At the heart of the Stabian Baths lie two bodies, their bones preserved forever in plastercast moulded into the agonised positions in which they died.
The ancient baths, which two millennia before would have been filled with life, are a strange place to be confronted by death. But it’s inescapable in Pompeii, overshadowed as it is by the blown-apart peak of Vesuvius which wreaked havoc on the Roman town in 79AD.
It’s hard to take in the scale of what unfolded on that fearsome August day until you’re actually standing in the forum of the ghost town itself, with Vesuvius lurking on the horizon, and picturing the panicked Pompeians fleeing from the falling ash.
On our visit, only the spring sunshine is beating down on myriad huddles of tourists being led around. Our guide, Lia, has been coming here for 20 years and wends her well-trodden way through the cobbled streets to show us the highlights of the wealthy inhabitants’ abodes, including the House of the Menander with its fresco-covered alcove still holding the worn heads of household gods.
The entire Bay of Naples has become something of a tourist hotspot - and it’s easy to see why the ancient Romans loved it so much. Today, the town of Sorrento makes the perfect base for forays into Pompeii and Herculaneum and, for those who dare, up Vesuvius.
We stay at the Imperial Hotel Tramontano, which commands an enviable clifftop location with views across the bay to a hazy Vesuvius.
Ducking down a side street off the Piazza Tasso, we find a pizzeria called Basilica – and indulge in our first of many real Italian pizzas, mine complete with artichoke hearts.
Every restaurant in Sorrento serves a shot of chilled Limoncello, lemon liquor, as a little extra after a meal. It’s a sweet and sour speciality of the region, which is known for its lemon groves - in fact you can barely walk down a street without passing a lemon tree.
As pretty as Sorrento is, there’s absolutely no contest when you travel along the Amalfi Coast to Ravello, perched high in the cliffs.
Until 1200, Amalfi was one of Italy’s four maritime republics and the wealthiest liked to live just up the hill in Ravello. Today, the town has just 2,500 inhabitants, but in the 12th century there were 25,000, including a disproportionate number of palazzi owned by the mercantile nobility.
To make ourselves feel like nobility, we stay at the Hotel Caruso, part of the Orient-Express group, and itself a former palazzo. Its ancient walls and fresco-covered ceilings have been carefully preserved and it has, to my mind, the world’s most spectacular infinity pool with a 360-degree view of the sea on one side and the hills, cut into terraces of lemon and olive trees, on the other.
The poolside bar has its own wood-fired pizza oven, serving tables on an lawn overlooking views of the coastline.
The next morning, after breakfast served on our balcony, we take advantage of the hotel’s daily complimentary boat trip from Amalfi, along the coast to Positano, famous for its colourful houses stacked up the hillside.
Back at the hotel, I enjoy a relaxing manicure before dinner of locally-caught amberjack fish in the hotel’s restaurant. It seems a world away from the tragedy of Pompeii, but I can’t help thinking the Romans would have approved.
Kate Whiting was a guest of Citalia (0843 770 4443; citalia.com. A week’s holiday combining four nights at the Imperial Tramontano Hotel in Sorrento and three nights in Ravello at the five-star Hotel Caruso, part of Citalia’s Exclusive Collection, start from £1,235 per person, including flights from London Gatwick with BA, transfers and breakfast. One free night is included at each hotel. Based on departures 16 October 2013.
Day trips to Pompeii and Herculaneum are also pre-bookable.