La Dolce Vita: a week of holidays in and around Naples (part II)

I’ve never been disappointed by any of my trips to Italy. The splendour and the history of Rome, the fabulous architecture of Florence, the volcanoes of Sicily, all of that was extraordinary but this week of holidays in the region of Naples might have been even better. It was simply perfect, from the beginning until the end, and I can hardly think of one day better than the others between the ruins of Pompeii, the colours of Procida or the stunning Amalfi Coast. Not to mention Naples itself! Here’s the story of the second half of this trip.

📷 For more pictures have a look at my galleries of photos of Pompeii and of the Sorrento Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast.

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Have also a look at the first half of this article, dedicated to Naples and the island of Procida. Another article with more details about my favourite activities in Naples will also be online soon.

Day 4 – the extraordinary ruins of Pompeii

In case you weren’t completely familiar with the history of Pompeii, here’s a little recap. After different periods of occupation (Etruscan, Greek), the era of Roman domination started in 80 BC. It was a provincial mid-size city, but wealthy and flourishing thanks to the fertility of its inland region. There were many rich merchants among the 25,000 inhabitants of Pompeii, who lived in beautifully decorated houses. But this period of prosperity brutally stopped on the 24th of August 79 AD with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Pompeii, street

There’s still a doubt about the exact date of this tragic event, as recent clues suggest that it actually happened on the 24th of October, but what is sure is that within a few hours, the city, as well as three other villages around it (Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis), was submerged under a thick layer of rocks and ashes, while a pyroclastic flow killed everyone who hadn’t left. It is estimated that 3,000 people died during the eruption, and more than a thousand bodies have been found since Pompeii was accidentally rediscovered in the 18th century. The archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli who was in charge of the searches in the 19th century had the ingenious idea of injecting plaster into the voids that he found in the ash, created by the decomposition of bodies, and the casts of a few victims are visible today (there are more in the Archaeological Museum of Naples).

Writing that I was excited to explore Pompeii would be a euphemism. I left Naples early and took the train from Garibaldi Station, which costs only 2.80€ although it’s a 45-minute trip. I arrived shortly after 9am (the opening hour), bought my ticket (16€ per person), and walked through the main entrance of the site called Porta Marina Grande, which actually used to lead to the harbour and wasn’t the main gate at all back then.

Pompeii, Porta Marina

Pompeii, centaur

It was a fantastic visit, but before telling you why, I’d like to mention two things that I didn’t enjoy so much. The first was the lack of information; I took a free map at the entrance that helped me for directions with the names of important buildings and houses and I expected to find explanations around Pompeii telling me more about the city and how its inhabitants lived. But there were only a few boards, and I didn’t find them very interesting (it was mostly about architecture, not what I was looking for). I guess that the only way to have more information during the visit is to book a guided tour. Other deception: when I arrived, I was greeted by two magnificent statues, a centaur on the Forum and the torso of a man in the Temple of Venus. It’s only now as I’m writing this article and searching for some anecdotes about Pompeii that I realise that these statues were contemporary works of art. Once again, there was nothing advising visitors that they were modern and not ancient, and I believe that it creates an unfortunate confusion (not to mention the potential controversy of bringing contemporary art into such a place).

That being said, it still was an extraordinary discovery. I had been picturing myself what Pompeii could look like since my childhood, but what I saw that day was way beyond all I had expected. It was really like visiting a city, with its main streets, its tiny lanes, its public buildings and its private houses, except that it was a 2,000-year-old city completely frozen in time.

Pompeii, Forum, Mount Vesuvius

After a first picture of the large Forum with Mount Vesuvius in the background (picture above), I took the Via Dell’Abondanza with the intention of beginning my visit from the other side of the city, away from most visitors. I didn’t know that there was another entrance to the East… Luckily there weren’t so many tourists that day anyway, and I was on my own most of the time. I don’t remember the names of all the buildings and houses that I visited, but some of them were particularly beautiful and interesting:

  • The Lupanar (the brothel) and its erotic paintings (located in sector VII, in the middle of Pompeii).
  • The House of Venus in a shell (Casa della Venere in Conchiglia): this perfectly preserved house with a large atrium is famous for the incredible painting of the Goddess Venus on one of its walls (sector II, south-east of the city).
  • The Amphitheatre, where 20,000 people could fit (sector II as well).
  • The Large Theatre (Teatro Grande), big enough for 5,000 people, with a perfect acoustic (that’s what a guide told his group next to me – located in sector VIII to the south).

Pompeii, Teatro Grande

  • The Gymnasium of the Iuvenes (Palestra degli Iuvenes): the entrance was closed, but I could see the magnificent frescoes from the outside. Compared to other paintings where red, yellow and ochre prevail, there are many stunning shades of blue in this former gymnasium (sector VIII as well).
  • The House of the Vettii and the House of the Faun (Casa dei Vettii and Casa del Fauno): two magnificent houses, famous respectively for a fresco of Priapus weighing his own phallus (doorway of the House of the Vettii), and for the stunning bronze statue of a faun as well as a huge mosaic depicting the armies of Alexander the Great on the floor (House of the Faun). Both are located in sector VI, north-west of Pompeii.

Finally, the most beautiful house in my opinion is the Villa of the Mysteries (Villa dei Misteri), 400m outside of the main site to the North-West. The frescoes on the walls have been extremely well preserved and partially restored, and they are really breathtaking, especially the face of a woman doing her hair that I found haunting.

I left around 3.30pm, exhausted after 6 hours walking around the entire city but extremely happy of my visit. Pompeii really is an unmissable site, and as a huge part of it still hasn’t been explored at all, there will be many more discoveries in the future!

Day 5 – road trip around the Sorrento Peninsula…

amalfi-coast-audiIn the morning of the fifth day, I left my Airbnb apartment in Naples to begin a two-day road trip around the Sorrento Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast. After seeing how people drove in Naples, I was a little bit nervous and I decided to take a full-covering insurance for my rental car, which the woman at the desk of the agency also strongly recommended. The price for three days jumped from 85 to 204€ just because of this insurance but it felt much safer, and it still wasn’t too expensive considering the car I had: a brand-new and very comfortable Audi A3.

After driving all around Mount Vesuvius, I reached a first lookout over the Bay of Sorrento at around 11am. I had an amazing weather the entire week, but this was the warmest day, and there were no clouds over the horizon: just a bright blue sky.

Sorrento Peninsula

Driving through Sorrento was complicated because of traffic, and I can only imagine how dreadful it must be in summer. My destination was a little bit further: the Regina Giovanna Baths (Bagni della Regina Giovanna), the ruins of a Roman villa next to a natural pool. A short but steep walk down led me to this wonderful site: the ruins weren’t extraordinary (especially the day after visiting Pompeii!) but the view over the entire Gulf of Naples was stunning, the water was perfectly clear, and it looked like Mount Vesuvius was a giant island hanging over the sea.

My second destination was Ieranto Bay (Baia di Ieranto), on the other side of the Sorrento Peninsula. I drove through a few lovely villages on my way (I don’t remember their names, apart from one called Termini where I had to do some very complicated manoeuvres to let other vehicles pass as the road was very narrow), with more gorgeous panoramas over the coast and the island of Capri just nearby.

The hike of Ieranto Bay is one of the most beautiful tracks of the Sorrento Peninsula. Starting from Nerano, this 5km-long trail along the coast and sometimes in the shade of olive trees has a difference in height of 185m (going down first and up on the way back – more details about this hike on this great website) and provides tremendous views over the Amalfi Coast on the first part, and over Ieranto Bay and Capri at the end.

Finally, the last place I went to that day was the Church of San Constanzo, on top of a 500m-high hill at the extremity of the Sorrento Peninsula; I had to drive through Termini again which was a little bit scary, but everything went fine this time. The view from the church was literally at 360°, from Capri to Naples, from Mount Vesuvius to the Amalfi Coast. Simply stunning!

Sorrento Peninsula, church San Constanzo, lookout

I spent the night in another Airbnb in Sant’Agnello directly next to Sorrento, with one of the friendliest hosts I’ve ever stayed at. The room was charming, very clean and comfortable, everything was provided for breakfast, and she even offered me a magnet and a little bottle of prosecco! I was too tired to explore the city in the evening and just went to a restaurant, but the couple of streets I briefly saw looked nice; a good reason to come again another time!

Day 6 – …and along the Amalfi Coast

The entire Amalfi Coast isn’t very long: not more than 50km from the Sorrento Peninsula to the west until Salerno to the east. But one day is barely enough to travel it entirely, as every village, every lookout and even every bend of the road are the promise of another extraordinary sight, which is impossible to resist.

amalfi-coast-road-2

Amalfi Coast, Positano

The first village on my way coming from Sorrento was Positano, but it was absolutely impossible to stop and explore it: there were cars parked by the side of the road literally everywhere, even outside the village! I began to fear that it would be a very complicated day if I was going to face the same situation on the entire Coast, but I didn’t have any problems in the following towns; there must have been something special happening in Positano. So as I couldn’t park anywhere, I decided to take a road going up the mountains overlooking the village. It was quite intense as it was a very winding road, sometimes so narrow that it was clearly not large enough for two vehicles to pass each other, but I eventually got rewarded with a gorgeous view.

My second stop was in the neighbouring villages of Vettica Maggiore and Praiano. I think it might have been my favourite part of the day. I was completely on our own to admire the stunning ceramic dome of the Church of San Gennaro and the fabulous panorama over the coast, from the Faraglioni (the name given to three large rocks off the coast of Capri) to the village of Positano, nestled on the side of the mountains.

Apart from the dome of the church, I also liked the many lovely ceramic decorations all around the walls in Praiano. I especially found these fishes below funny and cute!

Amalfi Coast, Praiano, ceramic

Third village, third stop: Amalfi, the place that gave its name to the region. It was clearly the most touristic place I visited that day, but it luckily wasn’t too oppressive. I parked next to the harbour and its colourful fishing boats, creating a lovely panorama with Amalfi in the background.

The town centre was a real labyrinth, with dozens of pedestrian lanes, hidden stairs and narrow passages; the kind of atmosphere I always like. Suddenly, almost by accident, I reached the beautiful Duomo, with characteristic Byzantine influences in its architecture (the black and white striped columns or the mosaic above the entrance for example). Unfortunately, a large part of the facade was being restored and therefore hidden behind scaffoldings.

When we left Amalfi, I took (again) a narrow and winding road climbing up to the village of Ravello, a little bit more inland. There are two famous villas that can be visited there, but you have to pay for both: the Villa Rufolo and the Villa Cimbrone. I decided to simply enjoy a little walk around the town and the beautiful tower of its church (unfortunately closed), with another extraordinary view from a large terrace over the coast below. It’s really unbelievable how beautiful the Amalfi Coast is; I was constantly amazed by everything I saw, and another couple of days would have been well appreciated to explore all these places a little bit further!

After Ravello, I drove back towards Amalfi for the last part of the itinerary. It was slowly becoming less and less impressive and the most amazing places were behind me, but we still drove through a few beautiful villages, such as Minori and its black sand beach…

Maiori, with the nice Church of San Francesco…

Amalfi Coast, Maiori, church of San Francesco

…and finally Cetara, a lovely traditional village of fishermen.

Half an hour later, I was in Salerno, the last stop of our holidays. With such a busy day, I had no motivation any more to explore the city so I only went to the Cathedral, which was absolutely amazing (I don’t have any pictures unfortunately). After one last Spritz, a glass of delicious local white wine and a great pizza, it was already time to pack my stuff for the end of the trip. The next morning, I enjoyed a final view over Salerno from the balcony of my Airbnb apartment in the hills above the city, and then drove back to Naples. One sure thing: I will come back again someday!

amalfi-coast-salerno

Did this article made you want to go to Italy? Let me know if you already visited one of the places I described here!

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