Naples – Historic, Gritty and Wonderful

The Italian countryside seemed to extend forever, a wonderful accomplishment for this region of southern Italy that has supported civilization for several millennia, though it ended abruptly when we rounded a highway curve and came to a halt in traffic. Naples, we had arrived.

It wasn’t until we saw Naples from above that we realized the extent of this metropolis.  From our apartment in the historic center of Naples, near the Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, we walked to the daily market along busy streets lined with ancient 17th and 18th century palazzo, once noble homes of the Neapolitan elite, now subdivided into apartments, their fine architectural details often hidden under graffiti, that lined Via Pignasecca.

Vegetable, cheese, meat and especially bountiful seafood vendors were in a constant state of motion readying their stalls and calling aloud what was available.  It was fascinating and gritty with an underlying character of toughness that street life in Naples demands.

Everything looked wonderful as we planned dinner in our minds and agreed to return later after our day’s activity; how disappointed we were to find the street all tidied up and swept clean by mid-afternoon.  We consoled ourselves with a purchase of a bottle of Piedirosso Campania, a red Italian wine grape that is a specialty of the region. For two euros it was a good everyday wine. Later in the week we purchased a fresh tuna fillet that was excellent.

The funicular at the Montesanto train station saved us from a long and incredibly steep set of stairs that would have otherwise led us to Castel Sant’Elmo. Its six-pointed star design dates from Spanish rule of the Kingdom of Naples in the 1500’s, and is the highest point on Vomero hill.

The thirteenth century fortress dominates Naples’ skyline and has an incredible panoramic vista of the vast metropolitan area that hugs the Bay of Naples. Mount Vesuvius overshadows the scene that extends past Sorrento to the Isle of Capri.

Under the citadel walls in what was once a wealthy monastery the Certosa e Museo di San Martino exhibits a collection of art and artifacts devoted to the monastery’s and Naples’ history, in richly decorated cloisters. 

Outside the formal gardens, the paths along the cliff edge were a quiet retreat.  If you don’t feel the need to tour another fortress or monastery, the Belvedere San Martino scenic overlook offers the same views and is a very popular place to watch the sunset. 

After lunch we followed the stairs of Pedamentina a San Martino downhill to Corso Vittorrio Emanuele which cuts across the mid-section of Vomero hill above Quartieri Spagnoli, the old Spanish quarter. The district gets its name from the garrisons of Spanish troops housed there in the 16th century to quell any rebellions from the restive Neapolitan citizenry. From the sidewalk here we looked down upon canyons of TV satellite dishes and flapping laundry hanging from balconies that extended for block upon block, the sheer number of folks living above one another unimaginable.

Over centuries it has evolved to have the densest population of any neighborhood in Italy. After the second world war, post-war public housing was built for tens of thousands of displaced Italian families that fled the war-ravaged countryside, looking for work and shelter in Naples, though Naples itself was in near ruins, having been bombed over 100 times by Allied forces prior to the liberation of the Italian peninsula from Nazi occupation.  Before retreating from Naples, the Nazis destroyed all of the city’s port facilities along with the water, electricity, and gas infrastructures.  Thus began an era of poverty and destitution that was further fueled by neglect from the central government in Rome.  A century earlier, before fighting against Italian unification, the Kingdom of Naples was the most prosperous, wealthy and industrialized of the pre-unitary Italian states with the largest number of students enrolled in public schools along with the peninsula’s lowest infant mortality rate.  The city was a treasured destination of 17th and 18th century upper-class Europeans on their “Grand Tours.” The poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is credited with coining the phrase “See Naples and die” to reflect the city’s grandeur on one such tour.  Though I’m sure he never envisioned how a growing Mafia influence in the mid-1950’s co-opted the phrase.

We worked our way along Corso Vittorrio searching for the Giardino del Claustro, a scenic overlook, but finally gave up when we realized it was behind the entrance to a university. This wandering led us serendipitously to the Church of St. Nicholas of Tolentino where a chorus of angelic voices suddenly filled the sanctuary as we crossed its threshold, stopping us in our tracks. Seeing no one, we listened intently to the anthem, trying to determine its unseen source, until we finally heard the bellowing voice of the choir director.  We were in the school’s chapel!

If anyplace is likely to induce a religious overdose it’s Naples. “The city of 500 domes,” reportedly has 1000 churches, five hundred of which have historical significance and I swear they are all in the ancient center of the city.  Starting at the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo on the piazza that bears its name, we walked along Via Benedetto Croce in a large loop that brought us first to the majolica-tiled cloisters of the 14th century Complesso Monumentale di Santa Chiarato.

Continuing straight, we eventually came to a street mural of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. This large tribute was painted in the contemporary style of Jorit Agoch, a Neapolitan graffiti artist, in 2015, above the entrance to a bar that stands next to Chiesa Parrocchiale di S. Giorgio Maggiore on Via Duomo.

Earlier we passed a small memorial to Antonio Varvella, nicknamed O’Barone, a sometimes-gruff character, a beloved homeless man who was a fixture in the historic center for many years until his death one wintry night in 2014.

Backtracking, we turned onto Via San Gregorio Armeno, a street famous for its numerous workshops that craft unique, highly detailed hand-made presepi, nativity scenes.  

Almost lost amidst the store fronts of the crèche workshops, the Church of San Gregorio Armeno has a lavish gilded baroque interior. It is a 1500’s renovation of the original 9th century church built over a Roman temple of worship to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. 

At the end of the lane, the Basilica di San Paolo Maggiore dominates the square.  

Back at our starting point we rested in front of St. Giuseppe Moscati’s statue, the hand of the sculpture shiny from parishioners holding it as they prayed for cures. A local doctor, he dedicated his life to serving the poor of Naples and is credited with many miracles. He was canonized in 1987.  

Facades of many of these churches pale in comparison to their rich interiors. If the door to the church was open, we entered. Some were grander than others, but all of them were interesting.  

Alternating with stops for café, gelato or the ever so refreshing Aperol spritz, we spent several afternoons ping-ponging our way from church to church through the center of a city that has been inhabited since the eight century B.C. when the Greeks named their colony, Neapolis. 

Subsequent civilizations buried the ruins of earlier ones.  The cobbled lanes and churches we toured had been built over Underground Naples, 120 feet of ancient detritus along with ruins of millennia old cisterns, aqueducts, Roman alleys and shops that spread extensively under historic and modern Naples. 

The reward for one of our daily explorations was a savory Margarita pizza from Di Matteo, recommended by our friend Marina, a lifelong Neapolitan, who affirmed, “It’s the only place my family eats pizza.”  A round pizza folded twice to form a triangle is the perfect street food, but when you order it inside and sit at a table to dine it is customary in Italy to use a knife and fork to politely carve these culinary creations that have become so popular the world over.

By the end of the week the hard cobblestones were fatiguing, and we decided to take a cab to Galleria Umberto, an old fashioned, glass domed shopping mall.  A five-minute trip according to Google Maps. It’s a landmark by the waterfront, near Castel Nuovo and Piazza del Plebiscito which we planned to visit afterwards.  

There were several taxis in queue at Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, all pointing in the direction we needed to go, a good omen or so I thought, as we hopped into the first cab.  Hearing our destination, the driver promptly did a U-turn, then another left turn taking us in the wrong direction. I spoke up from the backseat and pointed to the map, my question confidently waved away by the driver. “Donna, he’s taking us in the wrong direction.” “Give him a few more minutes. He’s local – maybe he knows a shortcut.” With a left turn out of the historic center the driver would have redeemed himself, and put us on a course to the waterfront. Instead, he turned right and floored it while ignoring my protest from the backseat. Finally, at a red light he rolled down his window and asked for directions from a police officer.  Oddly, the police officer made eye contact with me and winked.  A right turn brought us into a one lane road where traffic was at a standstill.  By this time what should have been a very reasonable fare was now approaching twenty euros and we were still over twenty minutes away, in the opposite direction from our destination. I believe he had intentionally taken us in the wrong direction to jack up his fee.  It was time to abandon ship. We got out in the middle of the traffic jam, and I handed him five euros.  An eruption of Italian we did not understand pursued us onto the sidewalk as we walked away, and I swear the buildings blushed from embarrassment. Never have I met a cabbie who didn’t know where a landmark was. 

A few moments later as we were walking down the sidewalk, voices called from behind. “Attenzione!”  Two smartly dressed female police officers were telling us to pay the cabbie. These officers looked serious, with handcuffs! My mind raced as I told them he was a thief, and no way was he going to extort more money from us!  Much of this intense discussion was hindered by our lack of Italian.  Twenty-three euros were now on the meter and the driver wanted to be paid.  I repeated, “no way!” multiple times.  Thank goodness for Google Maps.  With it we were able to show the officers our pickup point and what our original route should have been and the time it should have taken.  They immediately saw how deliberately off course we were. They agreed with us and reprimanded the driver and told him he was lucky he got the 5 Euros.  The police officers apologized for his behavior and were sorry that it happened to us.  From where we got out of the cab it took us an hour to walk to Galleria Umberto where two “caffé corretto,” espresso with grappa, were ordered to sooth our frustration. For this very reason we prefer to use the transparency of Uber or Lyft for transportation when traveling; unfortunately, those services were not licensed to operate in Naples.

With our Naples Pass in hand we headed to the National Archaeological Museum.  This was a wonderful museum with a fascinating collection of artifacts, ancient pottery, classical sculptures, and mosaics discovered across the Campania region.  There is also an extensive collection of antiquities from the ruins of Pompei.

Walking back to our apartment we stopped at a small bacari with a few outside tables for aperitivi, the Italian version of happy hour, to savor the golden hour as the sun began to brighten the historic buildings along the boulevard on our last day in Naples.

Sharing the afternoon with friends and sipping Aperol spritzes accompanied with small snacks called cicchetti is a ubiquitous activity in Italy and reflective of “la dolce vita,” the sweet life. It’s a tradition we plan to continue.

Cin cin! Till next time,

Craig & Donna

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