Somewhere in my childhood, I had a memory of my dad singing Torna a’ Surriento, Return to Sorrento. The beckoning ballad has been rendered by everyone from Enrique Caruso to Elvis Presley, but Dad’s was more the Dean Martin version; a smooth, beguiling homage to the vibrant southern Italian town which sprawls over steep limestone cliffs overlooking the Bay of Naples. The memory stuck with me, and years later, I decided to see for myself what had charmed him so much; what brought out the twinkle and smile in his voice when prompted for a rendition of the much-loved favourite.
So here I am in Sorrento for the first time, and it’s easy to believe the Greek myth of the sirens who were said to inhabit the surrounding sea, luring sailors to their deaths on the rocks with their enchanting song.
Nowadays it’s tourists who are enticed to this beautiful place, famed for its lemons and linen. A mix of baroque, medieval, classical and Byzantine influences, Sorrento caters to the teeming tourist trade without ever losing sight of its exotic heritage. The view from my terrace at the well-named Le Terrazze Hotel is absolutely breathtaking; the cliffs peak and plunge down to the sea, extending a craggy finger like Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam to the ritzy Isle of Capri just a short boat ride away. At night random fireworks echo around the nearby hills, and a fleeting thunderstorm punctuates the topographical tableau.
The bus ride down the mountain to the central hub is a pulse-quickening series of sharp bends and long-practised manoeuvres around other buses, nonchalant local traffic and hapless tourists on hired mopeds who flinch and swerve as we blast past. Dragging my gaze from the sea views, I catch glimpses of life away from the madding crowd; the citrus and olive groves flourishing on impossible slopes; harnessed by what look like giant skipping ropes of sturdy netting slung between trees, as if that’s all that stops the vegetation from roaming untamed across the landscape. Bougainvillea, sun-baked hydrangeas and wisteria add glorious pops of colour along the way, while drivers routinely genuflect as they pass roadside memorials to various saints cut into the rock. I spot a man well past his prime in tiny bathing trunks standing by a pool, deeply tanned and paunchy like a squashed Adonis as he proudly brushes his long black hair, completely oblivious to the passing busload of gawking tourists – or perhaps not.
Alighting from the bus in the heaving throng of the Corso Italia, it’s another world. Here tourism is the only game in town, but it’s hard not to be captivated by the narrow, uneven cobble stoned streets and ornate architecture, particularly the 14th century cathedral and the later San Francesco church. These grand old buildings that house art galleries, concert halls and council chambers are a visual relief from the dozens of shops selling hats, trinkets, linen sheets, jewelled sandals and every possible variation of lemon-themed goods you can think of. The sunny citrus fruit is everywhere; on tea towels and aprons, in soaps, perfumes, candles and candies; in the ubiquitous bottles of Limoncello, made from lemon rind and alcohol, a recipe so deceptively simple and yet guaranteed to give you a kick along the Corso.
And the lemons here are nothing like the standard supermarket clones back home. Huge, fat misshapen globs hang overhead like citrus dive bombs in groves throughout the town; much sweeter than you’d expect, and when added to crushed ice by a roadside vendor at the bus stop, are a thirst-quenching tonic after a hard day’s shopping on the Piazza Tasso.
Sorrento is as refreshing and tart as its lemony lifeblood; a sun-baked beauty spot that revives your spirit and whets your appetite for more. I’ve succumbed to the song of the sirens and will one day return to Sorrento. Thanks, Dad.