Helen Buhaenko takes a nostalgic trip through continental Europe

Twenty years ago I won a travel competition at school to follow the trail of the Romantic poets around Europe. I bought an Inter-Rail ticket and went with my best friend to explore summer in France and Italy. We ran out of money, slept rough, lived off wild fruit and got lost. This time round, I wanted to see if I could fare any better, chasing the ghosts of Percy Bysshe Shelley's family in the 21st century.

In 1814, Shelley eloped with the 16-year-old Mary Godwin to Paris, accompanied by Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Mary had a dreadful crossing from Dover, and would have appreciated the ease with which I cut a swathe through the Channel Tunnel. Shelley took an apartment hotel in Paris. I followed suit and stayed in an apartment in the heart of the old city; the perfect place to snuggle into an armchair and read up on the Romantics' adventures.

The view from the window drew my eye to the Louvre. The palace opened as a public museum in 1792 and the Shelleys made it their first port of call. The next day I headed towards the glass pyramid and joined the swelling crowds. According to Mary, Shelley was attracted to the whirling romantic images of Poussin's Deluge. I gawped at the Mona Lisa instead.

From Paris I took a couchette on the overnight train to Italy, and picked up the Shelley trail in Ravenna. Byron spent nearly three years here and Shelley visited him to discuss the issue of Byron's illegitimate daughter with Claire Clairmont. Ravenna struck me as flat, dusty and rather unappealing at first. But the art here is sublime: the Basilica of San Vitale is a mixture of Roman and Byzantine architecture with its octagons, rectangles and curves; the mosaics are as fresh as if they were placed there yesterday.

Next, a plush intercity train from Bologna to Naples, where, in December 1818, Shelley's party visited en route to Vesuvius. Although the landmark volcano was spewing smoke and fire, Shelley et al attempted an ascent on mules. Their guides tried to desert them, and the party was overcome with exhaustion. I took the bus to the last stop and joined a grey stony track that winds to the top of the cone. Today, vents spew out steam and a smell of sulphur hangs in the air.

I stayed in the youth hostel near Paestum, about 50 miles south-east of Naples. The Greek temples of Paestum, discovered in 1750, are a breathtaking sight: 2,500-year-old structures standing magnificent in tall, wild grass and poppy plains, accompanied by bird song and the occasional visitor. Goethe visited the ruins of this ancient Greek city in 1787 and marvelled at the temples of Neptune and Hera as they stood enormous in the marshes, surrounded by buffalo. On visiting Paestum, Shelley found the place inexpressibly grand.

Then onwards, to Rome. I arrived at night, dragging my bags through the streets, searching for the apartment I had booked near the Vatican. It was exquisite: marble and wood with double-fronted doors.

The first stop on the Shelley trail in Rome is the Keats-Shelley museum. From the hubbub of the Spanish Steps, a door leads up a staircase lined with pictures to the apartment that Keats rented for the last four months of his life.

From his bed he could see the Fountain of the Old Boat, and hear the bustle of the crowds. To enter these rooms of books and 18th-century furnishings is to feel very close to these poets. The museum offers a glimpse of their lives: here is a lock of Shelley's hair, there a tin box containing the essences used at Shelley's cremation.

At the end of May 1819, Mary wrote: "William is so very delicate and we must take the greatest possible care of him." Just seven days later their little boy was dead from malaria. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, in a part of the city known at the time as the people's meadows, close to the Cestius Pyramid. Today the cemetery is one of the most beautiful and tranquil places in the city. Keats chose to be buried here when Joseph Severn told him that animals graze among the graves and wild flowers grow on the tombs. Shelley said: "It might make one in love with death to be buried in so sweet a place."

Finally, I took a slow train to La Spezia, the spectacular conclusion to the eastern end of the Italian Riviera, and then a bus to Lerici. This was the place where Shelley spent the last months of his life.

In April 1822, the poet came here with Mary and Claire and their friends, the Williamses. They rented a large ramshackle boathouse, the Casa Magni, which stood alone on the beach. Today it stands out amongst the red, orange and yellow fronts like a large white box.

I stayed at the Art Hotel Shelley d'elle Palme in Lerici. The hotel has been in the same family since it was built a century ago. From my balcony I had a view of the water where Shelley drowned. Shelley and Edward Williams sailed from Leghorn on a sultry afternoon in their new boat, the Don Juan, on 7 July 1822. At six in the evening a storm brewed in the bay, and for 10 days there was no sign of the men. Their bodies were washed up on the coast at Viareggio, Shelley only identifiable by the copy of Keats' poems in his jacket pocket.

Travel essentials: Europe

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Rail Europe (01732 526717; raileurope.co.uk), which offers adult standard-class InterRail Global Flexi passes from £324, giving 10 days of travel over 22 days.

* Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) has returns from London St Pancras to Paris starting at £69.

Staying there

* Citadines Paris Les Halles (0800 376 38 98; citadines.com) offers serviced apartments from €170 per night for studios, €240 for family apartments.

* La Lanterna Youth Hostel, Agropoli, Italy (00 39 09748 38364; cilento.it/lanterna). Dorm beds from €15, including breakfast. Double rooms start at €30.

* Borgo Pio 2000, Rome, Italy was booked through The Apartment Service (020-8944 1444; apartmentservice.com), which has city-centre apartments starting at around £105 per per night (some properties stipulate a minimum stay).

* Art Hotel Shelley d'elle Palme, Lerici, Italy (00 39 018 796 8204; hotelshelley.it). Doubles start at €140, including breakfast.