Immediately below Lazio, Campania, marks the real beginning of the Italian South or mezzogiorno. It’s the part of the South too, perhaps inevitably, that most people see, as it’s easily accessible from Rome and home to some of Italy’s most notable features – Roman sites, spectacular stretches of coast, tiny islands. It’s always been a sought-after region, first named by the Romans, who tagged it the campania felix, or “happy land” (to distinguish it from the rather dull campagna further north), and settled down here in villas and palatial estates that stretched right around the Bay of Naples. Later, when Naples became the final stop on northerners’ Grand Tours, its bay became no less fabled, the relics of its heady Roman period only adding to the charm for most travellers.
Naples is the obvious focus, an utterly compelling city that dominates the region in every way. Taking one of the fastest trains, you can reach it in a little over an hour from Rome, and there’s no excuse for not seeing at least this part of Campania – though of course you need three or four days to absorb the city properly. The Bay of Naples, too, has plenty to occupy you for a good week: there are the ancient sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum just half an hour away – arguably Italy’s best-preserved and most revealing Roman remains; the smouldering volcanic Campi Flegrei area to the northwest; the gorgeous islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida; and the cheery and likeable resort town of Sorrento at the southern end of the bay.
Inland Campania is, by contrast, a poor, unknown region for the most part, though the giant palace and gardens of Caserta are worth visiting, while Benevento, an old stop on the Roman route to Brindisi, has a flavour that’s quite distinct from the coastal regions.
Beyond the Bay of Naples to the south, a pair of pretty peninsulas bookend the revitalized city of Salerno and the impressive Greek temples of Paestum: along the first is the Amalfi Coast, perhaps Europe’s most stunning stretch of coastline, whose enticing and sometimes exclusive resorts – Positano and Amalfi – need little introduction; while Campania’s southern border is marked by the quieter, more remote promontory of the Cilento region, with plenty of uncrowded beaches.