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Slower pace makes tourists want to come back to Sorrento area

Sunday, August 13, 2000

By Richard Davis

Our campus director's welcoming statement was simple. "Relax," he said. "Things are different here in southern Italy. Our slogan is 'no problem.' Our favorite sport is 'laid-back.' If life in our Campania region were similar to life in your United States, you would have no reason to visit."

Amen. Neither daily doses of afternoon fireworks that came from the bowels of nearby Mount Vesuvius, nor 3 a.m. clanging of garbage trucks that sparked off-key operettas of howling dogs, deterred from the charm of Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. Also helping to ease the transition were the region's heavenly foods, glorious wines and amiable cast of characters.

    IF YOU GO ...

Sorrento/Sant' Agnello Tourist Board, Via Luigi De Maio, 35-80067, Sorrento (Napoli), Italy; phone, 011-39-081-8074033; fax, 011-39-081-8773397; Web sites:;

Campania Assessorato al Turismo, Via S. Lucia 81, I-80132, Napoli, Italy; Web sites:;

Italian Government Tourist Office, 630 Fifth Ave, Suite 1565, New York, NY 10111; phone, 212-245-5618; fax, 212-586-9249; brochure hot line, 212-245-4822; Web sites:, (Italian Web Tourist Guide).

Grand Hotel De La Ville, Via Rota, 15-80067, Box 100, Sorrento, Italy; phone, 011-39-081-8782144; fax, 011-39-081-8772201; Web site:

Alumni Campus Abroad (part of AHI International Corp.), 6400 Shafer Court, Rosemont, IL 60018; phone, 888-384-7001; fax, 847-318-5000; Web site:

Penn State Travel Program, Penn State Alumni Association, Hintz Alumni Center, University Park, PA 16802-1439; phone, 814-863-2808; fax, 814-865-3325; Web site:


The Grand Hotel De La Ville was our home recently for seven days during the Penn State University Travel Program's Alumni College in Sorrento. My wife, Mary, and I joined 46 others for a week of sightseeing of some of the world's most striking vistas and imposing ruins. We spent a much-too-fast day in the area six years ago on our Mediterranean honeymoon cruise and promised to return for a closer look.

Sorrento is a haven on a cliff that drops straight down into the bay and looks across to the Isle of Capri. A popular resort since the 1700s, Sorrento today has 15,000 residents, more than a hundred hotels and dozens of churches and is the home of the Correale di Terranova, an ample museum that contains both the history of the town and its craft tradition of inlaid wood. Sorrento also hosts numerous events in culture (the works of Andy Warhol recently completed a month-long exhibition), music and film. Tourism is its major industry.

Set in a laid-back residential area close to the bustling town center of Piazza Tasso, our hotel was surrounded by lemon and orange groves and bright, fragrant gardens. The private balcony off our second-story room displayed eye-popping views across the sparkling Bay of Naples with the ever-present Vesuvius as a backdrop, as well as the eastern section of Sorrento, highlighted by houses and streets cut into steep hillsides. Centrally situated south of Naples and Pompeii, north of the Amalfi Coast and within a 20-minute ferry across the bay to Capri, the hotel was a convenient location for our day tours by bus.

The first day of touring took us to the Palace of Caserta, sometimes called the Versailles of Naples, while the next day was Naples, the capital city of Campania. Other excursions included famous Pompeii, upscale Capri and a hair-raising drive down the Amalfi Coast only inches from seemingly being deposited hundreds of feet below into the turquoise Gulf of Salerno. We caught our breath, conquered hundreds of steps, caught our breath again and shot dozens of rolls of film that day on the gulf during respites in the vertical town of Positano and bayside resort of Amalfi.

With apologies to Vincenzo Di Gennaro, our campus director and native of Naples, the day in his city was my least favorite, if only because other areas were blessed with a much slower pace. Naples is Italy's third-largest city with 1.2 million inhabitants, which appeared to be about a million more than it can handle. The 40 percent of the residents who are unemployed seemed to be out in force, irritating workers and tourists. A six-hour visit certainly isn't enough to judge a city, yet I simply never felt comfortable.

On the plus side, its world-renowned National Archeological Museum display of "pornographic" artifacts from Pompeii blasted whatever jet-lag induced cobwebs remained in our inquiring minds. Mama mia! I had no idea that humans and animals could get friendly with each other in such complex positions.

While the clear, sunny day was full of fascinating sights and sounds along with a deeply satisfying Neapolitan pizza for lunch, I was thrilled to depart with all body parts and possessions intact.

Di Gennaro, or "Cousin Vinny," as he suggested we call him, allowed us to get the most of our week by being in control of all facets of the program. From overseeing our guides and lecturers and dispensing general information, to our hotel accommodations, meals and deftly scheduling strategic pit stops, he was the consummate director. Our wish was his command. Cousin Vinny, 29, is a fourth-generation guide fluent in English, Spanish and Italian who recently became director of the Sorrento program, which is one of about a dozen conducted throughout the world by Alumni Campus Abroad for various universities. It is one of numerous trips offered annually through Penn State.

Our trek to Positano and Amalfi covered what is considered by many to be the most magnificent stretch of coastline in Europe. Seeming to hang among the bay, the mountains and the sky, state road 163 is said to have a thousand curves as it hugs the coast south of Sorrento. We gasped often as our driver, Flavio, maneuvered the bus through each hairpin turn. Those of us on the coastline side of the bus were careful not to exhale at the same time. We felt it could have tipped us over the low guardrails, through the lemon and orange groves, the vineyards and walnut and almond trees and into the bay hundreds of feet below.

Positano is a village of small, colorful houses sticking spectacularly to upright mountains around a protected bay. What John Steinbeck wrote in 1953 holds true today: "Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone. Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut into it. ...You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or slide."

Positano, the Amalfi Coast's most popular tourist attraction, has an allure that never ends for some. Cousin Vinny told us that one of the mayor's most difficult duties is trying to find space in the village's overcrowded cemetery for natives who have moved to New York but want to return for eternity.

Lots of walking is necessary to get much appreciation of the beauty and history of Campania. Especially taxing was Pompeii, with its uneven and sometimes slippery surfaces. Handicapped accessibility is a contradiction in terms for this region. In fact, ramps, elevators and specially designated parking spots are about as common as a sunny January day in Western Pennsylvania. The Italian tradition of a siesta was quickly adopted and appreciated by many in our group.

Despite the miles of walking, trudging up, down, over and across ancient steps and streets, most people on our tour gained at least a few pounds. No problem. Some promised to start diets when we returned home. Or something like that.

Try to visit Campania and not gain some weight. I am blessed with the metabolism of a caffeine-addled hummingbird and still departed with remnants of the local cuisine plastered to my skinny frame. Not many could pass up vast selections of fresh pastas, hard-crusted breads, meats, vegetables, seafood, pizzas, and several desserts dished up every day, three times a day, usually at the hotel. I was in pasta heaven.

Mary was asked to choose between two scrumptious cakes at our first dinner and jokingly said she wanted both. With serving knives and dishes flashing, Franco, one of several hustling waiters, quickly complied. No problem. Our dinner partners and I eagerly assisted in sampling both. Franco and his pals kept our plates full all week.

Then there were the wines, which Italians say are the best in the world. Cousin Vinny said the ancient Greeks called Italy Enotria, or "land of wine." Today, more than 4 million acres of vineyards dominate the landscape. The grape varieties and winemaking styles vary with geography, climate and customs of the individual areas. Many fine wines are best tasted with the local cooking, which we did on a nightly basis. Italian wine consciousness ranges from the "red or white" mentality to the cork-sniffing wine steward swirling long-stemmed crystal goblets the size of a football, according to our director. The only point of agreement among the natives is that wine is the best complement to Italian food.

They had no argument from me. I probably got my money's worth from food and wine alone.

The daytime fireworks were part of the St. Antonino festival a few blocks away in a nearby basilica and piazza named for the saint. Fireworks in daylight to me are like listening to golf on the radio: It can be done, but what's the point? But the midday explosions are a tradition in Italy. As for the garbage trucks, their early-morning invasion was necessary to keep them off crowded daytime streets during the tourist season of April through October.

Before going to bed the final night of our journey, Mary and I lingered on our balcony and reminisced about a week that seemed like only a day. We vowed to return to Sorrento -- fireworks, trash trucks, crooning canines and all. No problem.

Richard Davis, a writer who lives in Sharpsville, Mercer County, is the corporate writer in the marketing department at Sharon Regional Health System.

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