Breathtaking Sorrento

[this article appeared in the Hindu recently]

Breathtaking Sorrento

 

 

Chitra Srikrishna soaks in the charms of the Bay of Naples and gets poetic

 

 

 

 

Photos: Ragini Srikrishna

Mediterranean magic Sorrento

 

 

“Buongourno! How are you?” Our genial hotel owner ushers us into a spacious room with a balcony offering a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean. Cerulean blue waters and never-ending cliffs greet us when we step through the balcony door.

Far below us, sailboats bob up and down on the Bay of Naples like rubber ducks in a bathtub and Mt. Vesuvius, a benevolent guardian. looms in the background.

Earlier that morning, my two daughters, husband and I left Rome by train. At Naples, we switched to the local Circumvesuviana line, which took nearly three hours to get us to Sorrento. Our hotel seems like something plucked out of a picture book as it lies perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the bay.

The dining room with its antique furniture and brocade tapestry is like a setting from the Renaissance period. “Will Mt Vesuvius erupt when we’re here?” my eight-year-old anxiously interrupts my dreamy thoughts. The rest of the afternoon we regale the girls with tales of Pliny the Elder and the fall of Pompeii, sitting in the terrace garden of our hotel.

Charming town

 

The sun is low in the sky when we set out on a leisurely stroll through the cobbled streets of old Sorrento.

Stores displaying glassware, furniture, and other bric-a-bracs line the streets, with gelato (Italian ice cream) stores in nearly every corner. I have to pry my husband away from a store that specialises in exquisite hand-made musical boxes and chests. “Just look at the workmanship,” he gushes. A glance at the price tag almost gives me a coronary.

My daughters are drawn to the store across the alley, where delicately carved glass containers in different shapes and colours line the display window. “Try our town specialty, the limoncello,” the shopkeeper tells us encouragingly. I grimace after just a sip from the glass thimble. The limoncello, a concoction of lemons, alcohol, sugar and water, despite its attractive packaging, is an acquired taste.

The alley winds its way to a medieval square with fruit stalls and open air cafes. We find a charming little café with red and white chequered cloth-covered tables.

 

 

I gawk around as only tourists can, even while I sip a strong cappuccino served by a friendly waiter. “Belle bambino” he murmurs as he adds another pastry to my daughters’ plate. “Don’t miss the Blue Grotto in Capri!” the waiter calls out as we leave the café, headed back to the hotel.

There’s a long line of people at Marine Grande the next morning waiting to board the motorised craft to the island of Capri. The Bay of Naples is as calm as an inland lake and we enjoy the sun in our faces and the wind whipping our hair and hats! When we get near Capri, steep cliffs and winding roads on the hills loom ahead. Soon we approach the base of some cliffs and even as our boat’s engine is cut, I see numerous canoes waiting at a small floating pier.

“That’ll be your ride to the Grotto,” says our guide, as he tries to steady the boat. Families and couples step gingerly on to the canoes as our guide warms “only two at a time!” I step off the boat on to the canoe, which wobbles dangerously, certain that its going to topple over. I seat myself on the hard floor and hang on for dear life. My eleven-year-old is more agile and just jumps in excitedly before the boatman starts rowing.

“Lie flat on your back!” he cries out suddenly and we don’t duck a moment too soon, before he rows the canoe into a narrow opening with a low ceiling. “You can sit up now.”

 

 

We’re inside a dark cavern and our eyes take a few minutes to adjust — the sound of a whole lot of Italian men singing an Aria breaks into my conscience and then the canoe turns! A myriad of blue hues cut through the darkness — for the first time in my life, I experience what “breathtaking” means!

The Blue Grotto truly deserves its name. The sunlight from the opening we had entered through transforms the entire grotto into a blue cathedral giving it a near-mystical appearance. “There’s limestone at the bottom!” explains our guide even as we gape open-mouthed at this incredible natural phenomenon. I could easily believe why people in ancient times avoided the Blue Grotto believing it to be a witch’s haven.

Later that night, as I look down at the serene waters of the Mediterranean, I find myself borrowing Amir Khusrau’s declaration “If there be heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!”

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