H.C. Andersen, Freud, and Goethe knew how to find good accommodation, without Google: They have all visited Grand Hotel Cocumella, a former monastery and Latin grammar school in Saint’Agnello, a 10-minutes stroll from Sorrento. Cocumella has a lush convent garden, shady benches, and a large terrace with elevator down to a private sundeck (the elevator a more recent invention).
Cocumella was our home for a week in October. It was fun to encounter two “countrymen” in the hotel book: H.C. Andersen and Vera. The first hardly needs introduction; the latter was built in 1880 as a fishing boat called Gertrud Marie in Svaneke, Denmark. Later, she was fitted out as a ketch, and she now belongs to the owners of Cocumella, who use her for guest excursions. Vera was in a shipyard during our stay, but another tall ship anchored just off the hotel garden.
Pompeii and Vesuvius
It takes 1-1½ hours to drive from Cocumella to Naples. About halfway is Pompeii and Vesuvius. I recommend to take the coastal road, Via Sorrentina: More scenic, and you avoid three gloomy tunnels on road SS145, which gives you the feeling of carbon monoxide poisoning!
Pompeii is a ‘must see’ but patience is needed, as many sites are closed due to excavation and (overdue) maintenance. The Italians ought to have a ‘Clean up Vesuvius Day” to collect litter along the access road to the volcano. Our guidebook told of an eyewitness report from the eruption in 79: The eyewitness claimed that the eruption had divided the water in the Gulf of Naples – almost like when Moses and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.
Naples is not pretty. Our first impression was traffic chaos (it would probably had been better to take the train). Miraculously, we managed to find a ‘Quick – No Problem’ covered parking.
We visited Castel Nuovo and the famous Grand Café Gambrinus, where we had cake and ‘caffé alla nocciola’ (suggested by our guidebook). Interesting history, but no culinary treat. The cafe decor was impressive, though, with vaulted ceilings and chandeliers.
The narrow streets of the infamous Quartieri Spagnoli with laundry lines and plastic decorated balconies reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy, where families are tied together in fates of poverty, crime, and corruption. Nevertheless, we felt safe!
Fried seafood was sold in paper cones everywhere, and we had to try. Just as we started eating, it started to downpour. We found an outdoor cafe with plastic cover and sat glancing for a while at the rain-resistant tourists (mostly American), umbrella-selling immigrants, before heading back to Cocumella.
A firm hold on the steering wheel is recommended when driving from Sorrento across the peninsula to the Amalfi coast. Also, try not to be too distracted by chili booths, dramatic cliffs, and glitter blue sea on the way.
Amalfi town lies at the mouth of a deep ravine. It is small, charming, and touristy. The cathedral is surprisingly large and beautifully decorated inside, with multiple floors built into the cliff.
We drove on, up to the charming Ravello village which is somewhat hidden – in the old days because of pirates – and thus less touristy. We came looking for a specific restaurant recommended by our hosts, but we ended up at the Belmond Hotel Caruso with sunset views, festive drinks and delicious food.
Also Sorrento offered nice dining, except for Syrenuse on the main square which we left quickly! We sneaked past the guard into the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, to end the night on their terrace, where we enjoyed the passionate house musician and his 70s hits!
October was a perfect time to visit: Less tourists, a few showers, and unabated Mediterranean atmosphere with lemon trees, views of Vesuvius, pizzerias, and shops offering citronella, ceramics, and naughty-shaped pasta!
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