Having sworn off Italy’s Amalfi Coast
for being overcrowded, Emily Wright is won over by the glorious old-world charm
of the Excelsior Vittoria and the classical education she gets as she walks the
Path of the Gods
like Positano look much as they did when writers like John Steinbeck came to
hang out in small bars with local fisherman
Italy's gorgeous Bay of Naples is no
stranger to great hotels, but the Excelsior Vittoria has the pedigree of being
the first in Sorrento, and Italy's oldest family-owned hotel (it's been run by
the Fiorentino family since it opened in 1834). It is also, in some ways, the
most central and most low-key. You'll miss it if you don't look. It's tucked
away down a long drive lined with heavy- fruited citrus trees, just off
Sorrento's main square, Piazza Torquato Tasso, where everyone gathers for
aperitifs and people-watching.
Inside, the hotel's interiors are a gift to
any period costume-drama. There are large, elegant salons with silk wall
hangings, damask- covered furniture and vast windows with stained panels
overlooking a balustraded terrace and, beyond, a glistening sea and Vesuvius.
Plaster cherubs smile down from the ceilings, and heavy gilt frames surround
the ageing, foxed- glass mirrors, where 19th-century princesses would have once
admired themselves by candelight. Look up, and you'll see original ceiling
frescoes, especially in the magnificent ballroom, where breakfast is served
every morning. The reception is packed with sepia photographs of luminaries
rolling up in vintage classic cars, and Sofia Loren in her voluptuous prime,
pouting on the balcony.
Hotel Excelsior Vittoria
Of course, The Excelsior has had to keep up
with the times. During its 172-year history, the hotel has built two extra
wings, including a bizarre chalet-like building created to please Austrian
royalty, who holidayed here in the 19th century. The hotel's biggest selling
point is its location, perched overlooking the perfectly curved inlet of the
Bay of Naples, one of the world's most famous stretches of coastline, and
justly so. Thanks to rigid planning laws, the area has kept developers at bay,
so the coast hasn't been ruined by identikit villa buildings. Towns like
Positano look much as they did 70 years ago, when writers like John Steinbeck
came here to hang out in small bars with local fishermen. Even so, things have
changed. In summer, ten thousand tourists can descend on a town that was built
to accommodate four thousand. In high season, the charms of the area, with its
slow-moving, traffic-choked coastal road, can start to fade fast.
Bay of Naples
Which is why you need to get your walking
boots on and head for the hills? The Germans and Swiss discovered the delights
of walking the mountains that loom over this coastline years ago; the Brits
have recently started to realise what they've been missing.
One of the best-known walks is the Path of
the Gods, which you can do at a brisk pace in about two hours, or three with a
picnic break built in. The walk starts in the hilltop town of Agerola, and
follows a mountain path - scarily narrow in places with an unfenced sheer drop.
On the way, you'll enjoy magnificent panoramic views of the sea and the
villages below, and can see sights immortalised by Homer in The Odyssey (the
Bay of Naples is where Odysseus heard the sirens singing to him). That myth
gives you some idea of the area's sensually beautiful landscapes.
Path of the Gods
The path finishes at a village called
Nocelle. From here, you can jump on a bus down to Positano, or brave the old
1,700-step stairway that takes you all the way down. Unbelievably, the
nimble-footed locals still climb this stairway and some still use donkeys to
carry shopping and goods with them - it's quicker than taking the long,
circuitous route by road.
Positano is as lovely as you've been told.
Small, white and labyrinthine, with a fine Baroque church and a sandy beach, it
recalls island villages in Greece.
island villages in Greece
Back at the hotel, Vincenzo Galano, head
chef at the Excelsior Vittoria, a born and bred Sorrento man, had rustled up
plenty of sophisticated dishes involving special cuts of beef and fish.
The last time I came to this part of Italy,
I swore would never go back - it was too crowded. But I've changed my mind;
it's too lovely to ignore - just go early or late in the season.
Classic Collection Holidays (0800 294 9318)
offers 7 nights at Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, Sorrento from
$2,491.5 per person this July, including return flights from Gatwick and
For information on walking The Path of the
Gods visit enjoypositano.com or call +39 334 23 54 122