Many of the sites identified in ancient mythology are to be found in the volcanic areas that surround Naples, Mount Vesuvius, and the Phlegrean Fields -- where bubbling springs and hot mud conjure up images of the underworld. Once considered as highly desirable by the Romans who built opulent villas in these idyllic areas, they have now been engulfed by the sprawl of Naples's suburbs that inevitably come complete with pockets of squalor. Yet the extraordinary natural and archaeological attractions that are to be found within spitting distance of Naples cannot be overlooked.
The area's abundant archaeological remains are a paramount reason to come, and these range from the fascinating ruins of ancient Cumae -- the first Greek colony in Italy -- to the underwater archaeological park of Baia. In Campi Flegrei is Lake Fusaro; Solfatara has its volcanic hot mud and sulfur springs; the promontory of Capo Miseno affords views of the delightful bay; and Lake Averno is the mythical entrance to the Kingdom of the Dead.
And what would Naples's skyline be without Mount Vesuvius? You'll discover the love-fear relationship Neapolitans have with their volcano when you climb its slopes and taste its marvelous Lacrima Christi wine, very aware that the volcano will blow its top again one day. The Bay of Naples is home not only to two of the world's most renowned ancient ruins -- Pompeii and Herculaneum -- but also to lesser-known sites such as the Roman villa of Oplonti (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the thermal Baths at Stabiae.
Mount Vesuvius had been dormant for centuries when the great explosion of A.D. 79 occurred. At the time of the eruption, it seems that nobody knew it was a volcano, and its slopes -- sought after for the fertile soil -- were heavily inhabited (as they are today). Towns, villages, and estates were covered by lava and ash during the eruption, causing thousands of deaths, devastation of property, and immense economic loss. Pompeii was the first of the lost towns to be excavated -- the discovery dates from the 16th century. Recently, modern archaeologists have unveiled many other sites, and these newer sites have not been spoiled by illegal digs over the years.
Herculaneum is striking for the fact that the buildings have been preserved so well. Rarely visited by foreign tourists, the grandiose Roman villa of Oplontis is still decorated with magnificent frescoes, and we also recommend the smaller villas of Boscoreale and Boscotrecase.
All of the destinations we describe in this guide make an easy day trip from Naples, but if you are not planning to visit the city itself, it is a good idea to stay in the area, which offers less-pricey accommodations than Naples. We give options for Campi Flegrei and Vesuvius-Herculaneum, Pompeii, and nearby Torre del Greco, or, a bit farther down the coast, Castellammare di Stabia.