Sorrento: Floating back in time
A week in Sorrento makes a perfect autumn break, says Paul Whitington, and with Pompeii just a stone's throw away, you can brush up on your ancient Roman history
Published 18/09/2010 | 05:00
Most of the folk who arrive on the idyllic promentary of Sorrento for a break from reality don't stir much once they get there, and who can blame them? The views across the bay towards Naples from the famous cliffs are spectacular, and there are seductive, well-managed lidos at the bottom of the precipitious steps that snake seawards. Couples, local and foreign, marry with alarming regularity in the pretty cliffside church, and at night the town buzzes with an atmosphere at once cosmopolitan and gentle.
A person could while away a pleasant week in this town and come away with no complaints, but as alluring as the sunbeds are, being in this vicinity always makes me dream of ancient Rome.
Standing at dusk on the balcony of my hotel, the Bristol, I can just about make out the distant shape of Capri, where the Emperor Tiberius chased unfortunate boys through the woods around his hilltop villa, while his sidekick Sejanus conducted a reign of terror in Rome.
Across the bay, the twinkling lights of Naples remind me of its origins as a Greek settlement which the Romans transformed into a well-heeled bathing resort.
And looming just behind the city is the ominous hump of Vesuvius, which erupted with devastating consequences for a great number of Romans on August 24th in the year 79AD.
Of course if Vesuvius hadn't erupted when, and in the precise manner it did, we'd know a lot less about how the Romans lived. Because on that distant day a combination of mud and ash froze in time a number of settlements which would be discovered by awestruck posterity almost two millennia later.
Pompeii is of course the most famous of these, and I feel suitably virtuous as I swap a morning of poolside torpor for a poorly air-conditioned bus.
The dingy Neapolitan suburb of Stabia does not prepare you for the splendour of Pompeii, but then again it's hard to think of anything that would. What invariably startles first-time visitors to Pompeii is the size and intactness of the place. It's vast, and not only the houses but the cobblestones and even drains are just as they were on that August morning in 79AD.
As you walk along the central avenue, side streets stretch away on either side, their only inhabitants bony, slinking cats. Conspicuous by their absence, though, are the roofs. When Vesuvius erupted -- or perhaps we should say exploded- because the pressure from beneath was so great it blew a third of the mountain off -- this city and its people were not engulfed by a flood of boiling lava as you might imagine.
Instead, to begin with, nothing much happened at all. The sky turned black as the whole area was engulfed in a kind of mushroom cloud of ash. Then, after a time, a rain of rubble started that would eventually smother all of Pompeii, and the weight of this rubble brought every single roof down. What the debris also did, however, was to bury Pompeii so successfully that it was preserved perfectly until Napoli's Bourbon rulers discovered it in the mid-18th century.
Subsequent discoveries have tended to confirm what we already strongly suspected -- the Romans invented practically everything. In Pompeii, restaurants with pizza ovens advertised their wares with extravagant signage.
Graffiti has been found rudely proclaiming support for a gladiator who was probably the Ronaldo of his day. The grander houses had baths and large gardens. There's even a brothel, lately uncovered, complete with graphic wall paintings depicting various sexual positions (they haven't changed either).
Pompeii is pretty overwhelming, right down to the famous plaster casts of the city's preserved inhabitants. But it's not the only Vesuvius-ravaged town. In Herculaneum, the buildings are even more intact.
Sitting smack bang in the middle of the modern town of Ercolano, the ruins of ancient Herculaneum were stumbled upon by a Spanish engineer called Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1738, and though far smaller than Pompeii, the site would prove an even more fecund treasure trove. When Vesuvius erupted, the town was engulfed not by falling rocks and ash but a great wall of mud, 20-odd metres of it, that would preserve perfectly murals, skeletons, furniture and floor tiles -- even Herculaneum's roofs.
Herculaneum was an exclusive seaside resort, and the 'Villa of the Papyri', at the front of the site, was once a luxurious seafront property, - the frescoes and elaborate tiling give some sense of its former splendour. It was the seaside retreat of Julius Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, a great intellectual of his day, and literary scrolls were recovered at the villa.
There are many other houses, a temple, streets, fountains, and a number of marvellously intact frescoes. Nowhere will you feel this close to the Roman way of life, and the intriguing thing about Herculaneum is that the bulk of it probably still lies beneath the roads and houses of the modern town that surrounds it. Until very recently archaeologists assumed few had died in Herculaneum because of the absence of remains, but in 1981 diggers discovered more than 50 skeletons in an old bath house.
Over the last two centuries, many treasures have been discovered at the sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the other Vesuvian town, Stabiae, and many of these sit piled up in the remarkable National Archaeological Museum in Naples. My journey there involved quite a trek, first by boat from Sorrento's harbour, then up through the winding streets of this noisy, hectic, unapologetically Mediterranean city.
Washing hangs like tired bunting in the narrow, airless back streets of San Giuseppe, where artisans in tiny shops mend shoes and fix radios, their walls still decorated with posters of the city's great footballing hero, Diego Maradona.
The Archaeological Museum's grand 18th-century façade comes as something of a relief from those airless alleys, and in the high-ceilinged interior is one of the most remarkable collections of Roman artifacts in the world.
Among the museum's imposing marbles are some -- like the 'Farmese Hercules' -- that once stood in the great squares of Rome. And upstairs you find extraordinary ancient paintings as well as maps and models of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
But all over the museum are so many statues and ornaments from the Vesuvian towns that they're piled in corridors and leaning against walls in the courtyards outside. It's as though the museum -- and the area -- are so rich in Roman remnants that no one quite knows what to do with them. Under the shadow of Vesuvius, traces of a glorious past are everywhere. On the way back down to the port to catch my boat to Sorrento, I walk past a brand new Roman excavation that's just been unearthed. The city was making initial digs for a new metro line when they came across a large and possibly very significant archaeological site. They're everywhere -- even under the water. Apparently, the remains of a great Roman harbour rest beneath the waves in the middle of the bay, and can be reached by divers. Now that would be an interesting day trip.