Campania is perhaps best known for its incredible coastline and islands (Ischia, anyone!), delicious food (pizza, mozzarella di bufala and a million other amazing bites) and vibrant capital (Naples puts NYC to shame!) but it also boasts countless archaeological sites for cultural buffs to enjoy. An intoxicating mix of archaeology, artistry and soul-stirring beauty pulls visitors in and offers them a chance to travel back in time to explore the remnants of once rich and flourishing societies.
A quick history lesson: Campania’s coastline in and around Naples was founded by the Greeks in VIII century AD, their society a stark contrast to the inland Etruscan civilisation. The rivalry lasted until V century BC when the Greeks won. Then the Romans conquered the Greeks and the rest is history. Campania’s scenery also plays a dramatic role. With ominous Mt. Vesuvius rising high in the background, volcanic terrain, verdant rolling hills and beautiful flat plains stretching far to the sea, this majestic land has a profound tale to tell.
What can we dig up first? Pompeii, of course! The UNESCO World Heritage site is easily accessible via the Circumvesuviana transport line that runs between Naples and Sorrento. Mount Vesuvius’ catastrophic eruption on August 24 79 AD has today given us incredible insight into a land frozen in time. The ash and cinders from the explosion which buried the city has preserved the scene almost exactly as it was 2000 years ago, giving insight into this place where 20,000 inhabitants called home, including many wealthy Romans. The excavation site of Pompeii is extensive and certainly warrants more than a day if your itinerary permits. The excavation site of Pompeii is extensive and certainly warrants more than a day if your itinerary permits. Nearby coastal town Ercolano is the site of the incredibly well-preserved ruins of Herculaneum, which are smaller and less daunting than Pompeii, allowing you to leisurely stroll without FOMO.
The superbly preserved fishing town was sheltered from the worst of the eruption thanks to winds, allowing people time to flee the city. Because it was destroyed in a different manner, the ruins give an unparalleled view into ancient daily life where remarkably wooden homes, clothes and even food were carbonised and preserved to this day.
Further along the coast, visit the ancient seaside city of Oplontis, best known for the Roman Villa Poppaea thought to belong to Emperor Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina. The grandiose villa was used a template for the design of houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum and the walls were decorated with striking frescoes and intricate trompe-l’oeil details.
Another option is the often overlooked Campi Flegrei, the scenic Phlegraean Fields just outside Naples which contain a scattering of Graeco-Roman ruins and ancient volcanic landscapes. Here you can snoop around Italy’s third-largest Roman amphitheatre in Pozzuoli which was built on the remains of the temple of Augustus and used as the port of Rome prior to the construction of Ostia. See where emperors soaked in the baths of Baia and visit Piscina Mirabilis, a Roman reservoir built by Emperor Augustus in the 1st century AD to quench the thirst of his war fleet. Seek out the chamber inhabited by Aeneid’s oracle at the ruins in Cumae, which was the first ancient Greek colony on the mainland of Italy and marvel at Rione Terra walking the lengthy underground archaeological path which ancient Romans built. The Solfatara Volcano of Pozzuoli is also, without a doubt, one of the most interesting volcanoes of the Campi Flegrei and merits a stop.
Travel further south along tranquil country roads where buffalo leisurely munch on grass in the open air and you’ll soon stumble upon Paestum, once an ancient Greek city. With some of the most beautifully preserved Greek temples in all of Italy, the town is also famous for its beloved mozzarella di bufala DOP. After a morning gasping at the temples, make sure to stop at Caseificio Tenuta Vannulo to taste some of the best Buffalo dairy products in the area.