Five years ago, I met Marco in Sorrento. Sounds like a great opening line to a travel romance novel and in some ways it is, I didn’t fall in love with Marco (he was married) but I had fallen in love with the Amalfi Coast twenty years ago on that infamous bus tour with the seniors. Marco was my guide to reintroduce me to the Amalfi Coast so many years later but now with my new friends from the cruise ship. I was responsible for finding See Sorrento and booking our Naples cruise stop private tour for the day. With eight people on the tour, I had a pretty intense day planned. We would travel from the cruise port along the Amalfi Coast, stop for lunch before spending the afternoon at Pompeii and return to the ship before dinner. See Sorrento is owned by Marcello (Marco’s friend) and I met him at our lunch stop, high above the road at a small local restaurant. After our many emails to set up the tour, it was nice to meet him in person. Upon return to the U.S., Marcello became my Facebook friend and I was able to remain in a constant state of love with the Amalfi coast in all of his posts and videos.
When my sabbatical took me to Capri, I decided not to go back to Rome and instead spend the time in Sorrento, Capri and on the Amalfi Coast again. Marcello was available and he was my private guide for two days. He recommended I stay in Piano di Sorrento at the Antica Dimora B&B as he knows the owners (quite helpful for me to save money to afford Marcello on my own).
Marcello met me at the ferry terminal as I arrived in Sorrento from Capri. We would spend the entire day driving around Sorrento where he grew up and still lives with his family. This was definitely the insider tour. We saw no tour busses at our stops, few foreigners at lunch and enjoyed chatting with a couple picking fresh herbs among the weeds as we hiked high above the Amalfi coast.
Villa San Marco
When we pulled into the dirt lot after passing farmers selling their crops along the road, passed the piles of trash in the streets (just like in Naples), passing real life locals, I was surprised to walk in the dirt path to find a hidden historic villa. Pompeii is definitely more famous than Herculaneum and all are more well-known than Villa San Marco where I was in Stabiae. Due to a recent documentary on local television, Marcello was surprised to see people at the site during our visit as he is used to having the place to himself. The guard greeted him as an old friend. The villa has many preserved pieces and the colors and style are reminiscent of Pompeii or the homes in Herculaneum. You can see the walls torn apart as the valuable art has been removed over the years – a few to museums, a few lost. I’m always fascinated by this part of history, how well it has been preserved while modern life grows up all around it. The villa is pretty massive for what was the time period with internal and external courtyards, gardens and even a pool!
Lunch in Sorrento
Marcello would normally let his guests eat lunch while he goes to work or eat alone. He felt bad that I was solo so he ate with me (funny to me since I eat alone all the time). He plans out tasting plates to show the best of the local Italian foods. The foods were plentiful starting with an antipasti, followed by a pasta trio and finishing up with a trio of desserts and after meal liquors. Each course was tastier than the last. What I didn’t finish (I mean really, what one person can eat all of this plate?), he happily indulged commenting that he can’t say no. I may have been a bit buzzed after this lunch as I had the red wine to myself and Marcello doesn’t like waste so I drank my wine (he of course was driving so no wine for him).
He made me try all the foods and drinks with his classic motto “How Do You Know If You Do Not Try”. He would throw this one at me a few times and it worked (Catholic guilt not from a nun? This was new). His fabulous insights and sayings could fill a book “things my Italian tour guide says”.
Going Local in Sorrento
We drove far away from town, through small villages and at one point I had him stop to find a bathroom (a bit tough when it’s not a tourist town but there was a lot of wine and water at lunch). We found a small café, I bought a bottle of water (which bothered him that I was charged a tourist price) and used the makeshift bathroom (always interesting experiences). We continued our tour on the two lane roads twisting and turning as Marcello pointed out the nice houses (they are rented out) vs. the houses that looked very weathered almost in a state of disrepair from the outside (real Italians live there) and the many lemon groves.
We would stop to do a slight hike and passed locals foraging for herbs. I followed behind Marcello and he stopped at the edge and just said “look”. All around me was gorgeous nature and down below I could see the famous Amalfi drive that we would navigate the next day. This is how you are supposed to see the coast in my opinion – having it all to yourself.
Outside the window was lush greenery, tiered farms, many lemon trees and my sense of wonder. When you think of Sorrento, you think Amalfi Coast – the water, the gorgeous views, the luxury hotels. We were visiting the true highlights of the city, where the locals live and tourists rarely see.
Sorrento City Center
On the way back to the city, we were now past the center of town (Piazza Tasso) looking down while people passed by. Many folks walk past this historic site on the way to the souvenir shops not knowing that Marcello and his friends used to run down the steps and play in the Deep Valley of the Mills (Il Vallone dei Mulini). It was an old flour mill with water coming from the mountains. If you look closely on the left on the side of the wall you can see the perilous steps without a railing (yikes!).
Sorrento for many is just a quick stop on the way to/from the Amalfi Coast or Capri and I’ve rarely met anyone who took time to explore the city as in-depth as I did. But you should really try to go a bit deeper to discover the local aspect of the city. Surprisingly, it was a long day that flew by and Marcello drove me to my B&B but not without first pointing out the best gelato store nearby. Don’t go there, or there, only there! He was like the Italian version of me telling people where to go in Philly for the best local experience. It’s so easy to jump on a bus tour or tick off a checklist from a guidebook but sometimes you need a local perspective to go off the beaten path. In this case, I got to see Marcello’s childhood in a town that has seen so many changes over the years (good and bad) but comes down to good memories, great landscapes, fresh foods and the best gelato.