Pompeii? It blew my mind
A significant anniversary requires a significant holiday. We had long wanted to go to Pompeii and Herculaneum and our silver wedding anniversary seemed like the perfect excuse. Twenty-five years of marriage is quite an innings. But compared to the age of these places, it’s a mere snap of the fingers.
As many a romantic trip is ruined at the airport, we decided to go by rail. It was a prospect that thrilled my novelist’s heart to the core. Grabbing a stack of guidebooks, I prepared to unleash my inner Mary Beard.
‘Many a calamity has happened in the world, but never one that has caused so much entertainment to posterity as this.’ So wrote the German poet Goethe about Pompeii.
At the time — 1787 — much of the site was still covered up. Seeing it now would have blown his mind. What really blew, in 79 AD, was Vesuvius. The wicked old volcano still dominates the scene – on our visit, an unseasonable cap of snow underlined its deceptive air.
The poor old ancients believed that it was innocent; its peak was once crowned with trees and good for hunting.
Pompeii is surprisingly enormous and you can roam at will. Even under a grey sky and freezing rain, it was possible to imagine what an earthly paradise the town must have been.
The broad streets, with their giant cobbles, stretch away into a distance, framed by the Sorrentine peninsula mountains. On either side rise elegant mansions, some with their original doors, elaborate wall decorations and marble impluvia, the pools that collected rainwater to provide each house with a private supply.
The temple areas and public baths are magnificent, but I liked the humble details best. On practically every street corner is a marble counter inset with large holes. Beneath them are big clay jars that once held wine. These were Pompeii’s taverns. It seems that the skies can rain volcanic ash, the world can end and 2,000 years can pass. But the pub endureth.
The same was true of Herculaneum, the perfect prelude to Pompeii as it is much smaller.
While Pompeii was a bustling town, its little sister was more of a smart retirement settlement, a sort of Roman Eastbourne. It has a more intimate atmosphere, with narrower streets but still with handsome mansions where painted walls and mosaic floors can clearly be seen and a bathhouse where shelves to place sandals and toga can still be touched.
The top of the town offers heavenly views to Capri and Ischia. By contrast, on what was the ancient shoreline, heaps of skeletons have been uncovered in a row of recessed chambers. It seems Herculaneum’s poorest inhabitants — their wealthy masters having mostly fled — ran here for shelter. But there was no hiding place from the 400-degree heat flash.
We reached Herculaneum by rail from Naples. The line, the Circumvesuviana, is privately run but accessed from the city’s main Garibaldi station.
The graffiti-covered train to Ercolano Scavi (Herculaneum) takes about 30 minutes and to Pompeii it takes around 45 minutes. Don’t be put off by the apparent chaos – the trains are fine.
Don’t be put off by Naples either. Everyone told us not to go there, and when we first arrived, by train from Milan having travelled there on the sleeper from Paris, we feared everyone might be right. First impressions were not great: we picked our way to our hotel through rubbish-strewn streets.
But things soon took a definite swing upwards. We were staying at the Palazzo Caracciolo, the 17th Century former home of the King of Naples and beautifully restored by the Accor hotel group. Our room was big, with a high ceiling, wonderful bathroom and balcony from which, over the rooftops and between the aerials, Vesuvius could be just about be seen.
An excellent, reasonably priced dinner was served nightly in the graceful, arcaded courtyard, and every morning a buffet breakfast splendid enough for the palace’s original occupants appeared.
This brilliant hotel is perfect for the unmissable Naples National Archaeological Museum, with its world-famous sculptures including the Farnese Bull and the muscle-bound Hercules from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla. Otherwise, it has to be said, the Old Town’s charm is best described as rough and ready.
Glamorous Naples does exist and is centred round the Chiaia area. Take the funicular to the old fortress of Castel Sant’Elmo, where you can walk around the hexagonal ramparts and enjoy a stupendous view over the whole city.
Immediately below is the San Martino museum, and below that smart shops, hotels, opera house and promenade.
From Naples we travelled to famously beautiful Sorrento. Here we stayed at the Imperial Tramontano– an apricot-coloured 19th Century villa built right on the cliff edge. The interior is dashing, with an elegant salon full of silk furniture and marble stairs. Our enormous room, the size of our entire flat, commanded spectacular views of the mist-shrouded Bay of Naples. And we could see, every night, the diamond glitter of the city.
The other great thing about Sorrento was the Acqu’e Sale restaurant – upbeat, stylish and brilliantly well-run — in the ferry port. The food was so good that we went there every night.
During the trip we swapped the iron rail for a hire car for the two-hour drive to Paestum. We refreshed ourselves at Bar Museo, which serves delicious paninis, before exploring this glorious site where no fewer than three vast Greek temples, the most complete in Italy, rise in rows of golden columns.
Paestum was once famous for its exquisite painted vases; its wonderful museum has many of them, plus the celebrated Tomb of the Diver, a sequence of paintings in which an Ancient Greek Tom Daley swoops towards the water.
It’s a metaphor — the water is death — but the image is so beautiful, and the other paintings, of an afterlife party, so cheerful, that one feels quite reassured.
This article was first published in the Mail on Sunday
My latest novel Last Of The Summer Moet is published by Head of Zeus, priced £7.99.
P.S. I popped into Buckingham Palace recently, here I am with the Duchess of Cornwall!
THE NEW (POSH) VILLAGE PEOPLE
Here is a fun piece I wrote about posh villages for the Sunday Times. Is there one in here you recognise? Perhaps you live in one yourself!
LAST OF THE SUMMER MOET - THE PLOT!
TOP reporter Laura Lake has struck journalistic gold. She’s discovered a secret country village where the British elite own weekend mansions. Film stars, famous artists and top writers, not to mention Cabinet ministers and the cream of M16, land their helicopters in the grounds of the gastropub and meet in the manicured streets to buy £100 loaves from the deli. Far from the prying eyes of the paparazzi they compete in the world’s most exclusive pub quiz and fight for parts in the celebrity panto.
But how is Laura to gain access to this undercover Eden, whose borders are strictly controlled? Luckily her billionairess friend Lulu, a logo-obsessed socialite with a heart as huge as her sunglasses, suddenly fancies a quiet life in the country.
Can Laura gatecrash the pub quiz, infiltrate the panto and write her expose before the snobbish villagers discover her identity? And before Lulu gets fed up and flees back to Kensington?
PS. A few just-published interviews with me…