If you are planning a trip to Campania chances are you are just thinking about Capri and the Amalfi Coast, and maybe a quick jaunt into Naples. Problem is, these are the places that everyone goes to, which means the crowds can be brain-bendingly overwhelming.
There is much, much more to see and do in Campania than just the big tourist spots. Whether you want to take a half day or day to do something different, or whether you may want to add an extra few days to your Amalfi Coast trip, here are 8 places to consider when planning your trip to the Amalfi Coast.
Be sure to read to the end as you probably haven’t heard of 6 through 8!
If you enjoy visiting European palaces this one is a must see. Built to rival Versailles, Caserta is the largest palace in all of Europe. Like Versailles it is a gaudy display of too much gold, over the top frescoes and somewhat crass excess, all of which make it completely fantastic!
Rent a bike and explore the beauty of the garden and fountains which extend 3.5 kilometers in front of the palace, have lunch in the café and explore the royal apartments.
One thing I learned while there was how fascinating Marie Carolina was. Her well known sister Marie Antoinette gets all the attention, but Marie Carolina was a tremendous character, much, much more interesting. This was her palace and her story unfolds throughout the royal apartments.
The palace at Caserta is a quick and easy train ride from either Naples or Salerno.
2. POMPEII, HERULANEUM AND OPLONTIS
While in the area of Naples and the Amalfi Coast take a morning to visit the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum and Oplontis
If you are not familiar with these incredible sites these are the ruins of three towns taken out by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The towns vanished from the face of the earth for 1700 years.
Over the centuries when people tried to find the fabled Pompeii they looked along the coast line, as it had been a port city but the eruption of the volcano moved the ocean 2 kilometers out to sea. Pompeii was discovered in the 18th century when a farmer inland had been digging for a new well.
Pompeii is Italy’s most unique archaeological site, its 109 excavated acres giving us a snapshot of 1st century Roman life.
I recommend visiting in the morning at opening time (8:30am) as for much of the year Pompeii gets overwhelmingly hot. Be sure to wear good walking shoes and a hat and bring a water bottle to refil at the fountains staggered around the site.
I suggest doing Pompeii first as this will give you insight into the life of 1st century Romans, their social structure, the absolute genius of their technological innovations, and the devastation caused by the eruption.
Herculaneum/Ercolano is only 3 stops away on the local train (the Circumvesuviana) and makes an incredible second excavation to visit.
After seeing the destruction of Pompeii, much of which was crushed down to one level, Herculaneum lets you experience the multi storied homes replete with their red Pompeii style frescoes. Resplendent in its own right, this site is jarring also because it gives you greater insight into the way Pompeii would have looked up until the day the volcano blew.
Herculaneum is about 1//3 of the size of Pompeii, and rather than being an important merchant port city was a luxury resort town for wealthy Romans, so features more elegant villas than commercial buildings.
The caves at the beach level are filed with skeletons. When Vesuvius erupted the people of Herculaneum were certain rescuers would come by sea, so the women and children were waiting in the safety of the caves while the men waited on the beach.
Unfortunately for all of them a pyroclastic current of trapped gases at a heat of more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit (and up to 900 degrees) blew their way, instantly vaporizing their bodies.
Their instant death meant they were in fact luckier than their neighbors in Pompeii who suffocated and in many cases took multiple hours to die.
From the 1st century B.C Oplontis was a super elegant suburb of Pompeii where the uber-wealthy had their country villas. As with Pompeii it disappeared for 17 centuries and was only rediscovered in the 18th century. There is just one villa is open to the public, but it is spectacular and well worth the visit.
Villa di Poppea
Poppea Sabina was Emperor Nero’s second wife. This is thought to be her villa due to an amphora with the name of her freedman and a vase with her mark on it being found on the grounds.
This is actually the largest Roman suburban villa ever discovered and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely due to the sensational frescoes. This villa is enormous, with large portico opening to gardens lined with statues, a swimming pool, loads of rooms, passageways and cubicle as well as a kitchen still recognizeable.
One of the most extraordinary features of the villa is the wealth of frescoes and mosaics all remaining in situ rather than having been carted off to a museum somewhere.
Interestingly there is no sign of life here at the time of the eruption. Some of the statues were found on a storeroom, suggesting that perhaps the villa had been closed up for renovations after the earthquake of 62 A.D
An alternative to the frequently overcrowded and always expensive island of Capri is the delicious little island of Procida. Almost completely off the tourist radar this one is a weekend getaway for the people of Naples, but with the exception of August the streets are delightfully empty. So try to come here on a weekday if possible.
Procida is one of the most colorful places on earth. As you arrive into its little harbor your eyes don’t know where to land – all the fishermen’s homes lining the seafront are painted in bright pastel hues, the sunshine sparkles off the sea, which like the sky is a completely impossible shade of blue. Procida is visually stunning.
This tiny island is part of the Flegrean island chain, off the coast of Naples. The island is between Capo Miseno and Ischia, and occupies a mere 4.1 square miles. Its history dates back as far as the 16th century BC with Mycenaean objects having been discovered there, although the first known settlers were Greeks in the 8th century BC.
More than 30 movies have been filmed here including Il Postino and the Talented Mr. Ripley.
If you take a day trip to Procida be sure to wander the waterfront and the streets of the Marina Grande, then head over to the back side of the island. Walk along sun-bleached little streets (but watch out for vespas zipping around) and head to Marina Corricella for lunch. This darling fishing village was one of the locations in Il Postino.
A variety of eateries line the waterfront, picturesque with fishing boats bobbing at their moorings, fishing nets lying out to dry and colorful buildings all around. Lunch here is authentic, inexpensive and wonderful. I recommend having a long, leisurely lunch with a view, then having a swim before heading back to the mainland.
Procida is easily accessible by hydrofoil from Naples.
Another absolute treasure lies at the bottom end of the Amalfi Coast, the lovely medieval town of Salerno. Not only a wonderful place to take a day trip to, Salerno is also a tremendous place to base your Amalfi Coast trip.
With train access (including the high speed AV trains) you can move around much more easily than if you are staying in any of the towns along the coast road, yet still have ferry access to the entire coast and Capri.
The crowds, tour buses and cruise ship travelers don’t come here, (well, maybe a few small cruise ships do, but not the monsters that invade the rest of the coast)so you can wander around freely, enjoying the beauty, the history, the ambience.
If you stay in Salerno the local nightlife is infectious. Everyone comes out at night to enjoy a glass of wine and see friends in the cafes and bars dotted around the piazzas and the picturesque little streets. The restaurants are fabulous – I love evenings in Salerno.
Along with the castle, the Duomo, the medical school (the first in Italy, it dates back centuries) and the medieval town center, another benefit to staying or visiting Salerno is that it is the gateway to the beautiful Cilento region.
Only 30 km or so south of Salerno you will find one of the coolest and most un-touristed places you have never heard of, the Greek temples at Paestum.
The 8 best preserved Greek temples in the world are in Southern Italy. Five of them are in Sicily, the other 3 are here in the former town of Poseidonia, now known as Paestum.
2500 years ago this was part of Magna Grecia. Greece sent its young men out to discover and conquer new land. Southern Italy and Sicily were hot favorites, benefitting from amongst other things, incredible Greek architecture. Be warned that these three temples are breathtaking.
I love arriving by car (you can also get here by train) because as you drive through the countryside surrounded by open fields and buffalo mozzarella farms, these 3 giant temples erupt up out of nowhere. And they are truly magnificent.
Built in 550 B.C, 500 B.C and 480 B.C the temples of Hera, Athena and Hera II are in unbelievably good condition.
Also still in place are a heroon, a pool and various other structure dating back to the Greeks.
The temples are surrounded by the remnants of a Roman town. Romans loved Greek architecture so instead of pulling it down opted to build around it. Roman roads, houses and apartment buildings can still be seen here. If you have been to Pompeii and understand the layout of a Roman home, you will appreciate being able to walk inside the ruins and identify the front and back doors, the views from the homes as well as their layouts.
As if that weren’t enough, the cats eyes and mosaic floors are still intact. Not a cigarette butt, coke can or McDonald’s wrapper inn sight – it is all just here for you to enjoy.
If at all possible try to be here at sunset – it is just unbelievably beautiful. Also noteworthy are the famous roses that bloom here in the spring, famous since antiquity, bathing the temples in their gorgeous perfume and draping the area in even more beauty.
If you enjoy seeing really ancient sites and are in the area, not too far south of Paestum there is another treasure, the town of Velia.
Velia (originally named Elea) was founded around 540 B.C by Phoenicians from Corsica who fled the island after a brutal battle with the Etruscans ad Carthaginians. The town had a long period of economic prosperity as well as being an important cultural center. Home to philosophers such as Parmenides who founded the Philosophical School of Elea in the 6th century B.C, and Zeno, who was around in the 5th century B.C
The Romans took over in 88 B.C. The citizens of Elea were recognized as Romans but were allowed to maintain their Greek language and customs.
Things to see here include the monumental Porta Rosa gate. Dating back to the 4th century B.C it is thought to be one of the only intact monuments of the ancient world. It is perfectly preserved too, cut blocks of volcanic tufa perfectly placed together without the use of lime to hold them in place, reaching a height of 6 meters. Interestingly it is the only example of a rounded arch in Greek architecture to be found in Italy.
The gate leads to an ancient road and paved steps that take you down to one of the town’s 2 ports.
In the other direction from Porta Rosa there are 2nd century Roman baths, and a lovely town square.
The acropolis has a medieval church sitting atop a Greek temple, and just below it a small theater dating back to the 3rd century B.C.
Also to be seen here are remains of ancient homes and frescoed buildings.
7. BADIA SANTA MARIA DI PATTANO
Not far from Velia you can find the best preserved Italo-Albanian monastery in Southern Italy, the Badia Santa Maria di Pattano. Although the first known mention of this site was in a document dated to 933 A.D it is thought to be much older.
The complex is noteworthy for its church of Santa Maria, an example of Angevin architecture with polygonal apses and ribbed groin vaults. The bell tower is one of the most ancient Early Middle Ages bell towers in Southern Italy. Standing 15 meters tall it may have been built in stages, because it has 5 different decorations, making it fascinating from an artistic point of view.
The Church of San Fidelfo was built on top of Roman ruins. (A thermal structure can be seen under a glass floor.)
The interior walls are decorated with some amazing Byzantine frescoes, in my opinion, alone they make the trip worth while.
8. THE CILENTO COAST
If you are not one for stone beaches, the crowds, high prices and overly manicured visage of the Amalfi Coast, this could be the area for you.
Stretching 65 miles from Salerno to the Tyrrhenian coast of Basilicata, the Cilento coast is a beautiful alternative. With sandy beaches; pristine, clean ocean, affordable accommodation and dining options, this stretch of coast is authentic, a little erratic and the antithesis of the Amalfi Coast. Don’t expect glitzy hotels or the lamorous posturing of the uber rich, instead think of ancient port towns with the local fisherman still taking their boats out at dawn and fishing with handmade nets.
Break your days up with mornings spent discovering ancient Greek and Roman ruins, lunches in quaint little piazzas and afternoons on the beach.
Some of the towns to look for:
Agropoli, the largest town in the area can be a great place to base yourself.
Only 15 minutes away is Castellabate. The castle ruins and the views of the ocean are fabulous, as is the main piazza. Although pretty tiny it is buzzing with cafes, a wine bar and restaurants.
Acciaroli is a lovely little seaside village you won’t want to leave.
Interestingly it is known for the longevity of its inhabitants, with around 300 centenarians wandering the streets, 20 percent of whom have reached the ripe old age of 110!
Pioppi is another lovely seaside village. Ancel Keys lived here for 28 years studying and living the Mediterranean diet.
Palinuro is yet another beautiful coastal village with a rugged but spectacular coastline broken up with sandy beaches, the ruins of a medieval castle, a blue grotto – it has a lot to offer.
Chances are you will want to run away here…
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