By the time you’re mature enough to have gained Silver Traveller status, large chunks of facts that you learnt at school have long since been crowded out by more contemporary information. So it is with Latin. Five years of Latin classes proved handy when learning French and Italian, not to mention English, but I’ve forgotten most of it. Except, that is, for a text we translated by Pliny the Younger.
So vivid was his portrayal of the Vesuvius eruption that obliterated Pompeii in AD79 that I’ve wanted to visit the ruins ever since. To finally walk its cobbled streets, wander through the decorated courtyards, and stand in the vast open space of the forum was the realisation of a long-held ambition. I’d waited 45 years and I wasn’t disappointed.
The scale of the town and the intimate glimpses into ancient lives make Pompeii an experience that really gets under your skin. But many visitors who, like me, thrill to the amphitheatre and the outdoor gymnasium, the high street shops and Roman fast food outlets, never see the wonderful objects that were removed from the town during excavations.
For that you need to spend a day in Naples at the vast Archaeological Museum, so a city break in Naples ticks all the boxes – the chance to combine the cultural attractions and unique atmosphere of this lively city with the awe-inspiring Roman heritage of Pompeii, Herculaneum and other ruined villas that dot the picturesque Bay of Naples.
My husband and I travelled with short break specialist Kirker Holidays who offer a choice of two luxury hotels in Naples. Kirker customers are collected by private car at the airport and it took around 30 minutes to transfer to our base for three nights at the Grand Hotel Parker’s.
Proud to be both the highest and oldest hotel in the city, Grand Hotel Parker’s was founded in 1870, passing in 1899 to British scientist George Bidder Parker who liked staying here so much that he bought the hotel. Now with 82 rooms and suites, the hotel stands on the hillside to the west of the city with views across the rooftops to Vesuvius and over the broad bay to Sorrento, easily accessible by ferry or the Circumvesuviana train.
Kirker customers are allocated sea-facing rooms and our split-level suite had a bedroom and bathroom above a comfortable living area and downstairs toilet. Decor in the bedrooms and public areas is traditional with marble or marquetry floors and antique furnishings, in-keeping with the original style of the hotel. The hotel has a spa on the first floor but in my view, its two most important assets are the staff, all unfailingly helpful and friendly, and the panoramic view from George’s restaurant on the 6th floor. In high season, there’s also a roof terrace for sunbathing, if not in use for weddings and private parties.
Naples has a reputation for being scruffy, frenetic and noisy and it can be all of those. But the Grand Hotel Parker’s stands on the edge of the upmarket Chiaia district with its designer shops, just a 7-8 minute walk from a Metro station that connects directly to the main station in Place Garibaldi. Metro tickets are just €1.50 for 90 minutes of travel but leave plenty of time; there are just two lines, not particularly well used, and whilst cars rush around on the surface, underground trains are far more leisurely, arriving every 10-15 minutes. But you do get where you want to go, eventually.
The Circumvesuviana leaves every half an hour from the main station for Sorrento – €7 return for the 70-minute journey. Pompeii is half way round; Herculaneum between Pompeii and Naples. But the line is used by commuters and, early afternoon, by school children so time your journey accordingly and avoid crowded high season if possible or you may find yourself standing all the way with no air conditioning.
Pompeii station is right beside the main entrance to the ruins (Adults, €11) and I’d recommend picking up one of the official guides inside the entrance to really make the most of your visit. Information panels are minimal. You can see the main sights comfortably with a guide in two hours.
Guides also hover at Herculaneum – a much smaller but still impressive site – but we chose to just wander for an hour and soak up the atmosphere. The excavations are a 10-15 minute walk from the station, depending on whether the entrance nearest the town is closed and we forgave the closure in view of the quaintly worded apology: ‘We excuse there for the uneasiness, to enter him the Excavation of Ercolano, it needs to still cross one hundred meters and to turn to the right to the first crossroad.’
The Roman remains around the bay are irresistible but we really enjoyed the modern reality of Naples. Like many bustling ports, the city has suffered from a rather dubious reputation, but has undergone something of an image makeover, helped by the unthreatening but reassuring presence of Police at strategic points. We travelled in spring so had valuables tucked safely out of sight in inside coat pockets and, for me, a cross-body bag, but we never felt uneasy, even when walking through the narrow streets of the Old Town near the Cathedral. Just use common sense.
Naples has some beautiful churches, like the Baroque marble-fest of Gesu Nuovo and the sombre interior of Santa Chiara opposite. Its museums are outstanding too. Not just the wall paintings and sculptures, glassware and silverware from Pompeii, but the fine art collections of lavish royal palaces such as Capodimonte and Palazzo Reale.
And of course a city break offers a wide choice of eating experiences. We had a wonderful gastronomic dinner overlooking the Bay of Naples at Grand Hotel Parker’s on our first night, but were determined to try authentic Neapolitan pizza too. The Italian diners waiting patiently outside Gino Sorbillo on Via dei Tribunali was proof that this small, buzzing eaterie is the real deal. No starters, sides or desserts – just great pizzas served at speed on marble tables. And for a different take on Neapolitan tradition, Baccaleria on Piazzetta de Porto serves nothing but cod. Dried cod was a local staple across the centuries but this friendly little restaurant does multiple variations on fresh fish. Delicious!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays