Many of the shops along the huddle of narrow, ancient streets of Sorrento and other towns along the Amalfi Coast are given over to selling lemons: lemons for the kitchen, lemons in the form of Limoncello, lemon sweets, lemon ornaments, lemons decorating plates, lemon soaps. So maybe it was not surprising that the words and tune of a once popular song – The Lemon Tree – kept running through Anna Hyman’s head.
The Lemon Tree, a song, adapted by José Carlos Burle (of ‘Girl from Ipanema’ fame), was based on an old Brazilian folk song, and recorded by a number of singers including the popular Peter, Paul and Mary.
A tale of a young man who with his love lie beneath a lemon tree, but at the end of the summer the girl, so sweet, leaves him for another. He then remembers his father’s salutary words comparing love to the sourness of a lemon.
Lemons have grown in Italy for centuries and indeed in and around Sorrento. Certainly illustrations of lemon trees appear in Roman mosaics.
The mild climate and fertile soil of the region suited them well. But it was not till the 10th or 11th centuries that they began to be grown on a more commercial basis, playing a major role in the economy of Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.
Tourism plays a major role in the region’s economy today; hardly surprising given the Amalfi Coast’s charm, history and beautiful coast line.
Sorrento is a honey pot
It has to be said that Sorrento is a honey pot for tourists; hardly surprising with its excellent hotels, restaurants, wide variety of shops selling everything from food, fabulous shoes, fashion and souvenirs.
Plus, it has a quaint, historic heart with a small remnant of its city walls still standing, narrow, alley-like streets, and a few museums.
There is also a small cathedral and the Chiesa di San Francesco, with its serene and beautiful cloisters, is utterly charming.
The town is perched high above the ocean with stunning views across the Bay of Naples to the brooding, slightly menacing silhouette of Mount Vesuvius.
From the marinas, ferries carry locals and tourists across to Capri, Ischia and along the coast to other delightful destinations.
Herculaneum, a city discovered
Saving Pompeii for a future visit, we took a tour to Herculaneum, which also fell victim to the 79AD Vesuvius eruption that destroyed its arguably more famous neighbour.
Herculaneum has some incredibly well-preserved buildings because it was buried by volcanic mud several metres deep, thus preserving upper floors of buildings, staircases and household effects including fragile papyrus scrolls.
It was during the excavation of a well in 1739 that the city came to light; unfortunately though it became rather more of a plundering exercise than a serious excavation.
Various intervening excavation attempts were made but it was not until 1927 that serious scientific research began.
To walk along those narrow cobbled streets and to go into the buildings which were once elegant homes, to visit courtyards and gardens, to catch glimpses of statues and mosaics, and to witness the sophisticated Roman way of life centuries later was an amazing, and somewhat humbling experience.
Also included in the tour was a lunch visit to Cantina del Vesuvio at Trecase on the fertile lower slopes of Vesuvius, a vineyard which produces exceedingly quaffable wines including the world famous Lacryma Christi.
On a sunny terrace overlooking vines and olive trees we tucked into a hearty rustic three-course lunch whilst sampling several of the wines. www.cantinadelvesuvio.it
Capri, a 20 minute of so ferry ride away from Sorrento, called us too – just as it has called the rich, famous and more ordinary mortals for centuries. The Greeks settled happily on this pretty island and the Romans loved it – chiefly Augustus who was so captivated by it that he built himself several villas.
Then in the 1830s the Blue Grotto was made popular by two Germans and from then on it became one of the high spots on the fashionable Grand European tours. Capri has not looked back since.
Cruising round the island
Having reached the island our first plan was to take one of the island cruises. We eventually opted for the tour that did not include entrance to the Blue Grotto, much as we wanted to witness its azure coloured water. But passengers have to be prepared to transfer from the island cruise boats to one small enough to get through the low entrance way. Plus the possibility of having to queue for two hours waiting for our turn to enter the grotto persuaded us to content ourselves to sailing round the island.
Seeing Capri from the water, resulted in many ‘ooh, ahh’ moments as we took in the weird rock formations; sailed between the massive faraglioni rocks, and ventured close to the cliffs to see the many grottos – some with orange coral visible just below the water line. We saw where Roman villas once stood and the house, now a restaurant, where Gracie Fields once lived; and we marvelled at the sheer dramatic beauty of the island set in a sea so blue it merged almost seamlessly into the blue of the sky.
Take a chair lift
Back in Capri Town we took the local bus up the hairpin bends to Anacapri, the other town on the island. Anacapri is arguably the quieter of the two, with more artisan-style shops, but each town is a tourist mecca.
However, each has its own personality and charm and from Anacapri visitors can take the chair lift and swing gently for nearly 15 minutes over the pretty flower-studded ground below to the top of Monte Solaro to enjoy the spectacular views.
Perfume from Capri
Capri is famous for its flowers which have given rise to its own perfume industry. Legend has it that in the 14th century a Father Prior of the Carthusian Monastery, when throwing away some flowers, noticed that the water they had stood in had taken on their perfume. He and a colleague eventually worked out which of the flowers had perfumed the water.
Six centuries later in 1948 the then Prior discovered some old perfume recipes, and with the help of a chemist Capri’s perfume industry was born. The tiny distillery can still be visited; alongside it a shop selling these delicious, fresh, albeit expensive, perfumes. www.carthusia.com
Leaving Sorrento was a wrench; lots more to see in the area. But we had opted for a Citalia two- centre holiday and it was time to leave the friendly welcoming and comfortable embrace of Sorrento’s Grand Hotel Royal and head for Amalfi.
Winding roads and terraces of lemons
Without exception I suspect that we were all thankful to be in our transfer minibus, complete with driver, not having to worry about the winding narrow roads, sheer drop to the sea, and rather heavy traffic. It was spectacularly beautiful and every now and again our patient driver would be asked to stop at one of the view points for another photo opportunity.
As we drove along I became more and more aware of planted cliff terraces covered with netting. I had assumed grapes, but no these were lemon terraces, the netting protecting the precious fruit.
Positano, a town clinging to cliffs
Our first planned stop was at Positano that chocolate-box pretty little resort clinging to two massive, sheer cliffs where sun-kissed coloured buildings hold on tightly to the slopes. The near vertical steep cobbled pedestrian streets are lined with chiefly expensive boutiques, and that May were perfumed by the heady scent of wisteria and gaudy with bougainvillea.
We wandered down to the little beach. One or two fishing boats had been pulled up – a reminder that this was once a thriving fishing community. We found a path that lead along a cliff walk that took us down to a quiet cove where workmen were in the throes of getting ready for the start of the holiday season. Later we adjourned for lunch under the lemon trees and vines on the terrace of the Palazzo Murat Hotel.
Back in our minibus we headed for Praiano, stopping outside the small shop front of Il Gusta della Costa.
Inside we discovered not only goodies for sale, such as some unusual and delicious preserves including prickly pear, but also limoncello and other liqueurs.
I for one had always assumed that a lemon was a lemon – delicious in lemon meringue pie, or in a glass with gin and tonic, even squeezed over fish.
Then in the shop we were persuaded to eat a lemon from Amalfi or Sorrento (two slightly different fruits), initially with a considerable degree of hesitation and caution, but confidence gained, with pleasure and relish.
The fruit truly is sweet enough to eat.
Lemons are rather ugly fruit
It has to be said that whilst lemon colour, and quite obviously lemons, neither of the varieties resemble the lemons I buy in the greengrocer. For a start they are much, much bigger and heavier. They are also rather ugly with a pronounced nipple and a thick, rougher skin. They are also unwaxed meaning that the zest can be safely eaten.
Many Italians from the region take their first black coffee of the day with a sliver or two of lemon zest. They say it rounds out the flavour of the coffee. It’s true, it does.
A high percentage of the lemons end up as limoncello and Valentino Esposito and his colleague Mario Anastasio explained the process . Their limoncello, like the best limoncello is made by hand. Lemons picked early in the morning from beneath their protective netting, are washed and the zest pared thinly off the fruit – no white pith allowed.
The zest is then infused in pure alcohol for three to four days. The zest is then removed and sugar syrup added to the lemon infused alcohol and bottled. Served ice cold limoncello is truly delicious. www.ilgustodellacosta.it
Nothing of the precious fruit is wasted – the residue peel goes to the perfumery industry and the flesh becomes glorious lemon marmalade. Celebrity chef, Gennaro Contaldo , who works closely with Citalia as a brand ambassador holds the limoncello produced by Il Gusta della Costa in high regard. It is available in the UK at Jamie’s Italian restaurants.
It was wet the day we visited Ravello; very wet, and windy too.
Whilst the weather stopped us from enjoying the town’s lovely gardens and stunning views, it could not spoil the charm of this delightful little town with its narrow alley ways and interesting shops and boutiques.
We succumbed to temptation and bought reasonably priced and lovely soft linen scarves for ourselves or as presents, wooden musical boxes, decorative ceramics, dried herbs and pasta.
Incidentally Ravello is also noted for its summer music festival.
It is also said that, at Ravello in the gardens of the Villa Rufolo, Richard Wagner drew inspiration for a scene for his opera ‘Parsifal’.
The road back to Amalfi
With its narrow winding roads the drive to and from Amalfi is also not for the faint hearted. Allow plenty of time – traffic jams, as we discovered, frequently occur.
If it was bad out of season we dreaded to think what it must be like in the height of summer with more and bigger vehicles trying to negotiate those bends. It took a lot of intricate manoeuvres for us to be moving again.
It was raining even harder back in Amalfi town which was a shame.
I would have loved to have been able to explore the cobbled streets of this once prosperous maritime town and climb the imposing flight of steps to visit the Duomo (St Andrews cathedral) with its fantastic Byzantine two-coloured marble façade.
Instead we drove back to our hotel, the luxurious and inviting cliff-top Hotel Santa Caterina, to enjoy its spa facilities before dinner.
That evening I opened the little box of perfume I had bought at the Carthusia perfumery on Capri.
It was called Mediterraneo – its base note – lemon! I am wearing it now, the citrus scent of lemon blossom on my wrist reminding me of a song, the beautiful Amalfi coast, and lemons sweet enough to eat.
Our two-centre trip to Sorrento and Amalfi was organised through Italian specialist Citalia. As an added bonus for customers once a holiday is booked they are given access to Citalia’s online service Citalia Secrets. It is full of useful tips and recommendations including restaurants and attractions, plus their concierge service provides 24/7 assistance or advice. The lead in price for three nights in our Sorrento hotel and two nights in the Amalfi hotel was from £879pp B&B based on two sharing and included return flights London Gatwick/Naples with British Airways and private transfers. www.citalia.com
The Grand Hotel Royal Sorrento and Le Relais Restaurant
Dinner on our first night was in Le Relais restaurant of the Grand Hotel Royal where we were staying for three nights. It is an elegant restaurant, with wonderfully attentive staff and tables covered in crisp white linen. It was a stunning meal, meticulously served and perfectly cooked.
Breakfast each morning was equally stunning with tables groaning under the weight of warming dishes, cold cuts, cereals, fruit, pastries and breads. Eggs cooked to order by the lovely Patricia.
The Grand Hotel Royal lives up to its name. It is set in the centre of Sorrento high on a cliff with beautifully maintained hotel gardens with a swimming pool overlooking one of the harbours with views out over the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius. The hotel is supremely comfortable with elegant dining rooms and lounges, plus wonderfully helpful staff who did their utmost to track down our lost luggage and get it delivered to the hotel. www.citalia.com/hotel/S16
Our first lunch was at Sorrento’s centrally-located Fauno Bar. Fauno, with its bright mosaics, has become a legend in its own lifetime, looking after diners since 1950 and offering good, cheerful service and tasty food – today under the direction of its charming owner Alfonso. I loved, and scraped the bowl clean of my simple, rustic dish of Gnocchi alla Sorrentina followed by one of my favourite desserts – affogato –espresso coffee poured over vanilla ice cream.
Many years before when my cousin had holidayed in Sorrento he and his wife had called into Fauno but the busy restaurant was full. Would they mind waiting 10 minutes? They were happy to wait. As they stood on the pavement out came a waiter carrying two glasses of prosecco to cheer them on. www.faunobar.it
Da Gigino, tucked into the warren of streets in Sorrento’s historic heart, is a lively, warm, welcoming pizzeria with a traditional wood burning oven. The pizzeria is noted for its pasta dishes and excellent generously topped pizzas. Desserts are limited but the fruit salad was truly memorable. www.dagigino.com
Also tucked away in the heart of Sorrento is L’Antica Trattoria, a charming family run restaurant serving food with the ‘wow’ factor, coupled with super friendly and efficient service.
It is reputed to be the best restaurant in Sorrento, and we are certainly not going to argue.
We ate our meal on the pretty tiled, flower and vine bedecked terrace delighting in some exquisite vegetarian dishes, delicious homemade pasta along with seafood that kept us silent with delight whilst we savoured every mouthful.
The desserts were stunning too – competing against each other as best pud.
My favourite a panna cotta encasing a filling of passionfruit topped with a delicate shard of caramelised sugar.
The evening was given a special romantic touch with serenades by the restaurant’s mandolin player and singing head waiter Tony. www.lanticatrattoria.com
Capri – Al Capri
This is a lively, bustling and cheerful restaurant on Via Roma, over-looking Capri harbour, offering a wide variety of dishes including pasta and seafood. www.ristorantealcapri.it
We had lunch beneath lemon trees on the terrace of the Al Palazzo restaurant, part of the delightful Palazzo Murat Hotel, one of the hotels featured by Citalia as a hotel option.
We shared various platters of delicious salads and pasta – the fruit and vegetables straight from the restaurant’s garden.
The restaurant prides itself on its traditional cuisine and its extensive wine list of over 400 Italian and international labels.
Hotel Santa Caterina, Amalfi and Restaurant Santa Caterina
Dating back to 1880 the Hotel Santa Caterina, a few minutes’ drive from the centre of Amalfi, combines old world elegance with luxurious modern comforts.
We stayed for two nights, our rooms overlooking a wild storm tossed sea and dramatic coast line. We dined one night in the grand ambience of the main dining room, under the watchful eye of maitre d’ Pino.
It is a fine dining restaurant featuring dishes such as courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta cheese, a John Dory roulade with artichokes, asparagus and sautéed potatoes and heavenly desserts.
There is another restaurant perched far below on a terrace close by the hotel’s private beach platform, heated sea water swimming pool, beach bar and spa reached by two lifts which have been carved into the rock face.
Breakfast was another sumptuous affair. It was worth getting up earlier to appreciate all the tables spread out with goodies galore and to watch Luigi the young breakfast egg chef tossing his eggs over easy. www.citalia.com/hotel/A15
Trattoria da Gemma
Close to the busy main square of Amalfi is Trattoria da Gemma –a restaurant that has been feeding guests since 1872. Today it continues that tradition producing delicious and skilful modern interpretations of familiar dishes in cosy surroundings. One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes is pasta with a genovese sauce – large pasta tubes smothered in a rich beef and onion sauce that has obviously been simmering away for hours, topped with crisp pieces of onion. The restaurant has a skilled pastry chef too – delicious desserts. www.trattoriadagemma.com