Culture, cuisine, cliffs and coastlines:
12 days in Campania
Naples, part 1

June 18: On to Naples

It’s always a sad feeling to know that your next stop is the last on your
vacation. For us, that was especially true having to leave our nice
apartment and our nice view. We’d really grown accustomed to having
some space and feeling like we were at home. We’d say this experience
changed our expectations for vacations somewhat, and that we are likely to
incorporate this type of stay into future trips.

We said our goodbyes to the folks at Bar Internazionale. Stefano checked
us out at 9:30 and we paid for our linens, electric service, and cleaning.
Our driver arrived promptly at 9:40 in an air conditioned Mercedes, and we
were off to Naples. It was a relatively uneventful trip until the end, although
a little slow. Being a weekend, many people from the Naples area were
headed to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. Fortunately, the real traffic back-
ups were in the other direction.

We didn’t know what to expect from Naples. From all our reading, there
seemed to be days worth of things to do there. But of course, there are the
warnings of personal security. In fact, virtually everyone we talked to during
our trip – and we’re talking about the locals, not just tourists – admonished
us to be careful in Naples. Were we making a big mistake?

We arrived in Naples around 11 and directed our driver to via Luigi
Settembrini. We thought that arriving on Saturday would mean less traffic,
but Naples was as bustling as ever. We found via Luigi Settembrini easily
enough, but the two-block section of street on which B&B Donna Regina is
located (just off the via Duomo) is closed to traffic for some construction
and looks a little disheveled – not seedy, necessarily, just not what you
would expect for a place to stay. After a few phone calls (it helps when you
have a limo driver who speaks Italian), we got to the closest point possible
and found a very unassuming entrance with a set of humongous wooden
doors. This B&B essentially is a flat in an apartment building, so it is not all
that easy to find. We could see the limo driver, who had warned us about
Naples throughout the ride up, mentally processing this – what were these
stupid Americans thinking?

The proprietor, Dominic, greeted us and helped us get our bags up to the
fourth floor in what was the smallest elevator we’ve ever encountered. The
three of us were able to squeeze in together, but our bags had to go
separately. While reliable, it did tend to jerk and whine at times. Definitely
not a good ride for a claustrophobic. Fortunately, there are also some
stairs, which we frequently used to get down.

We spent a few minutes oohing and ahhing over the volume of art in this
place. It really is unusual, and not in a bad way. We felt like we were
staying in someone’s home.

Dominic spent a good 30 minutes with us and a map of Naples, providing
an orientation of the sections of Naples, some of the highlights, and some
of his favorite dining spots and local delicacies. His eyes practically rolled
back in his head while describing the pasteria from Scaturchio, so we
knew we’d have to try that. He also gave us the little pep-talk about safety,
but urged that it is not so much where you are (within reason, there are
some areas to avoid), but what you have with you and how you carry
yourself. We were well prepared for this.

Our first stop was one of Dominic’s recommended restaurants – Osteria
Antica Pisano – for an excellent lunch: homemade pasta with kalamata
olives and calamari, gnocchi alla sorrentina (what a surprise), linguini frutti
di mare, a stuffed pepper and house wine for 30€.

The first walk through the heart of old Naples, on via Tribunali, was a bit of
an eye opener, but frankly just like the pictures we’d seen. A narrow, dark
street framed by buildings tall enough to block the sunlight most of the
time. Even narrower side streets. Businesses of all types lining the street –
from fish markets to world-famous pizzerias – and a variety of smells to go
along with those. Laundry hanging from balconies above. Vespas and a
few cars negotiating the pedestrians. Graffiti on the buildings; trash in the
streets. And elaborate, historical churches virtually on every corner. While
the Via Duomo had a bit of a New York feel to it, this area was unlike
anything we’d ever seen. Step just off the Via Tribunali, and the ground
level, one room apartments of Naples's poor are very much in evidence.

Our destination was the famous Naples Arch
aeological Museum, which is
home to a variety of treasures from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other
eruption sites, as well as some other famous works of art. The Pompeii
exhibits include a full scale-model of the arch
aeological site, the infamous
loaves of bread that were baking when the eruption occurred, and a large
number of very well preserved mosaics and frescoes. We were particularly
taken by the intricacy and condition of the mosaics. We also spent time
looking at the Farnese marbles and the “Secret Cabinet” (Marisa and Chris
took turns, while Allie stayed outside the room). There are many parts of
the museum that currently are closed, but we still felt we were able to see
a lot. In all, we spent about 2 ½ hours, including a brief drink break in one
of the courtyards.

We returned to our B&B via the via Forio
. By this time in our trip, it was
getting relatively hot and humid. Even after a couple of hours of walking
around, we felt the need to shower.

We made an evening trip to see the Duomo before closing time. The
Duomo – devoted to San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples – is also
home to the oldest baptistery in the Western world, as well as what would
be the first of a number of Greek and Roman arch
aeological ruins that we
would encounter throughout the city. In addition to seeing the church itself,
we paid our admission fee and explored the arch
aeological site under the
church, taking so much time doing so that the admission office for this site
closed up while we were down there. There was not a soul to be seen
when we left, and we had to crawl under some barricades to get out. Let's
just say it was a good thing they had decided not to lock the door to the
site, or we may have had a very interesting first night in Naples.

We spent a little more time lingering in Spaccanapoli and perused the
vendors of nativity scenes on via San Gregorio Armeno before settling in for
some drinks on the Piazza Bellini. This is a nice square in the heart of
Naples with a little greenery (for a change) and some Greek ruins. It is
home to a variety of bars and restaurants and just 10 minutes from where
we were staying. We would spend some time here each evening. This first
night, we spent time at Internetbar, although we did not feel compelled to
go inside to check email. A nice table on the terrace, with music coming
from the bar next door, was just right.

We were set to try world-famous Neapolitan pizza for dinner. Dominic
recommended da Michele and di Matteo, but we were also familiar with
Sorbillo (from Robert Santa Monica’s trip report). That was the first one we
came upon, so that’s where we stopped. It was certainly a popular place.
At 8pm sharp, there was a cluster of people outside the front door. We
were surprised when they offered to seat us right away; apparently the
people outside were waiting for takeout. Nevertheless, we got the last table
available, and soon the line outside became even longer.

It isn’t a fancy place by any means, but it was good. Three pizzas (obviously
hand tossed and draping off the side of the plate in some cases) and beer,
and we were out the door for less than 20€. We were wondering why the
people outside were now pressed against the window. When we left, we
discovered why: it was raining. So much for walking off the pizza. We made
a run to the hotel and watched movies in Italian for the rest of the evening.

June 19: Old Naples and Vomero

We slept pretty well. Somewhere we’d read that the beds in this B&B were
not very comfortable, but we didn’t find that to be true at all. B&B Donna
Regina serves breakfast at a communal table, and we enjoyed
conversation with several other guests from France. Chris was even
pleased to be complimented on his French pronunciation, particularly
given that he hasn’t exactly been practicing lately (we haven’t been to
France in almost five years).

We bolted out of breakfast to make our 10am tour of
Napoli Sotterranea,
the series of underground caverns created by the Greek and Roman
civilizations and used for different purposes over the years – from
aqueducts to garbage dumps to bomb shelters. The tour lasts about 90
minutes. We learned how the caverns were made, and how the water
supplies were maintained. At one point, we even lit candles and used
them to make our way down a very (VERY) narrow corridor, just as was
done in Roman times. A little tip from Marisa: don’t wear white pants on
this excursion. Narrow, damp tunnels can put a damper on your outfit for
the day. Particularly moving was the series of inscriptions on the wall in an
area that was used as a shelter during World War II. Many people lived in
the caverns during this time, and you will find statements such as, “Mom
don’t cry” (in Italian) carved into the wall. This exhibit has not been open
very long. It is run by a foundation and the guides are volunteers (we and
others offered a tip for such an informative tour, but it was refused). Very
interesting, and highly recommended.

Our next stop was Capella Sansevero to see the sculptures – particularly
the
Veiled Christ. Equally impressive were Francesco Queirolo’s Release
from Deception
, a statue of the man entangled in the fishing net, and
Antonio Corradini’s
Modesty, a figure of a veiled woman breaking a plaque
that read ‘eternal peace’ – both said to be monuments to the patron’s
father and mother. Noticing some obelisk symbology throughout the
church, Chris and Allie started concocting a Dan Brown plot based on
various elements of the art and architecture. Don’t miss this, but
remember, don’t lean on the railing around the Veiled Christ or you will be
sternly reprimanded (you may be sternly reprimanded even if you don’t
touch it).

We wanted to spend the afternoon at the Certosa di San Martino, but first
we had to do something about lunch. We found that on Sunday, not much
is open at lunch time, save for a few trattorie in the larger squares. Trattoria
Pepe Nero on Piazza Carita was one such place. It offered a nice, shaded
patio and a not unattractive indoor seating area. Not a memorable meal,
but certainly not a bad one either. We watched some local children kicking
around a soccer ball (excuse us, football) while we ate.

Getting up to the Certosa di San Martino requires taking a funicular from
the Via Toledo and then making your way through some small residential
streets at the top of Vomero (the hill just to the north and west of old
Naples). We found the former to be much easier than the latter. Once you
get off the funicular, there are no obvious signs pointing you toward the
castle or the certosa.

The Certosa di San Martino, originally conceived as a monestary in the
1300s but deconsecrated and turned into a museum in 1806, sits atop the
Vomero hill overlooking Naples. It is a lovely and interesting place, but
clearly isn’t a big part of the tourist circuit. On a Sunday, there were very few
people here. The chapel originally was Gothic but lavishly redecorated in
the 17th century; we thought the elaborate marble work and the woodwork
in the choir were especially interesting. The large cloister is decorated with
skeleton heads and, overall, has a pretty ominous feeling about it. There
also is a large exhibit of nativity scenes, and a display of paintings
depicting views of and from Naples over the years. The Certosa’s hilltop
setting offers exceptional views across Naples, but we never were able to
get to the best vantage point.

We also popped into the adjacent Castel Sant’Elmo and made our way to
the second floor, bypassing the vacant admissions office. This 700 year-
old castle, for centuries used as a prison, is not so much an attraction
itself, but a site for special exhibitions. We primarily wanted to walk on the
walls and check out the views of Naples, which we did. There was a
rainstorm to the south over Vesuvius, which was quite dramatic, but we
only felt a few raindrops during the afternoon.

By happenstance, we enjoyed a couple of exhibitions while at the castle: a
very interesting and dramatic photo exhibit of the Dogon people by
photographer Alain Volut, and a large collection of Escher prints. Chris
happens to be a fan of Escher’s work, so this was of interest. Not only did
the collection include many of his famous illusions, but also a large
number of images of Rome and other parts of Italy created during the
years his family spent in Rome.

As much trouble as we had getting from the funicular to the Certosa di San
Martino, you can multiply that by about three for the trip back. We had
wanted to take the Montesanto funicular back down, a different one than we
used on the way up. We negotiated our way to where we thought it should
be and found no sign of it. We did, however, find a shuttered and
abandoned building. After some more misdirection, consultation of the
map, and a stop for instructions at a bar (the only sign of life in this quiet
neighborhood), we finally located a Metro station with a sign indicating “this
way” to the funicular. We descended some stairs into the station, then
continued to follow signs for the funicular that led us up an escalator and
right back out of the station to the point where we began. How sublimely
ironic, particularly after just visiting an Escher exhibition.

At last, we found the same funicular station at which we had arrived,
although we were further confused because the names of some of the
stops were different than the names on our map. We are thankful that this
‘lost tourist’ moment was our only one during our stay in Naples. If you
have to get lost, this isn’t a bad area to do so.

Back on the Via Toledo, we joined the evening passegiata and headed for
the Piazza Bellini, where we settled in for prosecco at Inter Moenia. But the
longer we sat, the more we realized that we just weren’t that hungry. Over
the course of a couple of hours, we added more drinks and a few snacks
and called it a dinner. We’d promised Allie a stop at Scaturchio for pasteria
afterward but found it closed. The gelato shop nearby was an acceptable
substitute.

By now it was dark, and virtually everything on Via Benedetto Croce/Via San
Biagio dei Librai (Spaccanapoli) was closed. We passed a variety of young
locals, some pretty tough looking and hanging in groups, but we did not
feel vulnerable or harassed in the least. Walk with a purpose and look like
you know where you're going.

Next >  Naples, part 2

See all of our trip photos

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Naples Archeological Museum
Campania - main page

our travels
home
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Naples Archeological Museum, mosaic
from Pompeii
Naples Archeological Museum
Naples, Duomo
Naples, Via Duomo
Napoli Sotterranea
Spaccanapoli
Certosa di San Martino
Naples monument, one of many
Naples, street scene
Naples, Piazza Dante
Naples, Piazza Bellini
Naples, from Vomero Hill