or 'How I discovered the Villa Limona' by Caroline Lawrence
'Let's go on a holiday to Rome and Naples,' said my sister one day, on the phone. It was 2000. I was living in London with my husband Richard, she was raising two boys in California.
(left: Villa of Pollius Felix from the Roman Mysteries Treasury)
'OK,' I said. 'You book the hotel in Rome, and I'll try to find a villa near Pompeii.'
This would fit perfectly with my research. My next books - The Secrets of Vesuvius & The Pirates of Pompeii - would be set before, during and after the eruption of Vesuvius. I had decided that Flavia's uncle owned a farm in Stabia. I chose Stabia because it's near Pompeii, but not too near.
I phoned a travel firm that specialized in Italian villas.
'I'd like a villa big enough for six people near Stabia,' I said.
Silence. Then 'Do you mean Castellammare di Stabia?' she said. 'We don't have villas there.'
'Or anywhere near Pompeii,' I said. 'I want to be in the plain near Pompeii.'
Another pause. 'Most people stay in Sorrento if they want to visit Pompeii.'
'Do you have villas in Sorrento?'
'Of course.' She went on to describe a big house called the Villa Citrona. Not only was it luxurious, with stunning views, but it had lemon groves and an outdoor swimming pool. And was available for mid-October. The only drawback was that it was up in the hills and we would need to rent a car in Naples. But apart from that, it sounded blissful. The lady asked if I would like to book it. (above: not the swimming pool of the Villa Citrona, but a set from The Roman Mysteries TV series)
'Yes,' I said excitedly. 'But I have to ring my sister and confirm it with her. I'll phone you straight back.' I phoned my sister and told her about the Villa Citrona.
'Sure. Book it,' she said.
I phoned the travel agent. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'Someone else has just reserved the Villa Citrona. But I can give you the Villa Magnolia, on the Capo di Sorrento.'
'All right,' I sighed, dejected. 'I suppose I'll take that.'
As soon as we arrived in Naples and took the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento, I realised several things.
First, the area around Pompeii is flat, industrial and ugly. It may have been lush and beautiful in Roman times, but today it's covered with factories and a pall of smog. I'm glad we didn't book a villa in Stabia.
Secondly, it's suicide to rent a car and drive in that part of Italy. Here is a joke the Italians tell: In Milan, traffic lights are the law. In Rome, traffic lights are a suggestion. In Naples, traffic lights are Christmas decoration. I'm glad we didn't get the Villa Citrona after all; we would have had to drive everywhere.
Third, being shunted to the Villa Magnolia was one of the best things that could have happened.
The first day we arrived I wandered down to the coast road to explore. I saw a yellow sign: Ruderi Villa Romana di Pollio Felice 1sec d.C. (The first century ruins of the Roman Villa of Pollius Felix) I had never heard of any Roman ruins here on the Capo di Sorrento. I followed it down and soon I caught glimpses of the blue sea through the olive trees on my right. Then I came to the end of the road. Before me lay the headland and the clear remains of an ancient building. When I saw the secret cove, I knew this had to be the setting for the pirates’ base in The Pirates of Pompeii.
(left: Pollius Felix from The Roman Mysteries TV series)
Back in England I discovered that Pollius Felix had been a powerful patron – probably of Greek origin – who lived exactly during the time of Flavia and her friends. Even more exciting, his wife may have been Polla Argentaria, the widow of Lucan, a poet who was implicated in a plot against Nero and forced to kill himself. A poem by a Roman called Statius describes Felix's villa and a shrine to Hercules on the Cape of Surrentum.
Pollius Felix and his wife Polla and their eldest daughter Pulchra (right: from The Roman Mysteries TV series) became some of the most important characters in my books, and two of my favourites in the series - The Pirates of Pompeii and The Sirens of Surrentum - are set at the Villa of Pollius Felix. There are still people in the area with the name Pollio and the beach next to this headland is called Puolo.
If we hadn't been shunted to the Villa Magnolia, I might never have learnt of the Villa of Pollius Felix in Sorrento.
By the way, SERENDIPITY is when you make an unexpected, lucky discovery.
P.S. The Villa Magnolia is no longer for rent, but my friend Barbara Bell, creator of the fabulous Minimus Latin Course, always stays at the beautiful Hotel del Mare in Marina Grande. It has stunning views across the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius and is close to the Villa of Pollius Felix. I'm certainly going to stay there next time I visit Sorrento. Maybe I'll see you there!
P.P.S. For more stories of my research in Italy, Greece and North Africa, get From Ostia to Alexandria with Flavia Gemina: Travels with Flavia Gemina