Italians describe a person who loves mornings as mattiniera (ma-teen-yer-uh), from mattino (morning). Dawn comes later in the fall, so even in that vaguely disoriented, jet-lagged state I always feel at the beginning of a trip to Italy – some people say they never get jet-lagged – I don’t know what kind of circadian rhythm their bodies work on, but it’s a lot different from mine – in ogni caso – in spite of all that disruption, on the first morning I woke up in time to watch the sun come over the mountains behind Sorrento.
For the first three days of this trip I had booked a room in a small B&B close to Marina Grande. Staying in simple B&B’s and Agriturismi (see ‘Towers and Tourists’ for a description of this innovative concept) instead of hotels was part of my plan to keep costs as low as possible – a feeble attempt to rationalize this second indulgence of the year. What had drawn me to Casa a Mare – in addition to the positive effect it would have on my budget – was the location – 30 metres from the little fishing harbour. The thought of hearing the gentle waves of the Mediterranean from my room was irresistible.
In just a few hours the tiny harbour would be full of activity, but when I walked down to the quay that first morning there were just a few fishermen repairing their nets. It was a scene I would see repeated over and over in the coming days. Fishermen patiently rewinding and repairing seemingly endless lengths of netting. And discussing. Always discussing.
I got lucky that first morning. While I was wandering around the harbour, the last fishing boat came in with its haul.
First off was the tuna. They were carefully arranged, two to each styrofoam container. They must have been a good weight, because these burly fellows grunted as they lifted the containers up to a buyer who, just a few minutes earlier, had backed up his truck to within inches of the edges of the quay.
The ‘big’ harbour had its own constantly changing rhythm that, to my outsider’s city eye, seemed quaint, and in a way, untimely. After the fishing boats and fishermen left, tables were set up and quickly occupied by tourists, most of whom by noon were already indulging in one kind of aperitivo or the other, presumably while they pondered which of the restaurants lining the harbour they should go to for lunch that day. Later in the afternoon new groups of visitors filled the tables and the pattern was repeated.
Down here at sea level it was hard to believe Sorrento, with all its 21st century hustle and bustle and shops and crowds was only steps – albeit all uphill – away.
What puzzled me was its name. Why was the small harbour called Marina Grande? And why was Sorrento’s other harbour, the much larger, commercial one at the eastern edge of the city, where the gigantic ferry boats and hydrofoils that carried passengers and vehicles back and forth between Naples, Capri and Sorrento docked, called Marina Piccola?
I asked Sergio, the owner of Casa a Mare. As in most otherwise inexplicable things in Italy, it was a question of storia. Storia is another of those chameleon words. It can mean ‘story’, but it can also, as it did in this case, mean ‘history’ which, when you think about how much history can vary depending on who is doing the writing and when and why, is perhaps not so strange after all.
In the case of the oddly named harbours, the explanation was pretty straightforward. Marina Grande is a natural harbour, Sorrento’s first, and for centuries, only harbour. Until a massive construction project in recent times, Marina Piccola had been nothing more than a small, unimportant inlet.
After only three days it was hard to leave. The weather had been even more beautiful than I had hoped for. And the forecasts for the rest of October were almost comical. You could just imagine the meteorologists straining to find new and intriguing ways to describe the, perhaps for them, boringly stable conditions – ‘Beautiful with sunshine – A full day of sunshine – Plenty of sunshine – Brilliant sunshine….’ I had no idea what the various degrees of sunshine meant. I just knew it was all bellissimo! Perfect for exploring the gardens, ancient pathways and villages of the Amalfi Coast.
Next stop – Villa Maria, an agriturismo high in the hills along the Amalfi Coast.