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Visitors to the region should start with Naples, a bubbling, noisy city which seems to live very much in the moment, for the moment. Poverty, overcrowding and petty crime have plagued the city for centuries but the combination of attempts to make the city’s incredibly rich and varied architecture, dense historic centre, world-class museums and archeological sites more accessible to visitors, and its unique location on the Bay of Naples, make it a highly compelling place.
To the east of Naples lie Pompei and Herculaneum, the most well-preserved cities of classical antiquity. The brooding presence of the still-active volcano Vesuvius in the background serves as a constant reminder of what happened on that day in 79 AD when clouds of ash gushed angrily skywards. Most of the finds from the excavations at the sites are on show in Naples’ spectatcular National Archeological museum.
Capri, facing the Bay of Naples’ eastern prong, is an island of vast natural beauty and enchantment. The only downside is that unfortunately milions of other people think so too. Off-season you will be able to get a much better feel for Capri, and spend less money staying or eating there. Its best-known sights are the faraglioni rocks which jut dramatically out of the sea and the Grotta Azzurra, a grotto whose mesmerising blue interior is a result of the sunlight reaching it through the water.
Guarding the other prong of the Bay of Naples is Ischia, which unlike Capri, offers a more rough and ready island experience. Famous for its thermal springs since Roman times, the prettiest spot on the island is the former fishing village of Sant’Angelo on the south of the island. Less known and less spectacular is Procida, the island closest to Naples. Come here for a more peaceful bout of lazing.
Back on the mainland across from Capri is the Amalfi coast with its sheer jaw-dropping and hair-raising beauty, huddled as it is along a long and winding coast of rocky cliffs. Sorrento is a classic resort town and its old centre retains much southern charm and has a lively evening scene of locals enjoying the breeze and passing the time in its main piazzas. Positano, though small, is more cosmpolitan and lined with exclusive clothing boutiques and some good beaches which rarely get crowded. Villages before and after it (such as Furore and Atrani) are recommended since the views are equally stunning and the prices more contained. Amalfi is the largest town and in many ways the highlight of the coast with its houses literally grappled on to a wide cleft in the cliffs; Ravello (a 25 minute bus ride from Amalfi) stands like a jewel in the crown; 335 metres up one of the coast’s mountains and offers unrivalled views and a more refined feel than any of the other cities.
Campania sizzles in the summer and can suffer from high humidity too. Spring and autumn are often warm and pleasant with occasional showers. The best times to visit are undoubtedly early Spring and October when the weather is pleasant enought to get a mild suntan and the crowds a mere anticipation or memory.
Naples’ Capodichino Airport, 8kms to the north of the city, handles domestic and international flights. The train station can be reached easily from the airport by bus. To go to the Amalfi Coast it is easiest to rent a car, otherwise the local train service the Circumvesuviana regularly leaves from Naples main train station to Sorrento. From there buses make their way along the winding road to Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. Naples also has very active ports from where you can get regular ferries and hydrofoils to Capri, Ischia, Procida and Sorrento, and in high-season to Positano and Amalfi. Car ferries to Procida and Ischia leave from Pozzuoli, 12 kms north-west of the city.
The main attraction activity-wise in this area are the beaches. Pollica, located in the protected Cilento National park, was rated one of Italy’s top ten coastlines in 2003 by national environmental association Legambiente Vesuvius’ crater can also easily be visited. There are regular buses from Pompei to the site (which is now a national park) and the entrance fee includes a guide. With all the volcanic activity in the area around Naples thermal baths have been enjoyed for centuries. Most are located in the Campi Flegrei area, for example the Terme di Nerone or the Terme di San Germano. Otherwise there are ample facilities for keen scuba divers on the islands and off Mergellina in the west of Naples.