Italy had been on the someday list for too long
In 1979 I travelled, by coach, through Italy on the way to and from Greece. I recall that the service stations had good food and served wine. I had an ice cream on a bridge in Venice.
About 18 years ago (that long ago?) Mom took us all to Croatia for a family holiday. We took a day trip to Venice from Porec. I again had an ice cream on a bridge. I said then I ‘d like to take a holiday in Italy, someday. It has taken this long to actually get there.
Cinque Terre is calling me
One Christmas I got a 1000 piece jigsaw to occupy the family, chosen because I liked the picture. A beautiful, colourful village, tumbling to the sea. I had no idea where it was, but I wanted to go there. Turned out to be Vernazza one of the Cinque Terre villages. Again, I put it on the someday list. And you know what someday means? Never. Cinque Terre is now on the Big Europe Adventure list planned for next spring.
Adding Sorrento to the list
While stranded in Majorca by an Icelandic volcano we (me, Phil and our son) met a couple from Teignmouth who had got married in Sorrento. They had loved the place and planted the idea of going there in my head. Looked at it on and off over the years, but compared to Greece, Spain indeed anywhere in Europe it was eye wateringly expensive. Until May 2016 that is.
We needed to get away for a break
Browsing, as I do, though package holidays online I listed them from cheapest first. Phil and I wanted a break after a particular exhausting and emotional time (moving house, illness, clutter busting) and he had holiday to use up, so a cheap week in Crete or even The Canaries is what I had in mind. A package holiday because we didn’t want the hassle of booking flights and accommodation or even cooking. R&R was all we wanted.
And up popped Sorrento. All Inclusive, adults only hotel, £300 per person. This was Tuesday, the flight was Friday. Phoned Phil and asked him if he could book holiday for Friday. He couldn’t, but he could next Friday. But that sweet deal was not available next week.
The lovely people in my local travel agents, Thomsons in Bearwood, set out to find me another hotel. And they did. 4* half board in a central location, Hotel Conca Park. My review on TripAdvisor is here.
I was glad in the end that we didn’t stay at the AI hotel as it was a long way out of Sorrento. The Conca is centrally located. While it had its drawbacks (mostly the food) being in the centre of town is preferable to relying on a shuttle bus or, as others staying in hotels just on the edge of town had to, walk along a very busy road with no pavement.
This was the view from our hotel room window.
Travellers travel, tourists do package holidays
I read a lot of travel blogs and find many bloggers are sniffy about travel agents and package holidays. You can get better prices online they say (beat the price to Sorrento I say) and package holiday makers are like sheep (yes some may be, but not all are). I don’t get why these self styled travellers are so disparaging about package holidays. Not everyone wants to backpack the Himalayas and get Delhi Belly in India. Different strokes for different folks. I like to travel independently and I like package holidays too. I like holidays. I love airports. I like the sun.
Not everyone wants to/can book online
Here’s the thing, there is only one travel agent on my local high street. Use them or lose them. If they close where will people who don’t book online go? Not everyone can or will book online. Older people may not feel confident, others like the interaction with people. And oh the mistakes people make when booking on line….
The staff in this branch know their regular customers well. They know that I have annual travel insurance, won’t book extra legroom or seats together so don’t try to sell me those ‘extras’.
They also know that when on holiday I don’t sit on a sunbed and read. They are also familiar with my holiday disasters and that I am a traveller, who goes off on extended trips, so packages are just the fillers in between to treat my farsickness.
Finally the bit about Sorrento
So back to Sorrento. For under £500 we were booked into a hotel and flying from Birmingham. The weather forecast was for a mini heatwave. I discovered that there was a local train the Circumvesuviana that would take us to Naples, Pompeii, and Herculaneum, so no need to book expensive trips with tour groups.
However, clever Facebook knew I was off to Sorrento and kept suggesting things for me to do. One tour, the Sorrento Walking Food Tour, was highly rated on Viator (TripAdvisor’s booking arm). Places and times were limited, so uncharacteristically for me I booked in advance.
Best. Decision. Ever.
Sorrento Food Tours
If we get back to Sorrento and I hope we do, I would do this tour again. There were eight of us in total, six of us were English and two from America. The one thing we all had in common was we liked food and were most definitely not sheep. One couple planned their holidays around their love of sport and theatre and were off to see a football match in Rome and an opera in Sorrento. The American couple were on their honeymoon and were backpacking around Europe.
Tamara, the American guide, was brilliant. She lived, breathed and loved Sorrento. What she had done is what we all need to aim for – she turned her passion, for food and for Sorrento, into her job.
The tour consisted of three hours of visiting speciality, family owned, independent food retailers and restaurants. We would be tasting pastries, arancini, cheeses and meats; discovering the oasis of calm in the bustling Sorrento, a hidden lemon grove and learning about limoncello, and tasting locally produced beer at the smallest deli I have ever been in.
When not eating or drinking (which we did nearly all of the three hours) Tamara taught us a bit about local history, recommended other places to eat and drink and showed us the Cloisters that were popular for weddings. After a wonderful lunch at Da Gigino we then indulged in gelato from Davide Gelateria and the magnificent views of Naples Bay and Mount Vesuvius.
When I shared some photos the couple who had recommended Sorrento as a destination were delighted to see that the man who had made their wedding favours was included on the tour. The singing almond man.
This tour is currently 75 Euros per adult. It is worth every cent. If you do book it, go at the beginning of your stay in Sorrento. It is a good way to orientate your way around the town, learn where to avoid and more importantly where to eat, and familiarise yourself with the food of the area. My review of the tour on TripAdvisor is here. Other reviews rate it as highly as I did, with one notable exception. Worth reading the professional response from Tamara.
The Thomson Tour
This was a free walking tour of Sorrento, following the meet and greet aka sell you as many trips as we can event. I usually avoid these as I don’t want to be sold to, but the walking tour was a reason to attend, as was research for the blog.
Although we were going on the food tour the next day, we went along as we had got lost the day before. Sorrento is small, getting lost is hard to do, but we had forgotten what road our hotel was on, had walked miles and completely lost all sense of direction.
Our rep was Italian and experienced. She knew she was here to work and not like some others we met, who thought they were on a paid holiday. More of them later.
For a free tour, it was good. We got to know our way around, tasted gelato (at Davide) and had a bit of a hard sell from some limoncello peddlers. You will learn much more about limoncello on the food tour.
The rep signposted us to Da Franco Pizzeria, which was also on the Walking Food Tour. We chose to have lunch here (go early, there are queues by 12 noon) instead of the flashy, expensive place they took us to at the end of the Thomson tour. For what it was, the free tour was good. We learned that all the so called Tourist Offices dotted around the town were not official and were tour operators, which was useful.
Of course Thomson wanted us to buy tours through them, that is what they do and how they make money. I don’t have an issue with that especially as they use local tour companies to deliver the tours.
Vesuvius and lunch in a vineyard
We booked this via Thomson. Vesuvius was a boyhood dream for my husband. 32 years of marriage and I did not know that. We chose this tour as it ended with lunch in a vineyard and we would also be travelling through the National Park in crazy giant jeeps.
We could have made our own way to Vesuvius, via the train to Herculaneum and a bus, and it would have been cheaper but not as much fun.
The tour guide was excellent, the trip on the crazy jeeps was fun and the climb up Vesuvius, challenging but worth it. You are told to wear sensible shoes. Heed this advice. I was wearing good, solid sandals. I wish I had worn trainers or my shoes, as the path is very gravelly. The tour guide brings trainers with her and if you are on the tour, you can change your shoes on the coach for the walk and then back to sandals afterwards, when you go to lunch.
We had a clear view of Naples, Herculaneum and Pompeii from the top of a volcano. How cool is that? It is due to erupt in the next few years so is constantly monitored.
Lunch was very good indeed. We had a mini tour of the vineyard, then lunch accompanied by lots of wine. There is a shop and we bought some of their bubbly as we liked it, but there is no hard sell. The only drawback? I wished I could have stayed there longer talking and drinking with fellow travellers as they were so interesting.
Ah, there was another downside to this tour. We had the dubious pleasure of being joined on the tour by rookie Thomson Reps. They were on ‘an educational’ and had just arrived in Sorrento, and thought they were on holiday. Two of them spent the whole trip moaning about their apartment, one was ostracised by the other reps and the lad with them disappeared at the vineyard, not even bothering to listen to the guide.
They talked over the guide as we walked up Vesuvius and made no effort to talk to other guests. Only one (she who was ostracised) suggested they should stop talking and listen. Not once did they engage with the tour guide and ate lunch on a table by themselves. They seemed uninterested in the tour. Such an opportunity to talk with guests and get feedback on the tour, which would help them sell it to customers, missed. Will they hack it? I don’t think so.
The Amalfi Coast
Another one booked via Thomson. I don’t know what it was but I really was disappointed with this tour. Yes it is a stunning coastline, the towns are prettyish, but it was not as amazing as I expected it to be.
Positano is full of expensive shops selling art and linen. Maybe I could spend a day or so there if I had an apartment overlooking the beach.
Amalfi, I liked. However the traffic queues between Positano and Amalfi are renowned. Tour buses, too big for the narrow roads, contribute to this. (Yes, I was on a tour bus but a small one, it was still too big, and yes I get that I too was contributing to a negative side of tourism). This was low season, in mid May. Goodness knows what it is like in high summer.
If I could have stayed in Amalfi for lunch and people watched I would have been happy. Instead we drove into the mountains, to a small village, for some mediocre pizza and pasta. Then drove all the way back down to the coast road.
Last stop was Ravello. The Thomson website says this about the town.
A town famous for its terraced gardens and sumptuous buildings like Villa Rufolo – the house that inspired Richard Wagner – it has some of the best views over the Gulf of Salerno.
I was underwhelmed. Also the tour guide got it in the neck from one of the miserable punters (they nearly all were miserable on this tour) that she had misinformed us and that the entrance to the church was not as she had said free. It appears that now you can buy one ticket to visit all the main places of interest. The tour guide should have known this. Me? I lay on a bench in the square and dozed. It did look vaguely familiar, as if I had seen it on a film set, but meh.
More traffic on the way back and this was where we got the real entertainment, with Italian car drivers getting out of their cars shouting at the bus driver, who handled it with much restraint. Finally I saw some personality and humour escape from the guide. A quip about needing some HRT and an explanation that neither she nor the driver understood the shouty lady as it was a dialect they were not familiar with. We then had a lovely chat with her about her family and the area she lived in and her school, family and work.
Do it yourself
Anyways, there is a local bus that you can catch to these towns as well as a tourist hop on hop off bus. Save your money and catch a bus, have lunch in Amalfi and people watch. You still get to see the coastline, enjoy better food and go at your own pace.
One other thing, we had the option of a boat trip along the coast. They showed us where Roger Moore and Sophia Loren once had villas. And a bridge you are supposed to kiss in front of. Ten Euros for ten minutes. Avoid.
Pompeii and Herculaneum
Enough of the organised tours. We used our own steam to visit Herculaneum and Pompeii on the hottest day of the week.
In May the temperature is meant to be about 20c, we were in the middle of a heatwave so it was closer to 26. Take a hat, sunscreen and water. I did and still got sunburn.
We used the Circumvesuviana and confusingly had to buy three tickets each. One to Pompeii from Sorrento, one from Pompeii to Herculaneum and one from Herculaneum back to Sorrento. No day ticket was available.
Thomson reps warn you not to take the train, telling you that they are crowded, hot, uncomfortable. Sorrento Food Tours point out the railway station and urge you to use the train to explore. Thomson charge you quite a lot for a bus to Pompeii, and I guess some people prefer to be in the comfort of a bus. Of course this also restricts the time you spend at your destination – and you also arrive with the crowds. The train was right for us.
It was hot, it was crowded, the train is basic and between Pompeii and Herculaneum you will have to endure travelling musicians, usually playing an accordion. If you are lucky you will get the young boy who drums. He really got the crowd going. Then mom sends the young girls (about 6 years old) along the train asking for money. Commuters ignore them so I reckon they get the money from the tourists. However hot and crowded the train was, I am still glad we used it. It is the train that the locals used to get to work and school and university. Medical students revise on the journey, school friends meet up and it is a good way to see the real Italy not just the tourist Italy.
We arrived at Pompeii at around 9 am well before the big coach tours and cruise excursions arrive. For about an hour or so it was not too crowded.
By 11 am the main thoroughfare was heaving with people. Cruise excursion groups wearing matching bandanas, school kids, students from all over the world with guides speaking in French, Japanese, English, Spanish and Italian.
There were a fair few people like us who were self guiding (and eavesdropping on multiple tour guides). We were using the free guide book provided at the entrance. It helped, however, I wish I had done more research and cherry picked a top 10 things to do at Pompeii. Because it is huge.
The one thing that I found fascinating was that the concept of street food and the takeaway is not new. On every street corner of Pompeii there had been a takeaway and a bakery. Many poor households had no kitchen so got their food from these.
As it was we probably saw more things than many other visitors see but missed out on what are considered the ‘must sees’. Also it is very hard on the feet, very little shade and not many places to sit and rest. There were places to fill up water bottles and toilets, but it is impossible to see everything in one day.
By the time we were ready to leave 3 hours later we were at the wrong end of the site to get the train. It took another 30 minutes of retracing our steps to exit. Many thoroughfares are closed off so we had to fight our way through the crowds at the hottest point of the day.
We were tired and hungry and could have been tempted to stop for lunch at one of the many fast food cafes on the street between the main entrance and the railway station. We made the right decision of not doing so, got the train to Herculaneum and found a small family run pizzeria, Ristorante Caffetieria, opposite the entrance to Herculaneum serving traditional food and cold beer. Nonna told me off for not having enough clothes on. She then proceeded to show me the multiple layers she was wearing including a woolen vest. It was hitting 28 c by then!
Herculaneum is far more manageable than Pompeii. We were there between 2pm and 4pm and there were perhaps 50 people there. There was an Anglo French family and one of the two boys was reading aloud to the family around from an excellent guide book. It was great to see his parents letting him take the lead and guiding them around the site. If I go again I will visit the bookshop there first and use the guide book to enhance the experience.
It is also better preserved than Pompeii as it was covered in ash as opposed to lava and there is much more shade.
After visiting both in one day we were absolutely exhausted by the time we got back to Sorrento. Of course we just had to stop off for an expensive beer and people watching in Piazza Tasso. Totally worth it.
We went to Naples to eat the best pizza in the world
According to James Martin the best pizza he has ever eaten is to be found at L’Antica Pizzeria da
They make two pizzas, one with cheese and one without. To ensure you get a seat at lunch time be there by 11.30 am. The place was full with backpackers, students, business men, and all nationalities.
The young American backpackers sharing their table with the middle aged Neapolitan man (who backed up James Martin claim that this was the best pizza in Naples) had come as it was featured in Rick Steves guide to Naples. As it seems had almost everyone there as many had this guide book.
Me, I had a scrap of paper with the address on and it was sheer fluke we found the place. It is tiny, the chef comes out and goes around all the tables and asks what you want. He doesn’t write it down as there is only two types to remember. About 10 minutes later these appear.
The Americans declare it to be the best pizza ever. I don’t disagree.
Naples is a sprawling, city, full of faded beauty
Lots of bookshops, narrow streets and stunning architecture. Dirty and noisy. Community space, galleries, cafes. Yet it was clear that the recession had hit Naples hard. Many buildings were derelict, dirty and in need of a lot of TLC. A place to visit not a place to stay.
We travelled to Naples by train from Sorrento and here is a useful tip I picked up. There are two stations in Naples. Porta Nolana and Stazione Garibaldi. Don’t use Garibaldi, as it is crowded and busy, stay on and alight at Porta Nolana. Most people use Garibaldi as it is the main station and where you get connecting trains. When travelling to Sorrento from Naples, if you get on the train at Porta Nolana you will get a seat as it is the terminal and therefore the train is empty here. You won’t get a seat if you use Garibaldi. Arriving at Porta Nolana, you will think you are in the middle of nowhere, but turn right from the station and in 5 minutes walk you are at Stazione Garibaldi. There are lots of cafes on the square and useful maps to orientate yourself.
Sorrento has so much to offer
We explored this town by foot (when not off on trips to Naples etc) and grew to love it. Crazy busy with traffic and crossing the road can be challenging. In the evening many of the streets are closed to traffic and that is when locals parade, shop and then eat and drink. It seems lemon is the colour to wear this year.
The range of food on offer is amazing, although I hope the fast food options
don’t put shops like this out of business. That would be a shame.
Then there is Marina Grande. It is a steep, but interesting walk down some wide steps from the main part of town. I liked this part of Sorrento, quieter and more relaxed.
We had lunch at Five Sisters. Mediocre, and not such good value. It was our first day and we were hungry and I wanted to be by the sea…anyway I don’t recall what I ate. That memorable. Sorrento Food Tours recommend Bagni Delfino and Ristoranto O’Puledrone. One other reason to go on a food tour before eating out in Sorrento. If I go back these are places I will eat out at.
As we were half board we did not eat out very much but decided to do so on our last night. Stuffed from lunch at lunch time at the vineyard, we were not very hungry, but had pre booked dinner at O’Parrucchiano, where cannelloni is said to have been invented.
Two mains and a bottle of wine came to 50 Euros. The service was excellent, there were flowers on the table, it is a romantic setting. The food, compared to what we were served at the hotel, was good, yet compared to other cheaper places we had eaten, average.
While we were in Sorrento there was a food festival, Tickets purchased for 10 euro bought you your own walking food tour with entertainment.
On Saturday and Sunday there was a flea market.
Overall I really loved Sorrento. It wasn’t a relaxing holiday, as there is so much to do there. Lots to go back for, Capri, Ischia, more pizza and to get a good meal in Marina Grande to name but a few. And I would liked to have stopped off at some of the places that the train stopped at to explore more. Would I go AI or HB again? Probably not unless it was such good value, but I would plan to eat out more. The food at Conca Park was bland and unadventurous, which is a shame in the foodie town of Sorrento.