Memento of Sorrento – 2

24 Feb

It’s April and Day 2 in Sorrento breaks warm and cloudy. Vesuvius is ominously brooding across the water . Our  rep. James wants his team to muster promptly at 10 for a walking tour of the town. We could probably do without but what is there to lose?

The dining room is awash with Euro accents east to west. Snake-hipped Luigis slalom through the tables with a loud, warm insincerity which makes us all feel good. I remember seeing the startling décor of the Hotel Admiral on arrival. There’s a plastic green-and-white American retro thing going on in the entrance lobby and bar. An emerald Statue of Liberty is frescoed on sparkling white wall.  The interior decorators haven’t got to the dining room yet but that disaster can’t be far off. Vesuvius frowns at all this. It’s hardly in keeping with the grandeur of the ancient sites up the road or the elegance of Sorrento itself.

When James calls the roll, I’m somewhat hyper from the repeated cups of highly caffeinated low-grade hotel sludge-coffee. We troop out of the hotel, a somewhat chaotic and self-conscious band of brothers and sisters, all hoping that we can get the bonding thing over with quickly. The nut-brown, weather-wrinkled fishermen stand around their battered boats waiting, scowling resentful of…I’m not sure what.  Cars parked along the quay are all, without exception, battered by careless and expert dents and scrapings. No bumper, door, hub cap or wheel arch is unscathed it seems. The narrow, cobbled lanes and tight coastal roads are only partly to blame. The arrogance of speed, the devil of the Neapolitan is evident. A little collision and the resulting abrasion is a calling card greeted with a shoulder shrug. The other car is at fault, even when stationary.

The sky is brightening as we climb the cobbled steps up, up to Piazza Tasso, the heart of Sorrento. The scent of lemons is everywhere. Huge fruits fill baskets and decorate displays of the ubiquitous spirit Limoncello. The tight bazaar running up to the Piazza is a blast of colour- scarves, hats,fruits, confectionary, cakes, books, glass, ceramics – each stall and shop with a smiling, insistent invitation to sample and buy.

The hectic crush of the narrow market streets give way to the elegant main square, Tasso, named after the great poet. Here the traffic is snarled – a gridlock made inevitable  by the sinister, unsmiling officiousness of a policewoman issuing a ticket to the driver of an enormous pantechnicon. The two are locked in voluble argument. The seem oblivious to the wonderful anger of the horns, the gesticulations, the shouts of drivers and pedestrians. The cacophony is fabulous. And the tourist season is only just beginning.

We head for the Limoncello ‘Cave’ just off the square. A chilled one mid-morning is just the ticket. We down a couple of freebies served by a gorgeous Sophia Loren-type whose English is incomprehensible but fluent. The liquor slips down a treat in the mid-morning haze. I’m tempted to buy several bottles but space in the case is limited and I fear that the sick-yellow firewater will gather dust in the less romantic surroundings of my dingy lounge.

James leads us on, umbrella aloft to guide his flock past the majestic cathedral tucked away down a sidestreet to a shopping plaza and into a furniture store. Cuomo’s Lucky Store – the name didn’t inspire excitement – but within was a vast cavern of expensive and intimidating objets d’art. A floor of flooring – ancient and modern rugs of oriental provenance; a floor of ceramics – pottery of every shape and size, from bright, gaudy Italian peasantware to more muted but chic tureens and plates. All was ultra-modern or ultra-retro. The basement floor was the Aladdin’s cave. Here the signature woodwork was on display. Cuomo’s, we were told by a charming Paolo was world renowned for inlay marquetry-work. All around us from chessboards  to wardrobes to throne-like chairs to vast dining tables, the craftsmen’s wares gargoyled at us. Impressively kitsch and garish – the stuff could have been made for Chelsea- if not in. Essex might suit better. Perhaps Richard Branson could find space for it in his rebuilt pad on that island of his. I shouldn’t splutter on too much – the skills involved in the artwork, the creation and fashioning of the ebony, boxwood and sycamore; the veneering processes…

Paolo directed me to a modest dining table. I affected curiosity, then keenness. I checked the price – £20,000. My shoulder shrug seemed to encourage him. I comforted myself with the thought that it’s so hard to tell one oligarch from another these days. We’re all designed-stubbled and have Barbour quilts.

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