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Italy: Not for the faint-hearted

There are hairpin bends, lively driving and near misses on the way up, but the view at the top of Monte San Costanzo provides ample rewards

Italy: Not for the faint-hearted
Monte San Costanzo. Image: Getty

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“Are you from Naples or Sorrento?” I whimper at our driver, who takes a hairpin turn at 40 mph in our long, seven-seater taxi.

“I’m from here. Sorrento. Why do you ask?” he replies, in Italian.

He speeds so fast over the cobbled road that we bounce along its surface.

“It’s just that you drive like a real Neapolitan,” I say, awaiting an offended reply.

“Well, thank you!”

I am confused. I ask him to clarify: it’s an honour to be told you drive like a Neapolitan, apparently. They are the best drivers, he tells me with delight.

Inwardly I beg to differ as our Sorrentian driver heads further up the gravelly country tracks of the hills through Termini, just above the coast of Sorrento. Nonnas sit outside their houses on the side of the road, hugging bowls full of peeled beans on their plastic sun-chairs and call out across the street with violent hand gestures, which, here, are often synonymous with love.

We’re being taken — hopefully in one piece — to the top of the Sorrentian peninsula of Punta Campanella, where after a short hike we will breathe the clear air of the Amalfi Coast, with a view of the glamorous islands of Ischia and Capri, among other craggy isles, that speckle the peninsula’s shimmering ocean.

Safety concerns mounting, we swerve round an ancient lady attempting to cross the road and I try to relax into my seat to enjoy the breathtaking view which complements the winding road. Each nauseating turn inland is rewarded with an external view along the stony, forest-crusted edge, beyond which the spectacularly blue Tyrrhenian Sea dissolves into the sky. Wedged into the hill, villages are made up of tall yellow buildings, squat white arches and square stone houses, mismatched and Lego-like in their seemingly accidental placement amongst one another.

Almost 500 yards above sea level we arrive at the beginning of a little sentiero. This Italian word for ‘path’ is strikingly sensory — the beginning half of the word meaning ‘listen’, or more loosely ‘feel’, which is what we do now, feeling our way through the thin trail, riven with huge rocks and framed either side by a moody, turquoise mirror of salt. At the end of this track the pine trees open up to a set of wide, limestone steps rimmed by logs, beyond which a little white chapel sits at the edge of the peak.

Circling the stone building is a panorama of Monti Lattari mountains, the hazy, purple Bay of Naples and, threateningly close, the active Mount Vesuvius volcano, perhaps the inspiration behind our tassista’s ‘carpe-diem’-style of driving.

The chapel has held a prime view of the volcano for more than five centuries; its building having been funded by local families in the 16th century to honour its namesake, San Costanzo. In this vein of memorial, twice yearly the statue of the saint is carried out by villagers in July to the church in Termini, and back up to the chapel the following May. The celebration brings out the music of the Termini brass band and a show of fireworks, as the locals remember the saint in a spectacle of the senses. I certainly leave Sorrento confident of having had my fill of a sensory experiences.

Private excursions and tours are available to book with the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria. 

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