We’re in Italy celebrating Mr Gallivant’s BIG birthday, and after a few treasured days in Rome it’s time to head south for a week on the Sorrentine Peninsula. This is a first for all three of us – Sweet Pea is still but a distant dreamy hope – and I’m thrilled to be discovering the coastal delights of Campania at last. But first up and we need to actually find our destination. It’s not so easy on the snaking hairpin roads that suffuse the rocky 40-mile or so protruding headland once off the highway, particularly in the hammering rain as night hones in around us and with no GPS to our name.
We pick up a route from the A3 autostrada shortly after Pompeii that meanders the Lattari Mountains – the physical backbone of this promontory of land so illustrious in Italy for its staggering scenery – and head towards the setting sun along a surplus of switchback bends hoping to soon stumble upon the village of Schiazzano, for if not the peninsula will at some point simply tumble into the Tyrrhenian Sea. We do at least have a rudimentary map, our one saving grace. And an hour or so after leaving the motorway we eventually take up a road that loops and lolls across the rugged landscape and leads us ultimately to the tiny little hilltop hamlet at the western tip where we will be staying for the week ahead.
It’s perfectly dark now and still the rain pours down. The remoteness in which we find ourselves has us doubting if we’ve even reached the right destination. There are no signs of life in the village and certainly no signs hinting at a charming boutique hotel. I leave the boys safe and dry in the car and dart up a steeply sloping pathway in the deluge to pinpoint this Sorrentine sanctuary of ours disguising itself as an enchanting place to stay. It has to be up here; we’ve just come along the only road into the village and it leads to a dead end.
And then I spy the logo for Lubra Casa Relax winking warmly by the light of a street lamp in the wet night, its rooftop motif set alongside a mammoth oak door. Within moments, I’m being embraced by Mamma Lucia as though a long-lost niece, and any lingering doubts are all at once dispelled.
I’m ushered into a beautiful covered courtyard bestowing a barrel vault ceiling adorned with original 18th-century frescoes. The building itself dates from the 16th century and was once upon a time occupied by the parish priests of the village. Now it is run as a comfortable haven by the lovely Lucia and her family for those seeking solace away from the hectic coastal haunts, high up on a hill giving onto the most magnificent views of the Bay of Naples.
The boys join me and we’re led through the family’s living quarters where an elderly relative is gripped by a game of football on the tin box of a TV set in the corner of the room. I’d read that the place was unashamedly a home from home, and as long as the indisputable warm welcome of an extensive Italian family doesn’t unsettle you, this indulgent little guesthouse is the ideal antidote to the bustling, over-budget places to stay all along the built-up coastline. What’s more, we arrive at a time of year which is still reasonably quiet and only one other of the six rooms is occupied. Quite wonderfully, we practically have the place to ourselves – well, along with the very welcoming family whose own premises is right next door.
We’re booked into the Ligea Suite, named after the queen of the mermaids – all six bedrooms are individually decorated to personify a mermaid from the Myth of Ulysses as an intimation to the maritime past of the peninsula; and the name Lubra itself comes from lubrum, which is Latin for ‘Temple of the mermaids’. The suite comprises two double rooms – one up, one down – separated by a stone stairway, but annexed off as your own private quarters by a sliding door for those staying as a family. Some of the other rooms have a sofa bed for either a triple or quadruple alternative, but it was our very own rooftop terrace that swung the suite option for us. And the next morning – the incessant rain of the previous day a distant memory – we wake to an impeccably blue sky and the most panoramic vistas from our private sundeck imaginable. To the west, the island of Ischia formidably obtrudes from iridescent waters. And across the sea to the east, Italy’s third city of Naples sprawls along the shoreline in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. It’s all absolutely splendido!
We’d arrived late the evening before so, after a substantial Italian breakfast sourced from local products, we take a tour of the small but superb little property on our first morning. Its lofty location means Lubra Casa Relax has no end of spectacular seascapes everywhere you look, and the petite pool terrace is the perfect setting on which to relax and savour the surrounding natural scenery. And there’s no shortage of other advantageously placed patio areas around the residence to appreciate the beautiful backdrop either.
Alongside the pool terrace is Lucia’s very own cooking school, which specialises in the art of pizza making. We are after all barely an olive stone’s throw from the birthplace of pizza across the bay in Naples, and as we unwind by the poolside that first day – Jem and Mr G frolicking in the pocket-sized pool – the delicious smoky scent of pizza baking in the great big wood-burning oven suffuses over us as Lucia’s clients, from as far afield as Australia, busy themselves with kneading a precision-made dough and putting the finishing touches to the perfect Neapolitan pizza.
Captivated by the culinary delights of Lucia’s kitchen, Jem too is treated to a pizza-making lesson that evening. It’s a whole lot of fun, especially getting to gorge on it afterwards. But nothing quite prepares us for the gastronomic pleasures we’re about to glory in. Each evening for the next week, we experience a true cornucopia of Lucia’s classic Italian cuisine. Simple, natural ingredients crafted exquisitely to create the most unassuming yet lip-smackingly appetizing of local foods. Lucia is a first-rate chef, and her fresh, seasonal fare foraged from the Massa Lubrense area is quite frankly among the best food we’ve ever eaten. Her creations are so good that we can’t wait for our meal each evening – mouthwatering antipasti of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes mixed with Sorrrentine flavours, hunks of salt-encrusted focaccia (out of this world!), Caprese pasta dishes prepared in the traditional way of neighbouring Capri, and of course the pizza. Lucia’s homemade pizza. Prepared before our very eyes and baked in the wood oven beside us. It’s heavenly. Just divine! The secret to exquisite pizza, Lucia affirms, is all in the dough – the right amount of each ingredient, the right kneading technique and the right leavening time. And she gets it just right every time, for all the pizzas we polish off during our week at Lubra Casa Relax are perfection.
restaurant © http://www.lubracasarelax.it
And so our week on the Sorrentine Peninsula hastens all too quickly in a glorious haze of luscious food, lazy poolside moments and lots of sightseeing encompassing the enormity of things to see in the locale.
Following in the footsteps of the 19th-century foreigners on their grand tours of Italy before us, we delve into the delights of Sorrento, holiday hotspot of the Romans back in the day. Settled on strapping cliffs outcropping into the Bay of Naples, it is nowadays a cutesy coastal tourist trap engorged with souvenir shops selling a surfeit of citrus-based goods. The town is nonetheless a great base for taking the boat out to neighbouring Naples or the islands, and the views of Sorrento from the sea roosting along its rugged rock face are remarkably special.
We sail across the bay to the sprawling, spirited city of Naples one day. Capital of Italy’s Campania region, she is unassumingly home to the largest historic centre of any European city and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Meandering the rousing, energetic streets of the centro storico really is a magical experience; the gritty, disintegrating architecture still grasps onto a glimmer of the city’s glory days concealed in the layers of crumbling cornices and peeling paintwork, yet it continues to be a colourful Mediterranean metropolis satiated with spark, culinary savoir-faire and surprising charm.
We cruise over to Capri another day. The island rises wraithlike from indigo waters, its rocky limestone cliffs towering above the Tyrrhenian Sea. In Roman times, it inextricably played host to the excesses of hedonistic emperors, and to this day remains a playground paradise for the well-heeled. Capri Town itself is tourist intemperance at its utmost with designer stores, high-end hotels and flocks of the fashionable set flaunting themselves along the picturesque, narrow streets. Fortunately, this is all in contrast to the charm of Capri as a whole, where away from the tourist spots a serenity holds sway allowing the natural beauty of the island to shine and the mythical allure of long ago to linger stealthily in the unseen.
We head to Pompeii and Herculaneum, about an hour’s drive away, on another occasion. It’s been a longing of mine since a child to visit these archaeological sites and I’m beyond excited. Jem less so about seeing a pile of yet more old stone ruins; it was only a few days ago after all that he was being dragged around the Forum in Rome. Until, that is, he gets to see the perfectly preserved remains of real humans and begins to put the whole eruption of Mount Vesuvius into perspective. The past can indeed be more interesting when acquainted with how people came to their grisly ends! The sites are a fascinating step back in time, made all the more ominous with the soaring Mount Vesuvius setting a menacing backdrop; an unyielding threat to the three million people living around. The last major eruption was over 70 years ago and devastated several villages in the vicinity; another outburst from Europe’s most deadly mainland volcano is inevitably in the offing.
On a lighter note, the next day we head to the beach at Marina del Cantone, a few kilometres from Schiazzano on the south coast of the peninsula. The drive along the looping, dipping road that wraps around the coastline en route to Termini is quite incredible, and gives onto the most dazzling views of Capri. The beach itself is pebbly – the Amalfi Coast is after all synonymous with dramatic scenery and not at all for a sun-bleached sandy shoreline – but is the closest to Lubra Casa Relax if you’re tempted by a dip in the turquoise waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
And perhaps most special of all, we take a drive on several occasions along the celebrated Amalfi Coast. This is the spectacular coastline that spans the southern stretch of the peninsula, while Sorrento overlooks Naples on the northern shore – a common oversight by many who seem to think the towns of Amalfi and Sorrento share the same coast. All the same, the road that threads the two sides together offers some staggering scenery, and is only a stone’s throw from Schiazzano. A little beyond Sant Agata, be sure to stop off at some of the viewing points to take in the panoramic vistas of both sides of the peninsula.
The precipitous road picks up again along twisting bends through a breathtaking terrain of stunning seascapes towards Positano. So this is the captivating Amalfi Coast route I’ve heard so much about. And it lives up to every expectation. We’re visiting the area in late April, and fortunately there are far fewer cars on the road than in peak season, making it the perfect time for a sojourn. The whole Amalfi Coast was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997 as an ‘outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape with exceptional cultural and natural scenic values’, and it genuinely is a gorgeously crafted geographic marvel. It’s not for nothing that it’s such a magnet for tourists.
The road loops on through the superb landscape and eventually leads into Positano, a treat of a pastel-toned town tumbling down a sheer hillside and into the shimmering waters below. Dine on the beach for the best views of the lofty ascent sprawling upwards before you. And be prepared for some challenging climbs as you saunter through the picture-postcard setting afterwards to walk off that profuse pizza and pasta feast, but the views are absolutely worth it.
The indulgent drive delights even more onwards to Amalfi via Praiano and Conca dei Marini; an endless extravagance of vistas where sparkling sea convenes with vertiginous cliffs and verdant hills studded with villages suspended spectacularly on their verges.
Then we ascend into the lush, green hills upwards to Ravello, which to me must be the Amalfi Coast’s crowning glory, a golden nugget of a town graciously nestled atop a giddying stage set of glorious views. There’s a bit less bustle up here than back down in the coastal crowd-pullers, and we get to spend a blissful afternoon ambling along the quiet and charismatic streets, past the 11th-century Duomo, past the places where Richard Wagner composed part of the opera Parsifal and D H Lawrence penned Lady Chatterley’s Lover, past the Villa Rufolo and its striking sea views, past luscious lemon groves and landscaped gardens alive with exotic vegetation; all of this exquisiteness concluding in the splendour of The Gardens of the Villa Cimbrone , a refined and romantic setting with simply the most scenic of terraces, the Terrazzo dell’Infinito, resting on a rocky outcrop and overlooking the expanse of cerulean sea and all that is so inspirational about this stretch of Italian coastline.
It is with a tinge of woe that we take our leave of Lubra Casa Relax at the end of our wonderful week. And we are resolute that we will one day return. The region itself is enthralling, but what is so special about this boutique retreat is its genuine personal touch. The graciousness and generosity of our hosts, Lucia and her brother Augusto, are insurmountable. Never before have we stayed at a place where we’ve felt so at home and been treated so royally. And for me, it is this very attention to detail that divides the far more friendly smaller accommodations from the often detached and insincere larger establishments and chain hotels.
* Lubra Casa Relax has 6 rooms from 75 euros a night including breakfast