Monday 20 November 2017

History rising from the ashes of Pompeii

A trip in Campania reaches its peak at Vesuvius, says Madeleine Keane

Pompeii, which
provides a fascinating
insight into life in
79AD
Pompeii, which provides a fascinating insight into life in 79AD

Our flight is criminally early but made more bearable by an admirer, also en route to Italy, who insists on buying us buck's fizz and bacon butties for breakfast.

Besides, it's a dream come true -- I've always longed to visit this part of the world. And leaving Killiney at dawn is soon forgotten as our bus winds its way along the glittering Sorrentine peninsula. Leaving behind the sprawling metropolis of Naples, we circle its bay along a narrow corniche; ochre cliffs dotted with verdant lemon groves tumble into the cerulean sea. We laugh -- it's almost impossibly pretty.

We're heading for the four-star Hotel Moon Valley, near Sorrento. With its collection of old wirelesses and framed room keys from the Fifties, it has a relaxed, retro feel. Our room is simple but charming and our balcony looks out over the Bay of Naples with a benign Vesuvius simmering quietly in the background.

After a relaxed lunch of Caprese salad and white wine, we lie by the pool in the soft, spring sunshine. We are with a group from The Travel Department, which organises cultural tours all over the world. One of its great selling points is its guides, and those we meet on this trip are no exception. Amedeo, the main man for our stay, is an effervescent Roman who delights with his enthusiasm and erudition.

This first evening he talks us through our trip, including, helpfully, tales of being ripped off. Beware of paying €50 for a 10-minute taxi ride from Sorrento, or €36 for a brace of coffees in Capri, he tells us solemnly.

And so to Sorrento, city of citrus, where Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt. The historic hotel Excelsior Vittoria, laced with wisteria, dominates the main Piazza Tasso, where tourists drink espresso watching the daily passeggiata. From here, radiate narrow streets, bustling with shops selling every type of lemon product imaginable -- candles, soap, creams, oils, perfumes and, most famously of all, limoncello -- the digestif of the district made from lemon, alcohol, sugar and water (be careful, though, it's luscious but lethal if you over- indulge). In one quiet corner you'll find the 14th-Century church of San Francesco -- a gentle, flower-filled oasis in this thronged town.

A real highlight of our trip is Vesuvius. Our coach brings us within shouting distance of the summit and the half-hour climb is so undemanding that even a couple of octogenarians in our group do it easily. We reach the twin craters and are silenced by their dark abysses.

A friend and I chose Pompeii 79 AD as our subject for our Latin project in school and included in it a model we made painstakingly from chicken wire and papier mache. It's invigorating decades later to stand on the real thing; our guide (another knowledgeable local guy, who seems to have climbed the volcano most days of his life) points out Pompeii.

It is deeply moving to see the outline of this doomed city, its dark lines fringed with trees, and witness how directly it stood in the path of Vesuvius and how quickly death would have come.

Time allows for only an hour in Naples -- an edgy city and a place of stark contrasts: shanty towns on the outskirts; sumptuous villas overlooking the bay. There's only time for a quick walk up the main street, where the pair of us ogle a couple of gorgeous fake Prada handbags for €25 each. There are plenty of labels -- D&G, Fendi, Chanel -- but we cannot linger long: the cops approach and the hawkers flee up the Neapolitan side streets, which, classically, are hung with washing.

To the Blue Island then by boat. We take the funicular straight from Marina Grande to Capri village. It's so fashion-conscious that even the dogs wear Louis Vuitton collars. It's early morning by Capri standards -- only nine o'clock -- so we have coffee and pastries filled with ricotta and candied fruit (a must) while we watch the pretty village being buffed and honed before the millionaires come out to play.

It's a dull drizzly day, so we're not as mesmerised by the place as we'd expected. But the Augustus Gardens and Anacapri at the island's peak offer less bling, more bucolic charm.

Another day is devoted to driving this Campanian coastline, passing incomparably lovely Positano, where the pastel houses seem to spill down to the Tyrrhenian sea, getting fleeting glimpses of villas once owned by Roger Moore, Gina Lollobrigida and Anna Magnani, and stopping briefly at the Emerald Grotto. It's a fiver to visit compared to €50 at Capri's famous Blue Grotto.

There's no iridescence this day, but even more magical, glimmering underneath the clear, green waters, is a nativity scene discovered by divers 100 years ago. We finish in Amalfi, where there's time for lunch, a swim and a visit to St Andrew's Cathedral, which overlooks the Piazza Duomo.

Finally to the place I came for. Pompeii. The many stalls outside the preserved city are a shock, but our retail instincts kick in fairly fast and I haggle a turquoise coral necklace down to half price.

Our guide is Gianni, whose scatalogical running commentary brings streets buried for so long under ash, alive with sailors and prostitutes, butchers and housewives. Truly, this is living history. So when elegant Gianni finds a bunch of bored American kids lounging on Roman columns, his outrage -- this man has written a book about this ancient site -- knows no bounds. "These stones belong to humanity," he tells the truculent teens. It is a suitably elegiac note on which to take our leave from these Elysian fields.

GETTING THERE

The Travel Department offers a seven-night trip to the Sorrento coast, Pompeii and Capri with prices starting from €745 plus tax, including direct flights from Dublin, transfers, escorted tours with a local travel guide to the Amalfi coast, Pompeii and Capri and four-star hotel accommodation on a half-board basis. It also offers a wide range of Sorrento holidays and a full range of Italy holidays. Call 01 637 1600 or visit www.the traveldepartment.ie for details.

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