Unfreezing the past

Suzi Feay dodges the scooters in Sorrento and wanders among the frozen ghosts of Pompeii

There's far more to the bay of Naples than Naples itself. Stay on the genteel southern side, in fact, and you get the distinct impression that the locals look down on their volatile neighbours across the water. In Sorrento, high on its cliffs, the evening lights of Naples are a mere glimmer around the base of the shattered cone of Vesuvius, and there's little temptation to get any closer to the city of bag-snatchers.

There's far more to the bay of Naples than Naples itself. Stay on the genteel southern side, in fact, and you get the distinct impression that the locals look down on their volatile neighbours across the water. In Sorrento, high on its cliffs, the evening lights of Naples are a mere glimmer around the base of the shattered cone of Vesuvius, and there's little temptation to get any closer to the city of bag-snatchers.

Sorrento is a 45-minute picturesque drive away along the rocky, winding and frankly rather polluted and overdeveloped coast. All along the way we were accompanied by a motorcade of scooter drivers enjoying the evening sun, occasionally with papa, mama and bambino all on one vehicle. My bag, with every overnight requirement in it, had not made it as far as baggage reclaim. So the first thing was to track down a dark-panelled, old-fashioned farmacia. Contact lens fluid was easily obtained, but I had more difficulty persuading the elderly shop assistant to give me a lens case. "Something ... to ... put ... them ... in", accompanied by wild mimes, just got me the stolid response, "This is all you need." Finally she threw both hands in the air, trotted into the back of the shop and did not return.

Outside, I found that all the scooters had converged on the town square, joined by car drivers and pedestrians all waving blue and white flags and chanting "Napoli, Napoli!" under the benevolent eye of a single policeman. The home team had just scored a notable victory. I ducked away from the crowds through the discreet archway into the domain of the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, the site, apparently, of a villa belonging to the Emperor Augustus. The five-acre garden, composed mostly of orange and lemon groves, is dotted with Roman columns dug up from the subsoil in the 1940s. The hotel has two personalities: the land side where the bustle of Sorrento, with its traffic, shops, and bars, is only a few minutes away down the long, tree-shaded drive with its hidden benches and alcoves; and the dramatic seaward side facing the bay of Naples itself.

My room was furnished in a kind of sybaritic minimalism: high ceiling, bare marble floor, huge bed, wardrobe and antique chest of drawers, wicker chair and small white rug. The vast bathroom at first looked in the gloom as if it were panelled in a particularly naff wood veneer. One stroke confirmed it to be solid marble. I was impressed. Best of all, though, was the tall, narrow window and truncated balcony just wide enough to park my feet on.

Sorrento is a lovely town to wander around in the evening, with its baroque churches in ice-cream colours, boulevards with late-opening luxury shops selling designer clothes and jewellery and dense, narrow market streets haunted by the ubiquitous scooters. It's famous for its citrus fruits and lemon liqueur, Limoncello, which is available everywhere you look in bottles of all sizes shaped like lemons, hats or guitars. There's even one shop where you can see the sickly stuff being made.

I wouldn't recommend going to the restaurant La Favorita just for the food, but the decor is extraordinary. Entering from the Corso Italia, Sorrento's main drag, into an ordinary looking lobby, I wasn't prepared for what came next. I was led up successive flights of steep stairs into what looked like a giant greenhouse, bristling with aggressive plants, and beyond to a table under a canopy. It didn't feel as if I'd gone from indoors to outside, but beyond the canopy grew real orange trees under floodlights, and between the thick leafy branches I could see the darkening sky. The meal was punctuated by the steady thud of ripe oranges falling like howitzers into the undergrowth. The restaurant's piÿce de résistance is a pudding shaped like the local, football-sized lemons: two sponge halves sandwiched together with cream, coated in lemon icing and accompanied by a glass of the ever-present Limoncello.

Pompeii, which is with Herculaneum another of the jewels of this stretch of coastline, is just as easy to reach from Sorrento as from Naples, but you're unlikely to get the most out of it if you treat it as a handy excursion on the way to the airport, as I did. I could spend only an hour and a half there: better than nothing but still woefully inadequate. With so little time to spare, our party shared an official guide: Antonio, whose quick walk, ruthless way with stragglers and machine-gun delivery ensured we saw far more than if we'd just wandered around.

He marched us through the Porta Marina, or sea gate, and up through the Forum. He pointed out the old grain stores, barred off and used as a vast repository for altars, inscriptions, columns, carved well heads and fragments of statues, gesturing futilely in the face of doom. He showed us the arching torso of a pregnant girl, face down; and the crouching shape of a man, vainly trying to cover his nose and mouth. "Not mummies, not bodies, but plaster casts," he lectured, explaining how such "bodies" were discovered and how these records of desperate final moments were liberated from the lava so many centuries later. He vividly described how much more enormous Vesuvius had been in the first century AD, and how the explosion had blown off as much as a third of its mass. Until this moment Vesuvius hadn't felt uncomfortably close. Now it was menacing.

Antonio brusquely informed us that we didn't have time to see the Villa dei Misteri with its famous wall paintings, as it stands outside the city walls, but he did take us to the awesome public baths, and to the lavish Casa dei Vettii, with its original decoration scheme. Despite the splendour, rooms in Pompeii seemed small and dark by our standards. Here were wonderfully preserved courtyards, statues, murals and an impluvium, the basin where rain water collected from a square aperture in the roof.

A grotesquely painted Priapus by the front door weighed his bulbous penis as a warning to evil spirits, and a charming frieze of cherubs frolicked in the dining room, but Antonio clucked his tongue at the pollution which is inexorably wearing these visions away. " Ruhe, Ruhe!" he barked at a party of German tourists, whose own guide had rashly begun to speak before Antonio had finished, clearly a breach of etiquette.

I had asked to see erotic murals, and Antonio led us away from the crowds and into a maze of silent stone streets, pausing only to draw attention to a fountain here, a mosaic floor there. We were clearly heading for the rackety part of town, with bars and shops and buildings on a much smaller scale. Away from the tourists, Pompeii seemed more poignantly a city of the dead. Finally he led us into a stone kennel which turned out to be the brothel: half a dozen dark cells each with a joyless mural depicting a sexual position or act above its door. Peering in, I saw comfortless stone slabs more suited to a mausoleum than a den of carnality. It was a gloomy and depressing affair, and I felt that this frankness deepened the mystery of ancient sexuality rather than shone light upon it, as Antonio led us up the main street and back towards the 21st century.

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