This beautiful Limoncello stand delights the eyes and smells divine
There’s an Italian paradise by the sea that is home to mermaids, volcanoes, limoncello, Greek legends and Italian traditions. Since the times of ancient Rome, the rich and famous always seem to “Come Back to Sorrento.”
Sorrento likely got its name from Surrentum, the ancient Roman name for this spot; but it could also have come from the word siren, meaning mermaid. Legend has it that mermaids sunned themselves on the rocks of Sorrento, and lured sailors to their deaths with their siren songs. Many centuries later, the famous song Come Back to Sorrento was written in 1902 and performed by everyone from Luciano Pavarotti to Frank Sinatra.
The first thing you’ll notice about Sorrento is the colorful limoncello stands everywhere, and the even more colorful buildings perched precariously on the cliff. The big standout is the famous Grand Hotel Vittoria, with its famous sign implanted right into the wall below, like a giant billboard, advertising out to the sea.
Why would anyone build a luxury hotel so close to the cliff’s edge? Well, it goes back to Sorrento’s history: In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans built a protective wall around the city. Then, after the Saracen attack in the 1500’s, the walls were built even higher for additional protection. So, by the time the Grand Tour came around in the 1700’s, this lofty spot seemed like the perfect place to build a grand hotel, where travelers could see it as they sailed into port.
Another great legend says Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus had his villa on the same spot as the Grand Hotel Vittoria. He must have set the trend for the rich and powerful to visit here, because the hotel’s modern-day guest list reads like a who’s who of the 19th and 20th centuries: Henrik Ibsen, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Luciano Pavarotti, Naples native Enrico Caruso and even Marilyn Monroe.
Those fancy guests were served Sorrento’s fancy magical elixir: limoncello, a simple liqueur made from sugar, alcohol and only a specific type of lemon grown here in the region. For a time, only one limoncello maker, I Giardini di Cataldo, had the exclusive rights to serve its limoncello at Grand Hotel Vittoria. They’re still in business today, and their factory and on-site lemon orchard is open to the public. For three generations, the Esposito family has been making their famous limoncello by hand, using only the lemons from their family grove. Cataldo’s granddaughter will show you how the limoncello is made, but she won’t share the family recipe, passed down through the generations. That’s a closely guarded Sorrento secret.
You’ll also learn why Sorrento lemons are so darn tasty. It has to do with the geography and climate, and its proximity to Mount Vesuvius. While exploding volcanoes are normally a bad thing, all that lava does wonders for the soil. A soil rich in volcanic minerals makes for some seriously good produce.
Legend has it that monks used to “revive” themselves with a little limoncello, so it just seems fitting to imbibe a little, and explore Sorrento’s beautiful historic churches. Sorrento Cathedral, built in the 11th century, is a Roman Catholic cathedral, and is dedicated to Saints Philip and James. Look for two pink marble columns at its entrance. It’s believed that these columns were recycled from the ancient Roman pagan villa of Pollio Felice. You can still see the ruins of Pollio Felice’s massive villa and Baths of Queen Giovanna complex along the seashore today, minus the good parts that were taken to hold up the cathedral.
Next to the cathedral is the symbol of Sorrento: the bell tower with its beautiful majolica tile clock. Majolica tiles were a popular and profitable art form for Italy during the Renaissance, and you can see beautiful examples throughout Sorrento, including the clock, the dome of Sedile Dominova, and the lovely Majolica Courtyard, once part of a grand palace.
Another church with great Sorrento history is dedicated to its patron saint. The Basilica of Saint Antonino was built in the 11th century for a saint known for rescuing a boy from a whale. Sailors and their families prayed to Saint Antoninus for safe sea travel, which is why there are so many silver votives and sea paintings adorning the walls of the basilica today.
There’s another interesting domed building in Sorrento, also decorated with beautiful paintings of religious figures. But it’s not a church. Those who gathered here were more interested in earthly topics, like politics and local gossip. It is Sedile Dominova, the seat of government for Sorrento during the Middle Ages. It’s gorgeous to see, with beautiful frescoes of cherubs and family crests of the noble families of the time.
Sedile Dominova is located on one of the main streets of Sorrento. Today it’s called Via San Cesareo. That’s its ancient Roman name. But it was originally called Decumano Massimo by the ancient Greeks, who first laid out Sorrento’s street plan. So today, you are walking down the exact same street laid out by Sorrento’s original inhabitants, millennia ago. There’s one aspect of this ancient design all modern visitors will appreciate: They were intentionally designed to be narrow, to shade pedestrians from that scorching Sorrento sun.