorio on our return drive. “I want to show you an organic buffalo farm, Azienda Agricola Barlotti, where mozzarella di bufala is made.” We arrive in time to catch a long row of docile buffalo cows munching away at the trough. “Buffalo milk is higher in fat and produces exceptional mozzarella and ricotta,” explains Vittorio. I have no doubt that it is tastier than what we generally produce in the U.S. He leads us to an area where a group of young buffaloes are sequestered from the herd. “They are destined to become veal,” he divulges. I immediately shrink away, unwilling to acknowledge their destiny. Near the entrance is Barlotti’s popular retail shop, well-stocked with rounds, braids and nuggets of cheese as well as containers of their rich yogurt and gelato.

It’s our final evening in Italy, time for a grand farewell dinner. Our entire group convenes at Ristorante Museo Caruso located on a quiet lane off Tasso Square, a labor of love for owner and Caruso devotee Paolo Esposito. Every inch of wall space here is dedicated to the Italian tenor, from photos and posters to press clippings and opera memorabilia. Playing softly in the background is a soundtrack of his favorite arias. A long table draped in damask awaits us with an amuse bouche and prosecco set in each place. Chef Giuseppe Persico’s team has personally selected tonight’s menu of shrimp salad, delicate pasta with zucchini, anchovy strozzapreti with mussels, and Sorrentine filet of sole, all paired with regional wines. “How I wish we weren’t leaving tomorrow!” I confess to the group. We smile at each other with a tinge of sadness, raising our glasses high to Chiara, whose breadth of knowledge and attention to detail enriched our time in Italy immeasurably.

“Grazie Chiara! It has been a great adventure!”