In the south of Italy, bordering Lazio, Molise, Puglia and Basilicata, and with a long stretch of coast along the Tyrrhenian Sea, is Campania. This densely populated, vibrant, fertile region is famous for its music, its food, its history and its beauty. The Romans called this area campania felix, happy country, and the name is still appropriate today: the sunny climate and the sunny disposition of the inhabitants definitely make for a happy atmosphere.
Although the stereotypes of Southern Italy - poverty, corruption, chaos - apply in Campania, it is only to a limited extent. Agriculture continues to thrive and, particularly around Napoli, the engineering, chemical and petrochemical industries, among others, are solid and successful. Tourism also plays a huge part in the region's economy.
Campania has so much to offer that it's no wonder it is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Italy. Sandy beaches, grottoes, volcanoes, opera, pizza, marquetry and some of the world's most important archaeological sites are just a few of the delights that await you in Campania. Many of my best holidays have been in this part of Italy and I recommend it with confidence.
The Campanian Archipelago
In the Tyrrhenian Sea off Campania are five islands - Capri, Ischia, Nisida, Procida and Vivara - which comprise the Arcipelago Campano. Vivara is a satellite islet to the west of Procida, connected to the larger island by a bridge. Nisida is a small island nowadays dominated by a NATO base and a prison. Capri, particularly, but also Ischia and Procida are popular places to visit, mainly for their outstanding natural beauty. See below for more info.
What to see and do in Campania
Enjoy the mountains
If you're wanting to walk in the mountains and forests and experience nature, there are several nice parts of Campania where you can do so.
The Parco Nazionale del Cilento e Vallo di Diano covers a variety of interesting terrain, including Monte Cervati, the highest mountain in Campania. The Monti Picentini Regional Nature Park, protecting the Picentini mountain range, is also beautiful and contains the largest forest in Southern Italy.
Although Monte Vesuvio is still an active volcano, it hasn't erupted since 1944 and is not expected to again for a while. For a fee, you can walk up to the edge of the crater, which is a marvellous experience and one not to be rushed. If you can arrive there by car and not be tied to someone else's timetable, this is probably the best way of doing it. There is a whole national park surrounding Vesuvius, with many lovely nature trails to follow - you can download a mini brochure here.
Enjoy the sea
Many resorts in Campania are on top of cliffs and have little, if anything, by way of a beach. You can usually still get into the water but it may not be what you had in mind and it's worth finding out before you book whether your seaside accommodation has access to a beach.
The best beaches are in the south of the region, along the Cilento coast. When I was young, I spent several fantastic holidays in the area around Palinuro and Marina di Camerota, where the beaches are wide and sandy and the sea is most inviting.
Hiring a boat can be a good way to see Campania from a different perspective. If you don't feel like driving/ rowing/pedalling yourself, there are many ferry and shuttle services to take you across the water. This is all great in the summer but doesn't always work so well in the winter because the weather can get rough.
Visit the islands
In the summer, it's usually pretty easy to catch a ferry (traghetto) or hydrofoil (aliscafo) to Capri, Ischia or Procida.
Capri is a stunning island about 4 square miles big. It's approximately 40 minutes by ferry from Sorrento, so it makes an excellent day trip from there, although there will be loads of other people doing the same thing. Look out especially for the Villa San Michele, built by the Swedish physician Axel Munthe (see below); the Philosophical Park and the second largest lighthouse (faro) in Italy, after Genova's. You can also walk - or take the chairlift - up Monte Solaro for some amazing views and you can take a boat trip from the Marina Grande, which includes a visit to the famous and wonderful Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto). Tons to see and do on Capri! Another useful website is Capri Tourism.
Ischia is a mountainous, volcanic island about 18 square miles big. It's on the other (north-west) side of the Bay of Naples from Capri and can be reached from Napoli in roughly 90 minutes by ferry or 40 minutes by hydrofoil. Although Ischia is not as famous as Capri, some consider it even more beautiful. It has some nice beaches, which Capri lacks, but it's best known for its thermal spas and health-giving volcanic mud.
Procida is a small island, only just over one and a half square miles big. It lies between Ischia and the mainland and is connected to both via ferry and hydrofoil. This colourful, densely populated island is quite a happening place for its size and it has chosen to resist mass tourism.
Visit the archaeological sites
If you're in Campania, it seems a pity to miss the opportunity to see one or more world-famous archaeological sites. However, do bear in mind that the sun bouncing off slabs of stone can be unbearably hot and, in the summer, it's best not to make your visit in the middle of the day.
Pompeii was buried when Vesuvius, having been dormant for centuries, suddenly erupted in 79 AD. Excavations have uncovered what amounts to an amazing snapshot of Roman life. There's a lot to see, so allow a good few hours.
Herculaneum (Ercolano) was buried in the same volcanic eruption as Pompeii. It is smaller and less famous than its sister city but actually better preserved. It's less crowded and, in general, can be a better-value trip than Pompeii.
Paestum was founded by ancient Greeks in the seventh century BC. They called it Poseidonia but the name was changed a few centuries later when the Romans took over the city. Today you can see the extraordinarily well preserved ruins of three Greek temples and a necropolis, where unusual frescoes were found that are now in the on-site museum.
Napoli (Naples) is a fascinating mixture of ancient and modern, beautiful and ugly, uplifting and depressing. On the down side, there is poverty, crime, corruption, industrialisation and pollution. On the up side, there is prosperity, culture, history, wonderful food, fabulous views and much else besides. It may sound a bit Marie Antoinette to say so but the dark side of Napoli doesn't have to affect the tourist. You can easily avoid the less salubrious parts of this huge city and concentrate on the lovely and the exciting parts. Be careful with your belongings but otherwise don't worry about the crime; the gangs are focused on each other, not visitors.
Founded in the eighth century BC by the Greeks and later expanded by the Romans, Napoli is one of the oldest cities on the planet and its historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As you can imagine, there are some good museums and galleries in Naples, including the National Archaeological Museum, which exhibits mosaics, sculptures and artefacts gathered from the city and the surrounding area over the millennia.
Beneath Naples is a whole underground city of labyrinths, aqueducts, air-raid shelters, caves and excavations, which is well worth checking out. For more details and to find out about guided tours, see NapoliSotterranea.org and/or LaNapoliSotterranea.it.
Amongst other things (eg, food - see below), Napoli is famous for its music. The Teatro di San Carlo is the oldest working theatre in Europe and is one of the most renowned and respected opera houses in Italy. Neapolitan songs, such as O Sole Mio, Funiculi Funicula and Luna Caprese, are known and loved all over the world. Enrico Caruso, the celebrated tenor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was born in Napoli and played a significant part in spreading the popularity of these canzoni. His life story is (approximately) told in the marvellous film The Great Caruso, starring Italian-American singer and matinée idol Mario Lanza.
Although there is a beach in Naples, it's not a great one and you are much better off going somewhere further along the coast, or to Ischia or Procida, for your beach time. Ferries and hydrofoils run from Napoli to Amalfi, Positano, Sorrento, Salerno and the islands. Be aware there are two ports in Naples: Molo Beverello and Mergellina.
For more information about Naples, Around Napoli is an interesting website.
You know what they say: see Naples and die. I always thought this made it sound rather a violent place - until someone explained that the saying means: don't die before you've seen Naples! Or perhaps, see Naples and die happy. Anyhow, we get the message: Napoli is a city not to be missed.
Explore the other modern-day cities and towns
Amalfi, with its pastel-coloured houses built on and into the cliff, has a beautiful historic centre, though not much of a beach. This is an affluent town, known for its impressive lemons and as the birthplace of Flavio Gioia, who reputedly invented the compass (la bussola). The main sight to see is the lovely Duomo, the oldest part of which dates back to the nineth century. There are also wonderful views of the sea and good opportunities for walking in the hills behind.
Ravello, in the Lattari mountains just above Amalfi, is famous for its gardens and its beauty. Having inspired Wagner, the little town continues to have a strong musical tradition, putting on a regular programme of classical concerts.
Positano, another colourful cliff-side town, was once a poor fishing village but these days it's a fashionable resort with good beaches and chic boutiques.
Sorrento is an elegant town with quite a lot going on all the year round. It has no beach but you can sunbathe on and swim off wooden jetties.
Salerno is the main big town/small city on the Amalfi coast. It has some nice churches, an art gallery with a lot of wonderful Renaissance paintings (the Pinacoteca Provinciale in via dei Mercanti, right in the historic centre) and a long promenade (lungomare) that makes a very pleasant walk.
Eating and drinking in Campania
Campania is a food-lover's paradise. There's loads of fabulous pasta, seafood and pizza - Napoli, after all, is where pizza was invented. The mozzarella cheese made from the milk of local buffaloes is widely acknowledged to be the best in the world. The mixture of mozzarella, tomatoes and basil known as insalata caprese (Capri-style salad) is now common in Italian restaurants throughout Britain but, as you can imagine, it tastes so much better in Campania.
Because the land around Mount Vesuvius is particularly fertile, the fruit and vegetables in Campania are especially flavoursome. You won't be able to miss the tomatoes but try too the aubergine (melanzana), as well as the peaches, apricots and figs.
Again thanks to volcanic fertility, the area around Napoli grows some great grapes, which are made into some of the best-value wines out there.
The lemon liqueur limoncello is a local speciality, served chilled after dinner.
Recommended reading (and viewing) from and set in Campania
Roberto Saviano is a young author from just outside Napoli. His book Gomorrah, a searing exposé of organised crime in Campania, caused an international sensation and led to his having to go into hiding for fear of reprisals.
Books by foreign authors
Robert Harris's novel Pompeii is a gripping thriller that gives a strong sense of what life was like in that unlucky city before Vesuvius erupted.
The above-mentioned Swedish physician and psychiatrist Axel Munthe lived on the island of Capri for many years. His book The Story of San Michele describes his life and work, in the most moving and inspiring terms. This really is a lovely book, highly recommended.
If you're looking for a light but unputdownable slice of chick lit to enjoy on the beach, I Love Capri by Belinda Jones fits the bill perfectly.
Il Postino is a beautiful film and well worth watching if you're remotely interested in Italy and Italian culture. A lot of it was filmed on the island of Procida.
The Talented Mr Ripley is a tense and intelligent drama, giving you great views of both Procida and Ischia.
For more information about Campania...
Buy a local map and a guide book for travelling around Campania. The guide books tend to focus on Naples and the surrounding area so, if you're aiming further south, make sure the book you buy tells you also about the Cilento coast.
If you're a keen walker, this guide to Sorrento, Amalfi and Capri is excellent.
Check out this website: