It was almost complete. We’d spent two art lessons perfecting our papier mâché Vesuvius with chicken wire and a few card houses to represent the ill-fated Pompeii. Our teacher proudly brought it into the centre of the class. Then she poured a mix of bicarb and orange powder paint into the summit. We stood back in amazement as the water dripped in and the molten lava poured down and engulfed poor Pompeii. I was hooked.
Fast forward 30 odd years later and I’ve swapped Ribena for a lovely glass of red, and my classroom for the Foreigners’ Club in Sorrento, Italy. I’m gazing across the bay at the real deal and, nestled out of sight in the mountainside, is Pompeii.
Sorrento is a short flight from Manchester to Naples and a taxi ride around the bay. It’s a pretty town in its own right but it knows its place as the gateway to some of Italy’s most famous attractions, the main one being Vesuvius.
Sorrento’s main appeal is the independence it offers travellers, no matter how nervous you are. There’s an easy to navigate rail service to Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as boats to neighbouring islands (over which the uber glamorous Capri reigns supreme). And you can be back in time for a wonderful dinner at one of the many fantastic restaurants. You can’t say fairer than that.
Sometimes it can be disappointing visiting a famous landmark you’ve spent your life looking forward to but Pompeii is not one of those destinations. There are two ruined towns in the area, the famous Pompeii and the not so famous Herculaneum. I would recommend doing them in that order, Herculaneum suffered a landslide and is far better preserved, but the vastness and cultural significance of Pompeii cannot be ignored.
Once we got to the ruined town, we paid for a guide. It’s the only way to discover the town because, believe me, it is vast. The guide was wonderful and highlighted a multitude of little things easy to miss if you’re glued to your map – and it’s the little things that blow your mind. Yes, the amphitheatre and forum are impressive but seeing a perfectly preserved piece of graffiti up close is something else.
Once you’ve completed the tour, it’s worthwhile walking around for another hour or so. Everything is surprisingly accessible and you can stand in a food seller’s kitchen and imagine them handing out their wares. Back in the day, kitchens were a thing of luxury and most people ate on the go. The water wells are still standing proud – these were places where most of the meetings and gossiping took place and, if ancient Rome is anything to go by, there was plenty of that. Keep an eye on the cobbles as you make your way through the streets and you may see a phallic symbol that was a sign post to the local brothel which, incidentally, is also brilliantly preserved down to the stone beds and suggestive murals.
It’s tempting to try and do Herculaneum in the same day but, in my opinion, you wouldn’t do either justice. Herculaneum is only about a quarter uncovered with blocks of flats covering untold treasures. As mentioned before, this town took a landslide as well which meant second storeys of houses are standing here and there. There are guides available here and they too give you the inside story on how the second town to take Vesuvius’s wrath operated. There is more here that really touches you, like a bedstead or bedside cabinet, still standing in the bedroom. There are many theories about what happened on that fateful day, some suggesting that many had fled and it was only a few who became eternally preserved. Others say they were caught off guard and many perished. Whichever theory you subscribe to, it is undoubtedly an unforgettable experience of stepping back in time.
If all this culture and history has you wanting a bit more modern fun, then catch a boat to Capri. The island exudes glamour. As the ferry cruises in, you sail past some serious yachts but the opulence doesn’t end there. A short funicular trip up the hill (one can’t do stairs darling) and you find yourself in a bunch of alleyways that would make LA, London and New York blush. Every designer is there in miniature form; Prada, Gucci, Versace.
If, like me, your budget doesn’t stretch to a four figures, you can content yourself with people-watching. I am a dedicated people-watcher and proud of it and this place has rich pickings in every sense. Once the home of Rochdale chanteuse Gracie Fields, Capri has kept her star-pulling power with Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Rihanna all making stopovers recently. Sadly I didn’t see one A-Lister so contented myself with the game Surgery or not Surgery as I watched the dedicated shoppers come and go.
I stayed at the Plaza Hotel in Sorrento and it was perfect. It’s set back a little from the main tourist drag so is fairly quiet and has the coldest rooftop pool in the world – great with the sun beating down on you, and you can swim while gazing across at the ever present volcano, you know, just to make sure all is dormant.
As far as places to eat go, you’re in the birthplace of pizza and ice cream. You need to leave your diet plan in the UK as this place is a serious foodie heaven. If seafood is your thing then the Marina Grande is a must; there are restaurants dotted around here overlooking the sea and the Zi ‘Ntonio is super special with fantastic fresh fish and a jetty taking the tables out over the water.
The streets of Sorrento have plenty of other restaurants and the Foreigners’ Club has, probably, the best view in the town while you sip your wine and demolish a pizza.
I was only there for a short break. There are plenty of other things to do such as a trip up the Amalfi coast or a look around the museums of Naples. I’ll be back, providing Vesuvius stays dormant.