“Do you know where I can get a glow-in-the-dark crucifix?” asked Andy.
“A glow in the dark crucifix.”
“Well, yes. But why on earth do you want one?”
“I’ll tell you later. But these things actually exist then?”
“I thought he was pulling my plonker,” Andy said, shaking his head. This conversation was confusing me, but Andy insisted that he had to have such a crucifix and his girlfriend, Betty, was equally adamant. They were over for the week from England and were most agreeable houseguests, for all they ever wanted to do was sit on the beach all day, whatever the weather or temperature, and spend the evening eating and drinking. Giovanna and I felt under no pressure to show them the delights of the Amalfi coast or give guided tours of Roman ruins, because they really couldn’t have cared less. They were just here to relax. The glow-in-the-dark crucifix was the first request they had made since they had landed, and so we made arrangements to spend the evening in Sorrento, where I knew of a shop that specialised in tasteless monstrosities of this sort. It was opposite the cloister of San Francesco, and Andy’s face lit up like that of a little boy given a free run of Toys R Us.
“Oh, this is wonderful!”
“Wonderful” was not the word I would have chosen. There were Virgin Maria coffee sets, Last Supper mirrors, clocks with the scared face of Jesus, the hands of which were set in his burning heart. There were holographs which changed image as you walked by them, the face of Jesus morphing into that of his mother Mary, who was always portrayed as several years younger than her son. Worst of all was one in which Jesus, dying in agony on the cross, opened and closed his eyes, or raised and lowered his head, depending on the angle from which you were looking at it.
Andy’s reaction was puzzling. He had never shown any Catholic tendencies in the past. Indeed, he had often claimed that there was something very sinister about the Catholic Church, and what he referred to as “papist claptrap”. And Betty, as far as I knew, was not a Catholic, so she could hardly be blamed for this apparent sudden conversion.
“Yes!” said Betty, squealing in delight, as she found what it was they had been looking for. It was horrific. A white, plastic image of our Lord, glued to a wooden cross and which, when shielded from light sources, glowed florescent green.
“That’s the one,” Andy told me gleefully. “Find out how much it costs, will you?”
“Are you going to tell me what all this is about?” I insisted.
“It’s for Nigel, our organist at church.”
“But your church is Anglican. Surely Anglicans don’t have any time for this sort of shit?”
“This one does. He collects Catholic tat for fun. The tackier the better. He’s got a hell of a collection, but this place would have him kissing his fingertips,” said Andy, looking around him. “Pity I didn’t bring more spending money. Still, we can take a picture.”
And so I pointed the camera at Andy and Betty, arms draped around each other’s shoulders, as they posed, and pushed the shutter button.
When the crucifix had been paid for and gift-wrapped, and the lady in black who ran the place had complimented Andy on his evident good taste, we made our way to the English Inn for a pint of John Smith’s.
“I like it here,” said Andy, slurping on is pint.
“What, you mean this pub?”
“Yeah, the pub too, but I meant Sorrento.”
“Well, why don’t we come back here tomorrow and take a look around? You can hardly go home without seeing Sorrento properly, can you?”
Andy and Betty looked at each other and blinked, possibly weighing up the opportunity cost in terms of a morning not spent sitting on Vico beach, singing duets from Broadway musicals together, as was their wont.
“Come on!” I encouraged them. “You can go back to the beach on Monday when I’m at work.” They still looked uncertain.
“We can come back here afterwards and have a few pints and a plate of egg and chips.” I dangled the carrot in front of their noses and they lunged at it.
“OK,” said Andy. “But nothing too strenuous.”
We got up late, had a leisurely breakfast on the balcony and then caught the train which took us on a seven minute journey through orange and lemon groves, and the sort of lush vegetation typical of this area. Sorrento, nicknamed “La Gentile”, The Gracious One for the beauty of her surroundings, is protected by the sea to the north and by the ragged peaks of the Monti Lattari to the south. The name “Sorrento” comes from the Latin Surrentum, after the sirens who tempted Ulysses. Today the town is one of the tourist meccas of Italy, the sort of place where you can buy fish and chips, enjoy a pint or two in English, Scottish and Irish pubs, sip “real” Maxwell House coffee, or sit and read “The Daily Telegraph”. It should be a nightmare, but somehow it isn’t, for there is still enough of Italy left in Sorrento to make it a thoroughly pleasant place to be – and not just Italy, either. The Goths, Lombards, Pirates, Normans, Saracens, right up to the Bourbons, all passed through here, fell for the charms of Sorrento, or were, at least, enthusiastic about its strategic position, and left their mark on the modern town.
The beauty of life in Sorrento is to be found in the streets, especially in the main thoroughfare of Corso Italia and the backstreets around it, crammed with shop displays selling ready-made pasta sauces, novelty spaghetti in rainbow colours, wood carvings, model Ferraris, saucy aprons, guide books, postcards and, of course, Catholic tat. We sat in Piazza Torquato Tasso in the centre of Sorrento, with its monument to the great poet, and statue of Saint Antonino, patron saint of the town, and had a cappuccino in the historic Bar Fauno, across from the 18th century church of Santa Maria del Carmine, a ludicrous but charming wedding cake-like edifice. When we got bored of that, we strolled around the cloister of San Francesco di Assisi – 14th century architecture with octagonal pillars and bougainvillea everywhere. We went down to the seafront, which is something of a downmarket Positano. The fishing boats here are not painted in garish colours but are actually used for fishing, and are rigged out with masts and nets, lobster pots and rotting wooden crates.
Sorrento doesn’t have a seafront as such to promenade along, but there are splendid Patrician villas to admire, some of them in a studied state of crumbling, and gardens with orange and lemon trees, heavy with fruit. You can sit and enjoy the workings of the busy ports, Marina Piccola and Marina Grande, cluttered with cruise ships and hoverfoils, some sailing around past Massa Lubrense on their way to the Amalfi coast and Capri, others, less fortunate, headed for Naples. We sat on a sea wall and appreciated the view of Vesuvius, looking even more innocuous from here than it did from Naples, and decided how we were going to spend the rest of the morning. I wanted to show Andy and Betty the Museo Correale di Terranova. Here, there were Roman and medieval marble statues, as well as paintings by notable artists, Italian and otherwise, especially those of the Posillipo school in Naples.
But Andy remembered all too well what I had said about egg and chips at the English Inn and he held me to it. We hiked back up the steps to Corso Italia, sat down outside the English Inn and watched the pretty girls going past, ordered plates of egg and chips – which I insisted they try with salt and lemon rather than ketchup, and simply let the world carry on without us. It might seem almost criminal to eat egg and chips in a country which has far superior gastronomic fare to offer. But sometimes a little taste of home can do you the power of good.