Monday, September 21, 2015

Travels to Naples - Amalfi Coast, Italy

Naples, a big city in southern Italy, sits on the Bay of Naples near Mt. Vesuvius. Dating to the 2nd millennium BC, it has centuries of important art and architecture. This port city founded by the Greeks and expanded by the Romans has landmarks that include Naples Cathedral, whose Chapel of San Gennaro is filled with frescoes and statues, and the lavish Royal Palace. For a late anniversary trip this year, Keith and I spent a week and a half in Italy.  The first part of our vacation was spent in Naples and the Amalfi Coast.

View inside the Vesuvius crater.
Our first major stop was to Mt. Vesuvius, a national park and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.  For 2€ per person, a minibus ferries you as far up as vehicles can go, allows about 80-90 minutes for the ascent and descent, then completes the return trip – which means a visit could take as little as three hours out of your day.  We trekked up to the rim of its cone and peered down into the depths of the crater 700 feet below.

The hazy view down below showed a few forest fires (often started deliberately to free up land for building projects) and the Tyrrhenian Sea surrounded by the mountainous cliffs.

Unlike Rome, where ancient monuments have suffered millennia of weathering, re-use and pillaging, Pompeii had the good fortune (for posterity at any rate) of being overwhelmed by the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius. The ancient street plan is intact, the town still has its full complement of civic buildings, the houses still have their frescoed walls, and – thanks to painstaking work by generations of archaeologists and vulcanologists – we have a fairly clear picture of what life was like here 2,000 years ago. The picture is still being completed: emergency digs during roadworks on the Naples–Salerno motorway have revealed the full extent of a frescoed leisure complex close to the Sarno river. Allow at least three hours for visiting Pompeii; it will take longer if you intend to see the amphitheatre and the Villa dei Misteri, a good 25 minutes hike apart.

Fresh seafood for sale.
A covered passage along Via Trebunali.
National Archaeological Museum of Naples houses one of the most remarkable collections of Roman art and artifacts anywhere, including massive fresco and mosaic panels as well as sculpture taken from Pompeii and Herculaneum. The pity is that the museum's descriptions are borderline abysmal, the audio-guide is meh, and the entire building's layout so confusing that it's possible to miss an entire wing and never realize it. Still, it’s absolutely one of Naples' top sights and you don’t want to miss it – just come equipped with a self-guided walking tour from a good guidebook, or sign up for a guided tour with a reputable tour company. It just depends on which you’d rather see first: the location where the stuff was in Pompeii, or the stuff itself. The important thing is that you see both in order to put the puzzle together.

In downtown Naples, life takes place at full throttle especially along the bustling Via Trebunali. Mini-operettas take place on every street corner, while flashing Vespas scoot across pedestrian piazzas. Small, narrow streets hung thick with laundry are covered in exhaust pouring from a passing bus. Naples is also renowned for its distinctive style of thin-crust pizza.  We tried two kinds at Sorbillo and a thicker version from Panificio Michelangleo Bobb.

The Amalfi Coast is a 50-kilometer stretch of coastline along the southern edge of Italy’s Sorrentine Peninsula, in the Campania region. It is a popular holiday destination, with sheer cliffs and a rugged shoreline dotted with small beaches and pastel-colored fishing villages. The coastal road between the port city of Salerno and clifftop Sorrento winds past grand villas, terraced vineyards and cliffside lemon groves.

Colorful fisherman boats in Sorrento.
We drove from Naples towards Sorrento for a lunch pit stop.  A thing to note about Sorrento is that it's a town in two parts – the part that's near the water and the port, and the part that's overhead on top of the cliffs. Much of the charm of a visit to Sorrento is in simply wandering through the streets. The central area (on top of the cliffs) is very tourist-friendly, with pedestrian-only areas lined with shops and restaurants. There are a few small museums in Sorrento, and some lovely churches, but the main attraction here is a combination of the nice weather, the beautiful views over the water, and the pretty town itself.

View from our Positano hotel.
From Sorrento, we continued on to Positano. The Ancient Romans built a number of sumptuous villas on the coast of Positano, the ruins of which can be seen in the vicinity of the Church dell'Assunta.  It is believed that the town, the original nucleus of which developed around a Benedictine abbey, was founded in the 9th century. The town grew considerably following the arrival of inhabitants from Paestum, fleeing Saracen incursions. After it was pillaged by Pisa in 1268, Positano increased its defenses, becoming similar to its powerful neighbor, Amalfi: with steep narrow roads, massive fortified walls, and a series of all-important watch towers. The majolica tiled dome of the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta can be seen from every corner of the town. A Byzantine inspired Icon of a black Madonna, dating back to the 18th century, is conserved inside the church. Spiaggia Grande is the heart of sea edge Positano. Three hundred meters long, the beach is one of the largest on the Amalfi Coast, and one of the most glamorous too, attracting a fashionable crowd of artists, actors and celebrities. We walked up the Via dei Mulini, Positano's main shopping street, instead of taking the 200 stairs, passing tiny shops selling colorful silks, limoncello, shoes, painted tiles, wine, souvenirs, gelato. I bought a lemon-scented candle and some lemon-shaped and scented soap to bring home as souvenirs.

The boat ride to Capri was a highlight of our vacation.

View from Capri.  See how all the ships pepper the water below - amazing!
One day, we took a boat trip to the Island of Capri. I will never forget, as we puttered away from Positano, how the town looked from the water, just incredible. Stopping a few times to swim and explore coves and caves, we boated past the picturesque villages built into the cliffs.  One of the best-known natural sites is the Blue Grotto, a dark cavern where the sea glows electric blue, the result of sunlight passing through an underwater cave. Famed for its rugged landscape, upscale beach resorts and high-end shops selling handmade leather sandals and signature limoncello liqueur, we spent the rest of the day in Capri.

From Positano, we continued to Amalfi which is Italy’s version of the French Riviera, only decidedly more vertical. The beachside villages spill into the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the towns up above on the cliffs overlook the coastline with killer views.  The pastel-colored houses that crawl up the hillsides like so many barnacles out of the sea have captured our imagination for decades. Sheltered from behind by the steep slopes of the Monti Lattari, Amalfi's Ancient Roman origins are evident from a number of ruins.  A must-see is the cathedral. From inside the cathedral, visitors gain access to the first Duomo of Amalfi, now called the Basilica del Crocifisso, and to the splendid Chiostro del Paradiso.

Here is a map of the stops we made in Naples and along the Amalfi Coast - feel free to use it to build your own itinerary:

For more Italy eats check out my restaurant reviews. We really enjoyed the mix of historical site-seeing with glorious seaside relaxation.  The views from the Amalfi Coast are just breathtaking.  Driving is quite stressful though, so be prepared for narrow streets and impossible parking.  Have you visited Naples or the Amalfi Coast before? What are some of your favorites things to do and places to eat? Please share in the comments below!


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