Mark on one of countless colorful streets in the historic center of Naples

It’s hard to imagine anything further from Capri’s elegance, beauty, and wealth than Naples’ grit, garbage, and poverty. But here we are and – though we are a distinct minority among travelers – we love Naples. If Capri is the most beautiful place on earth, Naples might well be the most flavorful place, at least in Europe. Capri is just a few miles offshore from here, but it might as well be on a different continent. At one point when Mark was just out wandering he had the sense – more from the surroundings than the people – that he had somehow turned up in West Africa. It’s a beguiling and fascinating city.

Mt. Vesuvius looming over millions of people. There’s no reason to believe that it couldn’t erupt again. That new downtown area, by the way, is far from the old town that we hang out in. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been there.

Naples is Italy’s third largest city, after Rome & Milan. And while today it’s a gritty, dirty city with an ugly organized crime presence (though nothing a tourist would encounter), it was once one of the great cities of Europe. In the 17th century, in fact, it was the second biggest city in all of Europe after only Paris. It had the first secular University on the continent, founded by Frederick II in 1224 – then the Holy Roman Emperor – so its history is not trivial. Going back further Naples – then called Neopolis, or New City – was one of Greece’s first Mediterranean colonies and was later a favored vacation spot for Rome’s elites.

Spaccanapoli (Splitting Naples, literally) is a street originally laid out by the Greeks. You genuinely get a sense of an old city here.

Reflecting that history we had two attractions we wanted to see: the Royal Palace in Caserta, about 40 minutes by train out of Naples, built by the Bourbon kings of Naples in the 18th century to rival Versailles; and the National Archeological Museum. We had two full days and two big destinations so no problem, right? Except that we were there on a Tuesday and a Wednesday and both sites were closed on Tuesday. We had to choose one, and as the temperatures were in the mid- and upper-90s – it was scorching hot – we decided to forgo the Royal Palace. The idea of getting in a potentially crowded train with no AC, definitely a possibility in Naples, was just too intimidating.

The Archeological Museum, though, is a stunner, considered the most important archeological museum in all of Italy. Massive and masterful statues from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla and more grand statuary from the Farnese collection, started by Cardinal Farnese who later became Pope Paul III. A huge part of the collection is made up of excavations from Pompeii and Herculaneum. I’ve been to both sites but never remotely appreciated them until seeing the stuff here; you get a sense of how wealthy some people, at least, were before that Mt. Vesuvius messed up their lives. And then there’s still just lots and lots of other good things in the museum. I was disappointed to have missed the Palace at Caserta but this was a great day.

Mark and Hercules, a massive statue recovered from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla

The Farnese Bull, sculpted from a single piece of rock and thought to be the largest single statue recovered from antiquity, tells of the torture of Dirce. Dirce was mean to Antiope and treated her cruelly. When Antiope’s boys learned of it, they captured Dirce and tied her to the various legs of the bull, which then proceeded to tear her apart. They were mean back then, but it makes for a nice statue.

It’s a little embarrassing to say that the Museo di Capodimonte, atop the big hill that overlooks downtown Naples, is almost an oversight compared to the Archeological Museum. I walked up there (in the blazing heat, I might add) after our first lunch in Naples as I remember the parks around it one of my favorite places back in the 1970s when I was stationed in Naples. At 160,000 square feet, it’s the second-largest museum in all of Italy and includes masterpieces by Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, El Greco, and so on. And on top of that the descriptions were often in English, which was helpful.

Caravaggio’s The Flagellation, Capodimonte’s premier holding

Otherwise, Naples is all about walking through the UNESCO certified historic center, particularly the three main streets, collectively called the Decumani, which were actually laid out by the Greeks when Rome was just a little baby. Part of what’s fun about these streets – besides knowing you’re walking on streets that were ancient when Julius Caesar walked on them – is the way people live their lives out in the open there. These are narrow streets used only by scooters and pedestrians. Apartments on the first floor just open right onto those little streets, whether it’s the kitchen, living room, or even a bedroom – or a combination of all three, as happens not infrequently. It all just adds to the flavor that is Naples.

A long, narrow street in Naples with washing hanging everywhere. You could take this picture just about anywhere in the old city.

And it’s worth adding that besides the sights and sounds and smells of Naples, the food can be fantastic. Naples is the original home of pizza, and they still make the best in the world (though we usually have to avoid it or we’d be a lot bigger than you see in these pictures). And the bread is the best in the world, too, in my opinion at least. Dense and crusty and really tasty; I’ve never had bread I like as much as the Neapolitan variety. Add to that all the great seafood and wine and we’re in cuisine heaven here, all at a fraction of the cost of Capri or the Amalfi Coast.

So we’re done with Italy, for now at least. It’s early August and way, way too hot to enjoy. So from here we fly up to Sweden for a couple weeks where the forecast is for temperatures that are 30 degrees less than in Naples. We’re OK with that.

By the time we caught the boat from Capri, walked to our hotel, and checked in it was getting late for lunch. We stopped at practically the first place we saw in the old town that had air conditioning and I had this dish of mussels and clams and god knows what else. It was amazing – a world-class dish I just stumbled on. And yes, we went back.

Naples has lots of good, hearty, basic food but there are some that are a little more modern, too. This was a little tuna dish that was wonderful.

And at yet another restaurant Mark had these grilled fishies with colorful and flavorful sauces. We did good in finding restaurants!

Street art in Naples can be pretty darned good

Pulcinella is a Neapolitan original, and we stumbled onto this statue on one of the old, crumbling streets

Speaking of streets, here’s me

An old, tiny church just a block from our hotel

Now, on to the Archeological Museum. Part of what I liked about it was that it often had great descriptions of the pieces. This one, for instance, has had all sorts of changes made from the original. It was originally a statue of Pathos, Greed god of unrequited love. During restoration long ago, though, a lyre was placed in his hands making him instead Apollo. Oh, and the head wasn’t on the original, either; this is a stylized head of Alexander the Great that just happened to fit perfectly on a body that was found headless.

I love this statue of the regicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who died after killing the Greek tyrant Hipparchus. His death led to the establishment of Athenian democracy. It was amusing that in the audio guide they were described as great forerunners of democracy. In fact, they were lovers who were pissed at Hipparchus because he wanted Aristogeiton, the young one on the right, and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. So when they killed Hipparchus it wasn’t about democracy, it was about getting rid of some old guy who was a little too aggressive. Hah!

There I was, taking a selfie, and I find this guy photo bombing me!

The Archeological Museum has amazing stuff from Pompeii. This is a portrait of Terentius Neo, a baker, and his wife in the pose of intellectuals. It is thought to be the only true portrait recovered from Pompeii.

There were also big rooms full of mosaics from Pompeii. Mark liked this doggie.

While I was partial to these musicians

Meanwhile, back up at Capodimonte, the quiet park seems like a million miles from Naples. Of course, in part it was quiet because it was so damned hot no one wanted to be outside.

Capodimonte includes small exhibits of modern art, too, along with their permanent collection. This piece by Dutchman Jan Fabre is titled Railway Tracks to Death. Made entirely of beetle wing cases, it evokes the horror of the Belgian Congo experience. Strong stuff.

Capri’s iconic Faraglioni with lots and lots and lots of boats down there

I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Capri is the most beautiful place on earth. End of debate. This is our fifth summer traveling as nomads and our fourth visit to Capri (we missed 2016). And after those three previous visits I was genuinely wondering if I would be a little blasé about it. Would it have that “Been there, done that” feel to it? Would I find the hordes of day trippers just too much this time? Would I be frustrated by the relative lack of good food and high prices?

Not to worry. The day crowds are there and the prices are high, but there is a reason Capri has been the location of choice for those who can get there since (at least) the time of Caesar Augustus. From the incredible limestone cliffs to the stunning flora and the perfect water, from the ideal summer climate to the beautiful shops and people, it’s a gorgeous place.

Another view of those rocks. And yes, that’s David Geffen’s boat again.

One of the amusing things about Capri is how different it is in the mornings and evenings compared to midday. We arrived midday and getting to the hotel was kind of hellish. The massive crowds trying to get from Marina Grande, where pretty much everyone arrives, up to the town were oppressive. And once you get up there you still have to walk 10 or 15 minutes to your hotel because the narrow lanes are far too small for cars. (To be sure, lazy people can hire some little cart thing to take your luggage but we’re too proud to do that.) And the town was just absolutely packed.

By evening, though, three-quarters of the people or more were gone. It’s by no means empty, but it is peaceful, something you couldn’t remotely say earlier in the day. And the next morning as we walked to town out for our daily adventure it was quiet, peaceful, and beautiful.

Nighttime, when the crowds are gone, is the perfect time to be in Capri

The secret, then, is to get out of town during the daytime and come back when most people have left. For us that meant two days at the beach and one on a hike. When I say “beach,” though, don’t think sand and surf and wide open vistas. Think rocks and cement infill that chairs and umbrellas are packed in to as closely as possible while still letting people move around. It’s not something that I would imagine liking, but here it works. The water is amazingly clear and blue and – at this time of year – reasonably warm. The scenery is unbeatable. And there’s an (expensive) restaurant serving genuinely good food. So that’s what we did on two days.

Lunch down at the beach

The middle day – we sent four nights on the island, meaning three full days for adventure – we headed up to Anacapri, the slightly less fabulous town on the western, higher end of the island. From the town you hike down to the western coast and hike along an old trail connecting forts from the Napoleonic Wars. The forts themselves aren’t that interesting (OK, not interesting at all as far as I’m concerned) but the views are stunning.

There was just one problem: even though we’ve done the hike twice before, we couldn’t find the trail. It was incredibly frustrating. There was a small sign on the road pointing to the Sentiero dei Fortini (Path of the Forts), we followed it, and it trail quickly petered out. Twice. Then we found another place where the trail was marked, and it pointed us back whence we’d come. It seemed incredible that the trail was so badly marked and that we couldn’t find it, even though we’d done it twice. Eventually I figured it out – there were two options on a map but one didn’t exist anymore and we just didn’t see the second one – but by then Mark was frustrated and tired and hot and thirsty – we’d hiked probably 90 minutes just to get to the trailhead – so he headed back to Anacapri while I finished the hike.

Water, boats, trees – that’s the hike

Once I got on the trail it was just as beautiful as I’d remembered. Great views and almost no one else on the trail in the mid-summer heat. There were a lot more boats than I remember from the other times we’ve done the hike, just a constant hum of boat engines, but it was still a nice hike. One strange observation was a villa that we admired along the trail four years ago. It was way out on that western coast, isolated, with a beautiful pool and a private stairway down to the water. It seemed like it would be the perfect place and I’ve always thought of it as the perfect fantasy. The last time we did the hike it was empty and I just assumed that it was a vacation house closed for the season. But no, this time it was obvious: the building was abandoned, the pool empty, the landscaping becoming overrun. Hard to imagine what’s going on because it has to be a really expensive place, but that seemingly perfect vacation spot is pretty much trashed. Strange.

That’s supposed to be a beautiful villa but these days it’s abandoned. Maybe we should make an offer.

So those were the big experiences on Capri, two days on the beach and one on a hike. What else did I learn from four days on Capri? I thought I’d seen a lot of yachts on the Amalfi Coast, but this place makes Amalfi & Positano look like pikers. Lots and lots of boats, small, big, bigger, and massive. Yes, David Geffen is obviously stalking us, as his boat was again prominent, but there were lots of other really expensive yachts, too.

And yes, all those beautiful shops are really expensive. At lunch the first day we sat across from a little boutique clothing store that had a men’s sweater in the window. I liked the looks of it and asked Mark how much he thought it would cost. He said €180. I said €250. We were off a little; after lunch I went in and found that it was €498. I didn’t buy it.

Modern art in the center of Capri

On the other hand, some things aren’t so expensive. We tend to like the life on the main town of Capri better than Anacapri, but we more typically like the meals on Anacapri. So when we stay in Anacapri we find ourselves going down to Capri during the day, and when we stay in Capri we go up to Anacapri for dinner. And once per trip up in Anacapri we splurge for pre-dinner drinks at the Capri Palace Hotel, a beautiful five-star place that makes perfect Perfect Manhattans. So we go up there the second night and instead of a quiet, almost-deserted bar area there is some event going on. “Damn,” we both thought, “we’re not going to get in tonight.”

That wasn’t the problem, though. There was an event and it was called something like “Free drinks on the house night.” We never did figure out exactly what was going on but … drinks were free. The special of the night was a variety of creative gin and tonics, and we each had one, but what we really wanted was either a Perfect Manhattan or Negroni. So we ordered Negronis and they were free, too. Along with free drinks there was a never-ending supply of free hors d’oeuvres. And models who were slinking around on duty, just, well, slinking. We thought there was a chance we were going to get some mighty bill when it was time to leave, or maybe the police would chase us down but, no, it was all just free.

And now you wonder why I love Capri?

The night of the free drinks

At least once every visit we do the long climb from Capri to Anacapri, in part to get this view

The beach. Hard to imagine a more beautiful view.

And finally, Mark having dinner at what used to be our favorite restaurant in Anacapri. I say “used to be” because after several visits on earlier trips to the island the food just wasn’t that good this time. The fun part is that here, along with our favorite place down in the town of Capri, the staff and owners recognize us. We’re regulars!

Part of Positano climbing up the steep hills with the municipal beach (that we didn’t use)

Positano was our third and last stop on the Amalfi Coast, just a short boat ride up from Amalfi. While once a port town in the Amalfi Republic – when Amalfi was the big deal in these parts – today Positano feels bigger and more important than Amalfi. More tourists, more money, and certainly more yachts. More upscale. And more so than Amalfi its hotels and shops and bars and all that climb up from the coast into the surrounding hills, making for great views from many of the restaurants and hotels.

While once prosperous, the town fell on hard times in the mid-19th century. And then the tourists discovered it. It took a while, but in 1953 John Steinbeck wrote an ode to Positano in Harpers – “Positano bites deep”, he wrote. “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” – and the hordes started coming. For good cause, I might add as it’s a beautiful little city.

The view from our hotel balcony. Not bad, though I tried to convince them to tear down that ugly building in the foreground.

A bit of a challenge at first, though. We arrived at the port and, as we typically do, looked at Google Maps to see how to get to our hotel. It didn’t look too bad, so off we went on foot. What we didn’t realize was that the direct route displayed consisted of 350 steps up to the hotel. Carrying our reasonably heavy suitcases. Should have paid the porter €10 to drive them up…

Once we got that behind us there were two big activities for us in Positano, the beach and the Path of the Gods. Our hotel suggested we go to a beach just slightly away from the main town beach and that turned out to work great for us with a lovely little restaurant up above the beach just a bit. Read, swim, read, eat, swim, sleep. Repeat the next day.

The view down to our favorite beach. Lots of boats as you can see.

Since first planning this Amalfi Coast visit I’ve been excited about a hike called the Sentiero degli Dei, the Path of the Gods. It’s a trail that connects an outlying village of Positano to another town high up above the sea. Once you get to the starting point it’s not that hard a hike, maybe a little under five miles of a modest up-and-down trail. I decided to walk to the start of the trail, though, instead of taking a bus, meaning that I had to climb the whole thing from sea level. Challenging, but ultimately beautiful.

Looking back on Positano from the Path of the Gods

So after literally decades of wanting to go to the Amalfi Coast we’ve done it. It’s probably as beautiful as I’d hoped, but there are a few things that will stand out in my memory. Yachts. Big yachts. David Geffen’s massive 11th-largest-in-the-world boat was here, apparently following us. But even leaving that one aside you’d see other huge yachts, the kind that must cost $50 million or $100 million or whatever. Lemons, too, the biggest lemons we’ve ever seen, often two or three times the size of standard lemons.

Looking down over Positano’s Santa Maria Assunta church with its tin-glazed pottery dome and David Geffen’s yacht in the distance. It made others look small, but many of them weren’t.

And then there’s the weird two-fork-one-knife thing. At pretty much every lunch and dinner – and I think it was literally every meal – you’d sit down to a table set down with two forks and one knife. We’d have an appetizer course and use one fork and the knife. They’d clean the dishes, including the knife and fork we’d used and then bring a new knife. It just seemed strange that every time there would be two forks and one knife. And then they’d replace the one knife.

I’m sure there’s an explanation, but we never figured it out.

From here it’s another boat ride out to Capri. It just keeps getting better.

Our favorite beach. Very European insofar as there’s not a speck of sand to be seen and the chairs are pretty darned close together. But when the sun is out – and it did come out, even on this day – it’s close to heaven.

The trail on the Path of the Gods was pretty easy to follow. You wanted to be careful not to fall, though, cause it’s a long way down.

And one last shot from the hike, looking up the Amalfi Coast. If it hadn’t been so hazy I’d have had a nice view of Capri but that’s OK, we’ll just go there and see it close up.