Behind the suburbs, a black giant throws its ominous shadow—its damaged lip, its raised shoulder—against an azure sky. This is Naples: a city where you never need to look far for trouble. I am headed south, to a destination that has always been difficult to access by land. You can’t go over Vesuvius, so you must go around the volcano. The purple slopes are netted with grapevines. Oranges hang like Christmas baubles on the trees.

In summer, the narrow road that winds hair-raisingly in and out of the Neopolitan coast, as if negotiating the teeth of a comb, is thronged with beach-goers. But in late fall, it is easier to enjoy the sheer views as the local bus sweeps perilously around a bend, narrowly avoiding a stand of garish ceramics, tooting its horn like the foreign legion. Because there is so little horizontal space to build on, villages rise vertically through whitewashed passages and stairs to grooved throats of limestone clad in cypress and umbrella pines, hundreds of feet above the shimmering expanse of sea. This is the scenery of gothic romance, of monasteries and bandits.

In and out the bus threads. Then you see it: Amalfi—a jewel stuffed into a crack in the rock like a hoard of pirate treasure. Barbarossa tried to capture it in 1544 but was (so local legend goes) driven back by the bones of the town’s patron, Saint Andrew, who made the sea boil and the ships capsize. Amalfi was once part of the Byzantine Empire. In the 11th century, it was a powerful city-state controlling some 70,000 citizens, its fabled wealth derived from maritime adventures and trade with Sicily and the Middle East. Now its size is that of a small seaside town. But the splendor of the cathedral which dominates the central piazza betrays its rich history. Checkerboard black-and-white arches ascend to a Byzantine jeweled façade decorated with stars and fabulous beasts, dazzling golden mosaics of Saint Andrew, and a bell tower dramatically festooned with turquoise and ochre tiles.

I stayed in an inexpensive and well-appointed guesthouse, Residenza del Duca, up a flight of 80 stairs in the middle of town. Waking and looking down from a height, like Rapunzel, at the bustle of a small piazza was a pleasure: There were piles of bulbous tomatoes, artichokes, dogs, children, glaziers, workmen making much noise and little progress. Even in low season, Amalfi is lively. It’s a cash economy (a broad hint that no one is paying taxes), and the prices on the outside and inside of the restaurants are not always identical. Then again, this is a seismic region, and it would be unnatural if anything were precisely level. As Tobias Jones comments in The Dark Heart of Italy:

Linguistically, as in so much else, the country is based upon aesthetics rather than ethics. The judgment words most used are not good and bad, but rather beautiful (bello) or ugly (brutto). Bello is an adjective trotted out with such regularity that it entirely obscures a concept like “good.” .  .  . Thus immorality is less frowned upon than inelegance.

When a country is this beautiful, it’s easy to forgive. In autumn, tiny pink cyclamen carpet the woodland, blue mists settle on the lemon trees, and pomegranates blush on ancient terraces. It is still warm enough to sit out in Amalfi’s piazza, enjoying a glass of prosecco or a sweet cannoli stuffed with ricotta, bought from a pastry shop whose interior of gold, glass, and old wood glows in the twilight with the warm memory of spun sugar.

The best food here is simple. Spaghetti alle vongole: garlicky, with tiny brown butterfly clams, each with its own striated pattern. Chicken or veal in a lemon sauce: delicate, sharp, and sweet with meat juices. Pasta with artichokes and candied orange peel: just a memory of citrus among the fat ribbons. Pizza as thin as a politician’s excuse. And tomato salad, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and oregano.

After this repast you will likely be regaled with a free shot of limoncello, the local lemon liqueur. At the risk of having my passport revoked, I have to tell you that I think limoncello is revolting: syrupy, acidic, and 64 proof. I wouldn’t clean my windows with it for fear of attracting the wrong kind of fly.

Amongst their lesser-known specialties, the translated menus in Amalfi offer a delicious hash of mistakes. I nearly ordered “pork with lemon coast,” “pens with four cheese,” and “broiled custard to the filberts.” I was more wary of “beef with activated carbon” and “grilled stick.” Other signs are equally surprising. “Dancing tearoom” offers one; “Middlenight to sunlight” promises another. The automatic candy machines at coastal railway stations are emblazoned “Self Bar.” Perhaps at these founts of narcissism, you can obtain your just deserts.

To those who would rather walk off their desserts, a word of warning: steps. The Amalfitanis must have some of the strongest knees in Italy. This is not a holiday destination for anyone who likes to wear high heels. In these parts, ill-advisedly mowing the lawn in a cape could turn you into Icarus. It is worth, however, climbing up to the necropolis, a striking line of neoclassical arches on the hillside above the harbor.

Here, the former denizens of Amalfi are stored in tall marble filing cabinets, with all the leading families at the front. The ladders you need to reach the topmost cabinets and change the floral tributes are so steep that I wouldn’t be surprised if some people met their end in situ. The flowers are astonishing in their profusion and variety. But the dead, smiling from their photographs on each tomb, are not. The names—the Pansas, the Franceses, the Cameras—are the same as those you will find on the shops in the piazza below.

The cemetery provides an interesting lesson about Italian society. People move on—but not far. Less than 15 percent of married Italian children live more than 30 miles from their mamma. And people move up—but not without help. Power is concentrated in old families. If you want something here, whether a job, a contract, land, or legal permission, the official route, like the coastal road, will be tortuous. You need to find the steps.

The gap between rich and poor in the mezzogiorno is stark. Arrive at Naples railway station and you might as well be in a third-world country. The ground is littered with makeshift stalls and piles of objects that call to mind the aftermath of a bombing: an old handbag, a broken toy, a single shoe. On the train, I was accosted by an itinerant sock vendor whose own feet were bare. By contrast, if you take the precipitous road from Amalfi up to the beautiful clifftop destination of Ravello, you find yourself on millionaires’ row. During the off-season, I was able to wander around the empty terraces of palaces whose grand salons were covered in dust sheets, wintering like frost-shy plants. One palazzo whose gardens are always open is the Villa Cimbrone, a whimsical mixture of English and Italian historical styles created by Ernest Beckett, a Yorkshire-born Victorian aristocrat who ran away from home but never quite escaped it. It has an Avenue of Immensity, a Terrace of Infinity, and a tearoom.

The chief reason, however, to visit Ravello is to go on a dragon hunt. The town’s plain-faced church conceals a marvel: a pulpit supported by snarling marble lions and decorated with elaborate mosaics in red, black, gold, lapis lazuli, and turquoise. Writhing and roaring in the color of their glorious scales is a coil, a conflagration of dragons representing the beginning and end of the world.

Twenty miles inland from Amalfi lies the ruined Roman city of Pompeii, and this is one destination you should visit at all costs. Pompeii has changed my understanding of antiquity more than any other historical site, because it is an immersive experience. Like plunging below the waves to view Atlantis, exploring Pompeii allows you to become lost in the totality of the past, to consider it not as a discrete monument but as an infinite, three-dimensional space.

The first thing to say about Pompeii is that it is huge. Think of a town with a population of about 20,000—you could not see more than a fraction of its houses in one day. You can amble about the site, imagining yourself into the world of 79 a. d. as you shop the bakery, admire the amphitheater and the public baths, raise an eyebrow at the brothel, and step inside the homes of vanished inhabitants such as the banker Lucius Jucundus or the fish-sauce magnate Aulus Scaurus.

The second thing to say is that it is vivid. After years of thinking of the Romans in terms of stone—square-jawed statues, die-straight roads, military installations—I was wholly unprepared for the delicacy and playfulness of the interior design in these Roman houses. The inferno red, butter yellow, and coal black paintwork make the mythological frescoes, the fantasy landscapes of exotic architecture, birds, and animals, sing. Cupids race chariots around the walls. In the garden of one house, a cheerful and busty Venus lounges on a shell, looking like a 1950s pinup.

It’s easy to imagine the fun that was had in this town. In the House of Menander, there are slightly kitsch mosaics of pygmies sporting with ducks and water lilies, and a private bathroom with a mosaic of a grinning slave with an enormous penis. Phalluses are everywhere in Pompeii—as symbols of fertility, prosperity, and male power. They wink from kitchens and bars, where one once hung as a lamp, adorned with wings and bells.

Politics is also omnipresent. In a pre-paper world, campaign posters were simply painted onto the front of buildings. New ones were painted over the old, so we have a record of the men who competed for public office in Pompeii for decades before the fatal eruption. Interestingly, politicians in the Roman world did not stand on the basis of policy proposals—merely on wealth and character. And negative campaigning was rife; several of the painted signs were evidently put up by opponents trying to cast aspersions on their rivals’ fanbase: “The late night drinkers are voting for Marcus Vatia; the pickpockets endorse Caius Julius Polybius.”

Many of the houses and rooms in Pompeii are locked. But, typically, a banknote discreetly dropped into the pocket of an attendant will gain you admission. Tourist sandals troop over the 2,000-year-old mosaics and the obliging guard may even throw water on them to make the colors shine. It was ever thus. Italy has seen many rulers come and go; Italians therefore tend to regard rules as inherently flimsy.

On the last day of my visit, Silvio Berlusconi resigned. In Rome, critics of his scandal-ridden premiership sang a Hallelujah chorus. But in Amalfi, it was quite possible to not know that the government had changed. The televisions were silent, except for football. Nobody mentioned the news. You could see why: Southern Italy, as Lampedusa commemorated in The Leopard, knows all about gattopardismo (“leopardism”). The change of spots is illusory. Administrations alter, but the same concentration of power, the same abuses, remain.

Italy’s economy, the eighth-largest in the world, is shuddering. The country owes $2.2 trillion, or 120 percent of its GDP. Since it is one of the world’s largest markets for government bonds, the explosive potential of its debt mountain threatens all of Europe. But life goes on as usual. The tremors will pass. So said Lucius Jucundus in August 79 a. d., shaking a stone out of his sandal on the way to work out, have a sauna, and catch a comedy before bed, on just another late summer day with a hint of fall in the air.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

Next Page