Naples has been on the tourist circuit since the 18th century, when the northern European elite would embark on the Grand Tour of cultural sights and end up in this southern Italian port city. Why was Naples the tour’s climax? Well, one answer is this.
Go to the hilltop monastery of Certosa and walk straight through the grand courtyard and main hallway towards a distant doorway, where bright sunlight beckons. Suddenly you are out on a broad terrace and the city falls away beneath you and an azure dreamland shimmers beyond. When you fully know what’s out there, it’s even better.
Down in the old city centre, you might spend days without any knowledge of the beauties – unless you step into one of the countless churches, which is quite likely to be a jewel. Or head for a palace, of which there are several amazingly overblown examples.
The city’s great palaces rose up at this time, with the colossal Royal Palace dominating the seafront, and still today mastering the city’s main square, Piazza del Plebiscito. At the palace’s north side is the Teatro San Carlo, opened in 1737, rich in gilded stucco and red plush, one of the world’s great opera houses and a place very dear to Neapolitan hearts.
Across the street, added in the 19th century, is the soaring glass-roofed glory of the Galleria Umberto I arcades and the Belle Epoque beauty of the Caffè Gambrinus, the classic coffeehouse of Naples.
Running straight north for miles is the Spanish-built Via Toledo, the city’s main drag, now pleasantly pedestrianised. At its far end is a hilltop oasis, a vast park presided over by Capodimonte Palace, the magnificent retreat of the Bourbon kings, now housing Naples’ finest painting collection.
Coming back down, a visit to the National Archaeological Museum, in another 18th century palace, is a must, for here all the best remains of Pompeii and other local classical sites are kept. Spectacularly, you see how the Romans decorated their houses with a catalogue of Mediterranean home décor from two millennia ago.
To take just the best churches, Gesù Nuovo church has a striking façade of raised stonework in pyramid shapes; Santa Chiara monastery revels in a cloister coated with Rococo majolica tiling; Pio Monte della Misericordia boasts a stunning altarpiece painted by Caravaggio, that super-talented rogue of the Italian baroque age; and San Lorenzo Maggiore presents six centuries of rich ornamentation. The cloister of San Lorenzo has an entrance to some of these subterranean ruins, which include a large market and a whole street of workshops.
Without burrowing, you’ll find in Spaccanapoli some of the best pizza in this city. Here too is one of Naples’ hippest corners, Piazza Bellini, the leafy home to a string of trendy café-bars and restaurants, plus an old Neapolitan favourite, Ristorante Bellini, and its signature dish, linguine al cartoccio (pasta with seafood baked in paper).
Looking out on all this, the Gran Hotel Vesuvio is the grande dame of Naples hotels, the choice of everybody from crowned heads to the Clintons, Pablo Picasso to Matt Damon, Grace Kelly to Claudia Schiffer. Its most treasured guest was Enrico Caruso, the great operatic tenor; his corner suite is named after him and still contains some original furniture.
Mount Vesuvius, the bay’s brooding overseer, can easily be climbed to its rim, from which you peer down into its smouldering crater, the devil which one day in 79AD erupted catastrophically and buried the thriving cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
Further on, the land curves into a mountainous peninsula which culminates in the old town of Sorrento, built on the profits of lemon groves and long a tourist favourite, where a bottle of limoncello liqueur is the ideal souvenir. Sorrento sits on a clifftop, rimmed by some of Europe’s most atmospheric grand hotels which look down on its harbours and across the bay to Naples. It is this contrast which is a defining characteristic of Sorrento, the sudden switch from being sheltered by narrow streets and intoxicated by flowering trees to the drama of an infinite view and a perilous drop.
As beautiful as Sorrento is, its neighbour, the Isle of Capri, is of a surpassing loveliness that has made it mythic for centuries. Here the Emperor Tiberius resided in the opulent Villa Jovis palace atop a 340-metre high headland. The walk to the palace ruins is perhaps Capri’s finest experience.
Because of all these entrancing facets, leisure-takers have been coming to the Bay of Naples for more than two thousand years. If not the beauty it once was, its brooding aura is an essential part of the legend of Naples – a city whose star is rising again. So why not join them? Indulge in a legend whose stunning attractions are more accessible than ever.
See Naples and live!
Text and Photos by Keith Mundy
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