It was all Fabio's fault that we spent so much time in Sorrento this year. That we put up in a posh 4-star hotel, and then spent a quite extraordinary evening in a farmhouse on a hillside above the town.
Fabio Fiorentino - to give him his proper name - is a thirtysomething, tuned-in travel guy (he also happens to be darkly handsome), whom we first met a year ago while working on a tour to Southern Italy. Thanks to some pretty fancy footwork, he managed to bail us out of a potentially disastrous situation when one of Italy's frequently invoked “scioperi” (strikes) suddenly closed down Rome airport and threatened our travel plans.
After that demonstration of professionalism, there was little doubt that that he could help negotiate some tricky long distance dealings with the Sicilian transport people and assist us in refining the Sorrento part of a future trip.
We weren't disappointed. And from the instant our plane touched down on Italian soil in October, he stayed close via mobile phone or in person, spreading his own special brand of Mediterranean charm and enthusiasm.
There really is no substitute for tapping into the knowledge of locals - be they travel agents, hotel owners, tourist office personnel, or just friends well met along the way.
Sorrento, with or without Fabio, is a perfect base from which to experience southern Italy's scenic and cultural hit parade. For not only is it a thoroughly pleasing destination in its own right - with stunning views across the Bay of Naples, flower-lined piazzas, narrow pedestrianized shopping lanes, and an abundance of fine hotels and restaurants - but it's also possible to visit all the other 5-star sights in the region using public transportation.
Example: The public bus from Sorrento follows the breathtakingly beautiful, if hair-raising, Amalfi Coast Road to sun-splashed Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello. The Circumvesuviana commuter train connects Sorrento with Naples as well as Pompeii and Herculaneum - both covered and cooked by the same Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD. And regular ferry and hydrofoil services make their way to Naples and the islands of Capri or Ischia.
Be forewarned, however. Sorrento is extremely popular in the summer and best approached in the off-season, when the climate is still temperate, the crowds reduced, and the hotel rates more affordable.
It was this out-of-season affordability that allowed us to move into one of the best addresses in Sorrento - the Imperial Hotel Tramontano - a luxurious 16th-century cliff-top villa set in its own semi-tropical gardens with gorgeous seascapes from practically every room.
At first a tad intimidating to us jeans-and-sweater types, the Tramontano quickly proved its class, turning a blind Imperial eye to casual attire and exuding unexpected warmth.
Maybe it's because the hotel has a long history of hosting eccentrics and luminaries - Lord Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Edward VII have all sojourned here at one time or another - that a few Midwesterners worried them not one bit.
Indeed, the only ones even mildly fazed were some jarringly accoutered British pensioners who, at the first sign of any Yankee hilarity, would pop up from behind a pillar or aspidistra with an arched and disapproving eye. “Oh, I say, old bean, would you mind!”
It was on our final night in Sorrento, however, that we had our most memorable experience.
When Fabio first broached the idea of a “Neapolitan evening,” we were frankly skeptical - having witnessed too many of those frightful “fun-filled” package tour nights in garish restaurants where the music is loud and the food miserable.
But when, after riding high into the hills above Sorrento, we were shepherded through a farmyard filled with pigs, chickens, rabbits, goats, and dogs, we knew something special was in the works.
Fruits and vegetables grew profusely in every corner. Animals pecked and sniffed and snorted with contentment. Wine in various stages of development filled one enclosure. In another the annual crop of olives was being mashed and filtered into a year's supply of olive oil for the family.
But it was not until the main farmhouse doors opened up - revealing a setting straight out of Country Living or, more appropriately, Bella Italia - that we realized the full extent of the event.
Two massive dining tables groaned under the weight of food and wine, every bit grown, raised, or produced on the farm. Best of all were the smiling faces of the family, Fabio's friends, as they welcomed us to a real Neapolitan evening.
Then, as guitarists played local songs in the background, we made our leisurely way through a menu that began with local cheeses, caciottina and treccina, black and white olives, roast red peppers, capicollo and homemade bread. Next came delicate homemade ravioli, followed by roast chicken, eggplant parmiaggiana, new potatoes, zucchini, bell peppers and green salad, and finally a special cake of almonds and chocolate.
The wine - Montepulciano - was literally the “house wine,” and the after-dinner drink, limoncello, also came straight from the kitchen.
It wasn't long before we began to fully appreciate the warmth and depth of Italy's version of southern hospitality.
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