Campania is a riveting region of Italy that will enrapture you. It give you exactly that kind of escape you’ve been yearning for and won’t want to leave. It’s in this region where pizza and Sofia Loren were born (yay), and also Cammora, organized crime mafia-style originators from Napoli (boo). We had been noses-to-the-grindstone and in need of a true Italian dolce vita revival. We threw our burdens to the wind, a bag in the car, and headed south for a long weekend (not long enough) getaway. As soon as we were in southern sections of Italy, we knew it. Sights like these don’t pass you in just any place:
It was a first (but not last!) visit for me, and the first where my italiano husband saw it with grownup eyes after having been on a family trip back in younger years. Let me give you the lowdown of our voyage, which will hopefully help you to plan out your own magical visit!
The Who, What, Where, Why, When, aaaand How:
Who: The marito and me (husband). This place is perfect for a romantic adventure, but I could also seeing it being a blast with a couple good pals, or solo!
What: Anniversary Trip, 3 nights
Where: Amalfi Coast, Capri, Pompeii and Naples. Homebase for the weekend was Conca dei Marini at Locanda degli Agrumi
When: Long weekend to kick off June. June 2nd is a holiday in Italy (Festa della Repubblica) which landed on a Tuesday this year, so many people were thrilled to have a “ponte” which means “bridge,” allowing for an extra day off attached to the weekend!
Why: To reencounter dolce vita in one of the purest forms in this paese!
How: Car, bus, boat, foot! Bring your walking shoes and a sense of humour…this dolce vita wouldn’t be complete without classically Italian frustrations on some fronts, which especially highlighted those in the mode of transportation in this region.
Laid to rest for hundreds of years under about 30 feet of volcanic ash, Pompeii is a playground for ancient-Roman enthusiasts as a whole city is under your feet, untainted by human hands, but tarnished by immense forces of nature. The sensations you feel here are unlike any other, no matter who you are, you can’t avoid being affected by the erry feelings of being present in a place that was a bustling commercial centre of an empire of over 20,000 people who were met by such a devastating fate, some two-thousand years ago.
As you roam from one space to another, you can visualize the community alive again: merchants selling their trades, chariots nosily buckling down some of the first stoned streets in existence, the scent of hot food floating to your nose as it was displayed in ancient ovens, colourful mosaic signage to inform visitors: “beware of dog,” “welcome.”
And then for perhaps the most fascinating and heartbreaking part of our trip: witnessing the plaster casts of the victims of the 79AD eruption. Just days before our arrival, the bodies were recently restored and placed in a prism-shaped structure right in the middle of the Ampitheatre of Pompei. It’s a strange sort of humanistic intrigue. The striking visual of the faces of these victims, creases of the very clothing they still had on, bodies positioned frozen in the moment of time when the deadly gas and heat hit them and took life in an instant. By postures of their corpses, it seems some were trying to protect themselves or agonizing over the horror. The volcanic ash created a sort of casting over the body’s skeletons, but the immense heat and toxic gas disintegrated these poor people. It becomes so much more painfully real when you witness an alleged family together, a mother with her child in her lap and likely the helpless father nearby. There is another couple bracing themselves by embracing each other. It stings the soul to imagine what their last thoughts and words may have been, and there’s an eerie sense that you hear their cries and whispers bouncing off these angled walls.
Pompeii impressed a renewed sense of mortality…how precious and how short life is. From walking the streets that were once so lively and now cower in the silencing shadows of still-active Vesuvius, to standing in the centre of the world’s oldest standing amphitheatre (more than 150 years older than Rome’s Coliseum) and imagining gladiators in their ultimate moments, to paying witness to remains of human beings whose lives were so deplorably taken. Yet it’s a site were you see some of the very first operational water and sewage systems and other structures for various amenities of civilized livelihood. Who knows what could have become of this rich, booming society if Vesuvius hadn’t made claim to it? To say the least, being at this very particular place in the world provokes some deep thoughts on life.
Do you need a tour guide? I asked myself that question and in the end we didn’t go with one. We grabbed one audio guide at the ticket office, and it sufficed. Actually, it didn’t really, because it wasn’t really updated to the current state of the site, meaning that, the audio guide often told me to go inside certain structures that were certainly out of bounds. But that, along with some reading I did ahead of time, gave me grounds for what to focus on. I’d say the “don’t miss” parts of Pompeii are: the Villa of Mysteries (a little walk outside of the core centre), the ampitheatre, the Bath houses, the House of the Faun, the House of the Tragic Poet (where the “beware of dog” mosaic is), the Lupanare (the brothel), Apollo’s Temple, and the Basilica.
Other things to observe are the cafeterias with their ceramic oven pots and display walls, the roads complete carriage tracks and with stone “crosswalks” for people to cross without getting their feet dirtied which also acted as a sort of “speed bump” to slow chariots so they didn’t splash pedestrians, and the phallic symbols proudly placed everywhere (just wait until you see the “Cabinet of Secrets” room in the National Museum of Naples) which in a pagan society symbolized fertility and prosperity.
Don’t expect to see objects left behind in Pompeii itself. It’s mostly just the carcass of the sleeping city. To see the things excavated from the site, head over to the National Archeological Museum in Naples. Definitely see both if you want more fullness of experiencing this fascinating, unique era and people. Though the eruption of Vesuvius was so deadly, it also preserved much for lovers of antiquity to see.
Full price tickets for just the site of Pompeii are 11 euro, but you can get an all-in-one ticket for 20 that will let you see Pompeii, Herculaneum (Ercolano), Oplontis, Stabiam and Boscoreale. The audio guide is 6,50 for one or 5,00 each when you rent more than one.
After an head-spinning day at Pompeii, we spent the evening relaxing close to our B&B in Conca dei Marini which is about an hour drive from Pompeii. Conca dei Marini is one of Amalfi Coast’s charming towns, is much less tainted by tourists, and is conveniently smack-dab in between Positano and Amalfi. Conca dei Marini just so happens to be one of the country’s “borghi piu belli d’Italia” – translation, one of the most beautiful towns! When looking for where to stay, most people opt for Positano, Amalfi, or Sorrento when they come down to the Amalfi Coast, but I would suggest checking out the more unchartered local towns like Conca dei Marini, Praiano, Furore, or Vietri su Mare. In the Amalfi Coast, your homebase is important. Getting around isn’t going to be a snap, so try to be stationed in a convenient location. It will also be more economical than the more tourist-dense towns, so you can save money for more pizza and limoncello!
Day 2: Amalfi and Ravello by day, Positano by night.
I initially didn’t think all three places could be done in one day, but we grazed them well for our limited timing. We started with a nice buffet breakfast under the citrus trees and over the sea. Locanda degli Agrumi stands true to its name: Citrus fruits are growing all around you and the rooms are all named after them. The tasteful decor in our room named “Pompelmo” (grapefruit) gets you in the mood for the flavours of the coast, with ceramic and frescoed touches everywhere at this lovely inn. We opened the windows and doors to nothing but blue and green.
There was air-conditioning for a comfortable night’s sleep, and though the Jacuzzi wasn’t quite ready yet when we arrived that weekend, Salvatore promised it would be the following week. Next time we go, I’ll definitely be enjoying a drink in there after a long day of sight-seeing…
The day before we were so enthralled by Pompeii and were there until closing time…so we called Salvatore to request a later check-in time than we originally booked. With a kindhearted but blunt “and so? Come whenever you like, we’re ready for you!” from Salvatore, we felt more at ease in our travels. These people have a wonderful “no-stress” type attitude that is gloriously contagious. As soon as we arrived and got settled in, Salvatore was happy to sweep open a map and give us a sense of direction on this trip. I’d definitely recommend it!
Other notes on where to stay: check booking.com and airbnb.com. Airbnb offers more intimate, authentic accommodation, and also takes much less of a surcharge from business operators than booking.com. Something to keep in mind when finding where to stay!
We got in the car and headed for Amalfi after a great breakfast buffet. It’s an exhilarating ride on this colourful coast. When towns surface on the bigger bends, you see multicoloured houses spilling down the cliffs, surrounded by vibrant green vegetation and the crystal blue of the Tyrrhenian. The horizontal wave of roads rocks you, as the Mediterranean waves vertically below. As dizzying as the bends and drops are, the views are all the more so. Once you get your vertigo under control, you can start taking mental snapshots if you forgot your camera at home (like I did…which wasn’t so bad in the end! Photos come to you courtesy of my iPhone5 and I felt lighter in mind and body without carrying a big camera around. It challenged me to just breathe in the moment!).
The drive from Conca dei Marini to the town of Amalfi was only about 10 minutes. We found a small pay parking lot that I imagine fills up pretty quickly, and cost a lot. There aren’t exactly many options on these crammed cliff sides for parking. That’s another reason why a scooter or bus might be a good mode of getting around for you. I would say though that driving the coastline is a very memorable experience!
I’d suggest renting a scooter if you plan on staying within the coast for at least a few days. That way you can weave in and out of the traffic, all-the-while feeling a little more authentic Italian! In the peak of summer, bus drivers are less than patient. They’ve been known to get out of the bus and personally move cars that visitors don’t know how to maneuver on those tight bends. Another thing a local told us is that they don’t even insure their own vehicles in July and August. In rare cases when they do, they are only permitted to drive every other day: even-numbered license plates one day and odd the next. Car owners usually put their 4-wheeled rides away and if anything, break out the scooter, e basta (that’s all).
Or, there’s the SITA bus, with its main terminal in Amalfi. If you go on this route, don’t be scared, be bold and allow yourself to be entertained. You’ll likely be soaked in your own sweat and forced to inhale or even be rubbed by that of others as you’re snug as sardines. If you’d rather save the sardines for the pizza toppings, there are a few other options. Bus is the cheapest way to get around, but will surely test your patience. There’s no clear bus stop signs to indicate which buses are headed where, and the bus drivers themselves aren’t exactly friendly like the other locals (apparently a common trait of bus drivers all around Italy, but can you blame them sometimes?)
Ferry transportation has recently gotten better along the coast. There are kiosks at the dock areas of towns that you can get tickets and schedules from. I highly recommend embarking on some type of boat while you’re there – it will give you the best photo ops. Check out this post about Travelmar ferry boats along the coast.
After that very important parenthesis about transportation, let’s get back to towns to visit.
Ravello towers up and over from Amalfi and is well-worth a visit. This enchanting crown of the coast is known for its summer music festivals and splendid villas. As always, take time to just wander the streets and piazzas, and take in something refreshing to eat or drink. We got a way overpriced gelato just off from the main piazza, which is an “I-told-you-so” moment for me, knowing better than to buy food in the tourist traps, as I wrote about here. But it was more for the photo with this fun fellow:
A lovely stroll through the town guided us to the famous Villa Cimbrone. We chose to enter this one in particular, though I would have loved to have the time to see others too! Tickets cost 7 euro to peruse this paradise with its beautifully manicured gardens overlooking the sea. The regal villa with medieval roots is a palace fit for royalty; it was in fact once the residence of the King of Naples and Sicily. It’s not a wonder that many poets like T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and DH Lawrence found refuge and inspiration here. If you really wanna go all-out on your trip, you can book to stay in this villa. And yet-another reason to come in the late Spring: this garden is much more personal with less people and more flowers in bloom!
Observe marble statues and structures scattered through rows of well-pruned plants until you arrive at what is said to be one of the most breathtaking panoramas on earth.
We would have loved to stay to take in some of the infamous music festival performances in Ravello, but it was time to move on to Positano. If you can manage to be present for a blend of one of the most beautiful languages put to music with the backdrop of one of the most beautiful countries in the world, by all means, do and enjoy!
We’ve done a lot of walking in the hot sun, so be prepared by drinking plenty of water, wearing good walking shoes, a hat, and sunscreen. Especially if you stay in a place like Positano, you’ll need to ready yourself for some hefty hikes just to get to your hotel! This gives another reason I wouldn’t recommend Amalfi coast in the height of the hot summer season, but would encourage travel here in a more cardio-friendly climate. One thing I look forward to doing here on a future trip is hiking! There are many astonishing trails in this terrain that lead through lemon groves, vineyards, caves, and mesmerizing coastal views. One path is named Sentiero degli Dei or the “Trail of the Gods.” The name itself beckons me – sounds epic!
Positano is a pretty place to walk – or climb – around. We just openly explored this maze of stairs, peered into storefronts and villa gates, and people watched along the way. We checked out the cathedral and made our way to the beach area for more people watching. Don’t be disappointed by the beaches – they are few and far in between, small, and rocky. The towns are characteristic for being embedded on rock cliffs, and so you have a couple little beaches complimenting the style. No one is saying you can’t spread out of a towel or rent a reclining chair and bask in the sun, but be aware that this particular coastline isn’t one for spacious, sandy beaches. Positano’s “Spiaggia Grande” was a nice spot for sight-seeing and smooching! Alessio patiently entertained my obsession over wanting to find “Marcello’s house” from the movie Under the Tuscan Sun. With backup from Google, we think we managed to find it! Even more obliging to my want for a photo of a kiss on that very same beach where Francis Mayes was embraced by the cunning Marcello, we got a snapshot of our own rendition of the movie moment. The friendly Italian family who took the photo thought we were on our honeymoon. This quick anniversary trip did feel delightfully honeymoon-like!
Day 3: Boat tour of the Amalfi and Sorrentine coasts all the way to Capri and Anacapri around the island and back! This is ideal for the best photo ops of the mystifying land. The tour was a splurge for us, but a seize the day opportunity that was well worth it.
We boarded the boat at the docks of Amalfi. We then back-tracked a little (fine by me!) to the town of Maiori to pick up other passengers. Then we headed straight on for Capri, but not without our tour guides telling us about the sights along the way, from town to town (visited by the likes of many from pirate to aristocrat) and cave to cave (white, green, blue, emerald!) where Sofia Loren’s house was, and how there is an international diving championship held from the bridge over the natural fjord in Furore, 28 metres above the waters below.
The boat stopped right at the entrance of the Grotta Smeralda (Emerald Grotto). There you pay 5 euros at the cave and set foot into a little rowboat with characteristic local whose delightful songs and stories echo off the jagged walls in the cave. They will splash the water with the oars for you to see a dancing diamond show of the water splashing back into the pool of blue. Speaking of blue, we didn’t go in the famous Blue Grotta and I was quite ok with that. I was pleased with our experience in the Emerald cave, and when we arrived at the blue grotto there was another HOUR minimum wait and additional costs just to go inside. I would have rather spent that time exploring Capri, and that’s just what we did.
As we approached Capri, the boat took us right in and under the “Faraglioni” and then for a swim in the Marina Piccola where we also went into another cave, big boat and all! We were allotted 3 hours onshore at Capri, which sounds like a lot more time than it really is.
I would only suggest a visit to Capri if you have a decent amount of time. It demands a full day, at least. If possible, I would even recommend staying a night or two, preferably in Anacapri which sits above the busier bustle of Capri.
We chose to head straight up to Anacapri when we docked in Capri. It was a bit confusing even for my Italian husband and I to figure out where to get the bus and tickets to board to head up there, but we finally figured it out.
After losing precious time waiting so long for the tiny, jam packed bus, we decided to grap a Caprese panino (I HAD to eat caprese salad somehow while in Capri) and that taking the convertible taxis were the best way to move about here! We still hoped to take a bus back down from Anacapri, but as a number of buses passed us “completo” leaving us to keep cooking in the sun, a mutual panic came over other impatient people trying to get back down the hill and we decided to carpool for the split price of 5 euro a head.
Since you’ll be smart in these ways of transport and allot yourself more time on this “Paradise Island,” you will have the chance to take the chair lift up to the top of Monte Solaro in Anacapri where you’ll feel as if you’re on top of the world.
We just roamed around the pristine streets and alleys, admiring the overpriced merchandise from afar, but recognizing their iconic reputation: Capri pants, handmade leather sandals, limoncello.
On the boat cruise back, we circled around the island of Capri, waving at Vesuvius, Sorrento, and Naples in the distance.
We arrived back in Amalfi at around 6pm, wandered around there a little bit, then composed ourselves for dinner. We couldn’t resist retuning to the pizza place down the street from where we stayed, with its sea views, friendly servers, incredible menu and prices!
Amalfi Boat Excursion, Departures from Amalfi, Maiori, Minori, morning pick-up from your accommodation available, bookings necessary: +39 3351572362, +39 3294603771 100 euro
Ristorante Le Bontà del Capo, Via I Maggio, 14, 84010, Conca Dei Marini, +39 089 831515, +39 338 8803764 www.lebontadelcapo.it
Day 4: Naples . Naples was…intense. Honestly, my first impressions of this iconic city were not great. It honestly concerned me that if this is what people think “Italy” is, then they could be very disappointed. That being said, Italy is honestly a very diverse place, so to attempt to define it by a single place is inaccurate. But what a shame to me it was to see the potential of Naples be what looked to me at least as very depressed. Many locals would say it is so, because “the unification of Italy ate up its richness.” Naples began as very important port city, named “Neapolis” by the Greeks in the 6th century BC meaning “new city.”I found it difficult to imagine the days of emperors and economic livelihood, in the madness of this old “new city.” And if you drive here, you should receive some type of reward for not only keeping your car in one piece, but your composure. I’ve never seen such insanity on the streets! There were moments that I would have thought the scooters would have been bouncing off the car hood, as they were practically there already. If you just have a day, I’d suggest doing as we did: visit the National Museum, wander some streets and piazzas as well as the seaside promenade, and revive yourself with the most prestigious pizza in all the world – you’re going to need the energy to survive getting out of here. We found an awesome pizza place and by some miracle just barely beat a long line-up out the door to get a table. It’s where a Sofia Loren film called L’oro di Napoli produced a famous scene of her fondling pizza dough!
Pizzeria Starita, Via Materdei, 27-28, 80136 Napoli +39 081 5441485, http://www.pizzeriestarita.it/
The goal for our half-day visit was pizza and Pompeii: the Archeological Museum a must-see if you’re going to Pompeii, as it contains most of the objects, mosaics and frescos excavated from the ruined city, it’s a marble-lovers paradise.
I’ll repeat the suggestion of going here BEFORE seeing the site of Pompeii, to give you a more complete picture of what life was really like there as you walk around the ancient city grounds. I’ll note that another thing I would add to the itinerary if we had more time would be to go up Vesuvius and see Herculaneum, an ancient city that is apparently more well-preserved than Pompeii and less congested with tourists. Next time we’ll have to get a better sense of the quieter, more local-filled towns. And of course, Sorrento.
All in all though, I would say we did a job well-done in making the most of our little getaway here. I can’t wait to get back and discover more of Campania’s treasures!
Have you been to the Campania region? What is on your “must-see-and-do” list?