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SORRENTO  and the AMALFI COAST

2017 dates:  April 22 - May 3      Oct 24 - Nov 4

ITINERARY

On this leisurely tour we stay in an elegant, traditional, four-star hotel in Sorrento for ten nights and travel by day to explore the Bay of Naples Region and the Amalfi Coast.

Day One : Evening departure from Toronto on Air Canada to Naples (via Frankfurt).

Day Two : Arrive Naples and transfer by private bus to our hotel in beautiful Sorrento (about 1 hour). Welcome Prosecco and orientation. Dinner at the hotel. The Tramontano always offers a four course meal with three choices. As one would expect in Italy, food is a primary concern and meals at the Tramontano are "buonissimo".

Day Three : Explore Sorrento. We start at 9.30 for a half-day orientation walking tour. Our hotel is just a few minutes walk from the central Piazza Tasso, named after the wayward sixteenth-century Italian poet to whom the town was home. We wander through the streets that feed into the square, some of which are pedestrianised for the lively evening passegiata. The name "Surrentum" derives from the ancient myth of siren mermaids whose intoxicating singing lured seamen. According to the legend, nobody had ever sailed past the sirens without succumbing to their incredible musical charms and to death.  But Homer's hero Ulysses and his comrades escaped the sirens by plugging their ears. The sirens, so humbled, turned into rocks. 

Emperor Augustus and his successor, Tiberius, were two of Sorrento's early devotees. This region was popular with Romans and prospered because of fertile land, good vineyards and harbours for trade. The Roman elite built magnificent holiday villas and came here to "take the waters" and enjoy long summer holidays outside stifling Rome. In later years, the town became a favorite destination for artists and writers looking for sun and inspiration, as well as 19th century British aristocrats on their "Grand Tour". The famed tenor Enrico Caruso chose Sorrento to spend his last weeks in 1921. Until the mid-20th century Sorrento was a genteel resort favored by European princes who built luxurious palazzos. Today, the town has charming cobblestone streets, an alluring seafront promenade, colorful and fragrant flowers and matchless vistas. Streets are lined with citrus trees and shops sell "limoncello" a liqueur made from huge local lemons. On our orientation walk we see the spectacular 15th-century Duomo and the Basilica San Antonio which contains the relics of St Anthonius, Sorrento's patron saint. Many miracles are attributed to the saint - it is claimed that he saved a young child from a whale after it had been swallowed up by this sea creature. He was also credited with rescuing Sorrento from many dangers including a naval invasion and the bubonic plague. In its unspoiled old quarter the town still has many palazzos dating from its elegant past. The old town still has some ancient Greek streets laid out East/West for the most sunlight and North/South for the cooling breeze.


The afternoon is free to enjoy the hotel gardens or to explore Sorrento. Sample the wonderful gelato or stop at a cafe for a Neapolitan hot chocolate or an espresso. There are several museums including Museo Correale di Terranova, an 18th-century villa with a lovely garden. Near the Villa Comunale gardens and sharing its view over the Bay of Naples, Convento di San Francesco is celebrated for its 14th-century cloister. It is now an art school often displaying its students' works or, for those who want exercise, it is possible to walk down to the fishing port. The lively main street, Corso Italia, is closed to traffic in the evenings.

Day Four : Ferry across the beautiful blue Bay of Naples to the Isle of Capri, "isle of dreams". In the distance we see vistas of Mount Vesuvius. For centuries the Isle of Capri has attracted visitors because of its natural curiosities, the beautiful architecture and the flora and fauna. It was famous in the ancient world as the vacation hideaway of the Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius. Even before becoming emperor, Augustus traded his family's island of Ischia to the Neapolitans in return for making Capri his personal property. Tiberius spent a decade here from 26 to 37 AD and ran the Roman Empire from here.  Jackie Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor and Bridget Bardot made the island into a paparazzi paradise in the 1960s. 

We start by boarding a private bus and travelling to Anacapri to visits Axel Munthe's Villa di San Michele, a Swedish cultural institution in Italy. Axel Munthe was an interesting Swedish doctor (to the Swedish royal family) who amassed a fortune and invested it in real estate in Anacapri. He built his villa on the original site of the Roman Emperor Tiberius' villa. Its glorious gardens appear suspended between sky and sea. In Villa San Michele a number of ancient artifacts are displayed. There are fragments of sarcophaguses, busts, marble and columns. In the garden, as well as a bird sanctuary, there is a Greek tomb and a magnificent granite Sphinx imported from Egypt which gazes out over the whole Island of Capri. It is said that if you touch the sphinx's hindquarters with your left hand and make a wish it will come true. Munthe shared his love of music, animals and nature with the Swedish queen who spent long periods of her life on Capri for health reasons and today you can see why. 

We stop at the town of Anacapri in time for lunch. Augustus Caesar called Capri the "Island of Sweet Idleness" which today means lazy walks, lovely views and sipping drinks on flower-decked terraces. In the afternoon we continue to Capri Town and the Augustus Gardens. In one corner or the gardens is a monument to Lenin who visited the Capri School for Revolutionaries in 1913. There is free time to explore before we depart from the Marina Grande. To savour Capri to the fullest there is an optional 45 minute boat trip around the island and in late afternoon our ferry returns to Sorrento.

Day Five : Guided visit to Naples. We start with a panoramic tour of colourful, vibrant Naples by private bus.  The pulse of Italy throbs in Naples. Naples was a thriving Greek commercial centre 2500 years ago. Today it has fascinating 17th century baroque churches that convey the city's unique personality, a warren of Greek and Roman ruins, fine works of art including pieces by Caravaggio who lived here for a time. We start at the Piazza Garibaldi and down the broad Corso Umberto 1 through the heart of old Naples. Next comes the more modern section and then the little town of Pozzuoli (home to Sophia Loren).  The route takes us along the sea-shore on the Via Vittoria which is famous for its royal architecture. At the Piazza Reale we leave our bus and walk to see the Opera House. The opera house is Europe's oldest and more beautiful than La Scala and Naples is the most operatic of cities. Awash in red and gold velvet, the opera house interior is even more spectacular than its stage presentations. Opera is a serious business in Naples. Not as much the music but the costumes, the stage design the players and the politics. Anyone who aspires to anything absolutely has to be present at the season's major openings where what is happening on the stage is secondary to who is there, who they are with and what they are wearing.  The Galleria is one of the architectural marvels of the 19th century. The imposing Castel Nuovo sits near the shore of the Bay of Naples and once protected the heart of the medieval city. Here we again board our bus and head for the museum. Here there is a chance to have lunch before going into the Museum.

If you are a fan of pizza, Naples' pizzerias bake just the right combination of fresh dough, buffalo-milk mozzarella and locally grown San Marzano tomatoes in traditional wood-burning ovens using chunks of beech and maple wood. The dough must use the right sort of Durham wheat and be left to rise for at least six hours. An association of pizza chefs has standardized the ingredients and methods that have to be used to make pizza certified DOC (Denomination of Controlled Origin). A Neapolitan pizza is very different from what is served up at North American pizza chains. Legend has it that the Margherita pizza was first made to celebrate the arrival of new Italian Queen Margherita who disliked pasta. A Neapolitan chef used red tomatoes, white cheese and a few leaves of green basil symbolizing the Italian flag and giving birth to the modern pizza industry.

After lunch we visit the Archeological Museum in Naples which contains the finest treasure trove of ancient Greco-Roman art. Displayed is an eleven piece table service from a household in Pompeii which was found covered in ash after being buried in 79AD. The upper floor of the museum contains many of the wall paintings and mosaics found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. With an expert guide, our tour gives us a fascinating look into everyday life 2000 years ago and prepares us for our visits to the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. 

Day Six Free Day - Optional visit to the magnificent Roman villa at Stabaie that has recently opened to the public. Or perhaps you would prefer to just relax in the lovely hotel gardens or explore the shops and cafes of Sorrento. For 130 euros there is a cooking school available where you can have a hands-on experience preparing (and eating) a full Neapolitan lunch with plenty of vino.

Day Seven : Tour the spectacular Amalfi Coast including the quaint towns of Amalfi and famous Positano. In the 10th century Positano was part of Amalfi's maritime republic, which rivaled Venice as an important mercantile power. Its heyday was in the 16th and 17th centuries, when its ships traded in the Middle East carrying spices and silks. The coming of the steamship in the mid-19th century led to the town's decline and three-fourths of its 8,000 citizens emigrated to America. It began to attract large numbers of tourists in the 1950s, especially after John Steinbeck published an essay about Positano in 1953. The church here features  a 13th century Byzantine icon of a black Madonna. According to local legend the icon was stolen from Byzantium and was being transported by pirates across the Mediterranean. A terrible storm blew up in the waters opposite Positano and frightened sailors heard a voice on board saying "Posa, posa!" ("Put down! Put down!"). The precious icon was unloaded and carried to the fishing village and the storm abated.

From here we continue to Ravello, an enchanting town high above the coast. Here we find stupendous views, quiet lanes, two important Romanesque churches, and several irresistibly romantic gardens.  The Villa Cimbrone is a medieval-style fantasy poised 1,500 feet above the sea. Created in 1905 by England's Lord Grimthorpe and made famous when Greta Garbo stayed here in 1937, the Gothic castle is set in fragrant rose gardens that lead to the Belvedere dell'Infinità (Belvedere of Infinity): a grand stone parapet that overlooks the Gulf of Salerno. The gardens are breathtakingly beautiful containing a wealth of the most beautiful flowers imaginable plus decorative elements such as fountains, nymphaea, statues, small temples and pavilions. 
Today Ravello is a centre for classical concerts in a spectacular setting overlooking the sea. 

In the evening we have dinner at a restaurant in the town of Sorrento.

Day Eight : Tour of Pompeii with an expert guide - Pompeii was settled as early as the 8th century BC and by 79 AD it was a thriving commercial centre with a population of 20,000 when Vesuvius erupted and suddenly buried the city under a blanket of ash six metres deep making it a petrified memorial. This sudden obliteration preserved the towns with a level of completeness which has no parallel with any other archaeological site in the world. Over the centuries Pompeii was forgotten but in 1748 excavations were started and since 1911 all finds of furnishings and household utensils have been left where they were found, giving a fascinating insight into everyday life in 79 AD. Ancient Pompeii covered about 160 acres and today the site is a fascinating walk. The baths have eyebrow-raising frescoes that strongly suggest more than just bathing and massaging went on here. We see the Forum where elections were held, politicians let rhetoric fly, official announcements were made, and worshippers crowded the Temple of Jupiter. Several homes represent different slices of Pompeiian life. The House of the Tragic Poet is a typical middle-class residence. The House of the Vettii is an example of a wealthy merchant's home with vivid murals. 

In the afternoon we visit the Villa of the Mysteries. This was a palatial abode with many rooms, all adorned with frescoes including one relating the saga of a young bride and her initiation into the mysteries of the cult of Dionysus. We see the amphitheatre although it seems that a cruel brawl among gladiators caused the amphitheater to be closed at the time of Vesuvius' eruption. Some of the towns walls still bear graffiti from 79 AD, some salacious and some political.

Day Nine : Free day.  There is an optional tour to Vesuvius where you peer down into the crater. Learn about the geology of the area from local vulcanologists.  Cost for the Vesuvius tour will depend on the number of people who sign up.

After an early dinner at the hotel we attend a colourful Tarantella  (cost included) that tells the story of Sorrento in song and dance.  With a glass of sparkling wine in our hand we watch as performers give us two centuries of Neapolitan dances, costumes and music. Magical songs such as “Torna a Surriento” recount the daily life of southern Italians. You will recognize many of the folk songs like Funiculì Funicula as soon as you hear them.

 Day Ten : Tour to Paestum with a stop in Salerno to see one of the most beautiful and important churches of southern Italy - the Cathedral of San Matteo.  During WWII the allied forces landed near Salerno and once it was taken the city became temporary capital of free Italy.

Paestum is a spectacular archaeological site. This was an ancient Greek settlement whose ancient Doric temples surpass even those in Athens for noble simplicity and preservation. Founded by Greek colonists around 600 BC, there are three temples and a museum containing many items found during excavations. The superb Temple of Neptune, built in the 5th century BC, is intact except for the roof and a few interior walls.

Day Eleven : Today we visit Herculaneum  (Ercolano) which suffered the same fate as Pompeii although it was buried in mud which preserved it better with buildings two and three storeys high still intact. Herculaneum was a chic residential suburb of Pompeii before it was entombed in 79 AD. We see the gymnasium, the bathhouse and a 2,500 seat theatre as well as luxurious houses such as the House of the Deer with its elegant gardens and statues. After lunch we continue to Villa Oplontis, the newly excavated villa  thought to have been the home of Poppaea, second wife of Nero. It is one of the loveliest of ancient sites, with rich wall paintings and a swimming pool. Excavations only discovered it in 1964 after being buried in ash since 79AD. So far, 7000 metres have been uncovered but much remains. The site is so vast it dwarfs the residences in Pompeii. The villa is thought to have been a training school for young philosophers and orators and the full gamut of Roman wall painting reflects the elegant taste of the owner.

Day Twelve : Depart for Naples Airport for return flight.
 

Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast
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