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.
The flavour of Naples dominates the whole of Campania. It’s the true home of the pizza, rapidly baked in searingly hot wood-fired ovens and running with olive oil, as well as fantastic street food, served in numerous outlets known as friggitorie – sample delicacies such as fried pizzas (pizzette or panzarotti), heavenly crocchè (potato croquettes), arancini (rice balls) and fiorilli (courgette flowers in batter).
Naples is also the home of pasta and tomato sauce, made with fresh tomatoes and basil, and laced with garlic. Aubergines and courgettes turn up endlessly in pasta sauces, as does the tomato-mozzarella pairing (the regions to the north and east of Naples are the home of mozzarella), the latter particularly good with gnocchi. Seafood is excellent all along the coast: clams combine with garlic and oil for superb spaghetti alle vongole; mussels are often prepared as zuppa di cozze (with hot pepper sauce and croutons); fresh squid and octopus are ubiquitous.
There are loads of great pastries: not to be missed is the sfogliatella, a flaky triangular pastry-case stuffed with ricotta and candied peel, and the fragrant Easter cake, pastiera, made with ricotta and softened wheat grain. Further to the south, the marshy plains of the Cilento produce fabulous strawberries, artichokes and mozzarella cheese – much of the mozzarella that comes from here is made from pure buffalo milk, unmixed with cow’s milk.
The volcanic slopes of Vesuvius are among the most ancient wine-producing areas in Italy, but despite that the region doesn’t have a great reputation for wine. The best choices for a Campanian white are Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino and Falanghina – all fruity yet dry. Ischia also produces good whites, notably Biancolella, while Lacryma Christi, from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, is available in red and white varieties and is enjoying a resurgence after years of being considered cheap plonk. Among pure reds, there’s the unusual but delicious Gragnano, a red sparkling wine that’s best served slightly chilled, and Taurasi – like the best wines of the region made from the local Aglianico grape.
Guarding each prong of the Bay of Naples, the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida between them make up the best-known group of Italian islands. Each is a very different creature, though. Capri is a place of legend, home to the mythical Sirens and a much-eulogized playground of the super-rich in the years since – though now settled down to a lucrative existence as a target for day-trippers from the mainland. Visit by all means, but bear in mind that you have to hunt hard these days to detect the origins of much of the purple prose. Ischia is a target for package tours and weekenders from Naples, but its size means that it doesn’t feel as crowded as Capri, and plentiful hot springs, sandy beaches and a green volcanic interior make the island well worth a few days’ visit. Pretty Procida, the smallest of the islands and the best place for peaceful lazing, remains relatively untouched, even in high season.
A serrated hunk of volcanic rock that’s the smallest (population ten thousand) and nearest island to Naples, Procida has managed to fend off the kind of tourist numbers that have flooded into Capri and Ischia. It lacks the spectacle, or variety, of both islands, though it compensates with extra room and extra peace. For the most part, Procida's appeal lies in its opportunities to swim and eat in relative peace.
Largest of the islands in the Bay of Naples, Ischia (pronounced Iss-kee-ah) rises out of the sea in a cone-shaped series of pointy green hummocks, with the cone of a dormant volcano in the centre. German, Scandinavian and British tourists flock here in large numbers during peak season, attracted by its charming beach resorts and thermal springs. Although its reputation has always been poorer than Capri’s – it is perhaps not so dramatically beautiful – you can at least be sure of being alone in exploring parts of the mountainous interior, and La Mortella, the exotic garden cultivated by the British composer William Walton and his wife Susana, is an unmissable attraction. Indeed, if you’re after some beach lounging, good walking and lively nightlife within striking distance of Naples and the rest of the bay, it might be just the place.
As most people head to the coast, few visitors reach inland Campania. Indeed the territory immediately north of Naples, mostly a sprawl of unenticing suburbs, is irredeemably grim. Almost entirely dominated by the Camorra it’s off-puttingly sometimes known as the “Triangle of Death”. It’s not an area to linger, and you’d do well to pass through and not stop until you reach Caserta just beyond, where the vast royal palace and its gardens is an obvious draw. Further inland, Benevento has a historic centre well worth exploring.
A short train or bus ride direct from Naples, Caserta, incongruously surrounded by a sprawl of industrial complexes and warehouses that stretches all the way back to Naples, is known as the “Versailles of Naples” for its vast eighteenth-century Reggia di Caserta, the only attraction in this otherwise completely nondescript modern town.
Appealing Benevento was another important Roman settlement, a key point on the Via Appia between Rome and Brindisi and, as such, a thriving trading town. Founded in 278 BC, it was at the time the farthest point from Rome to be colonized, and even now it has a remote air about it, circled by hills and with a centre that was (pointlessly) bombed to smithereens in the last war and even now seems only half rebuilt. Its climate also ranks among southern Italy’s most extreme.
Top image: Giardini di Augusto in Capri, Italy © Natalia Macheda/Shutterstock