In the shadow of Mount Vesuvius

The World Heritage Amalfi Coast offers visitors a taste of ancient history and modern luxury in equal measure, writesJuliet Rix

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 10:46am

From the broad market square we wander up the cobbled main street, flanked by cafes and shops. Entering one of the smart private residences, we admire the superb wall paintings and peep into the bathroom before heading on to visit the local brothel.

No, we are not on some morally dubious city break.

We are in Pompeii, the Roman town frozen in time when Europe's most active volcano, Mount Vesuvius, erupted in AD79.

The mountain still dominates the area - visible from all over the Bay of Naples. Though only half the height it was before the first-century eruption, its power is undiminished. But there is no danger at present, and the volcano is carefully monitored.

I am grateful for this as we stare up at it, just above Pompeii. I am even more grateful later, when we climb the 800-metre path through the lava fields to the mountain top.

An English-speaking guide, who is included in the €8 (HK$80) entry fee, explains the volcano's past and present. We peer into the crater, which is 230 metres deep, and gaze out over panoramic views of the bay, the Sorrento peninsula, the islands of Capri and Ischia, and Miseno.

It was here, in ancient Misenum, that the 17-year-old Roman administrator and poet Pliny the Younger watched as Vesuvius erupted, killing his uncle (Pliny the Elder) and wrapping up Pompeii like a bizarre gift for future generations. He later reported his observations to historian Tacitus.

Pompeii has suffered somewhat in recent years from lack of resources. But the European Union has now allocated more than €100 million to help preserve the extraordinary ancient city. It will now survive for further generations of historians and archaeologists, as well as tourists who come to walk in the footsteps of the Romans.

Still paved with the original stones, Pompeii's roads are flanked by high pavements. These were to keep feet dry when the streets ran with rain, or were filled with water from the overflow of the drinking fountains that still grace the streets.

Filling my water bottle from the mouth of a smart Pompeian lady, I can't help but be amused by the fact that I can safely drink from an ancient fountain, but not from the tap in my five star hotel.

Bollards block traffic, creating one-way streets and, around the forum, a pedestrianised shopping precinct, much like those at the centre of many modern cities. I hop over a set of the big stepping stones that cross the roads - like a 3-D zebra crossing - and enter Modesto's bakery. We know it was Modesto's shop, because 81 loaves of very well done bread were found in the oven, each stamped with his name.

Nearby is a fast food outlet, Roman-style, its serving bowls set deep into a counter of colourful marble. The city is rich in these small open-fronted canteens - they ate lunch on the go here, it seems. Their diet was Mediterranean, as we can see from the piles of amphorae, once full of wine and olive oil.

The streets are lined with all kinds of buildings: everything from blacksmiths to bathhouses, temples to townhouses.

The wealthier homes boast peristyle (colonnaded) gardens, frescoes and mosaics. Many of these remarkable works of art - scenes of mythological love and historic battles, perspective architecture, and a Roman Kama Sutra - now hang in the treasure in the Naples Archaeological Museum.

There are a few left on site, such as the black-and-white mosaic of a vicious dog with the words, " cave canem" (beware of the dog), and the delicate, almost oriental paintings of birds. There are many beautiful wall decorations in the vast House of Menander, which may once have belonged to Roman Emperor Nero's second wife, Poppaea.

Poppaea was probably Pompeian. But other well-to-do Romans had holiday villas in the area, perhaps in the row of large sea view properties (the sea was closer then) that top Pompeii's city walls, and certainly on neighbouring coastlines and islands.

Villa Jovis, the ruins of which can still be seen on Capri, was probably built for the Emperor Tiberius.

I can see what attracted him as I lie in a hammock in the gardens of the oasis-like Villa Marina Hotel and Spa above the island's harbour, and contemplate the panoramic view.

Capri still attracts Europe's "beautiful people". Just 45 minutes by hydrofoil from Naples and with its own marinas, its clean air, natural attractions and relaxed elegance are in sharp contrast to the grimy monumental edginess of Naples. Capri town, high above the sea, is a maze of streets, and is perfect to wander around on a summer evening.

Crossing the high mountain road to the other end of the island you arrive at pretty little Anacapri.

Here is the 19th-century clifftop Villa San Michele, with its famed gardens. From the main square, you can take a chairlift to Capri's highest point, which has a 360-degree panorama. There is, of course, a pleasant cafe, too. Capri is nothing if not civilised.

In the Casa Rossa, a 19th-century villa which has been converted into a museum, stands a posse of three Roman statues pulled from the waters of the Blue Grotto.

This sea cave below the town was, in Roman times, a nymphaeum of Tiberius, thick with statue-filled niches and rock-cut apses. Today, the cave is renowned for its luminous blue underwater light.

With sea levels a couple of metres higher than in Roman times, and swelling waters on the day of our visit, our entry into the grotto is a little more exciting than Tiberius's, I suspect. We are flat on our backs in a tiny boat, charging into the cave in a trough between waves.

More comfortable is the 12-metre motor cruiser, Papa, that takes us in leisurely fashion from Capri to Amalfi. The boat has towel-covered cushions for sunbathing, cold drinks in the fridge, and a freshwater shower for rinsing off after our several swimming stops.

We circle Capri, admiring its caves, lighthouse and natural rocky architecture, before crossing the Bay of Naples to cruise along the World Heritage Amalfi Coast.

We stare up at its towering cliffs, adorned with vines, citrus trees and medieval towers. We moor to explore its picture postcard pastel-hued towns, such as Positano, a charming little city of steps rising almost vertically from the azure sea.

We pass the private islands of Li Galli, once home to Rudolf Nureyev, and more recently rented by supermodel Naomi Campbell for a lavish birthday party.

According to Greek legend, the sea surrounding the islands is where the sirens tempted Ulysses on his way home.

From one icon to another, as we approach Amalfi, our captain points out the former residences of the Kennedys and Sofia Loren, before indicating our hotel atop the cliff.

Perched on a rocky outcrop almost 305 metres above the water is the newly opened Monastero Santa Rosa Hotel and Spa. Originally a 17th-century convent, it retains an air of calm and a few pieces of plain polished-wood furniture. But nothing else about it is remotely monastic. The terraced gardens flow down to an infinity pool right on the cliff edge.

Despite its elegance, the atmosphere here is informal. There are only 20 rooms and suites, and the beds are designed for slumber as well as style. Service is personal, and the food is created by executive chef Christoph Bob, who has worked for Alain Ducasse in Paris and at Mosimann's in London.

From our room, we look down on Amalfi, once an independent maritime republic of huge importance which traded as far afield as Asia. All that is left of that ninth-century metropolis is a buzz on the streets, and the sparkling Byzantine cathedral that rises majestically over the main square, its Arab-Sicilian facade a symphony of stripes and arches. The Duomo is topped by a bright ceramic dome, and underpinned by a gloriously overdone baroque crypt that houses the "miraculous bones" of St Andrew, Christ's fisherman disciple, brought here in 1208 after being taken from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

As we reluctantly depart from our luxurious eyrie, we view the Amalfi Coast from above as we wind our way along the narrow roads that cling to the cliffs.

We travel from one panoramic view to another, until we are once again in the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius looming over the scene.