“Lie down! Lie down now!” the boatman shouted, and we pressed ourselves against the floor of the boat.

The cliff face loomed ahead, the tiny opening we were heading for looked impossible to get through.

The boatman squatted, covering his head with his arms. Suddenly bright sunshine was replaced by the dark interior of a cave: we were in!

At first everything was black. Then, as I raised myself above the wooden sides of the boat, I saw the water.

It was glowing a bright turquoise, the most intense blue I have ever seen – a mesmerising sight.

The boatman paddled slowly around the cavern, singing cantinas in a soft, low voice that echoed off the walls, completing the ethereal atmosphere.

The Grotta Azzurra, as it is known in Italian, has been a wonder since Roman times, when Emperor Tiberius used it as his private swimming pool.

A subterranean passage connected it to his villa on the Capri hillside, and anyone who was caught swimming in it was executed.

But its fame declined with the Roman empire. Local fishermen avoided it, believing it was inhabited by evil spirits, and it was largely forgotten, until, in 1826, it was rediscovered by two German swimmers. Sunlight refracted through the sea into the cavern gives the water its magical blue colour.

The easiest way to reach the Grotto Azzurra is by boat, and a boat trip is also the best way to take in the beautiful rugged coastline of Capri.

It is steeped in myth and legend, and Capri competes with Sorrento, on the mainland, in its claim to be home of the sirens – the mythical half-woman, half-bird creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with their beautiful singing.

The coastal town of Sorrento is built on steep cliffs and looks out across the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius.

Perched high on the cliffs on the edge of town is the beautiful Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria. Built in 1882, it oozes old world charm, and many of the rooms still contain their original furniture, lovingly restored.

The hotel was a favourite haunt of Sophia Loren, while royal guests have included Princess Margaret, the King of Siam and King Gustav of Sweden. Pavarotti and Barbra Streisand have also stayed there, as well as Pierce Brosnan, who, to my disappointment, checked out the day before I arrived.

A major part of any visit to Italy is the food, and Excelsior Vittoria does not disappoint. Like Italian cooking at its best, it focuses on fresh, seasonal, local ingredients, and seafood is a strong feature of the menu.

No trip to the region would be complete without a visit to Pompeii.

The city, preserved in up to six metres of volcanic ash after nearby Vesuvius erupted, is well known, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer scale of the place.

It is thought to have been home to around 20,000 people in 79 AD, when Vesuvius obliterated it, and the site stretches over 66 hectares, around 45 of which have been excavated. Buildings range from public baths to temples and beautiful villas with mosaics on the floor, as well as huge public squares, theatres and amphitheatres.

Despite the grand public buildings, it was the small everyday features of the city that I found most interesting.

There were ruts in the paving stones where horses and carts had passed, and you can still see metal runners that enabled artisans to slide back the doors of their workshops.

Perhaps most fascinating of all are the ‘bodies’ of the inhabitants, frozen in the positions in which they died after being overcome by the poisonous gases that accompanied the eruption.

The city was largely forgotten in the years after the eruption, and was only rediscovered in 1738, with excavations beginning in 1764.

In 1860 archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli identified cavities below the earth by tapping his stick on the ground.

He then made tiny holes over them and pumped plaster in which, once set, was excavated to reveal the shapes left by bodies that had rotted away.

The people of Pompeii had no sense of their impending doom. They thought Vesuvius was simply a mountain. |That night, I sat on the| terrace of Excelsior Vittoria watching the sun set behind the volcano’s rugged outline.

The sea was deep blue and calm, and it was hard to imagine the destruction Pliny the Younger witnessed from his boat| in the same bay all those years ago.

travel facts

 

Nicky Burridge was a guest of the five-star Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, Sorrento, with tour operator Classic Collection Holidays.
Chartered flights from Manchester and Glasgow are only applicable to seven-night packages. Seven nights B&B during October with return flights ex-Gatwick to Naples leads in at £1,229.
For reservations call 0800 294 9324 or visit classiccollection.co.uk.
For further information on Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria (pictured right), visit exvitt.it