Naples, Italy

I booked a trip to Naples having found the flights online for crazy cheap. I’ve always wanted to see more of Italy and Pompeii in particular has been top of my list! I’d booked to go on my own, however when speaking to my parents a couple of days later, and telling them what a good deal I had found, they pretty much asked if they could come with me. So my solo trip had turned into a third wheel extravaganza with the parents…as you do.

So it’s fair to say that our initial impression of Naples was not….erm… good. Before visiting, I had read online that the city had a pretty bad reputation for crime and wasn’t considered a particularly safe place for tourists. Having travelled to places like Athens, Paris and some questionable places in Asia, I took that with a bit of a pinch of salt and figured you would just have to be street wise…

Having arrived at the airport, (persuaded by the mother…) we decided against simply getting a taxi into town and instead opted for the [x] bus. Error.

After queuing for about 45 minutes (!) we were eventually led onto the bus and packed in like sardines – literally it was ridiculous.

After surviving the bus ride from hell, we were dropped off in the rain outside [Garibaldi] Station, which now in hindsight having visited the rest of the city, is definitely, definitely the dodgy part of Naples; probably not the place to start in terms of a good first impression!

The thing that we just couldn’t get over in this area was the number of men standing out on the street – just lingering on street corners, whole groups of them. It’s the weirdest thing – what possibly could they be doing? It would be an understatement for me to say we felt anything less than unsafe – it was really unnerving. Particularly when we were trying to (discretely!) use our phone to find the location of our airbnb.

A 10 minute or so walk later, we found our apartment block right next to a shop with multiple bullet holes in the window…. great. The actual building was beautiful – a really old traditional mansion block with huge big windows and balconies all across the front. This became a recurring theme in Naples, but it’s just SUCH a shame that the city isn’t looked after more. The actual buildings really are beautiful, but they lose some of their charm when you notice the scrawls of graffiti on the walls, or the piles of rubbish on the pavements outside…

We were buzzed inside by our hosts who said they would be down to meet us in the reception shortly. Dad’s face was a picture; not only was he erm, unimpressed with Naples’ initial impression, he also wasn’t a fan of the idea of an airbnb; particularly one where you could hear the biggest domestic argument happening a few floors up, whilst we waited for our host to come down. You really couldn’t have written it…. why did we choose to come here?!

Eventually our host Valentina came and picked us up and took us in the little elevator up to our apartment. They owned a bnb in the same block but rented out this flat on the side.

We were shown around our apartment which, split across two levels and with multiple balconies, was absolutely lovely.

Valentina and Dario kindly showed us the map of the city and gave us some tips and recommendations of what to and what to see. Just before they left, I asked them about how safe the area was (obviously scarred by our earlier experience). ‘oh it’s the same as most big cities’ she said, ‘you just have to be careful’. Well that sounds perfectly ok….

‘Don’t wear those earrings out on the street’ she turned to me pointing at my [fake] gold hoop earrings, ‘someone will mug you for them’.

Great. So really safe then….

Having said goodbye to our hosts and getting settled we decided it was time to brave, erm I mean hit, the streets. Obvs I was lacking a certain pair of gold earrings…

We wandered up into the old town with its bustling alleyways and cobbled winding streets. Although there’s no denying Naples is rough around the edges, the more we walked around the more we started to appreciate its charm. The whole area is an definitely an attack on the senses, it’s loud, the smells of food waft around, you’re constantly being bumped into and bombarded with colours and sights – it is quite overwhelming but fascinating none the less!

After wandering around for a little while, hunger got the better of us and we decided to stop off for some well deserved lunch. After lots of deliberating we eventually settled on a little spot called Antica Trattoria which had the most amazing selections of pasta on offer – just what we needed. I opted for a baked tagliatelli dish with bacon, peas and a creamy parmesan sauce. Mum chose a simple, yet delicious, tomato pasta whilst dad, the pasta hater, opted for meatballs. All of this was washed down with plenty of red wine and bruscetta. Maybe Naples wouldn’t be so bad after all…

Feeling a little more relaxed, and having got our bearings more, we continued walking round the old town for a little while.

It soon started to rain so we decided it was probably a good idea to do something inside. The Napoli Sotterranea (i.e. the underground of Naples) seemed like just the spot!

After queuing for 20 minutes or so, we commenced our tour and followed our guide, Carolina, down a deep, long stairway until reaching a series of large rooms with towering ceilings 40 metres below the city. Carolina explained the ancient method of constructing homes in the area over 2400 years ago (!) which created the underground city that we were now walking through. The inhabitants dug large holes to excavate stone that they then used to construct houses. The large holes were subsequently used as wells. After enough people had populated the area, there were so many wells that they were connected to create massive underground aqueducts. At one point, the aqueduct was so large that it connected Naples to Rome, a distance of nearly 140 miles!

The aqueducts were eventually closed down when cholera swept through Europe and they were never again used to provide drinking water. During WWII, some of the people in Naples decided to use the underground city as a bomb shelter; toys and graffiti from that time period can still be seen which is super interesting!  A few of the rooms are still used today, some for biology experiments, and some to serve as a venue for art shows.

My favourite part of the tour was the candle-lit trip through some very narrow passages. This part of the tour, however, may not appeal to people with claustrophobia! Everyone in the group is given a candle and taken on a short journey through thin passages and into a room that features some pretty incredible sights. It’s super fun but you do really need to squeeze yourself through those narrow crevasses.

Though the underground city has been mapped for over fifty years, the endeavour still struggles to raise enough money to unearth more of its incredible remains. Carolina showed us a map that depicted the size of the underground city, I was amazed to find that it stretched well beyond the current borders of Naples. Our tour, we were told, includes less than 1% of the giant, Naples Underground. Mind blown!

Having returned back up to ground level, Carolina walked us out of the aqueduct and across the main square to a small residential street. What we were about to see, I think, is one of the most amazing sites I have ever seen!

We were shown into a ‘basso’ a typical Neopolitan house, which would have once been home to an average family of not huge means. The family all lived in the one space with a kitchen, beds, and a latrine.

I simply was fascinated just by seeing how people used to live in the cities, and couldn’t therefore believe my eyes when Carolina pushed back the bed revealing a staircase to the cellar below. Apparently the old owners of the house started noticing that there was a strange layout of their house; the room was an odd shapes and different to the traditional houses in the city. On exploring the ground underneath they realised that they were living somewhere rather special – they were living on top of the ancient Roman theatre of Neopolis! No biggie!

We wandered down the steep stairs into the basement below we were treated to the most amazing scenes of the old theatre. The brickwork was still pristine and it was so difficult to get your head around what we were seeing. I was in awe.

Carolina explained to us how the famous Emperor Nero performed here, presenting the operas that he composed in the city, the only remaining piece of the language and culture of the Ancient Greeks. The ancient writers say that nothing could interrupt the great Nero’s song.

Nero made his debut in Naples and whilst he sang the ground began to shake. Nero continued to sing during the earthquake and, at the end of the show, thanked both the audience and the Gods for their applause…! He sang in Naples on various occasions and would rest in the Terme for days after the performances.

Nero returned to Naples often saying that it was here that where he was baptised into the world of art.

The entire population of the region of Naples, including all of the smaller cities and colonies, would come to see Nero perform in the city. It is said that they all followed Nero for his dignity as he led them into the grand Neapolitan Theatre. Nero never performed in Rome, saying that he preferred the almost Greek city of Naples. It was such fascinating stuff.

The tour of the underground finished up in the  Summa Cavea; another fraction of the Roman Theater that was discovered in an old carpentry. Nowadays there is a  permanent exhibition of “Scarabattoli”. You see these everywhere over Naples – these are the Neopolitan equivalent of a Christmas tree; elaborate nativity scenes which have been used as decorations for generations. It was so interesting seeing some of these beautiful places up close!

We really enjoyed the Naples underground and would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the city – super interesting stuff!

Once the tour finished we decided we would head back to the apartment to get ready for the evening, we stumbled across a little stall selling glasses of prossecco for 1.50euro. Well, would have been rude not to right?

That evening, we decided to visit the restaurant Antica Pizzeria del Borgo Orefici owned by our host Valentina’s parents. She had obviously recommended it and said that if we wanted classic Neapolitan pizza she thought their place made one of the best (obviously biased but we decided to take her word for it!)

We wandered down to the little restaurant which was tucked off a backstreet away from the tourist hub. We were the only non-Italians in the place which is definitely a sign we were in an authentic spot. Naples is obviously the place where pizza was created so we couldn’t wait to try a proper traditional slice. Well, this restaurant did not disappoint, hands down one of the nicest pizzas we have ever had – oh wow.

That evening, stuffed, we all slept amazingly well ready for a day exploring Pompeii which I will write about separately.

Having returned back to the apartment from Pompeii, after stopping for a coffee at Cafe Vergano, we had a little snooze and a couple of glasses of wine before heading back into the old town and stopping for dinner.

We settled on a little restaurant called La Campagnola which we had read about online. It was a Sunday but the restaurant was heaving (again, only Italians) so we had a little wait whilst a table became free. The restaurant brought us across the most delicious dough balls to keep us going whilst we waited…!

We started off by nibbling on bread and a couple of vegetable dishes; roasted aubergine and Italian greens. I don’t know what they do to their vegetables in Italy butthey always tastes so delicious – probably plenty of salt and olive oil!

For main, mum and dad opted for pizza whilst I went for a traditional Bolognese. The food was delicious although we all agreed the pizzas were nowhere near as good as the ones at Antica Pizzeria del Borgo Orefici .

After some limoncello and a dish of delicious homemade doughnuts, we made our way back to the apartment for yet another fab sleep.

The next morning we woke up to literally the worst weather – snow, sleet and rain all at once – I thought we were in Italy?! Dad and I popped out to one of the cafe’s opposite the apartment and grabbed coffees and pastry’s which we ate before heading out and braving the elements proper.

One of my absolute favourite things to do in a new city is one of the free walking tours. They’re a great way to learn more about a city’s history and are definitely a cheaper way of exploring than a hop on hop off bus etc (which I hate!) We booked ourselves into one of the tours, which was still running come rain or shine! We met our guide, Carmel, in Dante Square (Piazza Dante), along with around about 15 other tourists. Carmel went on to tell us that Naples, aka the City of Sun, hadn’t had any snow in the last 6 years – just our luck it comes on our visit!

Carmel started by telling us a little bit of the history of our starting point in Dante Square. Dante (1265-1321) was a major poet in the middle ages and is regarded as the father of the Italian language. Every city in Italy has its own Dante Square in honour of his works. Interestingly, Carmel explained to us that UNESCO recently declared the Neopolitan dialect to be a separate language in its own right! Until the 1700s this square lay outside the city walls and was used as a marketplace (Largo del Mercatello ‘Market Square’). The semi circular facade of the square was designed in around 1759 by the architect of the day; Luigi Vanvitellli. The 26 figures on the cornice are allegories of the supposed qualities of the then King; Charles of Bourbon. Following the unification of Italy, a statue of Dante was placed in the middle of the square and the square renamed in his honour. The gateway in the middle was built in 1625 to connect the city with outlying districts.

We wandered through the gateway and up the cobbled streets lined with bookshops and stopped off outside a little pizzeria called Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, the place where pizza was said to be invented in the 18 century – pretty cool! When you visit Naples you constantly see people walking around with folded pizzas’ – these are somewhat of a speciality here. Neapolitan pizzas are cooked only for 60 seconds or so which makes the dough light, fluffy and most importantly foldable. An easy and affordable snack – you can see why it was so popular!

After wandering up through Port Alba we headed towards Piazza Bellini. This area used to lay outside the city proper until the mid 16th century, when the viceroy Pedro de Toldeo extended the city walls. The remains of part of the ancient Greek walls of Neapolis were brought to light in the piazza after excavations carried out in 1954. The walls are visible in the middle of the square at the foot of the monument to the composer Vincenzo Bellini. The Greek walls date back to 6th century BC and apparently the lower, ancient walls run the whole way below the current day city – so interesting!

Lured by the distant sound of strings in the horizon, we walked out of the Piazza and stopped off outside the Royal Conservatory of Music. Esteemed musicians such as Mozart, Bach and Handel travelled to study within these walls. Naples is renowned worldwide for its affect on music; most famous of Neapolitan classical music is ‘O Sole Mio’ composed in 1898 (and modified for Elvis Presley’s ‘it’s now or never’).

Hitting the narrow streets again (which Carmel explained exactly mirror the ancient Greek streets below, at 3-6 meters in width, we stopped off to admire an interesting statute of a particularly interesting little character. This was Pulcinella. Pulcinella, a name derived from “pulcino,” meaning chick, and “pollastrello,” meaning rooster, is a classical character that originated in commedia dell’arte of the 17th century and became a stock character in Neapolitan puppetry. Engineered specifically to be the star of southern Italy, he is described as “the voice of the people, as the direct expression of a people as lively and spirited as the Neapolitans is never questioned.’ Apparently Pulcinella directly represents the average Neapolitan; lazy, poor, likes to eat a lot and makes jokes (Carmel’s words not mine!) Apparently every city in Italy has their own character representing the residents – super interesting! We also learned that the famous puppet Punch, of Punch and Judy, derived his name from Pulcinella. Carmel explained that it’s meant to be good luck to touch the statues nose, which we of course all did. Fingers crossed.

Our next stop was up by the entrance to the Sotterranea where we were shown something we completely missed the other day whilst exploring the area ourselves – that’s the reason I really rate these tours. Interestingly, the only piece by graffitit artist Banksy in the South of Europe is located right here in Naples – super cool!

After admiring the Banksy piece we headed towards the impressive Duoma di Napoli which dates back to the 15th Century and was built in honour of Saint Gennaro, the Patron Saint of Naples.

According to various legend, Gennaro, at a young age of 15, became local priest of his parish in Benevento, which at the time was relatively pagan. When Gennaro was 20, he beca Bishop of Naples and befriended Juliana of Nicomedia and Saint Sossius whom he met during his priestly studies. During the persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian, he hid his fellow Christians and prevented them from being caught. Unfortunately, while visiting Sossius in jail, he too was arrested. He and his colleagues were condemned to be thrown to wild bears in the Flavian Amphitheater at Pozzuoli, but legends state either the wild beasts refused to eat them. Other tales report that he was thrown into a furnace but came out unscathed. Either way – Gennaro seemed to have miracles on his side. After many failed attempts to execute Gennaro he was eventually beheaded.  Nowadays, Saint Gennaro is famous for the alleged miracle of the annual liquefaction of his blood, which, according to legend, was saved by a woman called Eusebia just after the saint’s death. A chronicle of Naples written in 1382 describes the cult of Saint Gennaro in detail, but mentions neither the relic nor the miracle. The first certain date is 1389, when it was found to have melted. Then, over the following two and a half centuries official reports began to appear declaring that the blood spontaneously melted, at first once a year, then twice, and finally three times a year.

Thousands of people assemble to witness this event in Naples Cathedral three times a year: on September 19 (Saint Gennaro’s Day, commemorating his martyrdom), on December 16 (celebrating his patronage of Naples and its archdiocese), and on the Saturday before the first Sunday of May (commemorating the reunification of his relics).

Apparently there have only been a couple of occasions in history where the blood failed to melt; dooming the year ahead to be unlucky. The most recent of these was in 1980; the year in which a terrible earthquake hit the city; and preceding that during WW2 the blood also failed to melt… interesting stuff!

Having admired the cathedral we wandered further down and were shown a huge mural on the sides of one of the buildings. This piece was created by famous Napolitan street artist Jorit Agosh – you could see various pieces of his artistry across the city. This particular painting was of Saint Gennaro, however interestingly, the face of the saint was based on a random person that Jorit noticed on the street!

From here we wandered up to Via San Gregorio Armeno; the street of the nativity scene makers. Here you can admire numerous shops with creative nativity scenesand figurines in all variations. Besides the Jesus- and Madonna figurines you will also find detailed copies of pizzerias, fruit markets, all household objects, gastronomic delights, exotic animals, and sometimes even caricatured politicians and football players. It is such an interesting street – you could wander for ages taking it all in!!

Something else you’ll find plenty of in this street (and actually, around the whole of Naples), are the little red cornicellos (the Neopolitan horn shaped amulet). These little horns presumed to have once been sacred to the Old European moon goddess, before the rise of Christianity. Some modern evangelical Catholics disparage the continued use of cornicelli among Italian Catholics and refer to them as “Satan’s horns” or “Lucifer’s horns” but this is absolutely nonsense, as they were always seen as the horns of the moon goddess — and hence, in Catholic symbolism, would be related to the Virgin Mary, who is shown standing on a lunar crescent. Nowadays these horns are supposedly protection against the ‘evil eye’.

We next wandered up to Nile Square where Carmel showed us the statue of the Nile river God. That statue is of an old merman-like figure reading on his pedestal and is at the approximate spot where the colony of Egyptians from Alexandria settled in the days of Nero, well after the incorporation of Naples into the dominion of Rome. Here the Egyptians erected a statue, possibly for veneration, of the God of the Nile, the river that played such an important part in the mythology of their own native culture.

Interestingly the statue disappeared for centuries following the advent of Christianity in the Roman Empire. It was not until the 1100s that it was uncovered, headless, during the early construction of the town hall. That building was eventually demolished in the 1600s and the statue was moved to the centre of the square where it still stands. Ag the time, the sculptor, Bartolomeo Mori, was hired to add the head; the statue was restored again in 1734 and a plaque, in Latin, was added to commemorate the restoration. Interestingly, in the 1950’S pieces of this statue were stolen, there used to be crocodile’s head, which was replaced with a sphinx’s head after it was pinched. Funnily enough, the sphinx’s head was found in a shop in Austria, however it was returned to Naples and remounted on the statue. Now just to find the missing crocodile…!

From one cultural stop to the next… as we continued walking through the town, Carmel pointed out a cafe, Bar Nilo, on the left hand side. This cafe has somewhat become a shrine to the ex- Napoli footballer, Diego Maradona. The cafe owner apparently was sitting behind Maradona on a flight one day and decided to sneakily cut a bit of the star’s hair. The hair is now proudly kept on display on the walls of the cafe and apparently attracts many a visitor. Safe to say we didn’t pop in to admire the locks….

The tour was soon coming to an end, however Carmel wanted to show us a couple more spots before we all departed. It must be said that by this point we were literally soaked through and FREEZING. I could barely feel my fingers let alone manage to take a decent photograph.

We wandered up through San Domenico Maggiore Square where Carmel pointed out the Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale” which is the oldest school of Sinology and Oriental Studies of the European continent, founded in 1732 and originally ran by monks. Nowadays it is regarded as one of the most prestigious universities in the world regarding Asian cultures and languages.

The final stop on the tour was at New Jesus Square which houses the Church of Gesù Nuovo (New Jesus Churc). This church is considered as the most important church in Naples. The church was originally a Palace built in 1470 for Roberto Sanseverino, Prince of Salerno. In the 1580′s the Palace was sold to the Jesuits (members of the Society of Jesus) and they turned it into the current church. (constructions last from 1584-1601). The church façade in bugnato style, (a style that was especially used during the Italian Renaissance) remained from the Sanseverino Palace. Interestingly, on each of the diamond shaped stones that form the front of the church, there are mysterious engraved signs on each. During the Renaissance, there were some ‘expert’ stone masons that believe the the symbols charged the stone with positive energy and dispelled negative energy. A study has, however, now confirmed that the signs on the stones are symbols in Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus) and that each symbol corresponds to a musical note. If read from left to right, from the bottom upwards, the incisions compose a musical piece lasting approximately one hour – so so interesting!

The walking tour lasted approximately two hours which was plenty of time to see the sites of the old town, and plenty of time for us to freeze in the Italian freak blizzard. After saying goodbye to Carmel, we hit the pavements again and warmed up in Cafe Leopoldo with delicious coffees and cake. I opted for a Sacher torte, which although is traditionally Austrian, was absolutely delicious!

Our flight back to London was that evening and we knew we wanted to have one last meal whilst in Italy. There was however one last spot we wanted to visit in the city; Sansevero Chapel Museum.

Originally built around the end of the 16th century to house the tombs of the di Sangro family, the chapel was given its current baroque fit-out by Prince Raimondo di Sangro, who, between 1749 and 1766, commissioned the finest artists to adorn the interior. In Queirolo’s Disinganno, the man trying to untangle himself from a net represents Raimondo’s father, Antonio, Duke of Torremaggiore. After the premature death of his wife, Antonio abandoned the young Raimondo, choosing instead a life of travel and hedonistic pleasures. Repentant in his later years, he returned to Naples and joined the priesthood, his attempt to free himself from sin represented in Queirolo’s masterpiece.

It’s in this Masonic-inspired baroque chapel that you’ll find Giuseppe Sanmartino’s incredible sculpture, Cristo velato (Veiled Christ), its marble veil so realistic that it’s tempting to try to lift it and view Christ underneath. It’s one of several artistic wonders that include Francesco Queirolo’s sculpture Disinganno (Disillusion), Antonio Corradini’s Pudicizia (Modesty) and riotously colourful frescoes by Francesco Maria Russo, the latter untouched since their creation in 1749. This piece is literally incredible -you cannot fathom that this was made. by hand, all those years ago!

The chapel’s original polychrome marble flooring was badly damaged in a major collapse involving the chapel and the neighboring Palazzo dei di Sangro in 1889. Designed by Francesco Celebrano, the flooring survives in fragmentary form in the passageway leading off from the chapel’s right side.

The passageway leads to a staircase, at the bottom of which you’ll find two meticulously preserved human arterial systems – one of a man, the other of a woman. Debate still circles the models: are the arterial systems real or reproductions? And if they are real, just how was such an incredible state of preservation achieved? More than two centuries on, the mystery surrounding the alchemist prince lives on.

What I found fascinating about this spot was that Local legends claim that the  chapel’s astonishing works of art it contains are the result of sorcery and black magic. The sculptures appear impossible to create by hand, while a macabre display featuring two actual human bodies is said to be the result of ritual killings. Also, adding to the occult aura surrounding the chapel, it is filled with Masonic symbolism. This place was super interesting and I’d definitely recommend it as a stop of if you’re in the city!

Having only an hour or so left in the city, food seemed like the best option so we stopped off at Antica Pizzeria Dal Presidente which Carmel had recommended. We started off with an obscenely huge starter; a portion of arancini balls, potato croquettes and Frittatine. Frittatine are staple of Naples street food. Deep-fried pasta balls stuffed with minced pork, bechamel sauce, and peas. Oh wow – these were ridiculously good!

We all ordered pizzas which were absolutely delicious (still not as good as the pizzas on the first night however!). My pizza was totally not what I expected, there were so many toppings but all segmented and twisted with a little prosciutto and mozzarella rose in the middle – fancy!

We thoroughly enjoyed our last meal in the city and washed it down with lemoncello and meloncello which, I perhaps would not order again..!

 

That brought our trip to Naples to an end, after a bit of a questionable start we grew to really enjoy the city. It’s full of interesting history, ancient culture and the most incredible food! The one thing from Naples that we did think was a shame however was the way the city just really wasn’t cared for. It is rough around the edges, full of rubbish and graffiti, however when you see past that it is a really cool place to visit!

That brought our trip to Naples to an end, after a bit of a questionable start we grew to really enjoy the city. It’s full of interesting history, ancient culture and the most incredible food! The one thing from Naples that we did think was a shame however was the way the city just really wasn’t cared for. It is rough around the edges, full of rubbish and graffiti, however when you see past that it is a really cool place to visit

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