Italy’s next, they say. Economic meltdown looms. Everything’s so expensive now. The politics is falling apart. What prospects are there for the young? If all that is true, use all that as an excuse to get on and visit now. On my recent visit, it was still the same wonderful country it was when I lived there in the 1980s (and they were saying all the above then).
But then I was fortunate enough to be enjoying a twin-centre break in two rather fine hotels. The first, Rome’s Baglioni Hotel Regina, oozes class. On Via Veneto, opposite the US embassy, it’s soporifically comfortable. My children had to be dragged away from the treat-laden breakfast room in the morning. In the rugby scrum buffet of many hotels, that might not be so bad, but here the implicit style – all attentive service, marble floored, swag-curtained elegance – made our huge enjoyment of the food and service a little too obvious as it was, even without the “let’s take something for lunch” impulse. We Brits aren’t always at our best in ultra-courteous Italy.
But Rome is about being outdoors, so we ventured out to see swifts in the street, wild flowers growing in the Forum and cafe life alive and well. The baroque glories of Piazza Navona, the truly awesome Pantheon (it’ll be well worth the fee when it charges for entry) and the Campo de’ Fiori market – as well, of course, as the Colosseum, Vatican and St Peter’s, all bring to mind that Dr Johnson line about someone who has not visited Italy having a sense of inferiority. It’s not that, having done so, one wants to be competitive about it. You just can’t help telling people what they’re missing. The same goes for the Pizzicheria Romana, next to the Pantheon, for something to put in that open mouth, and the Antica Norcineria Viola delicatessen on the Campo de’ Fiori, for some sublime prosciutto and salami to take home.
If Rome’s glories are well known to many, the same is less so of Sorrento, where we spent the second half of our week away, and which was every bit as good. We went by rail from Rome, switching to a local, suburban train in Naples. For those looking for gloomy portents, they will find plenty out of the train window here, but again one suspects that has long been true. The effects of deprivation, housing and job shortages, corruption and crime are all there to see, and must have been compounded by austerity and an influx from further south.
Yet few go to Italy expecting to be depressed, and even the buskers on the train bear an irresistible charm. And at Sorrento, the 34th and last stop on the Circumvesuviana line, anything less than elation would just be bad manners.
Walking down the high street from the station is suggestive of a moderately enticing provincial village. The gates to the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria and long path up through an orange grove are more promising. The hotel itself is belle-epoque splendid. But the view that greets you beneath the hotel’s sprawling terrace at the back is simply explosive. The entire Bay of Naples is set out in front of you, compelling and beautiful. Suddenly, you could be in a 60s film with Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren.
And the hotel truly, triumphantly lives up to its location. The rooms, many overlooking the sea 165 feet below, are well equipped and comfortable; the food is great and the overall effect just what you’d want for a very special time away from home. Many of the staff have been there for years – some for decades, loyal to the Fiorentino family which has owned it since the hotel’s beginnings in 1834. Concierge Antonio Galano started as a bellboy and will celebrate 40 years at the hotel, his father having done the job for a mere 31 before him.
Again, the Excelsior is so accommodating you could easily never leave it, but Sorrento is a proper seaside town and worthy of a carefree amble, which shows it to be more than the 1970s cheapo package destination that Monty Python claimed. But unmissable, of course, are the ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum and, on the same Circumvesuviana train line, little known Oplontis, where the Villa Poppaea is the former home of Poppaea – the wife Emperor Nero reputedly kicked to death.
Much of it is yet to be excavated, but the rooms that are visible are, in some ways, every bit as impressive as its two celebrated sisters.
And then of course there is the sea, which, like true Brits, we couldn’t resist swimming in, taking the bus a few miles south of Sorrento, where the locals thought we were mad.
If being on the sea rather than in it is your thing, Ischia and Capri are an easily accessible boat ride away. Just take the James Bond-style hotel lift down to the port, and do try not to let the side down. On the day we fancied a boat trip, a solicitous Sorrentine ticket-seller asked us kindly “eef you want to go to Caaaapri”. Yes please, we said, we did, wordlessly lamenting our obvious Englishness. But we did better than the Brit in the queue behind us, who, when asked the same question, said: “No thanks, mate, we’re going to K’pree.”
Airlines flying to Rome Fiumicino include BA, easyJet, and Vueling. From Rome to Sorrento, take the train to Naples, which takes 70 minutes. From there, take the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento.