Campania (Naples/Almafi Coast)
Located in southern Italy, Campania was originally known to the Romans as Campania felix, meaning “fertile countryside”. With a population of 5.8 million people, it is the most densely populated region in Italy and has a diverse and bountiful landscape, dominated by the still-active volcano, Mount Vesuvius.
Settled first by the Ancient Greeks and then briefly by the Etruscans, the Romans took control of what was then known as Capua. The area grew into a cultural hub under Roman rule until the Normans took over the region, during which time Campania became part of the Kingdom of Sicily. The kingdom was eventually split and the southern portion of the Italian peninsula became known as the Kingdom of Naples. Alternately ruled by France and then Spain, with a brief period of independent rule, the area flourished as the city of Naples grew to become the second largest city in Europe.
The cultural history of Campania can be seen in the works of such artists as Caravaggio and Bernini and in the music of Rossini. While the art, architecture and physical grandeur of the region are legendary, many would argue that its greatest gift to the modern world was the invention of pizza in the 19th century. With it’s springtime climate and the draw of stunning beaches, islands, food and wine, Campania is a diverse and fascinating destination.
Originally named Neapolis, or “new city”, by the Greek colonists who founded it in the 7th century, Naples is the capital of Campania and of the province of Naples. Located on the Gulf of Naples, it is the third largest city in the country and the largest Italian port. Naples expanded during Roman times and was an important ally to the Roman Republic. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Naples was absorbed into the Germanic Ostrogothic Kingdom only to be invaded and ruled by the Byzantine Empire. However, the city gained its independence and remained so despite battles with various rival duchies.
Eventually Naples fell to the Normans and joined the Kingdom of Sicily until a rebellion split the kingdom in half in 1282. The city became part of the Kingdom of Naples in the southern peninsula, though Sicily and Naples continued to battle and rejoin forces until their final separation in 1458. The city flourished during the Renaissance period, fostering artists and philosophers such as Caravaggio, Bernini, Giordano Bruno and Tommaso Campanella. France briefly took control of Naples until Spain absorbed the city into the Spanish Empire after the Battle of Garigliano in 1503. During this period of Spanish rule, Naples grew to become the second largest city in Europe and became a significant cultural force during the Baroque period.
Spain continued to rule until 1714, when the city fell to the Austrian King Charles VI. What followed was an extended period of upheaval as Naples fell under Spanish rule again, only to be invaded by France during the French Revolution in 1798. A civil war ensued as the class system in Naples took sides against one another; the French Army briefly secured the city but was eventually defeated, restoring Spain once again to power. Napoleon conquered the city in 1806 but the outcome of the Neapolitan War in 1815 brought Naples back under Spanish rule.
In this same year, Naples and Sicily were merged to create the Two Sicilies, or Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with Naples as it’s capital. The kingdom remained intact until 1860 when a volunteer corps, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, launched the Expedition of the Thousand, collapsing the joint kingdom; Naples joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Though the city sustained the most bombings during World War II, Naples was the first Italian city to rise up against the Nazi forces. Known as the “four days in Naples”, the citizens fought against the Nazi occupiers and remained free.
Naples today is a youthful city that is far less dependent on tourism than other major Italian destinations. Walking the streets and neighborhoods, particularly the Spaccanapoli district that is full of shops, churches and is a largely pedestrian area, gives the best insight into this unique city. The Piazza del Plebiscito is the center of Naples and houses the domed church the San Francesco di Paolo as well as the Royal Palace. There are also many wonderful museums, including the National Archaeological Museum of Naples and the Palazzo delle Arti Napoli and Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina, both of which are free to the public and display contemporary art. The 13th century Gothic cathedral, the Duomo, is a remarkable landmark and is flanked by the oldest church in Naples, the Basilica Santa Restituta, which was built in the 4th century. There are many old castles, including the Castel dell’Ovo (the oldest castle in Naples) and the Castel Nuovo, as well as medieval churches and monasteries that help provide insight into the history, and future, of Naples.
Located on the southern side of the Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi Coast is a beautiful and diverse expanse of coastline. The remarkable scenery has drawn tourists from as early as the 18th century, making it one of the first places to establish a tourist industry. The Amalfi Coast consists of the towns of Amalfi, Atrani, Cetara, Conca dei Marini, Furore, Maiori, Minori, Praiano, Positano, Ravello, Scala, Sorrento and Vietri sul Mare. Known as Costiera Amalfitana in Italian, the area is renowned for the lemon-infused liqueur Limoncello as well its stunning coastline and distinctive towns with their individual and unique offerings.
The coastline has been a significant port from early times, starting as a crossroad for Aegean sailors in the 15th century and becoming a major trading port. However, the area stayed remarkably isolated until 1815 when the Amalfi Drive was built, connecting the small towns along the coast. It remains one of the best ways to see the coastline and showcases why the Amalfi Coast is one the largest tourist draws in Italy.
According to legend, Amalfi was named for a nymph buried there who was greatly loved by Hercules. Seated at the foot of Monte Cerreto, the town is at the heart of the Amalfi Coast on the Gulf of Salermo, southeast of Naples in the province of Salermo. Though Amalfi’s population rose to 80,000 during the 9th-12th centuries, today’s populace is approximately 5,000. Of the four Maritime Republics (including Venice, Pisa and Genoa), Amalfi is the oldest and had become a powerful port of trade as early as the 6th century. The town was also the capital of the Maritime Republic of Amalfi, founded in 839.
From the 7th century until 1073, Amalfi was an independent republic governed by a duke or count, elected by representatives of various noble families. The town thrived until it was conquered first by the Normans in 1073 and then fell to Pisa in 1137. However, more devastating was the tsunami of 1343 that ravaged the port, halting the growth of the prospering town. Amalfi recovered and by the 1920s became a vacation destination for wealthy Europeans. The beautiful beaches, coastline and hotels draw tourists from all over the globe. While in Amalfi, visit the Duomo, a cathedral reached by a steep climb, to catch a glimpse into the town’s past. The Cloisters of Paradise are also well worth seeing, particularly the crypt of St. Andrew.
Located at the center of the Amalfi Coast, Positano is a beautiful town that has retained much of its original structure and character. Legend states that Poseidon, the god of the sea, is said to have named the town for the nymph Pasitea. A prosperous port through the 17th century, Positano’s economy and population diminished significantly during the 19th century and the town remained a small fishing village until it was rediscovered and became a tourist destination. Starting in the 1950’s, Positano’s popularity began to rise and today, tourism is the backbone of the town’s economy.
The famously beautiful white houses built along the rocky hillside of the town are one of the remarkable sites Positano offers. Hundreds of winding stairs link the town and the cliffs above it, rewarding visitors with vistas of the town and the Galli Islands in the distance. Citrus trees and olive groves are abundant. This largely pedestrian village has many small nooks and hidden treasures to be discovered as well as historical architecture, such as the cathedral of St. Maria Assunta and the Villa Romana.
Located on a ledge overlooking the ocean, Ravello is a small town that affords expansive views of the Amalfi Coast. Founded in the 6th century, the town was an early rival to Amalfi, whose inhabitants likely named the town Ravello from the word “ribbelarsi”, or “to rebel”. The town prospered through trade but earthquakes, invasions and disease decimated the wealth and population of Ravello. However, many of the villas and churches built during prosperous times remain as evidence of the town’s early history.
Built in 13th century, the Villa Rufolo is a popular destination and is the location of the renowned Ravello Music Festival, which takes place during the summer every year. The San Pantaleone Cathedral is located in the market square and is well worth visiting, as is the church of San Giovanni del Toro. But it is the panoramic views from this remote village that have made it popular with tourists, artists and writers from around the world.
Overlooking the bay of Naples, Sorrento was originally settled by the Greeks and later became a vacation destination for wealthy noble families during the Roman Empire. The sleepy town was ravaged by attacks directed by Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, requiring the residents to build high walls and towers to protect themselves, some of which can still be seen today. Though the attacks were followed by a revolt against the rule of Spain and then by the plague, Sorrento remained an important and powerful town. The steady stream of visitors through the 19th century secured the town’s reputation as one of Italy’s most popular destinations, which still holds true today.
Strolling the cobbled streets of Sorrento brings both great shopping and spectacular views of the Bay of Naples. While there are few beaches, the Marina Grande harbor is a wonderful spot to visit to get a sense of the authenticity of Sorrento. Remarkable sunsets can be enjoyed while sipping locally made Limoncello but perhaps the ultimate treat can be found in one of the gelaterias, which offer as many as 70 different varieties of handmade gelato.
Located in the Gulf of Naples in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Capri is an island that was once part of the mainland and now is a popular and beautiful resort destination. Encompassing 4 square miles (10 square kilometers), Capri has a population of approximately 12,400 and produces wine, olive oil and various fruits. Derived from the word “Kapros” or “wild boar”, the island’s first recorded inhabitants were Greek, who named Capri “Island of the Wild Boars”.
The Roman Empire soon took control of Capri, building a series of villas while running the empire, under Emperor Tiberius, from the island from A.D. 27 to A.D. 37. The Villa Jovis, the most remarkable of the buildings, is still preserved and can be viewed. When the Empire fell, the island was ruled by Naples and was later given to Amalfi, though raids by pirates raged during this period. After falling to Turkish admirals in the1500’s, Capri was juggled between French and British rule before returning to the care of Naples in 1815.
In 1826, Capri’s first hotel was built as the island’s popularity was growing with writers, artists and poets. The artist John Singer Sargent began staying on the island and created a series of portraits of a local model that were to be his most recognized work. The island also became a refuge for Russian intellectuals as well as a getaway for the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, whose stay would later be memorialized in the Academy Award nominated film Il Postino.
While the small island provides many remarkable sites, including the sea stacks the Faraglioni rocks, the Marinas Grande and Piccola and the villa-lined promenade Belvedere of Tragara, it is the Blue Grotto that is Capri’s most famous landmark. A cave carved by years of erosion by the sea, the two-meter high opening requires visitors to lie down in a boat in order to enter the cave. Once inside, the sun lights the water, creating a deep blue color that has enchanted people for centuries.
Located less than a mile from Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii is a ruined ancient city that was buried when Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. Ruled alternately by the Etruscans, Greeks and then the Romans, the city’s location on the western coast of Italy and mild climate drew wealthy Romans to Pompeii to build their country homes near the Mediterranean Sea. Prior to the catastrophic volcanic eruption that destroyed the city, Pompeii was a thriving seaside town with a population of 20,000 people.
Surrounded by a great wall with seven gates, Pompeii was built in the shape of an oval with streets paved with blocks of lava. Mount Vesuvius had erupted previously in A.D. 63, damaging several towns including Pompeii, yet despite their close proximity to the volcano, the towns were rebuilt. The eruption in A.D. 79 lasted two days, blasting the top of Mount Vesuvius off, leaving 2 smaller peaks. Pompeii was buried under cinders, stones, and hot ashes, as were the smaller towns of Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis. It was said that most of central Italy was sprinkled with ash, with some dusting as far as Africa. When the tremors began, most of the townspeople evacuated but of the 2,000 who stayed behind, all were either buried in their homes or died from inhaling poisonous gases and fumes.
Once the eruption ended, the layers of hot ash and cinders dried, sealing Pompeii beneath 25 feet of volcanic matter. The strangely preserved city and the remains of its inhabitants would stay buried for almost 1,700 years before being rediscovered when a peasant hit a wall while working in a vineyard in 1748. Excavation of the site began in earnest in 1860, under the direction of Giuseppe Fiorelli. By the 1900’s, the Italian government began funding the project with the goal of restoring the city, keeping the buried treasures intact as much as possible.
At present, nearly three-fourths of Pompeii has been excavated and restored, allowing the public an amazing glimpse into a town nearly 2,000 years old.
Pompeii’s sister city Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae have been restored and are open to the public. Of particular interest is the Villa Poppaea in Oplontis, once the home of Emperor Nero’s wife, which has remarkable frescoes, gardens and sculptures. The Temple of Jupiter, an ancient ruin prior to the eruption, is a remarkable landmark as well as the temples of Apollo and Fortuna Augusta.
As for Mount Vesuvius, it is still an active volcano that destroyed several towns in a particularly large eruption in 1906, and later demolished the town of San Sebastiano in 1944. Prior to this, visitors from all over the globe flocked to Mount Vesuvius, taking a cable railway to the edge of the crater. The railway was destroyed in 1944 but people still come to see the volcano, and some still farm the fertile ground surrounding the mountain.