Sor­rento ideal base to visit Amalfi Coast

Orlando Sentinel - - THE ARTS -

and gos­sip un­der a fres­coed 16th-cen­tury dome.

From the old cen­ter, an an­cient lane zigzags down to Ma­rina Grande, Sor­rento’s clas­sic har­bor. Un­til re­cently, the har­bor’s lit­tle com­mu­nity was fa­mously tra­di­tional, with its econ­omy based on its fish­ing fleet. Fathers still pass down their houses and fish­ing boat stalls to their sons. To­day, a raft of restau­rants serve fresh fish and Sor­ren­tine spe­cial­ties along the invit­ing wa­ter­front; this is the place to dig into an “ev­ery­thing but the net” risotto while watch­ing the sun’s last rays fall over the rooftops.

Lemons are ev­ery­where in Sor­rento; there’s even a fra­grant lemon grove right in the town cen­ter. Ev­ery other shop seems to be lemon yel­low and sells lemon bis­cuits, lemon pasta, lemon drops, lemon soap ... and limon­cello. This dis­tinc­tive liqueur gets its neon-yel­low color from the skins of lo­cally grown lemons. Al­though it’s com­mer­cially pro­duced for sale to tourists, most fam­i­lies make their own from a well-guarded recipe, handed down through the gen­er­a­tions.

For a great day trip from Sor­rento, catch a boat to the isle of Capri. First made fa­mous as the va­ca­tion hide­away of the Ro­man em­per­ors, Capri was also a fa­vorite stop for Ro­man­tic Age aris­to­crats on a grand tour of Europe. To­day, Capri is ex­pen­sive and glitzy (taxis are white con­vert­ibles), and it can be a world-class tourist trap.

But even with its crowds and com­mer­cial­ism, Capri is a flat-out gor­geous place. Chalky white lime­stone cliffs rocket boldly from the shim­mer­ing blue and green surf, and strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned gar­dens, vil­las, and view­points pro­vide stun­ning vis­tas of the Sor­ren­tine penin­sula, the Amalfi Coast and Mount Ve­su­vius.

To make the most of your visit, take an early hy­dro­foil from Sor­rento. Le­gions of day-trip­pers on big-bus tours and cruise ship ex­cur­sion groups cre­ate a mid­day rush hour that you’ll want to avoid.

For me, the best ex­pe­ri­ence on Capri is to take the scenic boat trip around the island. It’s cheap, comes with good nar­ra­tion and lots of cu­riosi­ties, and there are plenty of de­par­tures from the hy­dro­foil dock.

As you cir­cle the dra­matic island, you’ll hear sto­ries of celebrity-owned vil­las, marvel at a non­stop pa­rade of stag­ger­ing cliffs and see quirky sights (a so­lar-pow­ered light­house, tiny stat­ues atop des­o­late rocks and holes in the cliffs with leg­ends go­ing back to the time of Em­peror Tiberius). A bonus: You can com­bine the boat trip with a stop at the fa­bled Blue Grotto, with its oth­er­worldly azure wa­ter.

The Blue Grotto ex­pe­ri­ence is more than just a visit to a cave. Get­ting there, get­ting in and get­ting back are all part of the ex­pe­ri­ence. Ar­riv­ing at the mouth of the grotto, you’ll find a covey of dinghies wait­ing to row visi­tors in­side. The en­trance hole is small, and only these lit­tle row­boats can fit through.

If the wa­ter’s too rough, dinghies can’t get in, and visi­tors are turned back. But on most days the raff­ish row­ers jos­tle their way to the tiny en­try, tourists scrunch down be­low the gun­wales (to avoid smash­ing their skulls on the rock) and the guide pulls hard and fast on a ca­ble at the low point of the swells to squeeze into the grotto.

In­side, it takes your eyes a few min­utes to ad­just to the bril­liant blue of the cave’s wa­ter (sun re­flect­ing off the lime­stone bot­tom cre­ates the ef­fect). As your man rows you around, singing a lit­tle “O Sole Mio,” you’ll en­joy the magic of the mo­ment and un­der­stand why Sor­rento and Capri have been at­tract­ing hol­i­day­go­ers for cen­turies.

RICK STEVES/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

All of Sor­rento turns out for the evening passeg­giata, the town’s rit­ual prom­e­nade, to en­joy the fresh air.

ANDREW WAKELING/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE Lodg­ing: www.hote­lan­tichemura.com). Din­ing: Get­ting around: In­for­ma­tion: www.sor­ren­to­tourism.com www.capri­tourism.com

Row­boats jockey for po­si­tion as they get ready to en­ter the Blue Grotto in the island of Capri in south­ern Italy.

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