There's something about Sorrento and the Amalfi coast that brings out the romantic in us all. Maybe it's all those Deano records such as That's Amore, or his rendition of the Isle of Capri. Hell, maybe it's just the gallons of vino, but it's a place that's evocative for most of us.
This region of Italy, stretching from Naples down to Salerno, has got it all. Okay, the beaches are brutal, but otherwise it's pretty much what La Dolce Vita is all about.
But, wherever I end up in the world, the memories that live longest aren't about the buildings, the scenery or the history, but the people. Taking a trip to Italy with the Travel Department and being coached around with total strangers was an eye-opener. Not in a bad sense, but in how interesting, and different, your fellow travellers really can be: a retired lady with a passion for archaeology, a loved-up couple visiting Italy to celebrate a milestone birthday and yearning to try a local Michelin-star restaurant, another woman with a passion for Italian life (and perhaps with memories of an Italian lover, we guessed), a bunch of young student girls and teachers up for the craic, and an elderly couple with a gra for the Chianti. Throw into that mix a guide like Amadeo -- Roman, young and with a passion for life -- and you have a holiday that'll live long in the memory.
With a Travel Department holiday like this the donkey work is done for you, which is handy in a country as disorganised as this. The bus is waiting each morning to bring you to all the places of interest. If you don't want to go, you can just chill out at the hotel. Our base was the Moon River Hotel, a property that's geared towards coach-trip groups. The bedrooms were dated (think late-'80s Santa Ponsa), but the views -- simply amazing.
Our room looked down over the Bay of Naples, and the dawn glow would illuminate the cypress trees and multi-coloured houses of the hilly region. The hotel's pool area is fantastic, too; it's uber cool and boasts stunning vistas.
It's a place you look forward to heading back to at night, with local musicians providing entertainment and the bar and hotel staff top notch and well used to Irish idiosyncracies, such as the late late late pint (or so I was told).
The half-board food is good, too, and the local village (two minutes walk away) has a smashing cappuccino bar and a little cafe where they serve wine by the half pint at dirt-cheap prices.
Itineraries are well planned and our first port of call was one of the highlights -- a trek to the top of Vesuvius. Amadeo was full of interesting insights, revealing that the local Mob bosses have built their mansions right up along the foot of the still-active volcano. When it blows it'll take them out first.
It's an eerie place to visit, with steam billowing out of its moon-like crater top, offering spectacular views around the Bay of Naples and beyond to the islands of Capri and Ischia. And if you needed a reminder of how awesome the power of nature can be, a trip to Pompeii does the job. Our guide for the day showed us around this ancient Roman city -- and it was some city, sprawling on a New York-style grid. He showed us the grooves in the cobblestones made by horse carriages, the old bakery ovens which look as if they'd still bake a mean pizza to this day, and, everyone's highlight -- one of its brothels.
We got a 'nudge nudge wink wink' look at the various sexual positions of the first century AD -- all that sex on display had a lady with our group exclaiming: "Jaysus, they were at it hammer and thongs in those days!"
Nearby is the sprawling city of Naples. Imagine Rome run by bungling FF councillors, and you're on the right track. The binmen have been on strike for ages, and rubbish is piled up everywhere.
Everyone else on the coach hated the place, but not me. Full of passion and idiosyncrasies, with great food and amazing shopping, I adore Naples, warts and all.
We also had front-row seats at the local town's religious parade. Straight out of a KKK rally, ominous figures in Barney-the-Dinosaur purple Klan-like cloaks paraded a bloodied Jesus or two around town to atone for their sins. Their identities are secret -- but Amadeo gave one or two a knowing wave, which made them walk that bit faster.
Capri's beautiful, but not my cup of tea as it's pricey and full of Eurotrash, but the hillside town of Positano is a must-see.
Strangely, the highlight of the trip was also the most low key -- an afternoon on a local farm. Sitting surrounded by olive groves, we were treated to freshly baked bread, homemade mozzarella, and plenty of farm wine, like a family from a Dolmio ad. Life is sweet indeed.