The first words that come to one’s mind when we refer to Naples are usually linked to the dark side of the city’s past (and sometimes present) like mafia, camorra, garbage mountains, immigrants, a poor city in the south of Italy. This image is surely unworthy for a city with a history stretching back to more than 2500 years full of heritage art-buildings, amazing monuments, built in a natural landscape that was blessed by the gods and is kissed by the sun, with people whose Mediterranean warm character colors the narrow streets and fills them with life. Greeks, Romans, Norman invaders, Angevins (french), Spanish rulers, Bourbon royal dynasty, they all developed and shaped the city over the centuries, and also left their footprint on the skyline of Naples, that was once the most powerful and feared kingdom in Italy and which is nowadays one of the most authentic regions, and a “must visit” travel destination.
Landing in Napoli
I have to admit that when I first arrived to the Aeroporto Internazionale di Napoli I felt that I have landed in totally different Italy compared to what I have seen and lived before, and I have to mention that the Italian environment wasn’t new for me. But here everything proved to be slightly strange like for example it is a well known fact that Italians talk quite loud, but my first impression was that Neapolitans were having a fight while they were speaking to each other, then as I got used to the tonality of their voice I realized that this was just more one feature of their volcanic personality.
Make acquaintance with a colorful city
Even though at a first glimpse Naples seems a crowded and unorganized city, tourists can easily find their way to heart of the historical center using the public transportation from the airport to the main train station Napoli Centrale. After a 30 minute journey with the bus I found myself staring at a huge statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the founding father of modern Italy, and from this square I started my voyage of discovery. Corso Umberto is one of the main streets that takes you alongside the beautiful 18-19th Century buildings and the University Fererico II (the first public state university of the world founded in 1224) to the city center. You will know when you are getting close to your destination thanks to view of the sea and the touristic harbor of Naples and the building that strikes the most of the city’s visitors: the magnificent Castel Nuovo or Maschio Angioino. This fortress-like castle, one of the iconic buildings of Naples, was built by king Charles I of Anjou in 1279 and it served as royal palace for the Anjou and the following Aragonese dynasty but was also used as a prison in the 19th Century.
And now I think it’s the moment for a short historical overview of this city’s past :
- founded by the Greeks around the 6th-5th Century BC and named Neapolis (meaning new city)
- colonized by the Romans in 328 BC who were drawn here by the fertile lands, the mild mediterranean climate and the high level of culture the Greeks have brought with themselves
- after the fall of the Roman empire the Normans invade the area
- the 13th Century is the period of the Anjou domination and great constructions see daylight like Castel Nuovo, the city defense walls and gates
- Naples becomes one of the biggest trading kingdoms in the Mediterranean world, and in the 15th Century the city falls in the hands of the Aragonese rulers who built the Palazzo Reale royal palace in the biggest square of the city, and enlarge the defensive system of the city
- 1734 – the kingdom of the Bourbons began, and with it the most important buildings were erected like Palace of Capodimonte, the San Carlo Opera House, the biggest park the Vila Comunale, several palaces and academies, the National Archaeological Museum
- 1861 – the unification revolution has begun led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, and in 1870 the United Kingdom of Italy, “modern Italy”, was born
- nowadays Naples is the third biggest city in Italy, and the has the highest rate at population density in Italy
Now that we are in the right place lets see what to visit!
Places, people and … PIZZA
Almost every tour guide, or guide book would recommend you to take a tour of the city on one of the Hop on – Hop off touristic buses stationed right in front of Castel Nuovo (they have two routes blue and red, the first takes you to the riviera, and the second one goes in the direction of the train station and the Spaccanapoli area), but my advice is take the challenge to walk this multicultural town.
Built and natural heritage – places
A two minute walk from the Castel Nuovo takes you to the largest square of Napoli, Piazza del Plebiscito , where you will find a series of monuments like the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola built in 1816 to resemble the roman Pantheon and the colonnade that wants to remind us of the huge Piazza San Pietro of Rome. Facing the square there id the Royal Palace built in 1600 by the Spanish rulers.
An other important building is the San Carlo Opera House, erected by king Charles III of Bourbon in 1737, 40 years before the famous Scala di Milano. Right next to the opera stands the likewise famous Galleria Umberto I, a commercial gallery built in the 19th Century which in modern times has the same purpose: luxury stores. Exit from the gallery and take a walk on the crowded Via Toledo, the shopping main street, but don’t waste to much time in the stores because some much more interesting things are waiting.
Take the funicular, Funicolare Centrale, and discover the highest parts of town with breathtaking views. Get off the funicular at last stop and follow the indications towards Castel Sant’ Elmo, a fortress castle built in the 14th Century and for long time used as a prison, today offers the most amazing bird’s eye view of Naples, the semicircular bay with it’s deep blue sea, all the cities along the coastline, the Sorrento peninsula and in a nice day even Capri Island, and of course the Vesuvius volcano as a silent witness of the centuries that have passed by. This is surely one of my favorite places of Naples, where the extraordinary view is completed by the warming touch of the sun, the gentle caress of the sea breeze and the silence that lets you hear your soul (and that you will find in no place on the fuzzy streets of the city).
Spaccanapoli, the old city center – people
In order to truly understand and feel the city’s vibe I returned to the crowded, busy streets of the center and heading towards the historical churches like the Cathedral of Saint Gennaro and I found myself the world described in books and shown in the old Italian movies.
Spaccanapoli (in direct translation it means “the one that cuts Napoli in two, symbolic for the narrow street of San Gregorio Armeno) is the district where you will find rather ruined churches from the outside, but once you enter you will find yourself in the middle of an art gallery with frescoes and baroque decorations (Church of Gesu Nuovo). All kinds of small shops sell starting from souvenirs to antique books or stamps, pizzerias, bars, and lots of people talking, laughing, smiling, singing and you always get a “Ciao bella !!” no matter how you look.
This is also the place to see the clothes put to dry on ropes hanging above the street, people drinking coffee at any time of the day or others waiting in line to have a place in the restaurant that has good pizza at a very good price, but also you can see so many street vendors selling small red amulets similar to small peppers (pepperoncini) that are believed to chase away the bad spirits and protect you from bad luck, a clear sign that Neapolitans are actually quite superstitious. The people here are also very religious, having more them 350 churches in town, and the celebrations of the saints are general feasts where everybody takes part. The most important celebration is the procession of San Gennaro, on 19th of September, when legend says that during the religious ceremony the blood the patron saint of the city liquefies and all the prayers of the participants are being heard.
So much wandering and I got hungry – PIZZA
Everybody knows that Naples is the birthplace of the famous Pizza Margherita, the most simple of all pizza tips, and this is because it originally was the food of the poor. Legend says that Queen Margherita, wife of king Umberto I of Italy, came to visit Naples and asked the royal chef to prepare her the food that ordinary people used to eat. The chef made a simple pizza with mozzarella and tomato sauce and decorated it with a basil leaf to make the colors of the italian flag. The queen was so delighted by this pizza that in time Neapolitans and the whole world called it Pizza Margherita.
So the most famous and ancient pizzeria in Naples is the Da Michele restaurant in the historical center, but due to its fame you will have to book a place long time before your plans for dinner or lunch. But if we are back in Piazza del Plebiscito I can recommend Rossopomodoro restaurant, where you can have a slice of take-away pizza or enjoy a whole one according to your preferences perfectly matched with a Moretti beer
Then take you time to enjoy a real Italian coffee at Il Vero Caffe del Professore or on the terrace of the historical Caffe Gambrinus , and as probably most of us need a little sweetness in our lives, don’t forget to try the sfogliatella and the baba (typical Neapolitan pastry) and a huge healthy portion of gelato italiano.
Breath in the fresh breeze of the coming evening, listen to some local songs, learn and practice how to ” dolce far niente“…
To be continued …