Vesuvian Villas are like an old string of pearls: it’s a beautiful thing even though some pearls are damaged.
When the King Carl of Bourbon (reigning over Naples) built a palace in the beautiful countryside (back then) of Portici in mid 18th century, all the nobles rushed to build Villas close to it. The more important they were, the closer to the Palace the Villa was. At the end they stretched from Ercolano’s excavations through Torre del Greco (close to Pompei). The architects involved were the major Italian names of the time: Vanvitelli, Fuga, Sanfelice, etc. They were so beautiful that this strip of the road was called “the golden mile”.
The royal palace in Portici drove also industrial innovation: in 1839 the first railroad on Italian peninsula started operations between Napoli and Portici. In support of that a plant was established in Portici, in a place called Pietrarsa, that was the first on the future Italian soil to build a locomotive.
All this cultural, historical, and aesthetic wealth is still there today, even though the metropolitan area has now embedded them in its disordered and sometimes wild growth. The Pietrarsa plant is now a railway museum worth a visit, both for the material exposed and for the structure itself. There is also a dedicated web site: www.museodipietrarsa.it
Some of the Villas can be visited today, and some of them host events like concerts or exhibitions. Famous examples are Villa Campolieto, Villa delle Ginestre, Villa Favorita, and a few others. Recently we visited Villa Vannucchi in S. Giorgio a Cremano, restored in the last few years and now its beautiful gardens are open to the public.
Not all of them survived in a decent status. Neglected for a long time, they have been swallowed and destroyed by the city. One dramatic example is Villa d’Elboeuf, set by the sea in Portici and falling apart.
There are guided tours to these villas today that give a chance to visit a selection of these Villas. There is even a Festival, now in its 26th year, that offers cultural and musical events in these splendid locations (http://www.festivalvillevesuviane.it/).
It is an interesting trip, where magnificent pieces of architecture are sometimes surrounded by “less-than-magnificent” ’60 and ’70 suburbs architecture, some other times they are not far from important Roman remnants in Ercolano and Pompei. It happens in a place populated over millennia; it’s part of the experience, too.