I spent the second weekend of my spring break in southern Italy with two of my roommates, Angela and Stephanie. We met up in Naples, ate some pizza, and hopped on the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento, where we stayed for two nights. We took a day trip to Capri from Sorrento, and we did a side trip visit to Pompeii on our way back to Naples and Rome. Sorrento is one of a handful of towns in the Amalfi Coast region of Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Sorrento is a resort town, and at this time of year, it’s full of busloads of American retirees. All of the shopkeepers, waiters, and hotel staff speak fluent English, which is great for tourists, but not so great for students who want to practice Italian. Most times we didn’t even have the option of speaking in Italian – we were given English menus and our Italian was ignored or worse, responded to in English.
On our last night in Sorrento, we went out for apertivi (pre-dinner drinks) at a little bar off the main drag. We made friends with our waiter, an old-time Sorrentino named Enzo Capitano. Although he was fluent in English (his wife and children spend the summers in Liverpool, England), he made a conscious effort to speak to us in Italian once it became clear that we actually understood him quite well. We told him that we were thinking about going to a restaurant called Trattoria da Gigino for dinner. “Ahh, conosco Gigino!” They had gone to school together many years ago. Of course. He instructed us to tell Gigino, “Siamo amiche d’Enzo Capitano,” explaining that Capitano was his “embarrassing” nickname that he had earned for wearing a captain’s hat when he was young. We had a fantastic dinner at Gigino’s and finished off the night with gelato at Enzo’s favorite gelateria, a store called La Primavera. As it turned out, it’s also the preferred gelateria of the pope!
On Saturday, we took a ferry to the isle of Capri with many, many tourists. That’s KAH-pri, not Cuh-PREE (like the pants). It was cloudy when we arrived, so we decided to take the bus up to Capri Town before shelling out 30 euro to visit the Blue Grotto. Capri Town was cute, but in typical resort town fashion, it was also very upscale. The Valentino, Prada, and Gucci shops were doing spring cleaning and repainting to prepare for the coming spring and summer tourist rush. With plenty of colorful flowers, jungle-y alleyways, and scenic sea vistas, it was easy to see why Capri is a favorite vacation destination for the rich and famous.
We ducked inside a restaurant for lunch to escape the increasingly steady drizzle, and when we emerged, the clouds were breaking up. Back in Capri Town’s main piazza, the sun was shining in five-minute intervals as it burst through the dense clouds. The three of us stood in the center of the square, faces turned towards the sky in an attempt to catch a few rays. Once it clouded up again, we decided to hop on the ferry back to Sorrento. Our excursion to Capri was fun, but Angela, Stephanie, and I agreed that we would have to come back in a few summers when the weather would be sunny and when we wouldn’t have to fret about spending 30 euro to visit the Blue Grotto.
The archaeological site at Pompeii is a convenient stop midway between Sorrento and Naples, so we finished our weekend trip to southern Italy by visiting the volcano-blasted ruins. I’ll admit – I wasn’t super excited about going to Pompeii because I feel like I’ve met my quota for old rocks and columns with my Ancient Rome & Its Monuments class. Pompeii was surprisingly cool and shockingly well preserved, considering the ancient Roman hamlet was covered by volcanic ash and a pyroclastic flow in 79 A.D.. The 20,000 residents of Pompeii had no idea that they were living near a volcano, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was so sudden that many people were instantly encased in volcanic grit, freezing them in their last moments.
Armed with two copies of Rick Steves’ Italy between the three of us, we beat the crowds of tourists and marched through Pompeii’s ancient gates about fifteen minutes after the site opened. Rick provides a free podcast tour of Pompeii, and the guidebooks also contain directions and commentary for a self-guided walking tour of the city. Angela and I took turns reading from our books at eighteen different sites around Pompeii, including the Forum, the Basilica (law court), the marketplace, a bakery and mill, a fast food joint, the mens’ baths, and a brothel.
Rick directed us to a well-preserved home, the House of the Tragic Poet. Inside the doorway, near where a welcome mat would sit, is a mosaic with the subtext “CAVE CANEM” – “Beware of dog.” As we peered through the gate at the mosaic, a small dog nosed around our ankles. The best part of our visit to Pompeii was the dogs. Since Roman times, dogs have been present at Pompeii as pets and companions. Today, the site superintendent allows a few stray dogs, presumably the descendents of Pompeii’s original pets, to roam the ancient city. The dogs at the site are very friendly, probably because they are used to being around large groups of tourists.
Signage near the ticket office alerts visitors to the presence of these red-collared dogs and to the existence of a program that has been put in place to standardize the adoption of dogs from Pompeii. How do you say “woof” in Italian?
UPDATE: Angela and Stephanie are keeping a travel blog this semester. Read their account of our weekend in Sorrento here!