It’s a fine thing to be sitting here with Sophia Loren in the lobby of a spectacular hotel. The dimensional specifics of each are similarly impressive. Additionally, I have a glass of prosecco nearby, blue water in the middle-ground, a volcano in the distance and, just by my right elbow, a gasp-making cliff-drop of perhaps 300 feet down to a small beach of black sand.
To be truthful, there is a (sliding) sheet of glass between me and bloodily pulped oblivion, and – alas – La Loren is here only in photo-album form: although, unlike Vesuvius, she continues to smoulder (even off the page). Still, as reception areas go, it’s not too shabby. The sun shines, oranges and lemons grow like weeds in the perfumed air and I think, as I so often do, of La Dolce Vita.
Sorrento’s freshly refurbished Bellevue Syrene is the most elegant of the necklace of fading grand hotels garlanding the vertiginous cliffs of the Golfo di Napoli’s southern shore. It’s only 50km from Capodichino airport, but since half that distance is travelled on the slow, derrière-clenchingly terrifying SS145 – more ledge than road – it seems more remote… both in space and time.
The ledge is a congealed mass of hot, angry metal in summer, so use a boat or come a little out of season. A grand hotel out of season is, I fancy, as the prosecco takes hold, rather like making love to an ageing beauty. Sophia Loren, for example. The physical attraction remains, but decorum is required; the passion may be muted, but the expertise is assured. The result? A specialised, but nonetheless satisfying, experience. For example, Bellevue Syrene’s proprietors have made the calculation that, in the quiet months, it’s cheaper to give drinks away than pay someone to serve them. And the happy result is ice-buckets of wine scattered about: fuel for more cheerful fantasy about mischievous Roman gods and Neapolitan sex goddesses.
We – and I mean Mrs Smith and I, not me and Ms Loren – are the latest in a line of odd couples drawn to this magical, haunted place. At the bottom of my cliff, Virgil celebrated completing the Aeneid with a party thrown by the Emperor Augustus, dedicating a statue of Amor in a troglodyte Temple of Venus (where they now store butane cylinders). Admiral Nelson began his affair with Emma Hamilton nearby in 1793: she had promoted herself by dancing naked on tables at society dinners. Nietzsche and Wagner had their nasty spat here in 1876. Love, and hate, hang in the air along with the oranges, lemons and popping prosecco corks.
All rooms have a sea view, but we have a suite with a panorama of everything. Decoration is by Marco de Luca, who worked on the High Bohemian B&B La Minervetta just up the road. But while the colourful mayhem of La Minervetta is like an explosion in Tricia Guild’s knicker drawer, the Bellevue Syrene’s style is monochrome and restrained: layered, competitive whiteness of very high threadcount sheets and superb Richard Ginori china. It is sumptuously austere: a perfect counterpoint for our room’s model Riva Aquarama and a schlock bust of Marcus Aurelius suggesting the poles of experience, sensual and philosophical, available here. A flyer for a car hire company is in Russian and shows a Ferrari.
Like any luxury hotel, Bellevue Syrene has grand restaurant spaces out-of-sync with the stylish intimacy and dominant sensuality of its bedrooms. Eat here one night and enjoy the tinkle of the pianist playing soft rock classics while you sup. In town, Inn Bufalito is a mozzarella specialist that also cooks real Campanian dishes, which we enjoyed. (Possibly ignore the plague of alien industrial balsamic always on offer.) Also tempting is Aurora, a solemn, brightly lit old-school pizzeria where the staff sport dinner jackets and customers are in shorts.
Best of all, saunter down to Marina Grande, among the fishermen’s nets and ziggurats of piscatorial crapola, to Trattoria da Emilia. I doubt the menu has changed much since 1947, but since they serve the freshest possible fritto misto (the fish are too small to be worth freezing) along with, for Italy, unusually good restaurant bread and jugs of glugging bianco – who wants innovation? And, just beyond the threshold, a thrilling confirmation of the rightness of it all: a black and white photograph, taken in 1955, of Sophia Loren in mozzarella-tight shorts, taking a break at this very spot from filming Dino Risi’s Pane, Amore e… Loren said everything she did owed a debt to spaghetti, but I think other factors were involved.
Saturday morning in Room 501, the sepulchral quiet is interrupted only by a distant strimmer, a tap-tap-tap from invisible lavori and the maddening Eurostar chime, like the Danone ad riff, of our lift coming and going. Mrs Smith is sitting on the terrace in neo-classical repose, watching a distant aliscafo shoot silently across a glass sea to Capri, the craggy goat island. I know she is thinking of lunch.
Years ago, we stayed in Franco Zefirelli’s old house, the Villa Tre Ville in neighbouring Positano. This global HQ of modern hedonism introduced us to the troubled magic of an area that has attracted poets and lovers since BC and drawn gamblers, chancers, divas, directors, dancers and stars AD. The owners of Bellevue Syrene have just bought Franco’s old house and turned it into apartments, establishing another local connection to historic pleasure.
A chair on a vantage point here is a good laboratory to test if the ancient gods still exist. I think they do, but so too do rather younger ones. Maybe if I wait long enough in this sunburnt otherwhere, Sophia Loren will actually turn up. Bellevue Syrene makes la dolce vita real, turning a dream into an address.