Italy

Around the region

Naples is one crazy mamma of a city that yields fascinating ancient baggage and stupefying surroundings: a natural bounty that an endless stream of foreign suitors has coveted. The sparkling gulfs of Napoli and Salerno have spectacular coastlines, islands and volcanoes that spawned Graeco-Roman myths, hedonistic shenanigans and seismic episodes. Despite its natural dangers and perennial troubles, the Campania region offers unparalleled drama, beauty and flavour – a life-affirming walk on the lip of snoozing Vesuvius.

Naples

Naples seeps into you: ignore the overstated negative reputation and experience it. Its relentless rhythm defies the rational as Naples makes its own rules. With 2500 years of foreign influence – including Greek, Roman, Norman, Arab, Swabian, Spanish and French – Naples is a city whose architecture, customs and language barely feel Italian let alone European. In his 1947 novel La Pelle (The Skin), Curzio Malaparte wrote: “Naples is the most mysterious city in Europe. It is the only city of the Ancient world that has not perished…It is not a city: it’s a world – the ancient pre-Christian world, which has survived intact on the surface of the modern world.” Naples is a tangle of intense flavours and vibrant culture. It’s the home of pizza, coffee, ice cream, pasta and the fruits of the Campania Felix. Down in the old Graeco-Roman decumani streets, amid the layers of architecture and arte d’arrangiarsi (“arrange yourself”: make ends meet), the languidly sensual teatro napoletano is played out with stop-start bursts of energy. Compelling atmospheres fill the city’s rioni (quarters), from elegant Chiaia to palatial Capodimonte. The muggy air and glimpses of Vesuvius add to the dreamlike spectacle. Neapolitans infuse their Baroque everyday dealings with hedonism and macabre superstition laced with humour. Once Naples gets under your skin, that nonchalant Neapolitan shrug towards the city’s perennial woes begins to make some sense. With Campania’s beauty and fertility comes the Camorra’s grip and volcanic menace. Neapolitans “dwell on the confines of heaven and hell-fire”, as the Enlightenment scholar Edwin Gibbon said: so they are bound to behave a little differently. A T-shirt mimicking the warning on a cigarette packet sums up the city’s deadly allure: Napoli non è una città, ma uno stato d’animo – Naples is not a city, it’s a mood: an atmosphere.

Campi Flegrei

Dubbed the “Fiery Fields” by the ancients, this 13 km wide volcanic caldera west of Naples is picturesquely pocked with craters, steaming sights and Graeco-Roman ruins. Mythmakers Virgil and Homer saw this as a land of fatal contrasts: a heavenly Arcadian landscape scarred by a fiery Hades, the entrance to the underworld. Eerily beautiful Lake Averno and the sulphuric moonscape of Solfatara certainly have the whiff of myth about them. At Pozzuoli, Baia and Bacoli, remains of the most lavish spa resort and grandiose Roman buildings, including the Anfiteatro Flavio, mingle with a new wave of swanky beach clubs, restaurants and hotels. Amid the scenic architectural fragments at Cuma, where the Greeks founded Magna Graecia, is a trapezoidal tunnel with fantastical stories attached to a prophetess, the Cumean Sybil. Piscina Mirabilis, a cathedral-like underground cistern, held the water of one of Rome’s finest feats of engineering, the Serino Aqueduct. At Bagnoli, an industrial wasteland is slowly being reclaimed as a destination of innovation and pleasure, while at Fuorigrotta, a piece of monumental Fascist architecture, the Mostra d’Oltremare, sits among theme parks, SSC Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo and the zoo.

Vesuvius, Herculaneum & Pompeii

Below Vesuvius, compelling time capsules of Roman life continue to astonish archaeologists and visitors. This is La Zona Rossa, the Red Zone, the area that will feel the true force of mainland Europe’s only active volcano one day. For a heart-pounding dose of humble pie, take a walk around the crater rim of Vesuvius and peer into its depths. There are incredible walks in the Parco Nazionale di Vesuvio and time-travel explorations at Pompeii, Ercolano, Oplontis, Boscoreale and Stabiae. Combine a walk around the ancient well-heeled beachside resort of Herculaneum, where skeletons, jewels and the Villa dei Papiri’s priceless library of scrolls are still coming to light, with a journey around mind-blowing Pompeii. Along the Miglio d’Oro (the Golden Mile) there are dozens of 18th-century, Bourbon-era Ville Vesuviane. Vesuvian soil yields the tastiest produce including San Marzano tomatoes, apricots, artichokes, persimmons, and grapes that produce the white Vesuvio DOC and Lacryma Christi wines.

Sorrentine Peninsula & Amalfi Coast

Tectonic forces lifted limestone rocks to create these spectacular coastlines. The Penisola Sorrentina extends from Roman spa-town Castellammare di Stabia to the wild headland of Punta Campanella, whose glittering splinter, the island of Capri, sits nearby. From Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi, which straddles the gulfs of Naples and Salerno, la Costiera Amalfitana and the meandering SS163 Amalfi Drive (beloved of coupé-car advertisers and slow coaches) begins. Soaring cliffs of the Monti Lattari plunge down to an azure sea studded with hidden coves and grottoes – those natural hideouts of pirates and canoodling film stars. Rustic traditions and the tastiest produce thrive amid the terraced olive and citrus groves, campanile-chiming villages and fishing harbours. Pebbly beaches, dramatic ravines and stunning walks like the Trail of the Gods abound. Touristy Sorrento has its charms, especially towards Massa Lubrense. Positano defines the pastel-painted picturesque harbour turned chic resort. Amalfi basks in its glorious maritime past while lofty Ravello’s Norman-Saracenic gardens and glorious vistas are a breath of ethereal air. The bedlam of the Second World War may have seized Salerno yet its lungomare and Moorish cathedral cloisters make it worth the detour. Towards the untamed Cilento Coast, Graeco-Roman Paestum and its ancient temples emerge like a vision of a lost civilization.

Capri, Ischia & Procida

These three islands offer their own unique dreams and adventures. Glamour, glitz and the jet-set are synonymous with Capri, the largest and bluest chip off the old Sorrentine Peninsula’s limestone rock. So hilly and craggy is Capri that you can easily escape the daily invasion of mass tourism and bask in the island’s wild wonders by ducking down a scented lane or by chartering a boat. Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, and writers like Graham Greene and Axel Munthe have all added to its allure as an idyllic retreat of rustic epicurean pleasures and hedonistic japes. Both Ischia and Procida were plopped into the bay by the Campi Flegrei volcanic caldera. Vestiges of its heated volcanic past can be seen in Ischia’s thermal springs, while Procida is made up of four curvy craters that form stunning bays backed by honey-hued tufa rock. Ischia’s 46 sq km contain a dead volcano – Monte Epomeo – subtropical gardens and beaches of volcanic sand fizzing with fumaroles. Tiny Procida is all about intimacy, earthiness and relaxation – its leafy lanes lead to pastel-coloured fishing villages and beaches.

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