La Dolce Vita: a week of holidays around Naples

Italy is a wonderful country. Between the splendour of Rome, the landscapes of Tuscany, the canals of Venice and the beaches of Sardinia, it’s hard to choose a destination for your next holidays… And why not Naples and Campania? From the ruins of Pompeii to the island of Procida and the Amalfi Coast, the region has no shortage of wonders, and the trip I did there in February 2020 remains an unforgettable memory. So don’t hesitate any longer, pack your bags and follow me for a week of holidays around Naples!

Day 1 – first glimpse of Naples

Naples is a fascinating city, full of contrasts and unlike any other. It’s not the most touristy place in Italy, and it doesn’t have the best image either. It is particularly known for being dirty… which is unfortunately quite true. Bins were overflowing everywhere, and I also saw countless trash left on the side of the road during my trip to the Amalfi Coast. On a better note, I never felt unsafe there. Be careful with your valuables, watch out for pickpockets, and everything should be fine.

Religion has an important place in Italy, and Naples is no exception. There are over 500 churches in the city! But the number 1 religion here is football, with a single God: Diego Maradona. The “Pibe de Oro” (Golden Kid) who passed in 2020 is a true icon in Naples. He played there from 1984 to 1991, winning the first league titles in the club’s history (1987 and 1990) and its only European Cup (1989). More than thirty years later, he is still adored by fans and the stadium was renamed in his honour after his death.

It’s by meandering around the “Quartieri Spagnoli”, the Spanish Quarters, that you’ll become aware of this veneration. His face is displayed everywhere on the facades of this popular district. Located in the heart of Naples, it had a really bad reputation for a very long time, with a high crime rate. But the only danger I felt there came from the scooters and Vespas hurtling down the narrow streets, sometimes avoiding each other at the last moment! Aside from these few frights, I loved walking around this neighbourhood. Colourful buildings, tiny religious altars at every street corner, laundry hung on balconies… It’s the ideal place to begin your holidays in Naples and “take the pulse” of this very special city.

My accommodation during my stay was actually right in the middle of the Spanish Quarters. A very cheap Airbnb apartment, with a superb view of the surrounding rooftops and the somewhat foreboding silhouette of Mount Vesuvius, so close to Naples…

Where does the name “Spanish Quarters” come from? These neighbourhoods were built in the 16th century, a time when the Kingdom of Naples belonged to the Spanish crown. This is where the military garrisons responsible for guarding the city were housed.

The best way to get there is to take the metro until the station “Toledo”. The contrast with the narrow streets of the neighbourhood could not be greater. This station with its futuristic architecture gives the impression of being on another planet!

The futuristic metro station of Toledo in Naples

After the Spanish Quarters, head to the Galeria Umberto I, a huge luxury shopping arcade, built during the 19th century and based on the model of the Galeria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan…

…then the Piazza del Plebiscito a little bit further. It is for me the most beautiful of the many squares of Naples. On the west side, the imposing dome of the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola contrasts with the broad facade of the Palazzo Reale, on the opposite side.

From there the seaside is very close. Contrast again with Via Nazario Sauro, a wide avenue with beautiful well-maintained buildings. Don’t miss also the stunning Fontana del Gigante on the seafront.

This avenue leads to one of the most picturesque places in Naples: the small port of Santa Lucia and the Castel dell’Ovo. I found this port particularly charming, with its sailing boats and its colourful wooden barques. It’s also a great place for lunch, on one of the waterside terraces or simply sitting on the edge of the pier with something to picnic on.

The Castel dell’Ovo is worth a visit, mostly for the panorama from its ramparts. The 360° view of the city, the Bay of Naples, the island of Capri in the distance and of course the Mount Vesuvius is truly gorgeous! It is the oldest castle in Naples still standing. Its construction dates back to the 12th century, and its name (meaning “Egg Castle”) comes from a legend saying that a sorcerer hid a magic egg in its foundations. If it were to be broken, the castle would collapse and Naples would face terrible disasters.

After going back up Via Nazario Sauro then crossing the gardens of Molosiglio, you’ll arrive at another castle, the massive Castel Nuovo on the Piazza Municipio. Despite its name meaning “New Castle”, it is also very old since it was built in the 13th century.

Good things always come in three! At the end of the day, head to a third castle, Castel Sant’Elmo. Perched on the Vomero hills overlooking Naples, it is the highest point in the city. It is the ideal place to admire the sunset over the bay. Perfect timing, entry is half-price (€2.50 instead of €5) from 4 pm! From Mount Vesuvius to the islands of Ischia and Procida via the Sorrento Peninsula and the characteristic shape of Capri over the horizon, the view is once again stunning.

To get there, the easiest way is to take the Montesanto funicular. You can also climb the 414 steps of the Pedamentina stairs from the Spanish Quarters, but it might be easier to take them on your way back down…

Naples is not less than the city of origin of pizza. Impossible to go there without trying at least one! The Spanish Quarters in particular are full of trattorias where prices vary between €3 and €10 (yes, for a whole pizza!). You can opt for the Margherita, the authentic Neapolitan pizza (tomatoes, olive oil, mozzarella di Bufala and fresh basil) or for different ingredients, but never ask for pineapple on your pizza if you don’t want to upset your waiters!

To enjoy a spritz or a good glass of wine, I recommend the Wine Boat bar on Vico d’Afflito street, where I really enjoyed the service. Finally, for a good coffee and a pastry at the start of the day, go to Augustus on Via Toledo.

Day 2 – the colours of Procida

There are three main islands around Naples. Capri in the south is the most famous and most touristy. Ischia to the west is the largest. And its very small neighbour (less than 4km²) Procida is the closest to the coast. Unless you stay for more than a week in the region, you will only have enough time to visit one. Here’s why you should choose Procida!

It’s actually the only one I explored, so I can’t compare with Capri and Ischia. But one thing is sure: Procida is a true marvel. Two ferry companies connect the island to Naples. I went with Caremar, and the trip to Marina di Sancio Cattolico on the north shore took just under an hour.

If there were only one word to describe Procida, it would be the word “colours“: the multicoloured boats in the port, the white and yellow church of Santa Maria della Pietà, the red and ochre houses along the narrow streets leading to the medieval village of Terra Murata, the highest point on the island…

But the best is yet to come. The view from Terra Murata reveals the extraordinary Marina di Corricella below, in a veritable explosion of colours: pink, blue, green, white, yellow, red, orange… Stacked on top of each other with the dome of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Grazie above them, the houses of Procida form an extraordinary panorama.

I advise you to take a few steps in the village of Terra Murata. The view from Punta dei Monaci (Monks’ Point) 90m high above the water is also very beautiful, with Cape Miseno just opposite which marks the entrance to the bay of Naples. My only regret was that during my visit the San Michele Archangelo Abbey, which I would have liked to visit, was closed.

The Marina di Corricella is only accessible by a few stairs from the street on the upper level. You have to meander there and taste the atmosphere of Procida. Two old men sitting on a bench, a few restaurant terraces coming to life at lunchtime, fishing boats at anchor in the port, a group of seagulls fighting over leftover fish…

Don’t hesitate as well to explore other places on the island further away from the main village! The gardens are full of dozens of lemon and orange trees, among other things. But don’t forget to keep an eye on your watch so you don’t miss the ferry back to Naples…

Day 3 – second day in Naples

This second day will allow you to discover some of the 500 churches in Naples, all absolutely stunning! The itinerary is mainly concentrated in the Historic Centre, between the parallel streets of Spaccanapoli and Via dei Tribunali. Spaccanapoli (literally “Naples-splitter”) is one of the city’s main arteries. Its rectilinear layout can easily be seen from Castel Sant’Elmo.

It starts from Piazza Gesù Nuovo, where the church of the same name is located. It was originally a palace, which explains its unusual facade, but a church was erected in its place at the end of the 16th century. It’s hard to imagine how sumptuous the interior is when you face it! And yet: it is a true architectural marvel, with gorgeous baroque marble decorations and an extraordinary painted ceiling.

Almost in front of it, the Basilica of Santa Chiara is one of the main religious buildings in Naples. It is the largest Gothic church in the city, and its green roof is also easily spotted from the Vomero hills. If the interior of the church itself is not as exceptional as its neighbour Gesù Nuovo (it was really badly damaged during the Second World War), the adjacent cloister is fabulous. Entrance costs €6 which I highly recommend you to pay! The walls of the cloister are covered with beautiful paintings, while the benches and columns inside are decorated with sublime majolica (Italian ceramics). There is also a museum with relics of the ancient church, the ruins of Roman baths from the 1st century and a huge nativity scene, all included in the entrance price. The ideal place to forget about the bustle of the city!

Nativity scenes are a tradition of Naples. The Via San Gregorio Armeno perpendicular to Spaccanapoli is entirely dedicated to the construction of nativity scenes. And not just any setting: a medieval castle, ancient ruins, or even an entire neighbourhood! Many are still handmade, and you may be able to observe an artisan at work in a shop yard.

But a nativity scene would be very empty without its nativity figures! The shops in this alley offer the choice between thousands of different characters. The classic Three Wise Men, the Virgin Mary or of course Little Jesus, but also butchers, bakers, musicians… or more anachronistically, footballers!

Take the time to wander around the neighbourhood, explore the many shops and take a stroll through the surrounding streets. At the intersection between Via dei Tribunali and Vico del Fico Al Purgatore, you can see a bust of Pulcinella, the Punch of Commedia Dell’Arte. And on Spaccanapoli, just after Via Duomo, don’t miss the huge mural representing San Gennaro, Saint January, one of the city’s patron saints.

The Cathedral of Naples is actually called the Duomo di San Gennaro. As for the church of Gesù Nuovo, its exterior facade does not suggest the beauty of the interior: a remarkable floor, a fully painted ceiling, countless marble sculptures, a Byzantine-inspired mosaic and an extraordinary dome.

Summer is not recommended for visiting Naples, both for the influx of tourists and for the stifling heat. The best periods are therefore spring and autumn… or the end of winter. I took this trip in February, which turned out to be ideal timing. The nights were a little cool, but the sun was shining every day with temperatures reaching twenty degrees.

Day 4 – the ruins of Pompeii

2000 years ago, Pompeii was a medium-sized provincial town that thrived on the fertility of its hinterland. Among the 25,000 inhabitants, there were many merchants living in ornately decorated houses. But this flourishing period came to an abrupt end on the 24th of October 79 with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

In just a few hours, the city (as well as three neighbouring villages: Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Oplontis) was submerged in a thick layer of slag and ash, while a fiery cloud killed all those who did not flee. It is estimated that 3,000 people died during this eruption. More than a thousand bodies have been found since the accidental rediscovery of Pompeii in the 18th century. The archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli who was in charge of the excavations in the 19th century had the clever idea of ​​pouring plaster into the cavities that the decomposed bodies had left in the ashes. The casts of several victims are exhibited on the site today, and others are visible at the Archaeological Museum of Naples.

It’s very easy to go to Pompeii from Naples. Take the train from Piazza Garibaldi central station, for a journey of around fourty minutes. Once arrived, enter via Porta Marina Grande, which provided access to the harbour at the time (and was not the main gate at all). Don’t forget to take a map of the site, which will be extremely useful to you!

Walking around Pompeii is like visiting a city, with its wide streets and narrow lanes, its public buildings and private houses. The only difference is that it is a 2000-year-old city completely frozen in time… It is an exceptional visit, a dive in history unique in the world. The only thing that disappointed me a little was the lack of explanatory panels describing life in the city. I imagine that it is necessary to have a guide for this. But I don’t regret my choice of visiting on my own, at my own pace, wandering around as I wanted.

There are a lot of things to see in Pompeii, but here are my 5 favourite places:

  • the House of Venus in the Shell (Casa della Venere in Conchiglia). This perfectly preserved residence takes its name from a fabulous painting of the goddess Venus on one of its walls (sector II, southeast of Pompeii);

  • the brothel (lupanare) and its erotic paintings (sector VII, in the center);

  • the Grand Theater (Teatro Grande), large enough for 5,000 people and with perfect acoustics (sector VIII towards the south);

  • the House of the Vettii and the House of the Faun (Casa dei Vettii and Casa del Fauno). Two magnificent neighbouring residences, famous among other things for a mural of Priapus weighing his own phallus (at the entrance to the House of the Vettii), and for the superb bronze statue of a faun as well as the huge mosaic representing the armies of Alexander the Great on the floor of the House of the Faun (sector VI, northwest);

  • and finally, my personal highlight, the Villa of the Mysteries (Villa dei Misteri), 400m outside the main site on the northwest. The murals found there have been particularly well preserved, and they are of breathtaking beauty.

I spent not less than 6 hours in total in Pompeii, and if you want to make the most of your visit you will probably stay there that long. And I’m not talking about the number of kilometres I walked that day… But it’s so worth it! Pompeii is truly an extraordinary place, and as a large part of the city has still not been explored, we can expect more amazing discoveries in the future.

Day 5 – road trip around the Sorrento Peninsula

The Sorrento Peninsula borders the Bay of Naples on the south side. The best way to discover it is to rent a car and go on a road trip. But be careful: it is often said that Italians are rather nervous drivers, and this reputation is not usurped! If you can keep your nerves in check despite the many horns that will inevitably be honked at you, it will take you about an hour to reach the first viewpoint, a lookout on the side of the SS145 road offering a splendid view of Sorrento.

After driving across Sorrento (which can be very difficult in heavy traffic), head towards the Baths of Queen Joanna (Bagni della Regina Giovanna). A fairly short but steep path leads down to the remains of an ancient Roman villa. The ruins are nothing extraordinary (especially after visiting Pompeii), but the view over the bay of Naples is very beautiful. From here, Mount Vesuvius gives the impression of being a gigantic island suspended above the water… Even better, the promontory where the villa is located overlooks a magnificent natural pool, only separated from the sea by an arch in the cliffs. It’s the ideal place to cool off if it’s hot, or relax if there aren’t too many people!

Keep driving then along the very winding road which circles the peninsula. At each turn, the landscape alternates between superb views of the coast, with the nearby island of Capri, and colourful villages or very photogenic churches.

The next stop is on the southern shore of the peninsula, more precisely in Nerano. From there, a 5km path goes down to Ieranto Bay. It’s a fantastic walk. With the sea below, sometimes in the shade of olive trees, it offers splendid panoramas of the Amalfi Coast. At the bottom, after 185m of altitude difference (that you’ll have to climb up on the way back!), the path leads to the bay of Ieranto. Gorgeous view over the Faraglioni di Capri on the horizon, three famous rocks at the southern tip of the island of Capri.

To complete this day exploring the Sorrento Peninsula, climb to the church of San Constanzo, perched on a ridge at an altitude of 500m. Access is from Via del Monte from the village of Termini. From the bay of Naples to the Amalfi Coast, via Mount Vesuvius and the islands of Ischia, Procida and Capri, the 360° view from the summit is once again breathtaking.

Day 6 – heading to the Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi Coast is not very long: no more than 50km between the Sorrento Peninsula in the west and Salerno in the east. But one day is barely enough to cover it in its entirety, as each village, each viewpoint and each turn of the road is the promise of a new breathtaking sight, which is impossible to resist.

The first village coming from Sorrento is Positano. It’s one of the most touristy spots on the entire coast, and even in February I couldn’t find a single parking space! Failing to walk there, I took a very narrow road to the side to gain some height and admire the view from above.

Second stop a few kilometres further at the neighbouring villages of Vettica Maggiore and Praiano. It was one my highlights of the day, both for the magnificent ceramic dome of the San Gennaro church, the panorama of the coast with Positano nestled at the foot of the mountains, and the countless ceramic decorations on the walls of Praiano.

If you want to explore the Amalfi Coast and being as close as possible to nature, take the Sentiero degli Dei, the Path of the Gods! Between Nocelle on the heights of Positano and Agerola, this hike of around 8km is said to be a real marvel. My biggest regret after this trip is actually not doing it! It is recommended to start from Agerola where there is free parking.

Third stop, Amalfi, the largest city on the coast to which it gave its name. There were still a lot of tourists there, even in February, but fortunately I easily found parking near the harbour, where several pretty multicoloured fishing boats anchored.

The city centre of Amalfi is a real labyrinth, with numerous pedestrian streets, discreet staircases and narrow passages. Get lost in this maze, in the middle of which you will end up stumbling upon the magnificent Duomo almost by accident. Its architecture has a strong Byzantine influence, with the black and white geometric patterns of its facade and a superb golden mosaic above the porch.

After Amalfi, head to Ravello, a town perched in the heights. You can visit two famous villas there (Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone), or simply stroll through the small streets of the centre and enjoy the exceptional panorama over the coast.

From Ravello, there are still three villages to discover until Salerno, the end of this itinerary. First comes Minori, with its black sand beach…

…then Maiori and the pretty San Francesco church…

…and finally Cetara, a picturesque traditional fishing village.

If you still have time (and energy), Salerno is worth a visit, especially for its splendid cathedral. And otherwise, it will take you about an hour to return to Naples using the inland highway!

This is where this week of holidays around Naples ends. Have you ever been to Campania? What are your favourite places in the region? Share them in the comments!

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