We stayed at Sorrento as a base for a couple of days in 2015 while we visited Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast towns and places further south in Campania. The image to the right is a photo I took late one afternoon when I noticed from the verandah of our hotel that my view of Mt Vesuvius across the Bay of Naples showed the volcano actively smoking. Later that evening when I checked the volcano again I could see flashes of light around the top of Vesuvius. I decided I needed to report our whereabouts to the family back home in case they read in the papers the next morning that Vesuvius had once again exploded its contents over its neighbours around the bay.
The 79 CE eruption of Mt Vesuvius and the destruction of the towns around the bay of Naples is a story that is well known to most people that have graced the inside of a school. Perhaps lesser known is one of the tragic personal stories of what happened to Pliny the Elder, a great Roman writer and statesman, who also happened to be Admiral of a Roman Fleet of ships stationed at Misenum when Vesuvius erupted. On the first day of the eruption he received a message from a friend who had been stranded in Stabiae, just along the peninsula from modern Sorrento. The map on the right below shows the probable route of Pliny’s ship as he went to rescue his friend; as he approached Herculaneum, cinders and pumice began to fall. They steered on to Stabiae but did not immediately leave. One report says he died when hot toxic gases surrounded his group; other historians claim that it was a heart attack. Volcanic eruptions that produce an umbrella shaped cloud are today called Pliny eruptions.
As can be seen from the maps above, the citizens of Sorrento (Surrentum) were spectators of the dreadful natural events that played out over the Bay of Naples coastline over those October days in 79CE. As the map on the left shows, the prevailing winds over the days of the eruption blew the ash, pumice etc south-east over much of the Lattarai Mountains and over today’s Amalfi coast towns. Sorrento would no doubt have received some share of the debris but not as much as caused havoc along the Bay of Naples towns. The Isle of Capri can be seen in the map on the left off the Sorrento Peninsula and it doesn’t appear to have received significant Vesuvian debris.
Sorrento appears to have been a frightened witness to the events that exploded all around them in 79CE. Today it seems that Sorrento is still the quiet place where people come to stay in order for them to visit other places nearby where the excitement is much more pronounced. I won’t name the following local travel site who printed the following but it seems to be the consensus…In the town itself, there isn’t a whole lot to do, but Sorrento makes an ideal starting point for numerous excursions to nearby cities and islands around the famous Amalfi Coast, like Capri and Ischia. And while Sorrento makes for a nice stop for a couple of days to enjoy the Mediterranean vibes, I think it’s best used as a gateway city to the rest of the region. …The area is the perfect place for a road trip (to go elsewhere!).
Despite this less that supportive press, I enjoyed our three days in Sorrento. For example, our hotel had a beautiful view over the seafront where both the Marina Piccola and Marina Grande awaited ready to take us by boat elsewhere. We were picked up by friends for a hot day in the sun at Pompeii and we also caught a ferry out to the Isle of Capri but found the huge numbers of tourists made us want to return to Sorrento as soon as possible. A walk along the top of the sea cliffs at Sorrento not only gives you a view of the busy harbour activity below but also great views out across the Bay of Naples.
Our walk along the streets on the cliff tops of Sorrento also brought us to a park (Villa Communale di Sorrento-below left) outside a 14th century monastery of Franciscan Friars. It was a wonderful, tranquil place with one of the best statues of Saint Francis in Italy (and there are a lot!)
We were able to go for a walk in the grounds as well as in the church and it was a beautiful place to spend some time. Further along from the Monastery of St Francesco is the Cathedral of Sorrento. It is very beautiful inside (see below right) and one of its claims to fame is having 11th century front doors from Constantinople. Given the history of other Amalfi Coast Churches, my only thought was I wonder how this community first got hold of such doors, given the time was around the infamous Fourth Crusade that sacked Constantinople.
If you look at the map of Sorrento earlier in this blog, you will notice there is only one major artery where locals and tourists can actually drive to the town’s foreshore beneath the cliffs. This is called Via Luigi de Maio and the top of the road and the bottom switch back can be seen in the photos below. There is a great view up the top of the road from Piazza Tasso. From this piazza, you can also take the very steep steps and walk part of the way along this road down to the port. However you should only do this if you are confident in making the climb back up the hill or you plan to catch a taxi.