Travel: A modern journey to antiquity: Naples and ancient Greece

I was up with the larks on day one to catch an early morning train to Stansted for a 7am flight to Naples; then the airport shuttle bus to the centre of this most frenetic of Italian cities.

As readers of Elena Ferrante novels will know, Naples is never conventionally glamorous but it is a place overflowing with life. Clichéd images become reality: narrow alleys loomed over by crumbling apartment blocks; street cafes where gesticulating Neapolitans chat volubly, sipping caffeine-laden expressos from absurdly tiny cups; louche policemen posing by their motorbikes; miniscule cars parked every whichaway, squeezed into impossibly tight spaces.

Massive excavations for subway extensions and, on a regular basis, the disgorging of thousands of passengers from the world’s largest cruise ships only add to an abiding sense of organized chaos. Visiting a cathedral where in an annual festival a vial of dried blood of a medieval saint is displayed before being miraculously returned to liquid form is par for the course in this crazy city.

But there is beauty in Naples, best seen from the restaurant on the 10th floor of the Romeo Hotel where you can gaze across to Mt Vesuvius and the island of Capri. The hotel itself is a delight, its highly design-conscious lobby filled with art work and artefacts. Another superb hotel is Palazzo Caracciolo (above), originally a sixteenth-century fortress, later a grand mansion and in its poorer years the city’s police headquarters. Breakfast in its historic and elegant courtyard is a civilized affair to be savoured before setting out for Pompeii and Herculaneum, both buried under ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79CE.

Pompeii is hugely impressive due to its size and the complexity of its city life – from public baths and brothels to temples, private homes and entire streets of shops. City Wonders has a full-day tour which takes you first to Pompeii and then, after a lunch at a winery on the slopes of Vesuvius, a half-hour ramble up to the edge the crater at the top of the volcano.

With up to five thousand visitors a day in high season, Pompeii has become a victim of mass tourism but nearby Herculaneum feels relatively empty by comparison. With GetYourGuide, a booking platform handling a range of tours in and around Naples, a two-hour private tour of Hercunaleum with an archaeologist becomes a more moving experience of how life was lived in antiquity and then frozen in time as a result of the volcanic eruption. One of the first sight on entering the city are the crushed skeletons of people trying to escape before being swept back by the tsunami that hit the bay of Naples.

Before departing Naples, time should be found for for Umberto and its tasty pizzas that Neapolitans come here to enjoy. The food is infinitely superior to anything found at tourist eateries and the place fizzes with activity: waiters flying about carrying impossible numbers of plates, local families enjoying leisurely meals and jazzily modern paintings adorning the walls. Naples is inordinately proud of its coffee culture and the place to appreciate this is Cafe Gambrinus, established in 1861 and still serving a range of coffees and pastries.

Day three and a late afternoon flight from Naples to Thessaloniki in northern Greece and a hired car at the airport. Rather than head off into the night, it is worth staying a night in the country’s second largest and most civic-minded city. From the spacious and sea-facing Makedonia Palace Hotel (above), a grand coastal promenade leads into the downtown area and a meal on the pavement at Daios Bar & Restaurant or Avenue 48 in the Met Hotel where Japanese cuisine has a presence.

I headed off on day four for Mount Olympus (above), home of the ancient Greek gods and walkable by way of marked trails on the slopes of the mountain. Pretty local villages are perched precariously on its steep slopes and the place to spend a night has to be the environmentally aware, family-run Ktima Bellou (below). Accommodation is stacked neatly in terraces, flanked on one wing by hundreds of walnut trees and by a small pool on the other side. Food is grown organically onsite or bought locally from artisan suppliers and meals are delicious.

It takes two and a half hours on day five, though stunning scenery, to reach the most ancient of Greek oracles, Dodona, established as early as 2,600 BCE. Tour buses make only occasional visits and this rambling site is surrounded by green mountainsides. It contains a well-preserved amphitheatre and the ruins of the temple to Zeus where a priestess interpreted messages from the god through the rustling of leaves from a sacred oak tree. Ioannina is the closest town and on the outskirts stands the eye-catching Epirus Palace Hotel, looking rather like a modernized Greek temple: sparking white décor, giant candelabras, comfortable rooms with balconies overlooking gardens and a good restaurant serving Greek cuisine.

Journeying approaches its end with another drive, along a mostly empty motorway, to the seaside village of Galaxidi where proprietors sit outside their premises waiting for customers. Here is Ganimede Hotel (above), bringing meaning back to the term boutique hotel, enjoying a flower bedecked courtyard, home-made breakfast and a dozen bedrooms. Thirty minutes away is glorious Delphi (above), sitting magnificently above a gorge on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. The oracle here was in the temple of Apollo, its columns still in evidence on the Sacred Way, a steep path leading up the mountainside and filled with temples and treasuries built to thank the oracle for its success in avoiding what Trump would call fake news.

Superlative highlights at Delphi (above) include the treasury of the Athenians, the beautiful stonework of the Polygonal Wall and the stadium at the highest level of the site, originally built by the Greeks and supplemented with terraced seating by the Romans. Considering the location, it is stunning to think of the work that must have gone into the building of Delphi and the power it must once have held. Even now as a set of ruins it has majestic presence and the adjoining museum holds some priceless discoveries unearthed here.

A trip such as this has manifold pleasures beyond the insights into antiquity. There is the pleasure of the journey, the sunny climate, the fine food and places to stay.

Fact Box
Ryanair has Stansted-Naples, Naples-Thessaloniki and Thessaloniki-Stansted flights. Stansted Express ensures arrival at Stansted for the early morning departure. Rough Guide have new editions of their guides to Naples and to Greece.

Pat Levy

OK, I may be a tad older than the photo might suggest but I'm just as young at heart. Travel for me is like sleep for Macbeth: 'Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course / Chief nourisher in life’s feast.'