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On Sorrento and Sisterhood

“Ariane and I turn to each other and smile: we will always be sisters and there will always be Sorrento.”

“I’m in Sorrento. Don’t want to go home to a dead cat,” Ariane read out loud from her Twitter Feed, sitting up in her bed, silhouetted against the aquamarine sky and the unmistakable mound of Mount Vesuvius. “Top Gear is being filmed in Sorrento,” she continued, having established from a single Tweet that the crew were in the same town to produce their 2014 summer special. Cue excited chatter about how much she loved the programme and fast cars in general. Within five minutes, 10 hours of sunburn-induced moping were magically forgotten and she was dressed, off to join the Sorrentine passegiata, our mum and I trailing behind her as we have done all her life. 

Ariane and I are sisters and the best of friends who constantly trade gossip and inside jokes as all siblings should. We rarely see each other though. She escaped from our little corner of England many years ago and drifted all over Europe before setting down roots in Brussels. We have only two annual, sacrosanct reunions: Christmas and the summer holiday, which every year for the past decade has been in Sorrento during the last week of July–a vestige of our school days when we had term dates to contend with. There are rules: no boyfriends, no friends, no dad. When we arrive in Sorrento, no matter what turbulence the past year has brought, we revert to the way things have always been. There is something about this annual holiday that strengthens our sisterly bond. Maybe it is the hours spent swimming together, the rigmarole of asking each other what to wear each evening, or our endless laughter at flirtations with the locals. Or perhaps it is simply because it is a constant in a tide of change. 

One reason for this consistency is that we almost invariably stay at the Maison la Minervetta. From all the way across the bay in Montechiaro, you can see the hotel vertiginously perched on the cliff road above Sorrento. The hour between Montechiaro and our destination is spent willing the snail trail of single file traffic to move faster. Once we finally pull into what is arguably the world’s most scenic parking lot and descend the narrow flights of steps, the scene is always the same. Floriana waits with her arms spread and wraps us into the tightest of hugs, our reunion disturbing the calm of the cool blue and white lounge. After our excited clamouring dies down, we continue to catch-up over a spritz on the terrace. (To call it simply a ‘terrace’ is an understatement: it’s hard evidence that blue really is the warmest colour.) We linger, telling stories about our respective adventures and by the time the sky has faded to the candyfloss pink that signals sundown, we are back to where we left off last year. 

Our long standing favourite place for aperitivo in Sorrento is at the Grand Hotel Excelsior, on the other side of town. The bar has unrivalled views over the Bay of Naples and is one of the few places in town that provides front row seats to the spectacle of the sun dropping westward into the sea. Much to Ariane’s delight that evening back in 2014, the Top Gear crew had realised the same and was seated at the table right next to us, drinking gin and tonics. When we plucked up the courage to ask them about their cat, they laughingly told us that it was a quote from a 1969 Monty Python episode and then asked us to join them for a drink. Talk about us Brits and our sense of humour… Truth be told though, there are limited options for bars in Sorrento, so running into the same faces multiple times within one holiday is quite common. Our nightcaps are always had on the secluded terrace of La Minervetta, under the ebony sky with the constellations as our entertainment. 

Summer has never truly started until we get into the water. The itinerary for the first morning does not change: a swift breakfast before hot footing down to the decking of the marina piccola to wait for our boat and skipper to take us along the Costiera Amalfitana for the day. We bounce with impatience over the waves along the peninsula, sailing around the Punta Campanella until we drop anchor in the basin of Li Galli. This idyllic cluster of islands was formerly owned by ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and despite our best attempts, we have not yet wrangled an invite to dip in his infinity pool (maybe this year?). In any case, swimming in the sea is more important. Endless lengths at the local swimming club paid off: we backflip into the water and compete as to who can go the deepest underwater. Most of the time, our mum watches our antics with her elegant nonchalance, though one July a few years ago, she thought she could participate in our race around il Gallo Lungo. That escapade concluded with a lifebuoy and a sausage float.  

There are only so many times you can dive off a boat before hunger calls you to lunch. Ariane prefers the Tre Ville Beachclub with its airy white and blue terrace, but my loyalties lie with Lo Scoglio in the Marina del Cantone. There is something about the way that the sea breeze drifts in across the decking and the luscious green figs, served as the dolce, that gets my vote. Ariane does concede that their spaghetti alle vongole is the best on the coast and I’ll admit that Tre Ville’s pizzas are rather good, so despite our light-hearted bickering, lunch at either is a win-win. 

Anyone who has enjoyed a languid lunch the Campanian way knows that swimming afterwards is not a good idea. Instead, we let our boat drift along the coastline with its gravity-defying boulders, suspended between the cerulean blue of the sea and the cobalt sky, while we sunbathe side by side. From time to time, our mum, in search of a new linen dress or spindly leather sandals, convinces us to cast in at one of the towns that pepper the coastline. On other occasions, we simply observe from our pelagic vantage point, spying coves to explore, beach clubs for future lunches, and hotels perched on the cliffs. One afternoon–I think it was summer 2017–when the intense heat enveloped everything in an azure haze, we sailed past a promontory just outside Praiano, making out the forms of pale sun loungers camouflaged among the rocks. As our eyes came into focus, we noticed a villa perched high above: it was Casa Privata, or Ca’ P’a, a discovery which started a new chapter in our vacanze sorrentine.

For as much as we love the Minervetta, sometimes my mum and I convince Ariane to try other places along the coast in an attempt to escape the influx of package holidays that descend on Sorrento. She grudgingly agrees, partly because staying further along the coast requires a drive along the infamous, windy Strada Statale 163. I am the designated driver. Years of driving in Italy means that I am used to their customs, plus I am unphased by heights or speed limits. I take after my dad in this way. Conversely, my mum and sister spend the drive white-knuckled, while at the same time, exclaiming about the postcard views revealed turn after turn like layers of sfogliatelle. All complaints about the drive dissipate upon arrival at our chosen ‘alternatives’ over the years. At Ca’ P’a, Ariane promptly nabbed the prime sunlounger at the water’s edge; at Le Sirenuse, she and my mum enthused over the array of antiques and the incredible setting for sundowners at Franco’s Bar. Despite grabbing one of the best tables in the whole of Positano, Ariane took a sip of her Aperol Spritz, looked at us with a mischievous glint in her eye and nonchalantly remarked, “The view is still better in Sorrento.” 

Traversing the Sorrentine Peninsula on land completes a tale that can only be half told from the sea. Each village has its own personality, each secluded beach its own character. Our habits remain the same year after year: we find the route down to the sea, meandering between stone houses, lemon groves, and gorse bushes until we reach gravelled coves with only a handful of other determined sunbathers for company. A day is spent in blissful oscillation between basking in the sun and exploring the crystalline waters until the cove is cast into shade and the water suddenly turns cool. Then it’s time to hike back up the path – which seems far steeper than on the way down – wearing bikinis still wet from the last dip. The intense afternoon sun helps the seawater evaporate from our skin, leaving crystals behind. Faces bronzed, hair salty, and eyes glistening, we are as carefree as when we were children.      

Buoyed by the success of Amalfi Coast road trips during the day, we sometimes decide to leave Sorrento for dinner. I am again the designated driver; Ariane is the DJ. We head off into the setting sun, windows down, Bruce Springsteen blaring from the speakers. At Don Alfonso 1890, we dine in the garden, sharing our deepest secrets by flickering candlelight. Over many visits, the owners have become dear friends and some nights, we stay until the early hours with Ernesto and Mario Iaccarino, drinking the aptly named elixir di bacco before venturing back down from Sant’Agata along the winding road. When we are feeling particularly glamorous, Ariane in black and me in white, I commit to the long drive to Villa Tre Ville. As we take our pre-dinner drinks underneath the billowing white curtains of the salone bianca, the lights of Positano glimmer across the bay and we reflect on how lucky we are to be back yet another time.  

The grand finale of our holiday is always the Festa di Sant’Anna. Italians know how to throw a party. None, however, are more experienced than the Campanians, whose warm-heartedness, local tradition, and bravura create the ideal cocktail. The Festa di Sant’Anna is traditionally a Catholic celebration, but in Sorrento’s Marina Grande, it has become a party of its own category. Presiding over it all is the party thrown by Marco de Luca, the Minervetta’s owner and designer. Marco has had a hand in the design of some of our favourite places along the coastline, and there are many familiar faces to be found mingling on the terrace over glasses of falanghina. As the clock strikes midnight, all eyes turn towards the bay of Vesuvius for a 15-minute fireworks display that gets more and more spectacular year after year. Faces illuminated in red and yellow, the patterns cast in the night sky reflected in our eyes, Ariane and I turn to each other and smile: we will always be sisters and there will always be Sorrento.

Photography by Raf Maes

Maison la Minervetta

Grand Hotel Excelsior

Tre Ville Beachclub

Lo Scoglio

Franco’s Bar

Don Alfonso 1890

Villa Tre Ville