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…

Description: the Path of the Gods

At a time when so many hotels are battling to out-cool each other, hiring cutting-edge designers and investing in bizarre in-room technologies, it’s a great relief to stay in a hotel that remains faithful to its 19th-century origins.

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, when everyone gathers for aperitif hour and people-watching.

Inside, the hotel’s interior is a gift to any period costume drama; you half expect Helena Bonham-Carter to appear in bustling skirts from behind a pillar. There are large, elegant salons with silk all hangings, damask-covered furniture and vast windows with stained panels overlooking a balustrade terrace and, beyond, a glistening sea and, of course, the looming specter of 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 candlelight. 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. Hip hotels, eat your heart out.

Description: Helena Bonham-Carter

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 meanwhile 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 building. 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.

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 realize what they’ve been missing.

Description: The Germans and Swiss

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 immortalized 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. Our guide was Elisabeth Sommer, an Austrian who married a local man and is an expert on the area’s flora, fauna, and local traditions. As you walk, Sommer will point out flowers, and help you navigate your way around the herds of goats that crowd the path. The sound of their bells chiming is the only thing you will hear on this walk; other than that, it’s just the whirr of the wind, and the faint purr of the sea below.

The path finishes at a village called Nocelle. From here, you can jump on a bus down to Positano, or brave the 1,700-step stairway that takes you all the way down. This is certainly pretty, and will keep you out of the sin as it winds its way through cool wooded areas, affording tantalizing glimpses of Positano as you approach it, but beware: going downstairs seems easy, but this number of steps takes its toll on your calves. Be sure to rest on the way, and stretch properly at the end. 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.

Description: Nocelle

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. It’s packed with boutique art galleries and shops selling linen aromatic soaps, liqueurs and home-made ice-creams. At Da Carmine you can have a simple pair of summer sandals, with diamante or stone adornments, made-to-order in about ten minutes by a cobbler who sits outside in the street. Positano may be one of the area’s most popular tourist towns, but its independent shops and artisans still give it an authentic, small-town feel.

Description: Vincenzo Galano

Exhausted, we headed back to the hotel. There, 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, but there was plenty of simple food, too. It’s rare you taste pasta, cheese and vegetables that are a world away from what you are used to. Parmigianino, a dish that is normally a bland, stringy, tasteless mess in most international restaurants was here a heavenly aromatic mound of melt-in-the-mouth flavor. I’d also recommend the cuts of this fragile pizza, flavored with delicate herbs and tomato so fresh it feels like a pick-me-up.

Description: the Excelsior Vittoria

The last time I came to this part of Italy, I swore I would never go back – it was too crowded. But I’ve changed my mind; it’s too lovely to ignore. Go early or late in the season before (May or after mid-September). Spend a bit extra on a hotel like the Excelsior Vittoria that is spacious, quite, civilized, and has its own private grounds (and pool) where you can escape the hordes. And last, but not least, give Sommer a ring and go walking. There are many other walks you can do aside from the Path of the Gods – all of them offering a peaceful and private way of experience Italy’s most magical coast.

For information on walking The Path of the Gods, contact Enjoy Positano on

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