From Rome, it is rather easy to reach Naples: just a two and a half hour train ride south and you find yourself at the station of Napoli Centrale, ready to discover the capital of the Italian region of Campania. That was exactly what I did for the last weekend of 2015, soaking in the unique atmosphere of a city with an extremely rich history, world-renowned traditions and enviable weather all year long.
THE OLD CAPITAL OF SOUTHERN ITALY
Does Naples really have it all? Well, mostly. Sadly, this beautiful city is also notorious for pickpocketing, crazy driving and waste management issues. I am not going to lie and tell you that the accusations are ill-founded, because I have seen it first-hand. However, Naples is not just that, and there is so much to discover and to experience that you will almost feel overwhelmed by the end of your stay. The sun, the music, the food, the sea, the art, the history are all true as well, and tourists and inhabitants alike simply need to be extra careful when walking in the street or exiting public transport, keep money and documents safe and in more than one place (even though that is true for every metropolis), and try to avoid the city’s peripheral areas.
As someone who has been to Naples several times, I can assure you that it truly is magical. Founded by Greek settlers around the 8th century BCE, Naples – Napoli in Italian – was originally called Parthenope and later Neapolis, “New Town”. After the Greeks came the Romans, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Normans, and many more: all populations that shaped the geography of Europe. Naples grew to become a strategic, prosperous and influential city, acting as the capital of the Kingdom of Naples from 1266 to 1816 and of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from 1817 until the unification of Italy in 1861.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN NAPLES
Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Naples’ historic city centre is the largest in Europe, covering 1,700 hectares and encompassing more than twenty-seven centuries of history. The city was particularly flourishing during the 18th century, when it was subjected to an intense urban renovation that saw the construction of some amongst Naples’ most striking buildings. A notable example is the Teatro San Carlo (‘Theatre of Saint Charles’), which opened in 1737 as the first public opera house in the world. To visit the theatre, guided tours are available every hour in Italian and English, and in other languages upon request.
Next to the theatre, in the iconic Piazza del Plebiscito (‘Plebiscite Square’) is the old Royal Palace, dating back to the 17th century and later redecorated in the baroque and neoclassical styles. The palace is currently under renovation, but several rooms are open to the public, included the majestic Royal Chapel: here, only for the Christmas holidays, it is possible to admire a nativity scene with figurines sculpted by 18th century Italian artists. Nativity scenes are a well-known and esteemed tradition in Naples, and if you are interested in hand-made, creatively crafted figurines to bring back home as a souvenir, you should definitely have a stroll in Via (‘Street’) San Gregorio Armeno, where artisans and merchants display their goods and have fun adding figurines of famous people from the world of international politics and entertainment to the more traditional ones of baby Jesus and the virgin Mary.
Speaking of Jesus, a hidden gem I recently discovered in the city is the Sansevero Chapel Museum, a deconsecrated chapel converted to museum, and a triumph of Neapolitan Baroque. It houses almost thirty works of art, not including the fresco on the ceiling, but the main attraction is indeed a remarkable sculpture of Jesus Christ called the Veiled Christ (1753), which strikes for the tissue-like effect of the marble. In another sculpture of the chapel, called the Disillusion (1753-4), the sculptor managed instead to reproduce a perfect replica of a net, again, all from marble. Oddly, and perhaps morbidly, the chapel also displays two anatomical models – a man and a woman – dating back to the same period, whose skeletons, organs and blood vessels are constructed of beeswax, iron wire and silk fibres.
Leaving behind arteries and nets and heading back to the huge Piazza del Plebiscito, even in December you can walk down to the sea and enjoy the sunshine on your face while eating a traditional panino napoletano (‘Neapolitan roll’), a delicacy made with cheese, egg, ham and salami. When I went in December, people were renting boats and swimming in the sea, because the temperature was around 15°C! I walked from the square to Castel dell’Ovo (‘Castle of the Egg’) all along the seaside, the sun shimmering on the water and Mount Vesuvius towering on the gulf in the distance. The view is even better from the top of the castle itself, an old fortress whose entrance is free.
But the treasures of Naples are not only visible on the surface. The city was built on an underground Greek-Roman aqueduct, which ensured the city’s water supply for twenty-three centuries and was later converted to air raid shelters during the Second World War. The daily guided tours of the underground city are frequent and available in Italian and English (other languages upon request when booking). Not recommended for claustrophobics, as the tunnels can be quite dark (they even give you a candle!) and narrow, and we reached a depth of 40 meters below ground. The last part of the tour includes a visit to the remains of the Roman Theatre, which have been absorbed by the new buildings because of stratification throughout the centuries. The dressing rooms of the actors are now in the cellar of a house!
My weekend in Naples ends here, but if you happen to be in the city for longer, you should definitely go visit the Cathedral, the Maschio Angioino Castle, the National Archaeological Museum and, of course, the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the ancient Roman towns destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE and easily reachable from Naples through the Circumvesuviana railway service. However long your stay, though, do not forget to try a real Neapolitan pizza in one of the many pizzerias in town, and one of the typical desserts: struffoli, pastiera, babà, zeppola, sfogliatella… just ask in any pastry shop in Via Toledo and take you pick!