Exporing the UNESCO sites of Pompei and the Amalfi Coast with kids
Laura, our children’s travel specialist, is back from a 3 day weekend trip from Florence to the Amalfi coast by car with her 5 year old. Here is her story. If you are looking for a 3 day Amalfi Coast itinerary for an adult couple, see here for some further ideas.
We as a family wished many times to visit Amalfi Coast and finally we had the chance to combine a work trip for me with some family fun over a long weekend in mid-June. So finally my husband fulfilled my dream to visit Pompei, one of the most important archeological sites of the world, Unesco Heritage since 1997. I have always thought it would be fascinating to visit a whole city destroyed in 79AD and so perfectly preserved.
Francesco is five years old now, and my husband Fabio and I drove down to the area so we would have the liberty to travel around. It was a three day weekend – here is our trip diary.
Friday – Pompei and Sorrento
We left Florence by car early in the morning and drove straight to Pompei, where we arrived at about 13.30. We stopped at a parking area near the archeological site which costs 3€ each hour. But when we took the ticket, they told us that if we had lunch at the nearby restaurant called I Due Cesari, parking was included! We did so, as Francesco was quite hungry so we ordered pizza and a plate of pasta. But the waiter told us that parking was included only if one spends at least 40€. Fabio at this point was pissed off, convinced we had been taken for a ride by a shady inhabitant of Campania. I told him to be quiet and decide pick: either pay 12€ for the parking or 40€ for lunch and parking, but we had a hungry kid so just ate and accepted being scammed. But you, reader, be forewarned.
After lunch we went to visit the excavations: an incredible, huge, amazing archaeological site starting from the spa and then walking in its regularly planned city made of commercial activities (fruit, vegetables, meat markets) and houses arriving at the Temple of Jupiter representing the heart of the city with its political and administrative matters. At that time in Pompei there were about 20.000 inhabitants, living of commercial exchanges and living in big villas with gardens, swimming pools, rich mosaics on the floors and coloured frescos on the walls.
We arrived at the house of the Vetii with a Priapo (erotic fresco) but it was locked, as were most the villas in via delle Terme and via della Fortuna (the richest streets in Pompei). A security guard told us to follow him: he had the keys of three of the most beautiful villas (the Fauno House and the pygmies house) and explained us what he knew about frescos, habits and anecdotes. Ten years ago – he said – there were about 120 guardians, while that day they were just 18 people working there: that’s the reason why most of the sites were closed in order to preserve them from damage.
We passed the Gymnasium and the Amphitheatre that hosted gladiators games and fights with animals (in Pompei they loved them!). Our visit ended in the gorgeous, big (containing 5.000 people) and small (about 1.000 people) theatres which were very basically restored.
After this long visit I was very disappointed: I’ve never seen such an enormous cultural heritage completely left to itself! In any other country if they only had 1/20th of what you can find in Pompei they would invest in it, through preservation and tourism promotion. I think it was worth it to visit Pompei before it completely disappears due to neglect. What a shame.
We left Pompei tired and dirty and reached Palazzo Abagnale, a bed and breakfast in the city center of Sorrento (corso Italia, 164): colourful (we had the Pink Room – 139euro), large and clean. We had a bath with the complimentary Etro cosmetics and we went out for dinner. If you are in a couple with no children, I suggest “Camera & Cucina”, a new restaurant with good food and photographic exhibitions but its kitchen opened at 21.00 which was too late for Francesco. We listened to our host’s suggestions and chose “Vela Bianca,” a fish restaurant in via Marina Piccola that we reached down the stairs from the city center. The maître suggested as ‘pezzogna’ a typical deep sea fish. Francesco and I had it with potatoes: very good! With a bottle of white wine, Fabio’s starter and octopus we spent about 100€ (too much for the south).
Saturday – Costiera Amalfitana and Ravello
We woke up early and had breakfast (apart from the usual continental breakfast there were slices of pizza and fresh mozzarella!), and then left for Positano. The landscape of the coast that rises high above the sea is made up of inlets and small bays, ancient villages crossed by roads overlooking the blue. The Amalfi coast (Costiera Amalfitana) is a concentration of atmosphere and charm that made this corner of Campania one of the favourite destinations of celebrities such as Jacqueline Kennedy and the star system that, still now, passes on these shores beloved by US tourists. Mediterranean flavours and fragrances, about 70 miles declared World Heritage by UNESCO, you can pass through Vico Equense, Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi, Praiano, Furore (one of the most beautiful villages in Italy), Ravello, Cetara (with its anchovies) and, at the opposite side, Vietri.
Our first stop was in Positano with its scenery that takes your breath away. We parked quite far from the Center (where you cannot arrive by car due to its narrow streets full of steps) and our first stop was at a lovely fruit bar and concept store “Casa e bottega – Food & Design” (via Pasitea 100) where we had a healthy snack made of fruit and smoothies and surrounded by local crafts. We had a great first impression – coming from Pompei, we noticed the complete difference of approach towards people and tourists in this magic corner of Campania: we were considered not tourists to wrip off but a treasure to treat. And we started to relax and enjoy our long weekend.
We walked down and reached the coast with its beaches, passing through the church of Santa Maria Assunta with its green majolica. Streets are full of little artisan shops selling custom sandals and linen dresses: the ones that Jacqueline Kennedy used to wear during her journeys here. There are contemporary art galleries and a local band playing popular music: a fascinating walk mixing future and tradition. The walk was tiring on the way back with hundreds of steps to climb (not the perfect place for children, I must admit).
Our next step was supposed to be Furore but we made a mistake and ended up in Praiano a Mare instead. We found a lovely restaurant on the rocks, Il Pirata (via Terramare) where we had lunch (fresh pasta and fried fish) with a bottle of sparking white wine and enjoyed it. I found and read photographic books talking about the Amalfi Coast through the eyes of American jet set of the sixties (in fact the restaurant was next to the Africana Club where Jackie O used to dance with Gianni Agnelli).
Furore, with its fjord, is one of the most beautiful towns in Italy, but was impossible to reach with a child (too much walking in 40 degrees celcius in the middle of the afternoon) so we drove straight to Amalfi, one of the four Italian Maritime Republics (with Genoa, Pisa and Venice), another UNESCO world heritage site and, in the past, one of the most strategic maritime hubs in the world (for commercial and military purposes). We parked and walked to Piazza Duomo with the beautiful Saint Andrew’s Cathedral with its Byzantine facade adorned with various paintings of saints, including a large fresco of Saint Andrew. The interior is in the Baroque style but its Chiostro (Cloister of Paradise) used in XIII century as a burial ground for noble Amalfi families is a jewel of peace and beauty.
Next, we visited the Handmade Paper Museum (a technique learned from the Arabs) and then went back to Piazza Duomo were, after shopping at Antichi Sapori di Amalfi (home made limoncello, limoncello cream and limoncello chocolate for us and for gifts – the lady insisted so I had to try all of them: delicious!) we then sat at the historical patisserie Fratelli Pansa (from 1830) for a sfogliatella di Santa Rosa and a lemon babà.
We arrived in our hotel in Ravello in the evening. Hotel Parsifal (viale Gioacchino D’Anna, 5) was built in 1288 as a monastery and converted to 3 star hotel in 1948, run by Mansi family. The hotel is named after the Wagner opera written nearby at Villa Rufolo in 1880. We had a room with a terrace with view of the whole Amalfi coast. Francesco loved the garden with the fish pond (in the morning, with the hotel owner, he went to feed them). Ravello is very exclusive, with its concentration of 5 stars hotels; it was difficult to find a room in a 3 star, and we paid 175€, but it was worth it.
On a walk before dinner we explored the romantic luxury side of Ravello – so many 5 star hotels and 250 weddings hosted here each year (it’s Ravello’s main business). A quiet and clean town with a sense of peace and beauty that looks almost supernatural (and especially unlike the rest of the South of Italy) with trees, the Amalfi Coast view and its Villas. After a walk in the centre with the best (in my opinion) shops to buy leather sandals and linen clothes, we sat at the new restaurant Figli di Papà (via della Marra, 7) where Francesco had gnocchi alla sorrentina and we had fish (great price-quality ratio).
Sunday – Ravello Villas and Cava de’ Tirreni
On Sunday morning we visited Ravello’s Villas starting with Villa Rufolo, built in 1270 by one of the richest Patricians of Ravello, mentioned in Boccaccio’s Decameron and now a famous attraction for thousands of visitors who come to the Ravello Festival. We loved the tiny columns of the cloister and the lovely view on the Coast (with another fish pond that Francesco loved, again).
Next stop: Villa Cimbrone, built in XI century on a rocky outcrop known as “Cimbronium”, it was sold to the Church and transformed into a monastery. An English politician, Ernest William Beckett, bought it in the early twentieth century and he renovated it followed by his daughter that also lived at the villa, where she cultivated roses including the Rose of Ravello. Many famous visitors came to the villa during the Beckett family’s ownership from Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster, D.H.Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Henry Moore, Winston Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Greta Garbo, etc. The villa was sold in 1960 to the Vuilleumier family that used it first as a private family home and for the past few years as a hotel.In 1976 the American writer Gore Vidal, who lived at the nearby house La Rondinaia, wrote of Villa Cimbrone: “Twenty five years ago I was asked by an American magazine what was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen in all my travels and I said the view from the belvedere of the Villa Cimbrone on a bright winter’s day when the sky and the sea were each so vividly blue that it was not possible to tell one from the other.” That’s why Ravello become the jewel that you can discover now: its intellectual and noble visitors appreciated it and told their friends, writers, actors, and various nobles to spend their exclusive holidays there. Which also explains the 5-star hotels and their prices.
It’s time to move: next stop Cetara, a fishermen town famous for its anchovies. But it was too crowded so, passing through Vietri sul Mare, we went directly to Cava dei Tirreni (where I had to attend an event here, but this is another story). We were expecting an ugly town, but it was a real surprise: a nice city center with arcade in the main street where we stopped for lunch at Officina del Gusto (corso Umberto I, 55), behind the Duomo: good food at the right price. Fabio and Francesco left me at the local FabLab, since I was attending an important Maker event, proof positive that this area is full of life and growth.
Having kids doesn’t stop us from traveling at a rapid pace, as you can see. We enjoyed sleeping at 2 hotels in 2 nights (I stayed at a third after the event in Cava dei Tirreni but the boys went back to Florence without me), we walked a lot and saw many things. Francesco experienced everything with joy, as long as he was fed and not too tired!
Laura De Benedetto is an active mom in Florence – she started the business networking group ToscanaIN and is the founder of MakeTank, an online store for digitally crafted design – including some cute stuff for kids!