Easter in Sorrento is a bizarre mix of religious celebrations and holiday happiness. Hundreds of Sorrentini take part in two very special Easter parades. The first of these, the White Parade, takes place during the night of the Thursday before Easter and starts at three in the morning. The streets are deserted but the route is lined with flickering lamps and ghostly figures can be seen gliding through the back streets. All the churches on the route are open and earlier that day their altars would have been decorated for an evening ‘walk around the sepulchres’. Olive branches often feature in these decorations as they are used for the Palm Sunday celebrations instead of palms.
A band accompanies this first parade and the sound of calm, uplifting music precedes the vision of white cloaked and hooded figures, each carrying a flaming torch, that fills the streets. This is a procession of hope and the processors carry an image of the Virgin Mary who is searching for her son Jesus. The whole procession halts in the front of each church on its route and Mary is taken inside to see if her son is there. Outside the hooded figures wait in silence, there is no breaking of ranks and not a word is spoken – just a street full of robed figures waiting and hoping.
The whole experience is surreal and the next morning, while strolling through the crowded streets of Sorrento, you will wonder if it really happened or if you dreamt it. Throughout the day crowds will be pouring into the town and traffic will probably be prohibited in the centre as the town fills up. The main attraction on this day, Good Friday, is the second parade, the Black Parade or the much more sombre Procession of Death. Crowds begin to line the route several hours before it begins and spectators will climb walls to find good viewing points. It is impossible to follow this parade through the streets unless you walk behind it when departing spectators leave room to move.
Some people feel this second procession verges on the macabre and certainly the effigy of Jesus that is borne aloft is disturbingly lifelike with the cruel thorns of the crown piercing his head. He is accompanied by a grieving Virgin Mary. All hope is lost as she has found her dead son. The accompanying music is funereal music and accompanied by rattling and chanting of the Miserere. All the participants are dressed in black and many wear hoods but not all of them. It is one huge funeral procession watched by thousands of spectators – a memorable event.
The roots of these processions probably go back to 1500 when they were very simple and the brothers from the monastic order (confraternity) responsible for organising them walked through the streets in plain robes with lighted lamps, singing psalms and carrying a bare wooden cross. Probably around 1700 under the domination of the Spanish viceroyalty the parades were influenced by the Jesuit priests who introduced the tradition of carrying Confraternity symbols and standards particularly in the Black Procession.
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By 1806 the numbers of brothers and friars in the local convents had greatly diminished so the King of Naples ‘invited’ other Sorrentini to participate in the procession. This invitation is still repeated today and many local people, in particular the young people, take pride in accepting this invitation and following a tradition that has been handed down from father to son.
There is plenty to explore in Sorrento during the day between the two processions. A good start is the terrace next to the Chiesa di San Francesco overlooking the Bay of Naples. Across the water we could see Naples and Vesuvius towering above it. Close by is the Piazza S. Antonino home of the Basilica di S. Antonino. A basilica is a church dedicated to a particular saint, in this case it is Saint Antonino. Most of the statues of this saint show him standing on a sea creature as the most famous legend about him relates the time he was on Sorrento beach and saved a child that had been swallowed by a whale. There are two whalebones in the church which are said to originate from this creature. He also reputed to be the patron saint for rescues and the church is decorated with gifts from sailors who have survived shipwrecks. Close to the basilica is the Teatro Tasso whose programme regularly features an evening of traditional dances and songs. On the far side of Piazza Tasso is a beautiful palazzo (large house), built during the fourteenth century in Catalan style. It has been transformed by the addition of an Esedra Maiolicata (Majolica courtyard) during the eighteenth century and currently houses the florist Ruoppo and often hosts are exhibitions so visitors are able to enter the building to admire the courtyard.
As Venerdi Santo (Good Friday) is not a bank holiday in Italy all the shops were open and souvenirs particular to Sorrento feature lemons. ‘Lemon’ shops are crammed with every product that can be made using lemons or a lemon flavour and shelves are crammed with assorted bottles of liquors, packets of biscuits, boxes of chocolates, jars of jam, soaps and cosmetics. Lemons grow very easily along the coastline of this region, Campania, and documents and frescoes have recorded cultivation of the typical oval lemon of Sorrento since the end of the first century. Jesuit Fathers were the first to employ the characteristic terraces to cultivate lemons in Sorrento during the sixteenth century when lemon trees were exported here from South America and extensive groves were planted. The lemons are protected from the salt and northern winds by arbours made from straw matting. These arbours slow the growth of the fruit resulting in their unique yellow hue. They are used to produce limonoro, a lemon liqueur that is slightly darker in colour than the more widely known limoncello that is also produced in this region. Only lemons harvested fresh in the morning are used for the simple and traditional old recipe that uses the fresh peel soaked in alcohol. It is served ice-cold and makes an excellent after dinner drink. A cream variety of this drink is produced by the addition of milk and cream.
Easter Sunday is a day for going out. It is considered to be the start of spring and a time when everyone goes out and top of the list is lunch in Sorrento followed by some shopping. In the local hotels the day will start with a festive Easter breakfast, a splendid buffet including special Easter buns and a savoury cake made with whole eggs. The centre piece of such a buffet is often an enormous chocolate Easter egg decorated with sugar flowers.
Easter lunch in Sorrento is also an elaborate affair. For many Italians lunch or pranzo is still the main meal of the day and everything stops at noon when families meet to enjoy this leisurely affair. The meal often starts with an antipasto, an appetiser eaten before the meal. There are numerous regional varieties of this course from cold vegetables dressed in olive oil, slices of cheese, prosciutto (ham), other meats and sometimes hot dishes such as fried vegetables and fish and sometimes a mixture of these, an antipasto misto (mixed appetizers) is served. The primo piatto (first course) comes next and comprises a small plate of pasta or risotto or soup. Il secondo (main course) is a small portion of meat or fish with either lightly-cooked vegetables or a salad. Cheese, which is always eaten with bread, and fresh fruit, is served at the end of the meal and finally an espresso (small strong black coffee). Mineral water and wine accompany this meal and bread is eaten throughout. Italian meals are balanced, a light course will be followed by a heavy course or vice versa and delicate flavours are never preceded by strong flavours that would overwhelm them. In Italy eating is truly an art.
After a break to digest this large meal it is time to ‘promenade’ and browse the local shops. Sorrento is famous for its marquetry and the narrow streets feature specialist shops filled with beautiful examples of this craft. This inlay technique had originated in Sienna during the eleventh century when it was used to decorate church furniture and panels. The Romans were the first to use veneers of more attractive woods to cover the plainer varieties – an economically inspired technique as it made one tree go further. Today the town of Sorrento is the centre of a thriving marquetry industry and since the early nineteenth century its highly skilled practitioners have created a vast range of inlayed and marquetry work that has even acquired its own descriptive title: Sorrento ware.
A memorable Easter celebration.
Several airlines including British Airways operate regular flights to Naples which is linked to Sorrento by public transport. I have stayed at and can recommend the Imperial Hotel Tramontano which occupies a dramatic setting perched on the cliffs above the Gulf of Naples. An elevator links every floor to the beach below which can also be reached by walking down a footpath cut into the tufa stone cliffs of Sorrento. The oldest wing of this elegant building dates back to the sixteenth century. It was in this wing, in 1544, that the famous Italian poet Torquato Tasso was born. Throughout its history the building has played host to many important people from the literary world. Milton stayed here during his travels abroad and other notable guests include Goethe, Bryon, Scott, Shelley, Keats and Longfellow. Ibsen stayed here for six months and during that period he wrote ‘Ghosts’. This hotel is a short walk from the centre of town.