The name means “head of the mountain”—and that isn’t an Italian play on words. Capodimonte Park spreads across the high plateau overlooking Naples and its bay. From one southeast lookout point, Mount Vesuvius looms in the distance like a dollop of pudding whose point has been scooped away—a remnant of its explosive past and a reminder to contemporary Neapolitans of volcanic rumblings yet within. At another scenic ledge, the lights of Sorrento twinkle far across the Bay of Naples as the sun drops below the Mediterranean horizon.
When you enter Capodimonte, you feel a sense of relief from the busy streets outside the park. Dimension expands. You’ve left behind those narrow, Roman-age alleyways alongside the bay to these unfurling meadows, tall umbrella pines, broad paths, and palm-strewn lawns. I didn’t feel any wonder at why this European city park was crowded at 10 a.m. on a Thursday in May. Teens played soccer, moms pushed prams, little ones chased butterflies, joggers worked out the morning kinks. And the old boys one always finds at parks were chewing the cud as they walked through the shady lanes.
Capodimante Park has no surviving formal gardens, although floral arrangements and an interesting, marine-themed fountain are on the south side of Capodimonte Royal Palace, commissioned by Charles III of Bourbon. Today the palace is an important museum housing some of Italy’s most important artworks. The open area outside the palace gives perhaps the best view of Naples, the bay, and Sorrento far across the water.
Dimension does expand once inside the park. Yet you don’t really understand how much more awaits you until you lead yourself through the manicured lawns and open play fields beside the Capodimonte palace. Cross through the “Porta di Mezzo” (Middle Doorway), a high gate leading to the main park grounds, and you discover a nature park so big you nearly can get lost here. Holm-oaks, pines, and eucalypts abound in Capodimonte. For someone who likes trying to get lost as much as possible, I’m truly at home and happy here.
The central boulevards spread out like a shotgun blast from a paved half-circle courtyard. High trees separate the boulevards, and you feel like a beetle among cornrows. The park was originally hunting grounds for king and court. The paths run straight and deep, nearly a kilometer long. Classical-style statues stand watch on high pedestals at the head of each path while runners stretch, bounce, and warm up their muscles. Bicyclists push off with smiles on their faces. This section of Capodimonte attracts Naples’ exercise buffs. But don’t worry about getting run off the boulevards—the runners and bicyclists generally keep on the furthest to the right, and work their way down to a neoclassic statue and back. Hey, that’s great! It leaves the other paths for slow strollers.
Off to the right of the boulevards is a more free-flowing area of Capodimonte. Deep forest begins here, with stone and paved paths intersected by trails cut through the forest. There’s a wilder feeling here, at least for a while. As the forest stretches to the edge of the mountain, you come upon sunny fields and nuzzling lovers stretched out on picnic blankets. Between the trees at this perimeter, you can take pictures of Mount Vesuvius across the valley.
Well back in the park is a former satellite estate of the royal palace, the Giardino Torre (Tower’s Garden) where the original orange groves still produce fruit. They surround an old building now undergoing reconstruction to make it a museum dedicated to the history of the lands. Outside its walls, a meadow and trail stretches north perhaps 400 meters. If I had been dropped into this spot blindfolded, I would swear that I was in some national park, hundreds of miles from the nearest city. Yet that’s not the case: Italy’s third largest city is just outside the tree line.
(read more about Naples, Italy highlights here)