A field trip for Latin Lovers

Some school subjects can seem so dry. But take your kids to Italy's Roman ruins and you'll soon inspire them, says Simon O'Hagan

They're re-running I, Claudius and Up Pompeii on BBC4 at the moment. Marvellous stuff, which back in the 1970s did rather more to bring my Latin lessons to life than the painful crawl through the Annals of Tacitus. Nothing else was going to, because for me in those days the prospect of visiting the land of ancient Rome was slim. It's all changed since then, of course.

Last year my daughter went on a school trip that took in Rome and Pompeii. Such trips are now not untypical. I was envious, and decided it was time I made a school trip of my own. Thus it was that more than 30 years after I'd last given any thought to the ablative absolute, I found myself with my family in southern Italy, wandering awe-struck among the ruins of Paestum.

The relative proximity of the much more celebrated Pompeii and Herculaneum means that Paestum - built on the coastal plain some 50 miles south of Naples - is not as well known as it might be. It doesn't have complete streets and houses like Pompeii's, and so can't match it in terms of domestic detail. But if it's temples you are after then Paestum is unbeatable. It has two absolute beauties, both staggeringly well preserved, among the best examples anywhere of the civilisation that flourished during classical antiquity.

Paestum was founded by the Greeks. They colonised the region - present-day Campania - in the seventh century BC, and of what remains it's the basilica and a temple in honour of Neptune that take the breath away. Masterpieces of elegance and proportion, they are effortlessly imposing structures that both humble and inspire the viewer. They are also a gorgeous sandstone colour, which glowed softly in the rain on the wet day we visited. Among Paestum's other architectural treasures are the forum and a small amphitheatre.

We all know that the preservation of Pompeii was made possible by the eruption of Vesuvius. But how on earth did Paestum survive to such an astonishing degree? As with Pompeii, the explanation is found in the deadly force of nature.

With the establishment of the Roman Empire, the Greeks were sent packing from Paestum in the third century BC. The Romans stuck around for another 600 years or so, but by the Middle Ages Paestum had been abandoned, largely because the swampy terrain gave rise to malaria. It was not rediscovered until the 18th century. The area was still malarial in the early part of the 20th century.

Paestum hasn't been theme-parked. It's just there, with quite a busy road running alongside it and life carrying on all around. A couple of pizzerias and trinket stalls hardly amount to commercialisation, and its museum - which contains some wonderful frescos uncovered on the site - has a pleasing air of academe.

The week we spent in Campania also showed us a more modern side of Italian holidays. This was our taste of agriturismo, the movement towards accommodating visitors on working farms.

We stayed on an estate called Le Favate, a few miles inland from Ascea di Marina, an unpretentious seaside town on the Cilento coast with its own interesting Roman ruins, and about an hour's drive from Paestum.

Le Favate is in the hills and comprises olive groves, attractively converted farm buildings, and a handsome farmhouse dating back to the 1600s. There is also a swimming pool, and even in early April we had warm enough weather to be able to use it.

You can self-cater if you want to. But that would be to miss out on what is a key feature of Le Favate, the superb nightly dinner served in the first-floor dining room in the main house. Presiding over this occasion - an exemplary combination of food and setting - is Le Favate's owner, Elvira Licusati, who with her husband, Antonio Sabia, is responsible for the restoration of the 100-hectare estate and its dual function in providing accommodation and growing produce.

Olives are Le Favate's mainstay, yielding a subtly flavoured oil of which you will want to bring home as many bottles as you can carry. Mrs Licusati exports it to some countries, but, sadly, not yet Britain. Campania is also the home of buffalo mozzarella, and there seemed to be hardly a village we passed through that did not have a makeshift sign on the roadside offering it for sale.

Watching I, Claudius and Up Pompeii teaches you quite a lot about the Romans - perhaps above all that they knew how to live. Our trip to Campania showed that, more than 2,000 years later, their descendants still do.

Simon O'Hagan was a guest of Inntravel (01653 617906; inntravel.co.uk). It offers a week in a two-bedroom apartment at Casa Matteo, Le Favate, from £378.50 per person, based on four sharing, including flights from Gatwick to Naples, car hire and seven nights' self-catering.