If you’re looking for a warm, cozy holiday full of history, unique experiences, and of course, excellent food, Italy’s southern region of Campania is the place to go.
In honor of its renewed flights to Naples, El Al’s subsidiary Sun D’or, in cooperation with the Italian Government Tourism Board (ENIT), organized a tour of the region which spanned Naples, Sorrento, Ischia and Pozzuoli.
As the region is coastal, the main tourism season begins in April, allowing tourists to choose from weather that ranges between cool with occasional rain – as we experienced in May – or hot and sunny, as the region generally experiences in the summer months.
And although three of the trip’s four days were chilly, and two were rainy, it was still characterized by a sense of warmth as the locals were particularly welcoming and kind. The group’s every need was seen to by all involved, from our guides Marina Fianaldi and Eleonora Tucci, who led the group with dedication and extreme patience, to the people in the restaurants in which we ate who accommodated every dietary need of the group of 10 Israelis who keep varying degrees of kosher.
Passionate family businesses
Another element that contributed to the cozy feel of the trip was the prevalence of family businesses and the passion that accompanies them.
The first example of this was seen in Sorrento at I Giardini di Cataldo – a small family-run limoncello factory in Sorrento. Cataldo Esposito began the business by growing lemon and orange trees to export the fruit, until his son Salvatore had the idea of making limoncello from it instead.
Today, Salvatore and his daughter Rossella make liqueurs and marmalades from lemons, oranges and mandarins as well as licorice liqueur – it’s all handmade and delicious. If you visit the gardens, you can also have a refreshing lemon sorbet and lemon slushie. The Espositos’ passion for their groves and products is evident in the attention and quality of the things they offer.
Equally as passionate about their work are married couple Anna and Alessandro who own the Aragon Distillery on Ischia just a couple of minutes’ walk down the road from the Aragon Castle. The two founded the first distillery in Ischia in an effort to keep alive the ancient distilling traditions practised both on and off the island.
At their distillery, one can sample and buy unique liqueurs, such as orange wine, fig liqueur and carob brandy. The attention to detail is evident from the flavors on offer – to the labels designed by Anna together with a local artist.
AND DOWN the road, another family business is thriving at the Aragon Castle which was a nunnery, among other things throughout history, before it belonged to the Spanish family. Nicola Ernesto Mattera bought the castle in 1912, and restoration efforts continued over the next 90 years by him and his sons, Gabriele and Antonio.
Today, the castle is a historical monument as well as a hotel. It also includes a restaurant that uses produce from the restored nunnery garden and is booked up months in advance. The castle even produces its own exclusive and delicious wine, of which a mere 600 bottles are made a year and are only served in the restaurant.
Riveting history and beautiful landscapes
The site, which is a product of three generations of passionate, hard work, is today a beautifully restored castle that gives visitors a glimpse into the past (with a few surprises) – and an excellent view.
Pro tip: If you are able, taking the hard route up to the castle on foot definitely pays off.
And if you’re looking for more history, Pozzuoli is a relatively unknown but entirely unique city. Located in the volcanic areas of Campi Flegrei (burning fields), this city was the favored vacation spot for Roman elite, despite the active volcano Solfatara which is still active today, but not a danger for now.
The volcanic effects of the area led some of what was Roman-era land to be submerged under the sea, leading to the area becoming the only underwater archaeological park in the world. For 24 euros a person, you can take a glass-bottomed boat out onto the water as a diver shows you the now-underwater mosaics that used to be the floors of Roman villas.
For another unique experience, Solfatara will be re-opening next year to visitors after being closed for a few years. If you can get past the intense sulfuric odor, the experience of walking on an active volcano is unparalleled – from the boiling puddles, to the steam rising out of certain points. If you ask your guide nicely, they may even show you what happens if you set fire to a piece of paper over certain spots or throw a heavy rock on the ground. Whatever you do, however, listen to your guide’s every instruction, because walking around an active volcano can get dangerous.
If the locations of the trip sound familiar, you may have read Elena Ferrante’s The Neapolitan Novels series, and for those interested, tours based on the books are available in Naples.
The famous southern Italian cuisine
AND FINALLY, a trip to any region of Italy is guaranteed to include excellent food, so here is a roundup of the highlights:
For breakfast, you could always find a cup of coffee, accompanied by the local popular pastry called sfogliatella. Shaped like a lobster’s tail, a good sfogliatella is crispy and often filled with a variety of fillings, although a particularly popular one seems to be a citrus-flavored cream or custard.
For lunch and supper, your meal is almost guaranteed to start with a caprese tomato salad topped with mozzarella. While the dish is delicious with balsamic vinegar or extra virgin olive oil, the locals traditionally eat it plain, and if the mozzarella is particularly good – as it was at Antonino Esposito in Sorrento and Giardino Eden on Ischia – it’s perfect just the way it is.
Another starter that we were served in multiple restaurants was parmigiana – a dish of fried aubergine topped with tomato sauce. While I don’t usually like aubergine very much, the Antonino Esposito restaurant pleasantly surprised me with a delightfully moreish version of the dish that I could not stop eating, even though I had to save room for the excellent pizzas they served next.
Of course, a common Italian dish is pasta, and seemingly, the most popular in Campania is spaghetti alla nerano – a sauce made with courgette. Every restaurant that served us this dish made it slightly differently, but they were all delicious.
For pizza, the place to go is Pizzeria La Dea Bendata in Pozzuoli which is named by the locals as the best pizza in the region. This pizzeria is another family-run business, as owner and head pizza maker Ciro Coccia’s grandmother opened the family’s first pizzeria in Naples between the First and Second World Wars.
Dea Bendata’s menu features a wide range of pizzas from classic tomato sauce, to white pizzas, to unique features like a pumpkin-based sauce. Every slice was delicious – and there is a pizza for everyone. You can see why the locals love the place.
One particularly unique dining experience was Caracol in Pozzuoli. Michelin-starred chef Angelo Carannante served up two dishes in particular that were full of flavor, and he even demonstrated how he does it with his sous chef. Using local ingredients, the chef made a delicate legume gazpacho, and a green risotto that was packed with flavor, even though he cooked it in plain water as opposed to the traditional fish, chicken or vegetable broth. For dessert, they served a unique combination of mustard-based elements, which I did not like very much as I hate mustard, but those on the trip who do like mustard, assured me that it was delicious.
All in all, the trip was unforgettable and unique with experiences that cannot be had anywhere else, and I, for one, will definitely be back.
Sun D’or flights from Israel to Naples depart every Monday and Wednesday at 5:40 a.m. and every Friday at 7 a.m. with return flights departing Naples at 9:15 and 10:30 respectively.
The writer was a guest of Sun D’or and ENIT.