by Norma Davidoff
“See Naples and die,” is a famous quote. Truer would be “See Naples and come alive.” You know that pizza was invented in Naples, but you may not know its other attractions: archaeological sites, first class art museums and palaces on a par with Versailles. And this city is a great jumping off point for the Amalfi Coast.
Mt. Vesuvius seems to loom no matter where you go. Fortunately, the volcano hasn’t erupted since 1944. The archaeological remains of its historical eruption in 79 A. D. are found at world-famous Pompeii and at Herculaneum. The remains of these outbursts reveal what it was like in ancient Rome. These two excavations are UNESCO World Heritage sites, as are others nearby.
If you don’t have time to visit them, head for the acclaimed National Museum of Archaeology. Some of the best treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum are here – statues, far larger than life; painted walls (frescoes) and exquisite mosaics. Much that was created in monumental ways back then is amazingly preserved. Pompeii is known for some very explicit art, as in “erotic art.” What were those Romans thinking? More to the point, what were they doing? That’s in Il Gabinetto Segretto, the Secret Room, should you dare or care to venture in.
Not too far away, at Piazza del Plebiscito, a huge square, you’ll find lovely villas, a church, and the San Carlo Opera House, built in the early 1700’s. This in itself is reason enough to come to Naples. I saw “My Fair Lady” here in Italian. Take in ballet, concerts, and opera: Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” plays in October.
Naples has almost as many historical buildings as Rome. There’s only space to name a few. Even its Poorhouse, is extra special. This huge white building fills an entire block, and housed 8,000 in its day. It is about to be converted into an art gallery. It is not alone. Several buildings – formerly for royalty -- hold great art and are open to the public. Capodimonte, a grand 18th century palace, set in a park, is home to the Farnese Collection. The famed “Girl with the Ermine” by Parmigianino is here. (It drew crowds at the Frick, a few years back.) Upstairs is just one of the many of “Mt. Vesuvius” that Andy Warhol painted. Here, too, you can admire works by Titian, Tintoretto and Caravaggio.
Capodimonte and Caserta Palaces were both built for Charles, the Bourbon King of Naples, Sicily and Spain. Caserta, too, has great art and over 1200 rooms, many as magnificently furnished as they were for its regal occupants. See vestiges of Napoleon’s reign in the silk and gilded sofas and chairs. Elaborately carved ceilings and large expanses of marble are just the beginning. There is a full-fledged jewel box of a theatre. The back of the stage can open, so that the audience views the actual landscape outside. What a backdrop! Caserta’s gardens are exquisite and extensive. Horse-drawn carriages take you through the gardens past flowing fountains.
But homage must be paid to pizza. Pizza Margherita was created for Queen Margherita, in residence at Capodimonte, in 1899, when Italy had already become unified. A pizza maker devised the thin-crust delicacy with the colors of Italy’s flag: tomato red, mozzarella white and basil green. It all happened at Brandi’s. Today, pizzas still are made there, as they were then, in a large wood-burning oven. Guests dine at tables with linens and fine china. Specialty pizzas like seafood and four cheeses get my vote, but you just can’t go wrong here. There’s even one called Donna Sofia, in honor of Sophia Loren.
Speaking of Sophia, her villa is in Amalfi, which you can reach by boat or ferry from Naples. Other towns to visit along the Amalfi Coast are Positano, Amalfi or Sorrento. The air is clear, the charm great. There is plenty do: concerts in Ravello, swimming, hiking or cooking classes at Mama Agatta’s, overlooking the hairpin turns of the coast. The super busy summer season starts as early as June. Consider coming in fall (when they’re harvesting mushrooms and olives) or May (when all reopens.) Or visit smaller villages such as Adrani, Furore, Minori and Conca dei Marini, a favorite of Lee Radziwell.
Do a day trip from Naples or while away a few days. Either option is breathtaking and well worth the visit. There is so much to do that you can become overwhelmed with all the options; take your time and do what is best for you. And while it is true that for some, when they visit this region they die, but for me both Naples and the Amalfi Coast bring mealive.
MeridianaFly Airlines flies direct, JFK to Naples, in peak season; www.meridianan
Brandi Pizzeria Salita S. Anna di Palazzo, l/2 www.brandi.it
Naples accommodations and tourist information: 212-245-5618
Monastero Santa Rosa Resort and Spa, Conca dei Marini-new small deluxe hotel deluxe; spa and dining open to public.
Mamma Agata Cooking School.
39 089 85784