Have you ever felt drawn to a place without knowing how and why?… It’s probably that call that travelers feel sometimes to something completely unexpected and somewhat unknown. Of course, Naples is not the farthest or the most unusual travel destination in the world, but still counts as something different. Despite its somewhat questionable reputation a decade ago, I have been dreaming of a trip to Naples for years, without knowing why… Few people would choose to travel to a city famous for the Camora mafia syndicate, its problems with cleanliness , petty crime, hectic traffic and strong willed people, not to mention the distant threat of Vesuvius. But Neapolitans are proud of their city, the most authentic and unscripted in the whole of Italy, a quintessence of what it means to have Latin blood. Naples has kept its atmosphere after millennia of being one of the biggest cities in Europe, still widely uses the romantic Neapolitan dialect in everyday life and is proud to have invented the world beloved pizza. This is the place where Maradona became and is still considered the god of football, the city that has known all the major civilizations of the Mediterranean and sits on layers and layers of history. When all other important travel destinations in Italy take advantage of each little piece of heritage it has, Naples still unearths treasures of the past and seems to have trouble managing such a huge wealth of history and culture.
Naples is not a city for everyone, as many could hate it from the first look of this restless place. If you are not scared of the ruthless traffic that seems to completely dismiss rules, you might be scared by the piles of trash that keep growing in the side streets, or by the loud and exuberant way of the Neapolitan people. Among thousands of graffiti and tens of thousands of immigrants, Naples is more real and authentic than any other Italian city I have visited. Just like the Vesuvius volcano, that looms menacing over the city, Naples erupts each day from the first light until late into the night, and in some corners, it never goes to sleep! Erri de Luca, a writer from Naples said that it is “a city where suitcases sit next to the door, ready to take flight” and that “it is clear that every Neapolitan, not just the city, has a secret compartment”. The city has come a long way from the days so beautifully described by Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels, but it still has some of the same attributes. It is still a raw depiction of unscripted life in Southern Italy, where there is still a gritty scene deep under the tourist routes, and Neapolitan families still have some of the same problems. It is a destination of contrasts, a modern, miniature Tower of Babel. If you like silence and cleanliness, Naples might not be for you and it may be better to keep the road towards sunnier places that can be found close by.
Naples cannot be included into any kind of travel pattern, cannot be described so easily and is complicated to love. But beyond this sometimes cruel reality of the streets and neighborhoods, a trip to Naples can uncover an exceptional cultural destination that can compete with anything. The millennia of history have left an overwhelming legacy to the city, fascinating places like castles or churches. If the first contact with the city can be rough, those who are patient enough to know and understand it in its most profound details, will end up in loving it forever. First evening in this trip to Naples, I set out to see the city from the height of the Sant’Elmo Castle and its panoramic hill. It is a rather steep ascent and it took a long time to get up, but the view was worth each footstep. I first visited the San Martino Monastery and Museum Complex up on the hill, just before closing time. It was an eerie feeling wandering the old halls and corridors of the monastery in solitude. The museum hosts a collection of miniature nativity scenes, including the spectacular Presepe Cuciniello (Cuciniello Crib), quite unique in the world with its hundreds of people, angels, animals and miniature items. With dozens of halls, the museum also houses the former church and cloisters of the monastery, with exquisite frescoes, paintings, sculptures, carriages and so on. Upon leaving, the night had already set over the Gulf of Naples, with the silhouette of Vesuvius in the background. Upon reaching the lower web of streets in the Quartieri Spagnoli, I got lost for almost an hour in the labyrinth, trying to find the metro station again.
If there is one place you should not miss during a trip to Naples, that is the National Archaeological Museum, guardian of countless treasures found in the area of Naples. But before entering the museum, I wanted to purchase the Campania ArteCard tourist pass. It is a valuable tool if you wish to save time and money in Naples and the whole of Campania region. For 32 Euros, I got 3 days of free transportation within the region, two free entries to any tourist attraction include, plus up to 50% discount to the next sights and other special offers. There is also a cheaper option just for the city of Naples, but it does not include transportation outside the city and entrances to sights like Pompeii, Herculaneum or the Amalfi Coast. I tried to buy the card at the Central Station, then the museum, then a shop next to the museum, finally being redirected to the historical center. I finally found it in a little shop in the Piazza del Gesu, so I took the chance to also visit some of the churches nearby. The beautiful obelisk at the center of the square is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and is a Baroque masterpiece made entirely in marble. The striking facade of the Gesu Nuovo Church is a surprising feature from its civilian past, while the interior houses superb Baroque paintings and statues dating back to the 17th century. Right in front of the Gesu Nuovo, there is he sumptuous gate of the Santa Chiara Church and Monastery, a truly impressive example of Gothic architecture. Dating back to the 14th century, it was almost destroyed during the Second World War and rebuilt in the same style. The interior stands out, with its austere but striking features, a long nave and ten chapels on each side. The Majolica Cloister is also worth visiting to admire the Rococo decorations. The last stop was at San Domenico Maggiore Church and Monastery, located in a splendid piazza with an obelisk and beautiful palaces. The church itself is a highly ornate example of Gothic art and architecture, especially the stucco and gold ceiling.
Back to the Museum of Archaeology and with my free entrance, I was ready to immerse into the distant past of Naples. Like a journey through time, this was a visit that defined my trip to Naples. Trying to make a sense of everything among loud groups of children on field trips and tourist groups with guides, I got to admire most of the masterpieces during about two hours. I am usually not one to read each description and watch exhibits for minutes, in order to grasp deeper meaning, so a slow walk along the halls filled with traces of the past was a unique experience. The great museum has several rich collections of universal value, starting with the statues and artworks of the Farnese Collection. It was named after the family that gathered huge numbers of ancient works of art. It contains some of the most famous and important sculptures from ancient times, including the impressive Farnese Bull group, the Hercules Farnese, the Aphrodite of Capua and countless others. The next big chapter is the Pompeian Collection, holding treasures excavated from the sites tragically buried during the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. It would be impossible to name even the most important pieces of this collection, but there are exceptional frescoes, mosaics and other artifacts that give a glimpse into the otherwise lost past of two millennia ago. The Secret Cabinet rooms have a more distinct theme, consisting of an archaeological collection related to the cult of love and sexuality in ancient times. The last important part of the museum is the Egyptian Collection, considered among the most important in Europe.
From the Archaeological Museum of Naples, I set out to see one of the places that gave many of the exhibits, exploring the amazing ancient Pompeii for half a day. Returning back to my trip to Naples in the evening, there was still time for a little exploring. From the Municipio subway station, I first admired the imposing Castel Nuovo, also known as the Maschio Angioino, built in 1277 by the king of France, Charles I Anjou. The beautiful marble arch at the entrance was built during the Aragonese domination. Today, this former palace and fortress houses the Civic Museum and is worth a visit if you have time. A short walk away, right in front of the prestigious Teatro San Carlo, the oldest opera house in Europe, there is the grand entrance to the Galleria Umberto l, a monumental space that was the center of high Neapolitan life for almost a century. The superb architecture and stylish shops and cafes create an authentic belle-epoque atmosphere. Next to the theater, there is the Palazzo Reale, the Royal Palace where visitors can enter the world of royalty and see some of the splendors inside. Going further, probably the most famous square of the city is Piazza del Plebiscito. No trip to Naples would be complete without a visit here, a remarkable area surrounded by magnificent monuments and not so far from the sea. On one side, the elegant facade of the Royal Palace, while on the opposite side, the spectacular colonnade of the San Francesco di Paola Church reminds somewhat of the Vatican. Continuing the walk towards the sea and the beautiful promenade, I finally reached the Castel dell’Ovo, located on a small island, not linked to the coast by a bridge. It is here that the history of Naples began in ancient times. This imposing fortress took the appearance of today during the 15th century Aragonese period, now housing the Museum of Ethnoprehistory. I waited for the sunset close to this wonderful sight Naples.
All of these were all amazing, but my favorite moment on this trip to Naples was thanks to a mistake. Wishing to catch the first ferry for the island of Capri, I forgot to take into account the time difference and i found myself already in the subway before 7 in the morning. I decided to a have a stroll in the Quartieri Spagnoli or Spanish Quarters, probably the most atmospheric neighborhood in the historical center of Naples. This maze of dark and narrow alleys, with their tall buildings and signature clotheslines hanging in-between make for a most enchanting exploration. As people were leaving for work and merchants were stocking their shops, the first rays of warm sunshine were gently touching the cobblestone alleys. This is also one of poorest parts of town, with working class Neapolitan people and immigrants calling it home, so at night it becomes quite shady for lonely travelers. Nevertheless, this is real Naples and it looks the same it probably looked 20 or 50 years ago. The last experience with Naples was during my last day in the city. Checking out from the guesthouse I stayed in, there were still several hours left to explore and I had a few place that I needed to see. I made my way by the old Porta Capuana and the old Capuano Castle, starting my way on the Via dei Tribunai, one of the ancient streets of the city, now packed with palaces and churches.
The Cathedral of San Gennaro or commonly known as Duomo di Napoli, is the most important church in the city and has a history that goes back for millennia. Its core was rebuilt during the Anjou period in the 13th century, while the current Neo-Gothic look dates from late 19th century. The inspiring interior is worth admiring, especially the chapel dedicated to the patron saint of Naples, San Gennaro, which holds a vial of its blood. The miracle of the liquefaction of this blood is considered a good omen by the people of the city and is celebrated accordingly. The last stop on my trip to Naples is famous in the whole world, but a little hard to find. In the heart of the historical center, there is a small chapel commonly known as Capella Sansevero. It holds one of the artistic masterpieces of humanity, the other-worldly sculpture of the Veiled Christ. No pictures are allowed inside, but you can search for images of this superb work by Giuseppe Sammartino from 1753. Only seeing it in person will reveal the true beauty and craftsmanship required to create such a marvel that rivals with the most famous statues of the world. The small chapel is filled with other amazing marble statues, each more intricate and impressive than the other. All of these were made and organised by the peculiar Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero, an enigmatic character known as man of science and art connoisseur. With this insightful visit, I ended my trip to Naples, knowing that I hadn’t even seen half of the most interesting things within the city. There is still so much more to explore and discover, yet I think that Naples will forever have a special place in my heart…