Sojourn in Sorrento
On the Amalfi coast everything seems set in a garden
By Gail M. Murray
Just two hours south of Naples, my mid-September tour to the Amalfi Coast of Italy revealed a friendly, walkable city perched on cliffs 30.5 metres (100 feet) above the sea. Known as a shoppers’ delight, Sorrento has charming shops selling leather goods, high fashion finds as well as all sorts of other goods embellished with lemons.
Lemons are gold in Sorrento
The Sorrento lemon, famous throughout Italy, gets its name from the town of Sorrento. Lemons were brought here by from Hesperia by Alexander the Great’s armies and then cultivated by the Moorish conquerors. Many gardens along the Amalfi Coast began as farms, terraced with macere (containment walls). “Citriculture” takes pride of place here as the famed limoncello liqueur attests. Don’t leave Sorrento without a visit to a lemon grove. Agruminato, the name of the citrus garden at Giardini di Cataldo is typical of those found on the Sorrento Peninsula. Located off the main street in the heart of Sorrento, this small family-run lemon grove offers divine tastings of limoncello liqueur. The trick is to use the freshest lemon peel and serve this liqueur at room temperature. Chilling increases the sweetness as well as the alcohol content.
Hotel Gardens of Sorrento
As a gardener and Toronto Botanical Garden tour guide, you know I had to visit the gardens. Hotel Bellevue Syrene and Hotel Excelsior Vittoria are both perched on the rugged cliffs offering stunning views of the Bay of Naples.
Hotel Bellevue Syrene is centrally located near the Villa Comunale Park and The Cloisters. An imposing entrance and long walk take you past luxurious palms and to the other worldly La Pergola balcony restaurant with its white wrought iron tables highlighted against the blue azure sky and the brilliant blue of the bay.
Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, near the main square, holds pride of place. Entering under an imposing arch, you take a very long paved driveway lined with tall umbrella pines, silver olive trees and luxurious gardens to the other side where classical Roman statues come into view. To enter the hotel itself, you pass through another long path with ivy cascading down brick walls and hedges of hibiscus.
A short ferry ride from Sorrento to the island of Capri takes you to the town of Anacapri, featuring Villa San Michele’s very special cliffside garden designed by Swedish doctor Axel Munthe. The outer path runs along the cliff on three sides of the home and is framed by layers of lush, terraced plantings and tumbling water channels that provide ambient sound. Here there is the blush of pink oleander and scarlet begonia and wisteria climb the pergola. As the path moves around the perimeter, it winds through marble columns giving way to towering umbrella pines that reach up to an azure sky and look down upon the sapphire of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Villa Rufolo with its Moorish towers and expansive views, makes a stunning backdrop for the concerts that take place in this glorious garden in summer. On two levels, juxtaposed against the sea, umbrella pines reach skyward. The gardens take on a magical quality with profuse blooms, fountains and the medieval Church of Annunziata.
With corridors of hydrangea, ivy-clad stone walls and arching wisteria, Villa Cimbrone features serene cloisters that radiate a spiritual feel. In the rose garden pale pink petals wax ethereal and a copy of Donatello’s David stands tall. The statuary reminds me I’m in a Renaissance Garden.
Cooking class a highlight
Not someone who likes to cook, I look forward to being with an Italian family in their home for a cooking class. There are 20 in our group, keen to learn the basics of southern Italian cooking—fresh local ingredients, herbs and a good heart. What you cook depends on the season.
We use lots of virgin olive oil, oregano, tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and ricotta. We prepare cucumber/tomato salad, baked potatoes and garlic, cheese stuffed meatballs, pasta stuffed with ricotta, lightly breaded zucchini flowers and lemon tiramisu, While everything cooks we learn about wine making. We dine on the pergola of their heavenly garden among fruit trees and hydrangea. This simple, yet glorious, experience is a highlight of the trip.
Everywhere on this adventure I’ve been aware of the luscious plant life, breathtaking landscape, old world architecture and warm, friendly people. That’s my Italy.
Female Travel Groups
Empower women to get out and see the world
Ladies, are you yearning to travel, yet hesitant to go solo? Perhaps you’re single, widowed, divorced, your girlfriends aren’t interested or can’t afford it, or your husband would rather play golf? You don’t want to feel like a fifth wheel among couples? Consider travel organizations that cater to women such as: Journeywoman, Wander Woman, Girls’ Guide to Paris & Beyond, Today’s Woman Traveller, and Womens Travel Network.
Although not the same as a specified garden tour, tours catering to women often include garden visits and nature destinations. I traveled with the Womens Travel Network on this trip and was not disappointed.
Experienced travel professional, Debbie Ross, created this small company 20 years ago “to empower women to get out and see the world”. All the planning is done for you; hosts ensure everything runs smoothly. Groups are small: from 10 to 16 people. Trips range from exotic locales such as Bali and Galapagos to Britain and Italy. I chose Amalfi based in Sorrento, Italy. Over a ZOOM call, Debbie introduces us to our fabulous host Deb K.; we meet fellow travelers as Debbie discusses all the trip details. So reassuring.
In the age of COVID, it is comforting to meet everyone at a relaxing airport lounge before flying across the pond. You are welcome to arrange your own flight but how bolstering to travel as a group. Once checked in at Hotel Plaza Sorrento, we gather on the rooftop, the Mediterranean sparkling in the distance, to savor a limoncello spritzer.
Our well-designed itinerary encompasses a variety of interests, a balance of scheduled excursions and free time to reflect or pursue personal interests. Without this group, I’d be on the couch with Netflix. I feel safe and secure. Drivers, local guides and restaurants are all preselected and vetted.
Our local guide, Roberta, meets us at the Naples airport, charming us with her genuine warmth. Throughout our holiday, she guides us through her city on a two-hour orientation, on the ferry to Capri, a minibus to Anacapri amid a myriad of tourists and a picturesque boat tour around the fabled isle. Her knowledge and passion bring ancient Pompeii to life.
It is relaxing to have dinner companions at a wide range of ristorantes. We share past travel adventures, shopping finds (elegant Capri watches) even re-entering the dating scene. It is a leap of faith for me to travel solo with people I have never met, yet here I am toasting and laughing like I‘m with my girlfriends back home! Our leader, Deb, is calm, responsible, fun and empathetic. She sets the tone.