Every room in the four-star Hotel San Francesco al Monte is a ‘Room with a volcano’ – or at least, with a view of one. Brooding over the landscape it has created, Vesuvius dominates the opposite shore of the Bay of Naples, with a hazy Sorrento peninsula in the background; creating a vivid first and lasting impression for each guest. Open the window and peer out, and you have much of the city of Naples laid before you, from the Cupola of the Faculty of Architecture in the North to the huge Basilica of San Francesco di Paola in the South; from the grand domed glass roofs of the spacious Galleria Umberto to the tightly packed apartment blocks and narrow alleys of the Spanish Quarter. A great start to a four day guided tour of Naples and its surroundings, organised by the Naples Chamber of Commerce, in which I was lucky enough to take part in June 2014.
The hotel owes its breath-taking views to its position on the lower slopes of the wooded and terraced Vomero hill that commands the Gulf. Built in to the hill behind, all of its rooms, its restaurant and roof garden face out over the city. With its arches, vaulted ceilings and fragments of ancient decor, the beautiful interior shows signs of its origin as part the ancient monastery of Santa Lucia al Monte, converted by the architect Luciano Raffin. Into this superb setting have been placed contemporary art works from the Morra Foundation of Naples, covering a period ranging from the 1960s to the present day. Surprisingly, perhaps, they seem to enhance, and are enhanced by, the ancient surroundings.
But the glories of the hotel in summer are its outside spaces: the roof garden, swimming pool and terrace restaurant. With its bougainvillea and vine-covered pergolas, evergreen shrubs and tubs of pink and red oleanders, the roof garden provides a fresh and shady spot for relaxation and a quiet drink while taking in the stunning views. Here you also find the small swimming pool, set against the rock face, and bordered by a huge bougainvillea which climbs far up the buttress. Though small – no more than half a dozen strokes from end to end – this lovely spot is a great place set you up for the day, or to cool down after a warm tour of the bay or the city. Set right into the rock is a second tiny shaded pool, with an ice-cold waterfall for the brave.
Three floors down, the terrace restaurant gives yet another angle on the classic view, from Vesuvius and across the bay towards the islands of Procida and Ischia. Here the breakfast coffee is strong and good, with a great range of tasty dishes including fresh fruit salad, cereals, several cold meats and cheeses, hot scrambled eggs, yoghurt, breads, croissants, pastries and jams.
We found this lofty spot to be also the perfect summer dinner venue, with a full yellow moon rising across the bay as the daylight faded, and lights twinkling across the city and on moored shipping. Here we enjoyed tasty food and wines, from Naples’ Campania region: including macaroni cheese with Provola (fresh Campania cheese) and whole cherry tomato; delicious sea bream, with spinach and egg ‘volcano’, roasted parsnip and potato; and rum baba desert; accompanied by the local wines D’Aione Campania Aglianico (Red) and D’Aione Greco di Tufo (White). The quality of the fare and the service matched the superb surroundings, with two exceptions: the initial white bread roll was very boring considering the good local breads available elsewhere; and we found the white wine needed more chilling – which was, however, quickly carried out.
Apart from the unique views, the standard double ensuite bedroom was comfortable but not palatial, with a good firm bed and room for a desk, chair and armchair. As is often the case, the air conditioning fan was found to be too noisy to allow running at night. The hotel is located within 10 minutes walk of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele station of the 1,270 metres long central funicular railway, giving easy access to both the Museo Nazionale di San Martino, based in the 17th century monastery building on top of the Vomero hill; and below to the Augusteo station, just 4 minutes’ walk from the Galleria Umberto, and 5 minutes from the Palazzo Reale. Taxi fares were not exorbitant, with a 2 km ride in the city costing six euros.
Altogether, it would be difficult to find a better resting place from the tumultuous life of the streets of Naples, while at the same time experiencing the atmosphere of the city and its glorious surroundings, and having easy access to its many areas of historic and cultural interest. Hotel staff were universally cheerful, friendly and helpful. I can think of only two minor improvements – quieter air-conditioning and a speeding up of the excruciatingly slow internet access!