There were lemons everywhere – they drizzled salads, flavoured risottos, lurked in shot glasses; they decorated kitchen tiles, emblazoned tea towels and dangled from stalls among a blaze of oranges and hot-red chillies. But, best of all, they hung heavy and fragrant in the grove outside my window, citrus lanterns luminescing the green and reminding me that I might just be in some sort of Mediterranean Shangri-La.
This small-group trip was the easiest of sells. There was a whole itinerary but at first all I heard was: Italy, Med, sunshine, lemons. All I visualised was colour: brightest yellow, furled in green, set against a backdrop of sparkly blue. Better yet, we would be ignoring the tourist resorts of Italy's Sorrento Coast to stay on a lemon farm. At an agriturismo overlooking the Bay of Naples, hosts Peppino, Ida and Luigi Nunziata would let us into their aromatic lives, if only for one week.
Peppino's place might feel undiscovered, but the Sorrento Coast certainly didn't. It was a slow trawl south from Naples, along traffic-choked roads, to get there. But at least being stuck in a jam allowed more time to take in the views, a glamorous plunge-and-tumble of jagged cliffs, thick maquis and jade shallows merging into an inky deep. Even so, I was pleased to arrive at Il Giardino di Vigliano; walking into the lemon grove was like a spritz of cool water on a muggy day. The air was fresh and sweet, the paths shady, the fruit cheery and abundant. On a terracotta terrace – with Vesuvius views – Ida laid out olives and taralli crackers, and Luigi produced a bottle of home-made limoncello.
The farm has been in the family for four generations. It's also one of the few in the region to still use traditional cultivation methods, which were first practised here by monks in the 17th century. The lemons are grown within a large chestnut-wood frame, protected by wooden panels. They are worth protecting too: since 2000, the Sorrento lemon has held PGI (protected geographical indication) status, being recognised for its fragrant peel and juicy flesh.
These are also the only lemons that can be used to produce authentic limoncello, explained Luigi, as he gave a quick demonstration. I say quick, because there's very little to making this sunniest of Italian liqueurs. Basically: peel lemons, steep peel in 98 per cent alcohol, add water and sugar, swill, drink.
Of course, this means that the Nunziatas have a lot of lemon leftovers. During our stay, the fruit snuck into everything from the breakfast marmalade to lemon cream-filled profiteroles. And when we stepped into the kitchen ourselves – a key part of staying here is to get involved – we discovered that they even end up on pizza. Under Ida's tutelage, we kneaded mounds of dough into flat discs before adding lemon-infused olive oil and mozzarella crumbled with zest. It was delicious.
With its priceless views and ready supply of home-made bread and limoncello, it would have been easy to never leave the giardino's terrace. But that would be an insult to the area (not to mention disastrous to the waistline), so we hauled ourselves off for a walk. The Amalfi Coast sits just over the Lattari Mountains from Sorrento, home to the Sentiero degli Dei – the Path of the Gods. This well-trodden 8km route winds from Bomerano to Positano, hugging the most precipitous of cliffs. Great green gullies cloaked in herbs and holm oaks plummet headlong into the sea; somehow, in places, farmhouses teeter, surely reliant on those titular gods for continued survival. After the thigh-jellying descent into Positano, there was only one way to recuperate: an ice-cool lemon granita by the sea.
Having ticked off the fashionable Amalfi coast, the next day it was the chi-chi island of Capri. Sitting on the prow of a speedboat as it whipped over the sea, I felt like a movie star. Yes, Capri is touristy. Yes, there are lots of people. Yes, the Blue Grotto – a cave of surreally hued water – was heaving. But the island is also geologically formidable, its sheer sides careening so steeply into the water that most of it is accessible to only birds and goats. And when those cheery Blue Grotto boatmen punted us inside and then broke out into booming operatics, I was more than happy to be with the masses.
Besides, the beauty of circumnavigating the island on a private boat, rather than taking the ferry, was that we could get away from all the fuss on land. When we did go ashore, to admire the gorgeous villas and eat grilled squid, I met a shopkeeper called Paulo who gave me prosecco and was more interested in sharing his politics and past indiscretions than selling me his wares. But it was from the boat that I most liked Capri, sailing into its caverns and through its rock arches, and spotting the red coral clinging to the base of the ocean. When we said that we wanted to swim, our skipper Francisco knew just the spot.
I was dubious, jumping off the stern by an ordinary-looking bit of shore. But he encouraged us to swim through a small gap in the rocks – and into a secret lagoon. It was a beautiful basin of green shallows, draped with foliage, like curtains drawn against the rest of the world on this busy coast. We splashed in the cool water, feeling as exclusive as its possible to get. Then it was back to the boat, to toast the day with, of course, a glass of limoncello.
G Adventures (0844 272 2040; gadventures.co.uk) offers the seven-day Local Living Sorrento trip which costs from £999pp, excluding flights but including one night in Naples, five nights' half-board in a small agriturismo, limoncello- and pizza-making demonstrations, a guided tour of Pompeii, boat trip to Capri and Walk of the Gods hike along the Amalfi Coast.Reuse content