Sorrento, ancient and romantic city, lies at the southwest end of this plain, built along the sheer sea precipice, and running back to the hills,—a city of such narrow streets, high walls, and luxuriant groves that it can be seen only from the heights adjacent. The ancient boundary of the city proper was the famous ravine on the east side, a similar ravine on the south, which met it at right angles, and was supplemented by a high Roman wall, and the same wall continued on the west to the sea. The growing town has pushed away the wall on the west side; but that on the south yet stands as good as when the Romans made it. There is a little attempt at a mall, with double rows of trees, under that wall, where lovers walk, and ragged, handsome urchins play the exciting game of fives, or sit in the dirt, gambling with cards for the Sorrento currency. I do not know what sin it may be to gamble for a bit of printed paper which has the value of one sou.
The great ravine, three quarters of a mile long, the ancient boundary which now cuts the town in two, is bridged where the main street, the Corso, crosses, the bridge resting on old Roman substructions, as everything else about here does. This ravine, always invested with mystery, is the theme of no end of poetry and legend. Demons inhabit it. Here and there, in its perpendicular sides, steps have been cut for descent. Vines and lichens grow on the walls: in one place, at the bottom, an orange grove has taken root. There is even a mill down there, where there is breadth enough for a building; and altogether, the ravine is not so delivered over to the power of darkness as it used to be. It is still damp and slimy, it is true; but from above, it is always beautiful, with its luxuriant growth of vines, and at twilight mysterious. I like as well, however, to look into its entrance from the little marina, where the old fishwives are weaving nets.
These little settlements under the cliff, called marinas, are worlds in themselves, picturesque at a distance, but squalid seen close at hand. They are not very different from the little fishing-stations on the Isle of Wight; but they are more sheltered, and their inhabitants sing at their work, wear bright colors, and bask in the sun a good deal, feeling no sense of responsibility for the world they did not create. To weave nets, to fish in the bay, to sell their fish at the wharves, to eat unexciting vegetables and fish, to drink moderately, to go to the chapel of St. Antonino on Sunday, not to work on fast and feast days, nor more than compelled to any day, this is life at the marinas. Their world is what they can see, and Naples is distant and almost foreign. Generation after generation is content with the same simple life. They have no more idea of the bad way the world is in than bees in their cells.
The Villa Nardi hangs over the sea. It is built on a rock, and I know not what Roman and Greek foundations, and the remains of yet earlier peoples, traders, and traffickers, whose galleys used to rock there at the base of the cliff, where the gentle waves beat even in this winter-time with a summer swing and sound of peace.