Campania is the Italy of your wildest dreams: a rich, intense, hypnotic ragù of vibrant street life, decadent palaces, pastel-hued villages and aria-inspiring vistas. Few corners of Europe can match Campania’s cultural conundrums. Should you spend the morning waltzing through chandeliered Bourbon bedrooms or the frescoed villa of a Roman emperor’s wife? And which of Caravaggio’s canvases should you see first: the multiscene masterpiece inside Naples’ Pio Monte della Misericordia, the violent showstopper inside the hilltop Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte, or the artist’s swansong inside the belle-époque Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano? Campania’s blockbuster heritage will set your imagination alight with its chariot grooves, frescoes and heart-stirring sculptures.
Mother Nature let loose in Italy’s south, creating an adventure playground of rugged mountains, steaming fumaroles and ethereal coastal grottoes. Crank up the pulse rate cave-diving off the Capri coast or go mountain-bike riding and grotto roaming in the Parco Nazionale del Cilento, Vallo di Diano e Alburni. Need to bring it down a notch? Go horseback riding on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius, sail the Amalfi Coast or soak at a thermal beach on Ischia. The options may be many, but there’s one constant: a landscape that is beautiful, diverse and ethereal.
Campania is a never-ending feast: bubbling, wood-fired pizza in Naples, long lunches at Cilento agriturismi (farm-stay accommodation) and lavish pastries at celebrity-status Amalfi Coast pasticcerie (pastry shops). There are tons of places to stay here from world class hotels to camp sites where you can pitch up in your camper van. Should you tuck into coniglio all’Ischitana (Ischian-style rabbit) at an island trattoria? Pick up some famous colatura di alici (anchovy essence) in Cetara? Or just kick back with a crisp Falanghina and debate which has the creamier buffalo mozzarella – Caserta or Paestum?
Campanians have a way of making other Italians seem just a little uptight. Despite the demands of modern life, there is always time for an impromptu espresso at the local bar or a bite of juicy gossip on a sun-bleached piazza. One minute you’re choosing produce at a street market, the next you’re in the middle of a feverish discussion of the weather, the in-laws or Napoli’s on-field performance. No one is a stranger for long, and a casual chiacchiera (chat) could easily land you at the bountiful table of your new best friend.
Pearl of the Amalfi Coast, vertiginous Positano is scandalously stunning, a picture-perfect composition of pastel-coloured houses tumbling down towards a deep indigo sea. This effortless beauty also informs its skinny, pedestrian streets, lined with chic boutiques for fussy Italian and foreign fashionistas. If fabulous food inspires you more than fine fabrics, swoon over superlative seafood at legendary La Cambusa. Just don’t forget Positano’s less-famous neighbour, Praiano, a tranquil corner on this clamorous coast where locals, rather than tourists, fill the piazza benches and bars.
A once-thriving Roman town frozen for all time in its 2000-year-old death throes, the ruins of Pompeii are a haunting reminder of Mother Nature’s merciless force and the fleeting nature of life itself. Wander Roman streets, the column-lined forum, the city brothel, the 5000-seat theatre and the richly frescoed Villa dei Misteri and ponder Pliny the Younger’s terrifying account of the tragedy: ‘Darkness came on again, again ashes, thick and heavy. We got up repeatedly to shake these off; otherwise we would have been buried and crushed by the weight.’
The charms of the Amalfi Coast stretch way beyond the glittering baubles of the coastal towns. Venture inland and you find meandering footpaths that, prior to 1840, were the only way people got around on dry land. Orange groves, pine trees, wild orchids and crumbling ruins flank the trails amid landscapes that shift and change according to the light and time of year. Yet one thing remains constant: the breathtaking coastal views. If you are seeking something suitably divine, succumb to the Sentiero degli Dei, the ‘Path of the Gods’.