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In the emperor's private pool

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: September 20, 2012

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THE boatman shouted "Lie down! Lie down now!", and we pressed ourselves against the floor of the boat. The cliff face loomed ahead of us, and I could see the tiny opening we were heading for. It looked impossible to get through.

The boatman gave a final push on the oars and then squatted, covering his head with his arms. Suddenly the bright sunshine was replaced by the dark interior of a cave: we were in!

At first everything was black and I could hear the gentle lapping of waves echoing around the cavern. 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.

The island's craggy limestone cliffs are covered in tiny yellow flowers. In places, the steep slopes have been cultivated with lemon trees and olive groves, and white buildings cling to the hillside. At one end of the island are the distinctive Faraglioni rock stacks, the largest of which was used as a lighthouse by the ancient Greeks.

The coastline 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. The centre of the town is a labyrinth of narrow streets with shops selling leather goods, pottery and coral jewellery, as well as sweets, liqueurs and soap made from the lemons the region produces. 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 grand public rooms have high ceilings and marble floors, and the walls are decorated with frescos and gilt mirrors, completing the sense of a bygone age.

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.

Lunches include antipasti of roast aubergine, courgettes and peppers, alongside Parma ham and white melon, marinated salmon and salads of creamy mozzarella cheese, huge tomatoes and basil, followed by mountainous plates of spaghetti with clams.

The menu is taken up a notch in the evening, with starters of smoked swordfish with yoghurt and cucumber sauce, or paccheri pasta with cherry tomatoes, basil and aubergine caviar. These are followed by pumpkin gnocchi with black olives and scorpion fish or lobster tail with fennel.

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.

The brothel is a definite highlight. In its heyday, Pompeii was a busy trading port, attracting sailors, merchants and workers from across the empire, and there was no guarantee of a common language. To get around this problem, the brothel is decorated with explicit murals.

You could be forgiven for thinking sex was a major preoccupation in Pompeii, with dozens of male organs carved on the walls and pavements across the city. But rather than indicating where a lonely sailor might find half an hour's comfort, our guide assured us they were simply good luck symbols.

"Neapolitan men still touch their testicles with their left hand for good luck, for the same reason. It's like you touching wood," he claimed.

Despite the grand public buildings, it was the small everyday features of the city that I found most interesting. 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. I had always assumed the volcanic ash had simply mummified people where they fell, but the truth is even more amazing. The city was largely forgotten in the years after the eruption, and was only rediscovered in 1738, with excavations beginning in 1764. In 1860 an inspirational archaeologist, Giuseppe Fiorelli, noticed that he could identify cavities below the earth, often by tapping his stick on the ground. He then made tiny holes over them and pumped plaster in. Once the plaster had set, he painstakingly excavated it to reveal the shapes left by bodies that had long since rotted away.

That night, I sat on the terrace of Excelsior Vittoria watching the sun set behind the volcano's rugged outline. It was hard to imagine the destruction Pliny the Younger witnessed from his boat in the same bay all those years ago.

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