For a break in south-west Italy, make Naples your base and visit Herculaneum, Pompeii and Sorrento

Naples

A tour of Pompeii is a highlight of anyone’s trip to the glorious Bay of Naples, but instead of staying on the Sorrento Peninsula or Amalfi coast, there’s another way of approaching the Roman ruins.

Base yourself in Naples and you can easily combine the cultural and gastronomic attractions of one of Italy’s liveliest cities with excursions to Pompeii, Herculaneum and Sorrento.

I stayed at the elegant Grand Hotel Parker’s, the city’s oldest and highest hotel, founded in 1870 and offering panoramic views over the rooftops to Vesuvius and the sparkling sea.  For a romantic gourmet meal, George’s Restaurant on the sixth floor ticked all my boxes.

One of two hotels offered by short break specialists Kirker Holidays, Grand Hotel Parker’s – named after its 19th-century English owner – stands on the edge of Naples’ upmarket Chiaia district, just a 10-minute walk from the Metro.

Walk, don’t drive

Don’t even think about hiring a car in this frenetic, chaotic city, where drivers pass on both sides and sound their horns at the slightest excuse.

The two Metro lines will take you most places you want to go and Naples is an exciting city to explore on foot – undeniably scruffy, but with the authentic buzz of somewhere people live and work.

The heart of the old town lies around the cathedral, set back from the port and close to the main station. Here, narrow alleyways lined with small shops and hung with washing lines are punctuated with buildings of surprising beauty.

Don’t miss the Baroque magnificence of Gesù Nuovo church nor the tranquil cloister of Santa Chiara opposite, with its pillars and benches of colourful majolica tiles.

The National Archaeological Museum on the edge of the old town (closed Tuesdays) is home to the treasures from Pompeii.

Patterned glass that could be contemporary; delicately engraved silver tableware; wall paintings and mosaics made from minuscule pieces.

Not to mention an outstanding collection of Roman sculptures, many of gigantic proportions.

Another must-see area is the Piazza del Plebiscito, near the waterfront. Visit the lavish Royal Apartments of the Spanish king in Palazzo Reale; relax in the Belle Epoque grandeur of Gran Caffé Gambrinus, and take a tour of San Carlo Opera House – tickets for performances are surprisingly affordable, too.

Then take a walk through the elegant Umberto I Gallery, with its marble floors and tempting array of shops.

Heading out

Exploring the attractions outside the city couldn’t be easier. From Central Station in Piazza Garibaldi, the Circumvesuviana train leaves every half an hour for Sorrento, a scenic journey of 70 minutes for just €7 return, with Pompeii in the middle.

It doesn’t matter how many TV documentaries you watch about Pompeii, nothing can prepare you for the sheer scale of Italy’s most famous Roman excavations.

The long, straight streets with their stepping-stone crossings, the stately villas with decorated courtyards, and the rows of shops that served this once bustling maritime town.

I’d expected an amphitheatre and the vast open space of the forum, but it’s the little things that take you by surprise: the laundry, with its huge vats for dying clothes; the fast-food outlets with bulbous terracotta pots set in mosaic-topped counters.

And the solid stone beds in that famous brothel that show just how short the Romans were.

If you can avoid the heat and crowds of summer, Pompeii can be a surprisingly intimate experience, especially in the company of one of the official guides who await visitors inside the main entrance. Information panels at Pompeii are minimal, so even with a map it’s easy to miss things or not appreciate what you’re seeing.

Allow two hours for a guided tour of the main sites, then you can wander at leisure on your own.

Herculaneum – between Pompeii and Naples – is a much smaller site, located a few minutes’ walk downhill from the train station and nestled quarry-style in a hollow beneath the contemporary town.

Allow an hour to wander its grid of streets lined with upmarket villas befitting this prosperous Roman holiday resort. And make sure to drop to the lowest level, once the quayside, to see the twisted skeletons of citizens engulfed in ash as they waited to escape by boat.

Emotional stuff.

No stay around the Bay of Naples would be complete without a visit to Sorrento, perhaps the modern equivalent of Herculaneum with its smart boutiques and restaurants and busy town centre. Stroll the peaceful cloister of St Francis, near Piazza Tasso and take in the view of Vesuvius from the public cliff-top garden.

Steep lanes wind down to the harbour and bathing platforms, or you could make like a rich Roman and choose the easy option – a 20-second trip by lift!

Great for food lovers

No frills, no reservations, just fast service and authentic Neapolitan pizza at Gino Sorbillo (sorbillo.it) And for a fish fest treat, try the tasting menu at Baccalaria for divine variations on cod, one of the city’s traditional foods (baccalaria.it).

Great for culture vultures

Discover the fine art collections of Naples’ Capodimonte royal palace, the Castel Nuovo fortress beside the harbour, and the underground passages of Napoli Sotterranea.

The lavishly decorated Villa Poppaea is one of many Roman villas dotted round the bay.

Great for spirited adventurers

It’s not every day you look inside a volcano!

Catch the Circumvesuviana train to Ercolano and pick up the shuttle bus for the 20-minute ride to the parking area for Vesuvius.

From here, it is a 15-minute gradual climb to the crater.

Women’s Weekly travel offers

Eight-day trip to Pompeii, Capri & the Bay Of Naples from £699pp.Selected departures up to October 2016 and April to October 2017.

Includes flights, seven nights in a three- or four-star Sorrento hotel with half board, tours of Sorrento, Vesuvius, Pompeii, Capri, Naples Archaeological Museum, the Amalfi Coast and Ravello, and the services of an experienced tour manager.

To book or for a free brochure, call 01283 742 396 or visit escorted.womansweekly.co.uk