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The grand old lady who never fails to charm

27 August 2008 - The Times

Enjoy the best of both worlds from Sorrento.

Sorrento, the Italian resort celebrated in a romantic postwar song in which a lover pleads with his absent sweetheart to "come back" to the town, still retains its charm and sense of style.
Perched on cliffs above the Gulf of Naples and split by a ravine that drops down to the port. the resort is the perfect place for a warm and relaxing end-of-summer break or as a base for exploring stunning scenery and some of the world's most historic sites.
The town is at its most elegant on a Sunday evening as locals turn out in their finery to sip an espresso and sambuca in the Piazza Tasso and listen to free entertainment or stroll in clifftop gardens as the sun sets behind the Isle of Capri. The atmosphere might be more raucous if the entertainment is a pop concert but even that does not deter the venerable from enjoying their seat in the square.
Piazzo Tasso is dissected by the Corso Italias which runs the length of the town and is lined with shops that become smarter the closer you get to the square. The cathedral also stands on the main Street in front of Roman walls and a hundred metres farther on is the place to go after Mass: the Bougainvillea ice-cream parlour, where you can choose from forty flavours.
The public garden beside the Tramontano Hotel, and just beyond the I3th-century cloisters of San Francesco, is where couples canoodle with an eye on the view. It is also the spot where a zigzag path leads down to the shore and wooden platforms that are full of sunbeds.
Like much of Italy, Sorrento has its idiosyncrasies. The Marina Grande is a small bay full of fishing boats and backed by modest trattorias, while the Marina Piccola is the busy harbour from where ferries leave for Capri, Naples and the Amalfi Coast.
A trip to Capri is one of the most obvious excursions to make from Sorrento. If you catch the ferry for the 40-minute crossing, take a bus to Anacapri when you arrive, as the island's second town is quieter and more enjoyable than Capri Town. It is also the starting point for the chairlift to the top of Mount Solaro, where views across the island to the Gulfs of Naples and Salerno and Mount Vesuvius can be enjoyed from a café terrace. Vesuvius reminds us of the two other essential excursions from Sorrento: to the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were engulfed in the volcanic eruption of AD79. Both are reached easily by the rattling Circumvesuviana railway, which travels between Sorrento and Naples.
While Pompeii is the more famous site with its surviving mosaics, mummified bodies, vast theatres and temples, Herculaneum is easier to appreciate. Walk down the hill from Ercoli station, along the drive and there to your left, 30 metres below, are the remains of the city. That 30 metres is the depth of ash that covered the city and preserved many of its buildings, complete with roofs. Portals, balconies, decorated wooden partitions, murals - large and small - all survive while the bath houses must be the most complete in the Roman world.
For a short break or longer holiday in Sorrento, Citalia offers a good choice of hotels. Prices for a week start from £559 with B&B at the Girasole Hotel, situated towards the eastern end of the Corso Italia, a British Airways flight from Gatwick to Naples on September 27 and transfers.
Three nights' half-board at the Grand President on a hillside at the opposite end of town with splendid views costs £519 with a flight on September 21 and transfers.
The grand signora of Sorrento hotels is the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, entered beneath a wrought iron arch in a corner of Piazza Tasso and standing in colourful gardens on a cliff above Marina Piccola.
The hotel comprises three buildings, La Vittoria built in 1834. La Rivale completed in 1882 and a Swiss-style chalet that links them and provides the reception lobby and an art nouveau winter garden that leads to a bar and extensive terrace. The grand staircases, dining room, with 19th-century ceilings. and perfectly furnished bedrooms all ooze elegance.
In a discreet corner of the gardens is a large swimming pool, while hidden on the terrace is a lift that takes guests down to the harbourside. A three-night break at the hotel in September costs from £729. with half-board, a flight from Stansted to Naples and private transfer.