At the beginning of April 2004 I spent 24 hours in Naples, I‘d like to show you what I saw.
I stayed in a hotel in the historical centre, the description on the net said, ‘easily reachable by underground (Metropolitana) Montesanto station or by bus direction Corso Umberto‘. Ha!, says I, nonsense, nothing is easily reachable in Naples that isn‘t situated directly beside an underground station. There are only two lines in the whole city and they do not cross the historical centre. I left my luggage in the station and only took my night things in a rucksack with me and went by underground to Montesanto station as advised. After getting to the surface I found myself in the middle of a street market; whatever you think of street life in Naples is right, rows of stalls with clothes, shoes, music cassettes, fruit and vegetables, fish and octopus, you name it.
After about 20 minutes I reached the Piazza Gesù Nuovo (there‘s a tourist information office on the place) with the church of the same name, built at the end of the 16th century and integrated into the row of buildings to the right and left as so many churches are in Naples. Its façade looks a bit like a fortress with its big slabs of grey rock, but it‘s baroque inside, overwhelmingly so, with rich gold and red ornaments everywhere, a multi-coloured marble floor and huge paintings on the walls. Difficult to concentrate on the service with so much to look at! When I stepped in I heard heavenly music, a group of young musicians was practising, a welcome I appreciated.
Some 50 m to the right and I was on the Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, (another church there and a pretty coffee bar with tables outside and the most delicious pastries, unfortunately the place is the meeting point of lowlife scum at night) where I found my hotel on the first floor of an enormous palace. Looking out of the reception hall across the inner courtyard I saw a workshop with men making mandolins, very typical, the centre of Naples is full of workshops and small factories. I was in the heart of the old city, but I decided to leave its exploration for the evening, first I wanted to see another part.
I went back to Piazza Gesù Nuovo and stayed on the street passing it which leads to Via Toledo (take a left turn), a minor version of Oxford Street in London with big department stores on either side but also tables with knick knack on the pavement sold mainly by Chinese and African vendors. After approximately 500 metres there is the famous Galleria Umberto I on the left side of the street, constructed at the end of the 19th century, a three-storey high shopping arcade covered in glass with a showy 57.5 m high cupola and a richly decorated circular hall underneath. It was built after the one in Milan but doesn‘t reach its splendour and elegance if you ask me, the Neapolitan version is a bit shabby (in this respect it mirrors the city).
So on to the Piazza del Plebiscito and the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace). If you‘ve never seen a Royal Palace you should certainly go in, but I was there in 1965 and doubt that it has changed much, besides I‘ve seen other Royal Palaces elsewhere, so I skipped it.
After crossing the piazza I found a garden/tiny park looking out onto the bay and the Vesuvio, at last! The top of the volcano was covered in clouds, though; I would have been very disappointed had that been my first and only visit, but I‘ve already been up twice, quite impressive to look into a fuming crater!
Dusk was setting in when I walked back. To the left of Via Toledo there are the (in)famous Spanish Quarters, two-storey houses built in the 16th century for the Spanish soldiers when Naples was under Spanish rule. In summer it‘s cool in the narrow alleyways, when it‘s too hot to stay inside life takes place outside, washing lines cross the street, housewives lower a basket with money inside when the street vendors come with their goods. I looked into an open door, saw a tiny room with a big bed, two chairs, a sideboard with a telly on it and a woman watching TV, didn‘t look very romantic to me. Poverty rules here, unemployment is more common than employment, it‘s here that the people live who sell smuggled ciggies on the black market and where brand goods are faked.
I wandered aimlessly through the maze of streets, once I came to a kind of half-open court yard with a fountain, decorated with garlands of bright plastic flowers and a statue of Maria and Jesus, the whole scene illuminated by flashing light bulbs. It was by now pitch dark, wasn‘t I afraid? No, I was not, the tourist season hadn‘t begun yet, the crooks seemed to still be hibernating. Ignorance is bliss! My husband told me later that only some days before a young woman had been killed in one of those streets when two thugs of the Camorra (the Neapolitan Mafia) decided to have a shoot out in the street and a stray bullet hit her.
I was hungry, I had only had some pastry in a bar around noon, so I walked to the Antica Pizzeria Da Michele in Via Cesare Sersale 1 (easy to find coming out of the train station and going down Corso Umberto, right turn at the first traffic lights). The restaurant still has its original tables from the 1800‘s, it‘s very simple furniture-wise, but arguably the best pizzeria, Neapolitans and foreigners queue outside. I was early, didn‘t have to wait, the perfect pizza needs only 3 1/2 minutes, so I was quickly satisfied. They only serve classic pizzas like margherita (mozzarella and tomato) and marinara (mozzarella and garlic), a pizza and a small beer cost 5 Euro, when you leave you‘re spoilt for life and know that you can only have second best wherever you are in the world!
Back to the quarter where my hotel was, oh my feet! and cobblestones everywhere. The artery of the historical centre is the long street (really two streets with different names, but they appear like one) in whose middle the Piazza Gesù Nuovo with the baroque church is, called Spaccanapoli in dialect (split Naples [into two parts]), narrow and flanked by high houses giving it a gloomy atmosphere with restaurants or shops (open until late evening) selling either food or souvenirs which often are produced on the premises. The most famous street is a small one to the left, San Gregorio Armeno, where each house has a workshop producing and selling statues of saints and Nativity scenes. Tourists can enter and watch the craftspeople work, look attentively, often the shepherds have the faces of politicians, footie or pop stars!
The following morning I visited the Chapel Sansevero just around the corner from my hotel (open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Tuesday, sorry, have forgotten the price of the ticket). It was built at the end of the 16th century in the baroque style but is not as pompous as the church Gesù Nuovo, it is small, just one big room with perfect proportions. Art lovers from all over the world go there to admire the wonderful marble statues, in the middle of the room lies a more than life-size statue of Christ covered with a veil, a female statue, not a religious character, standing to the left of the altar is also veiled, but the veil is made of marble, it is so fine, from a distance it looks like a silk cloth. My fingers itched, I wanted to touch the statues, also the one standing to the right, a male figure covered by a loose net, the loops about 5cm long, made of marble, incredible, the two guards don‘t stand there for nothing! This chapel alone is worth a visit.
A bit down the street from the church Gesù Nuovo is another jewel, the church Sant‘Anna dei Lombardi. It‘s really a museum with the most stunning Renaissance artefacts, wooden inlays, marble reliefs, a free standing Pietà group, to name but a few, if you have a feeling for these things, you‘ll realise that not much can surpass this in our part of the world.
I could easily have filled the rest of the day, although I had also seen the Archeological Museum during my first visit I‘d have liked to see it again, it houses the finds from Pompej and Hercolano among other fine things. I would also have liked to do a tour through Underground Naples which I haven‘t seen yet, there is an enormous cave system which has been used by the inhabitants for more than 2000 years (Naples was founded by the Greeks), but my time was up. Maybe next time!