April 2 – 4, 2012
The train ride
Our Naples-bound IC train (two hours/ €22) was nearing the terminal. Naples, the birth place of pizza but more renowned for its trash problem and mafia (the Camorra), was just outside the train window. The sight was not a pretty one – the area next to the station resembled the shady neighbourhoods in City of God. We didn’t give ourselves any chance to discover Naples’ more engaging side, moving on immediately to the adjacent station to take the privately owned Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento (€4).
The train was absolutely packed. Its interior was akin to a long-neglected subway train, with limited seat and no storage room for luggage. Well aware of its reputation of theft and pickpocket, we stood among the crowd and held tight to our belongings. Already moving along at a glacial pace, we were grounded in Barra, the third stop, due to some technical failure with the engine.
The already rowdy crowd immediately began to gesture their displeasure. We followed the mass off the train and onto the platform, although those lucky enough to get a seat remained inside. We didn’t know what’s going on, not when there was no instruction at all from the staff. When the broadcast finally came, it was as expected in Italian only. Drenched in cigarette smoke coming from all directions, we resigned this as an integral part of traveling in Italy.
A man kindly came over and briefly explained the situation to us in English, “They had no idea what’s going on too. Might take them awhile. I am just trying to go home (near Pompei) and this happens.” He shook his head and laughed at this familiar but unwelcome predicament.
A good 45 minutes later, we could finally resume our journey.
Thoughts on Sorrento
Sorrento is a convenient base, nothing more than that. It is situated at a beautiful location overlooking the Bay of Naples that probably won’t attract many tourists if not for the vast wealth of nearby attractions like the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and Capri.
We stayed at Hotel Caravel (€90 per night) in Sant’Agnello, a town that borders Sorrento. The shuttle to Sorrento’s town centre takes around ten minutes.
We didn’t particularly seek out any special places for dinner. The three restaurants we tried were Ristorante Moonlight, L’Abate and S.Antonino. The first one was disappointing while the other two offered good value. The service was generally friendly and it was perfectly fine for us to order only pasta dishes but not main course.
Several ways to approach this famous coastline in a day:
- There is the Sita Bus that runs from Sorrento all the way south to Salerno. Ideal pace is to cover one to two towns.
- Rental car. More flexibility – probably enough time to drive from Sorrento to Ravello and back.
- There is also private driver for those who can justify the cost. I have seen online postings on some mad dashes that covered several different towns and Paestum.
We opted for the first option. Driving along the coast in a convertible is probably the most gratifying, but we just wanted to chill out and linger in a single town for the day. My first choice was Ravello, a two-hour bus ride away excluding bus change in Amalfi. Decided to spend as much time on the ground as possible, we instead went for the closest town to Sorrento – Positano.
The bus ticket cost €7.20, which allowed for unlimited rides between Sorrento and Amalfi within 24 hours. It was a leisurely 45-minute ride with light traffic. The cliffside road, SS163, is infamous for being extremely narrow and full of hairpin bends. From my passenger seat the road didn’t look that much more difficult than the familiar Tai Hang Road and Magazine Gap Road I drive in a weekly basis in Hong Kong, though I was content to concentrate on the scenery rather than the oncoming traffic.
After entering Positano, our bus switched to an even slower gear to navigate through the town’s tight turns. Without any warning the driver suddenly shouted “Positano”. We quickly followed a few others off the bus. While everyone headed left down a gradual slope, for some reason I walked towards the opposite direction. It was only ten minutes later I at last heeded my wife’s suggestion and turned around.
There is always the urge, when traveling, to maximize my time and to take advantage of what the area has to offer. But Positano, like most hedonistic seaside towns, is a good remedy to ease my impulses – we simply spent our day rambled along its steep roads munching on lemon granita and pistachio ice cream and had our trip’s first proper lunch by the tiny beach with dark brown sand that lasted for three hours.
Our return trip was a minor nuisance. The 16:40 bus didn’t show up until an hour later – packed and standing only. Leaving behind the photogenic Positano, we were back on the cliff-side road, which to me is the real draw of the Amalfi Coast. Tilting with the bus at every turn, our idle day to recover from our hectic time in Rome ended in a rather restless way.
While I was walking to the main entrance from the train station, I came across numerous shops selling postcards of only desolated buildings. The reason is rather simple; Pompeii doesn’t contain an iconic structure that is still intact after the devastation of Mount Etna’s eruption. There isn’t a more captivating back story than being completely buried by volcanic ash almost two thousand years ago, but I found walking in this ancient city to be more educational than awe-inspiring.
Even so, spending time in Pompeii offers an unrivalled insight into the daily life during the Pax Romana. Walking past the city gate, there is the port on the left and the basilica on the right. Further right are the Temple of Apollo and the macellum (indoor market), which ultimately leads to the Forum. What sets Pompeii apart are not these public buildings, which can’t be measured to Rome’s, but rather its intact town centre, along with its network of wide roads and narrow side streets, rows of residential houses and several richly decorated villas and public baths. For a moment, when I lost the crowd on an empty alley, I thought I was teleported back to another time.
While it is easy to assume Pompeii will stay around for another 2,000 years, the ancient city is suffering from perpetual negligence and mismanagement and it is best to pay it a visit as soon as possible.
Some tips on visiting Pompeii:
- The modern town Pompei is a 30-minute Circumvesuviana train ride away from Sorrento (€7 round trip). The ruin is right next to the train station (Admission: €15).
- Remember — Pompeii was a town of 11,000 residence. After trying to cover the entire site, I think it is more enjoyable to focus on the town centre (the Forum, the port, the basilica and other public buildings), then eastward to the Grand Theatre, move north to take in a few villas and public baths and finally finish off at the Villa of Mysteries.
- The amphitheatre does not justify the long trek to get there, and the time saved is better spent at the places mentioned above.
- Most people travel in tour groups, so it is quite easy to escape the crowd as they tend to congregate at a few spots.
- Pompeii is very dusty and isn’t the most interesting photographic subject. A standard zoom lens with a polarizer should be more than enough.