In December, Sorrento’s outdoor market stalls groan beneath the weight of sumptuous food hampers, or stand ablaze with shiny gift-wrapped boxes of delicious panettone (Italian Christmas cake). Nip into the town’s cute little churches and you’ll find enchanting presepi – elaborate nativity scenes wrought with antique figurines, a big tradition of the Campania region. Outside, delicate lights fizz up the trunks of the palm trees and stretch out to illuminate every arcing frond. Excited locals mill about, and the whole town hums with colour and life.
On Sorrento’s shopping streets, even in the winter, summer colour is everywhere – in the ubiquitous bright bottles of limoncello, in the cascades of vivid dried chillies, and in the massive citrus fruits that blaze undimmed by cool December. Sorrento is practically overwhelmed by its oranges and lemons – some so embarrassingly big and breast-like that you can’t help but look away abashed as they ripely poke toward you.
And fecundity isn’t just limited to the stuff in the shops. Sorrento is a hugely popular wedding venue for the young people of nearby Naples. On any Saturday in December, romantic love is likely to be reaching its colourful nuptial apex here. You’ll see crowds of well-wishers throwing rice at a busty bride and her bashful new spouse, and spot the newlyweds again and again throughout town posing for photos and video. The Italian style of wedding portraiture is quite racy, so expect plenty of public snogs and lascivious looks between the dolled-up couple. No cold-hearted winter chill here!
Naturally you’ll want to snap up some glossy gifts to placate the folks back home. The classic souvenir is limoncello – Sorrento’s sweet lemon liqueur. For novelty bottles in wacky shapes, check out the many specialist shops on Via Cesareo and Via Fuoro. You can watch limoncello being made, and sample different blends.
The other traditional Sorrento prezzie is anything decorated with inlaid wood or intarsia – a craft practiced here for centuries. Think gorgeous handmade chess sets, intricate little boxes, trays, pictures and so on. Sorrento’s best spots to buy – or just admire – intarsia are the workshops in Via Fuoro and Piazza Tasso.
Wandering Sorrento’s narrow lanes full of little shops is a delight, in the winter as in the summer. But in December cascades of tiny bulbs brighten every shopfront, and big, bold illuminated stars are strung against the narrow sky. As daylight fades to the pale eggshell blue of twilight, these stars seem to grow ever bigger and brighter. As darkness falls, so the air of excitement ratchets up. This is southern Italy, and siesta-straddling opening-hours are inviolable – regardless of the season. All the shops and all the traders will be bustling with activity till 8pm. And then, in various stages, the passeggiata will begin – the regular celebration of nighttime.
Strolling through your hometown en masse every night naturally fosters a tremendous sense of community. In the run-up to Christmas, Sorrento’s sense of community is at its height. On a summer’s night, the little town would be packed with happy – and welcome – foreign visitors. But in the heart of winter, the town secretly reclaims itself. Everyone you see is a Sorrentine or a Neapolitan, behaving with all the verve and style that that suggests, dressed to the nines and flirting outrageously. To watch them at their stylish best, be sure check out Sorrento’s very coolest bars in Corso Italia and Piazza Tasso, with its disco next door.