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Three Perfect Days In Naples

A playground for the rich and debauched, when ancient Romans sailed into the Bay of Naples, they saw a shoreline that sparkled with marble temples, opulent bathhouses, and vast imperial villas. From the 13th to 19th centuries, every famous personality stopped in the Kingdom of Naples. When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited the city along his grand tour, he commented, “See Naples and die.”

Today, tourists often avoid Naples—and they miss a fall back in time, where streets accommodate ancient ruins, not traffic, and the modern buildings blend into the crumbling texture of medieval palazzos. Neapolitans are an ebullient bunch, addicted to frenetic bustle and at the same time covet ‘dulce far niente’ (the sweetness of doing nothing). They have an obsession with their local cuisine, which boasts many culinary inventions. They also hold onto an unusual idea in these high-tech times: that old is better.

One of the oldest cities in the western world, Naples is often associated with the mafia and trash-filled streets. However, in 2011 Neapolitans elected Luigi de Magistris as their new mayor with a striking sixty-five percent of the vote. He ran on a platform of law and order, determined to eradicate the city of crime and garbage. Since then, government initiatives and grass roots groups like Cleanap have together made the city cleaner and safer.

DAY ONE: Wake up in your sea view room at the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia. Built in the 1900’s, the décor is art nouveau and the Bay of Naples glitters outside your balcony. You’ll also see Via Partenope, the street named after the siren who mythically founded the city and possibly even lured Odysseus to these shores.

Don’t bother with breakfast. Neapolitans don’t take the time either. Instead, start your day with a brisk walk into the clutch of the city. At Piazza Trieste E Trentoyou’ll find Galleria Umberto I, considered an architectural wonder of the world. A glass dome and four glass vaulted wings turn the airy space into an impressive cast of sunshine. Wander past the upscale clothing shops until you reach Bar Brasiliano. Have the Neapolitan version of breakfast here. At the counter, order a caffè and cornetto (croissant). When you sip from your tazzino know that in the south, caffè is best known for its strong notes of bittersweet chocolate.

Take a short cab ride to Spaccanapoli (or “splitter Naples”), the main street that cuts the city in two halves. You have reached the Centro Storico that dates back to Greco-Roman times when the city was called Neapolis.

The narrow streets were erected by the Spanish viceroys who turned Naples into a metropolis starting in the 15th century. The population ballooned and buildings were created four to six stories high to accommodate the people. Artisans sold their wares on the bottom floors. Not much has changed. Laundry hangs from the balconies of overhead flats, food vendors wildly gesticulate to other shopkeepers and a dizzying number of museums and churches pull you right back into layers of history.

Approximately two hundred Catholic Churches exist in downtown Naples. You’ll pass by many until you wander down a little alley and find the Cappella Sansevero. Inside you’ll marvel at an 18th century wonder of the world: the Veiled Christ. Carved from a single block, the marble statue is draped in a translucent veil. Giuseppe Sanmartino sculpted the delicate piece, but very little is known about the artist himself.

Return to Spaccanapoli and head straight until you come to another cross street colloquially known as Christmas Alley. Open all year round, workshop owners sell their presepe or nativity cribs, which include carved figurines, moss-filled wooden houses and elaborate pastoral scenes.

Next, amble down the second ancient artery of Naples, Via dei Tribunali, and soak in the vendors who sell fizzy red wines, six hundred different types of pasta, and locally made mozzarella. Two thousand years ago, the Romans imported exotic animals from Africa for their lavish banquets, including ostriches, tigers, and buffalo. The buffalo stayed and the animals today create milk for the signature cheese of this region: mozzarella di bufala.

It’s time for lunch at Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba where pizza was invented. A small restaurant with crammed tables, this establishment started out as a street stall in 1720. Try the Napoletana made of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, and basil leaves. Pizzaiolo’s (pizza makers) claim this is the only true pizza. The crust is always thin and you eat a whole pie with a fork and knife. A cold beer goes best.

When you leave, you’ll be very close to Piazza Bellini where you can view a snippet of the excavated Greek foundations of the city. Stroll over to Intra Moenia for  caffèal baccio (cappuccino with nutella spread thickly around the inside of the glass). Peruse their dual-language book section and listen for a soprano singing at the Music Conservatory one block away. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Naples was known as the capital of European music and anyone who wanted to make a name for themselves came here, including Farinelli and Rossini.

Now walk to the Naples Cathedral or Il Duomo. In a side niche, the patron saint of the city, San Gennaro, has his blood hermetically sealed in an ampoule. Every September 19th the Cardinal gives a morning mass where San Gennaro’s blood is said to liquefy. Whatever you believe, the yearly celebration is what gives Naples its reputation for being the city of miracles.

Now head over to the National Archeological Museum, which houses the most important collection of ancient Roman artifacts in the world. Most of the items come from this region, including Pompeii and Herculaneum. The secret cabinet is particularly popular, with its ancient erotic frescoes. The museum also displays marble busts and artworks from the Villa dei Papyri, once the residence of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Inside, archeologists found almost two thousand papyrus scrolls, most philosophical texts written in Greek.

Return to your hotel for a rest. Then, have a late dinner at La Bersagliera in walking distance from your hotel and along the marina. Salvator Dalí and Sophia Loren are among the famous personalities who once dined here. Waiters in tuxedoes serve many courses as you admire the boats along the lapping water. Try the spigola or bass fish, deboned next to your table and served perfectly moist.

End your evening with a stroll along the marina and enjoy the sight of families taking a walk with their children as well as libidinous teenagers escaping the protective eye of parents so they can cuddle… and more. Remember, Italy is the most populous country per square meter next to Japan, so privacy and personal space are always in short supply.

Garibaldi and African Immigrants

DAY TWO: Focus on eating, shopping and medieval museum visits. Go from your hotel to Via Toledo where you’ll enter Pintauro. Order the Neapolitan puff pastry sfogliatelle baked with many layers of thin dough that turn golden crispy brown. The pastry is filled with ricotta cheese infused with vanilla bean and orange rinds. Take it to go as you enjoy this street with its cornucopia of historical palazzos. You’ll pass the Spanish Quarter, named during the 16th century when the Spanish housed their troops here. A working-class seedy district now, it’s best to give it only a passing glance.

Stop inside the Galleria di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano to see the impressive inside courtyard with a glass roof and balconies. Climb up the flight of broad marble stairs to see the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Naples was not only a city where the famous came to play or perform, but also for those on the run. Caravaggio fled to Naples after killing a man in Rome and the Colonna family gave him protection as well as art commissions.

Now its time to take an easy turn into Via Pignasecca where the streets are glutted with open market vendors. Shoe and clothing merchants hustle for business alongside fish mongers. The open markets are one of Naples most delightful sights, and the locals swear they do all their shopping exclusively here. The prices are fantastic and a little bargaining won’t do any harm either.

Once you’ve finished browsing or buying, stop at Le Zendraglie E Fiorenzano. The restaurant owner is most proud of his tripe dishes. During the 13th and 14th centuries, poor people, known as the Zendralie from the French word for ‘entrail eaters’ gathered outside local castles and villas. After the rich had gorged themselves at their feasts, the poor collected the thrown-out scraps. Their dishes turned into street food and Le Zendraglie’s restaurant owner is determined to keep these food traditions alive through his menu that includes tripe in tomato sauce.

Head back to Via Toledo where you take the Funicular. A cable railway, this was built after the Italian government passed a law in 1885 for the Risanamento (or slum clearance) and the city received a major ‘face lift’.

Get out at the shopping district of Vomero and take a walk up the steep steps to the top of the hill. A libation is then in order at Arx Caffè. The granita or ice coffee is an excellent choice during the summer months, made of iced espresso flakes. Take a seat at a table by the windows and enjoy a view of Spaccanapoli and the Centro Storico.

After the pick me up, spend some time inside the Castel Sant’Elmo next door. Used as a prison for three centuries, the castle has an unusual hexagonal shape. The knightly clavicles house modern art exhibitions, including permanent sculpture installations by Mimmo Paladino. The courtyard is the absolute highlight, touting a 360 degree view of the city.

One block away, the Certosa San Martino has the same breathtaking views in its gardens. The charterhouse has a vast collection of 15th to 19th century art. A year-round permanent exhibition of precepe is the highlight, which includes an African King created by Giuseppe San Martino (sculptor of the Veiled Christ). Make sure to walk along the main cloister with its sixty-four columns and marble skulls.

Take the Montesanto funicular back down the hill and walk to your hotel for a rest. Neapolitans eat late, no earlier than eight o’clock, so never rush to get out of your hotel for dinner. Then take a cab to the posh district of Naples, called Posillipo, where Virgil is said to have had a villa during ancient times. Eat at La Sacrestia overlooking the sea. A long stairwell makes this restaurant seem remote, but inside it’s elegant, the view is stellar and the menu is superb. Any four course meal should include the schiafoni con totanetti (pasta with cuttlefish, black olives, capers and potatoes) and end with the region’s digestivo: limoncello. Made of grain alcohol and lemons, then served ice cold, the beverage is meant to aid in digestion after a long meal.

In anticipation of your classy art walk tomorrow, spend the rest of the night partying at MADRE where you’ll enjoy films, art lectures and different seasonal events. You can also admire Andy Warhol’s famous picture of Mt. Vesuvius inside the exhibition space.

DAY THREE: It’s all about the ritzy top-layer of this ancient city today. Walk from your hotel to CaffèGambrinus, famed as one of the first café-chantant or singing cafès in the city. Erected in the late 1800’s, the café hosted the likes of Oscar Wilde and Benito Mussolini. Sit at a table and order their signature caffè gambrinus topped with whipping cream. Select from their myriad of pastries too. Although the singers are gone, the artwork on the walls make up for the deficiency.

Now stroll past the shops of Via Chiaia, a pedestrian walkway that connects the downtown to the seaside. You’ll pass the Ponte di Chiaia, a 17th century gateway and then come to the Teatro Sanazzaro where actor Eduardo de Filipo performed. A Neapolitan original, he played beside Sophia Loren in L’Oro di Napoli. He also turned the Flip Over Coffee Pot from a French tinsmith invention into a Neapolitan coffee craze. You can still buy the stove top coffee pot around the city for about ten Euro.

You’ll spill into the Via Dei Mille, where you’ll browse stores like Emporio Armani, Prada, and Mario Valentino. The upscale Bulgari jewerly store might entice you to splurge. Then you might want to peek into PAN (Palazzo Arti Napoli), the modern art museum with roaming exhibitions by international artists.

Head from there to Moccia for a splash of caffè. Don’t worry that it’s your second this morning. Neapolitans drink upwards of four to six cups per day and portions are small anyway. I recommend ordering the Brasiliano, a sweeter rendition of cappuccino.

You’ll then spill into Lungomare by the sea whose broad avenue is closed to traffic. The stretch of seafront offers cool breezes, boats at the harbor, and two 17th century fountains. Villa Comunale is a serene park with benches, sculptures and one of the oldest aquariums in Europe.

At the end of Lungomare, you’ll walk up a slope to Via Posillipo (in the same district you had dinner last night). Take a villa walk overlooking the sea. Your first stop will be the Palazzo Donn’Anna where Princess Anna Carafa, rumor had it, murdered another woman in a fight for a man’s attention. The palazzo is still considered haunted. Keep walking past other villas and know that Villa Rosebery nearby welcomes the President of Italy whenever he visits Naples.

Eventually you’ll arrive at the fishing village of Marechiaro. Eat at A Fenestella and order the spaghetti alla vongole, a quintessenially Neapolitan dish made of pasta al dente, fresh clams, and parsley. For wine, ask the waiter about Lacryma Christi (The Tears of Christ.) Legend has it that when Lucifer fell from heaven, he plummeted into Mt. Vesuvius. Christ cried at the sight and his tears fell along the volcano, making the soil fertile for vitners. The restaurant is perched on a cliff so while you eat, you’ll admire the view of Mt. Vesuvius, the only active volcano on the continent of Europe.

Now ask the waiter to call a cab and go to Virgil’s Tomb. It’s somewhat walkable, but you want to be spright for tonight. You’ll hike up to a trapezoidal tunnel called the Cryta Neapoletana that meausres 700-meters long. The Romans constructed this tunnel during the first century B.C. and during medieval times it became a church. Look up to see the 14th century fresco of the Madonna and Child. Wind up the path a little further to come to an Apollo shrine where Virgil’s ashes once rested. By medieval times, people believed Virgil had foretold of the coming of Christ in his Eclogues. He was also believed to have had magical powers.Now, walk back to your hotel to get decked out.

It’s show time. You will have already bought tickets to the Teatro San Carlo, erected during Bourbon times as part of their massive architectural projects. Walk or take a cab to the theater and enjoy the show from just about any spot. See the mirrors in each opera booth? King Charles of Bourbon insisted they be installed so the audience could have a view of the stage and the king at all times. The mirrors are angled so that you can see the King’s booth in the back.

After the show, enough of the Italian everything already. Walk two blocks up to an alley and eat at the swank Japanese restaurant everyone is talking about, Kukai. They roll the sushi in front of you and the décor is elegant modern. Add a little tempura to your order and you’ll feel as though you’ve traveled across the world and through two thousand years.



Day One

  1. Grand Hotel Santa Lucia Via Partenope 48; Tel: 39 081 764 0666
  2. Galleria Umberto I Between Via San Carlo, Via Verdi, Via Santa Brigida, Via Toledo
  3. Central Storico From Via Benedetto Croce to Via S. Biagio Dei Librai
  4. Cappella Sansevero Via Francesco de Sanctis 19; Tel: 39 081 551 8470
  5. Christmas Alley Via San Gregorio Armeno
  6. Antica Pizzeria Port-Alba Via Port’Alba 18; Tel: 39 081 45 97 13
  7. Piazza Bellini V. S. Maria Di Costantinopoli
  8. Il Duomo Via Duomo 147
  9. National Archeological Museum Piazza Museo 19; Tel: 39 081 442 21 49
  10. La Bersagliera Borgo Marinaro 10/11; Tel 39 081 764 6016

Day Two

  1. Pintauro Via Toledo 275; Tel: 0814 17339
  2. Galleria di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano Via Toledo 185; Tel: 800 16052007
  3. Via Pignasecca Begins at Piazza Carita and Via Toledo
  4. Le Zendraglie E Fiorenzano Via Pignasecca 14; Tel: 081 551 19 93
  5. Funicular Centrale Augusteo at Via Toledo
  6. Arx Caffe Via Tito Angelini 57
  7. Castel Sant’Elmo Via Tito Angelini 20; Tel 39 081 558 77 08
  8. Certosa di San Martino Piazzale San Martino 5; Tel: 39 081 229 45 89
  9. La Sacrestia Via Orazio 116; Tel 39 081 66 41 86
  10. MADRE Via Settembrini 79; Tel: 39 081 29 28 33

Day Three

  1. Caffe Gambrinus Piazza Trieste e Trento; Tel: 39 081 41 75 82
  2. Via Chiaia Begins at Piazza Trieste e Trento and ends at V.C. Caterina
  3. Via Dei Mille Between Via G. Filangieri and Via V Colonna
  4. Pasticceria Moccia Via San Pasquale a Chiaia 21/22; Tel: 081411348
  5. Lungomare Along Via Posillipo, Via Francesco Caracciolo and Via Partenope
  6. Palazzo Donn’Anna Via Posillipo
  7. A Fenestella Calata Ponticello a Marechiaro 23; Tel 39 081 769 0020
  8. Virgil’s Tomb Via Salita della Grotta 1, Naples
  9. Teatro San Carlo Via San Carlo 98d; Tel 39 081 553 4565
  10. Kukai Via Carlo de Cesare 55; Tel 39 081 41 19 05

A Journey Through Virgil’s Phlegraean Fields

The Sibyl uttered her trance-induced predictions, Charon ferried souls across the swampy Styx, and Romans bathed in hydrothermal spas, all within an eight square mile area west of Naples, Italy known as the Phlegraean Fields.  Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Virgil, wrote about these ‘fields of fire’ in his epic work The Aeneid.  Today, the visitor can still tour the Sibyl’s cave, walk to the entrance of Hades, and admire impressive temples where Virgil once worshipped his gods alongside fellow Romans.

The Phlegraean Fields encompass a caldera or cauldron-like region of twenty-four volcanoes and craters, many still bubbling with seismic activity.  Over this mythical terrain looms famed Mt. Vesuvius, which Virgil would have seen too, although the volcano had a peak back then rather than a jagged mouth.  Virgil lived from 70 B.C. to 19 B.C., about one hundred years before the deadly eruption that covered Pompeii.  But while traveling through these fields, it seems that the earth’s million-year geologic history chuckles at my awe for Roman writers and Roman ruins.  Virgil and I, by the earth’s clock, might as well be part of the same generation.

Proof of how little time has elapsed between Virgil’s life and my own can be found at the Solfatara volcano.  A tree-lined path takes me to a sandy plain surrounded by slopes that puff endlessly with smoke.  I can’t escape the stench of sulfur, which depending on the direction of the wind, wafts all the way to the city.  Near the middle of the volcano, mud lakes sizzle at temperatures of up to 250 degrees Celsius.  Two vents, called “La Bocca Grande” or “The Large Mouth,” belch steam across rocks that have discolored into copper-golden hues.  Backed against one side of the hill, two brick archways still wisping with steam indicate that the ancients harnessed this hydrothermal activity for their vast network of baths.

The Romans called Solfatara the ‘Forum Vulcani’ or ‘The House of the God of Fire’.  I can’t help but think that Virgil’s description of the god Vulcan’s workplace derived from his wanderings here.  He did, after all, spend the last ten years of his life in Naples writing the epic poem.

In Book Eight Virgil tells the story of whenthe goddess Venus asked Vulcan to make a shield to protect her son, Aeneas, during battle.  Vulcan agreed and went to where:  … an island of smoking rocks rises sheer from the sea.  Deep within it is a great vault, and in that vault caves have been scooped out… to serve as forges for the Cyclopes.  The noise within them is the noise of thunder. Mighty blows can be heard booming on the groaning anvils, the caves are filled with the sound of hissing as the Chalybes plunge bars of white-hot pig-iron into water and all the time the fires are breathing in the furnaces.  (Book Eight, lines 419-424.)  Whatever truth lies in Virgil’s fiction, Solfatara hints of the ever-burning world that hisses and sizzles beneath my feet.

About a fifteen-minute drive from Solfatara, I visit Cuma, a Greek settlement that dates back to the eighth century B.C.  I stroll first through a trapezoidal hallway with great stone shafts that pour light inside.  At the very end, two stone caverns squeak with pigeons.  Here, some say, the Sibyl uttered her dual-meaning predictions.  Virgil must have wandered this hilltop city, his description of the Sibyl’s cave closely resembling how it looks today.  He wrote:  This rocky citadel had been colonized by Chalcidians from Euboea, and one side of it had been hollowed out to form a vast cavern into which led a hundred broad shafts, a hundred mouths, from which streamed as many voices giving the responses of the Sibyl.  (Book Six, lines 43-47)

I walk through the hallway where broad shafts on one side pour in light.  Once I reach the two hollowed caverns, I can’t help but listen for the Sibyl’s voices even though archeologists maintain that this was simply a Roman military fortification.  From here, steep stairs lead to an overlook of the sea where I imagine Aeneas sailed his ship or, at least, the Roman Imperial Navy held training exercises.  A little further along the hilltop road, a so-called Temple of Apollo leaves much to the imagination; the flattened rocks might have been a place of worship or where philosophers imparted their wisdom to anyone who could spare a few coins.  Yet another path dotted with trees leads to a Temple of Jove.  Better preserved and presumably a Roman temple as well as an early Christian basilica, I still need my imagination to recreate what these stones could have been.  On this very acropolis hilltop, according to Virgil, Aeneas begged the Sibyl to take him to the underworld so that he could talk with his dead father, Anchises.

Archeologists have excavated a vast circuit of military tunnels built by the Romans.  One in particular, the Grotto of Cocceio, runs from Cuma to Lake Averno, where the famed entrance to Hades exists.  The grotto has been closed to the public since World War II due to structural dangers, so I drive to Lake Averno through pot-holed roads that seem to have been last paved more than two thousand years ago.  Once I reach the lake, whose name Virgil explains comes from the Greek word for ‘aornos’ or ‘the place without birds’, the water ripples inside a crater now replete with ducks and geese.

A walking path curves in a half-circle to another so-called Temple of Apollo, now mostly buried in layers of earth due to bradyseism.  Peculiar to this region, bradyseism is the gradual lift and collapse of earth due to the ebb and flow of underground magma chambers.  As a consequence, most of the Phlegraean Fields lie underwater or beneath more than thirty feet of dirt.  This temple’s brick dome peeks out from tall grasses, its enormity betraying a size matched in the ancient world only by the Pantheon in Rome.  Most likely, this was a Roman bath with a grand view of the lake.  Now vineyards surround the crater, the ancient and modern taste of wine blending together in my mind.

Another half-circle road along the lake, but for cars rather than pedestrians, has an easily missed sign that says:  Grotto della Sibilla.  I park my car and go by foot along a dirt path arched with trees until I reach a pitch-black cave.  A personal tour guide, Carlo Santillo, hands out candles and we walk together down the grotto, which is a 300-meter tunnel.  He explains that during Virgil’s time, the grotto connected Lake Averno to Lake Lucrino.  Then he points to holes overhead that once held oil lamps, thus giving the cave a reputation for having noxious fumes pluming out from its depths.

Halfway into the tunnel, a narrow passageway of stairs goes down into what the guide says is the entrance to Hades.  The staircase ends at a pool of water, presumably the swamp of Styx where Aeneas and the Sibyl passed.  The darkness, the candles, and the musty smell give me the sense that Hades himself lingers close by.

From Lake Averno a narrow road turns toward Lake Lucrino where the ancients farmed fish and mussels.  Driving around its rim, the road winds up a steep cliff and then down into the little port of Baia.  This city was once a sprawling spa-town which Horace, the poet and friend of Virgil, said was the most beautiful place in the world.  A stone’s throw from the water, a Temple of Diana peeks its dome out from the dirt.  On the other end of the port and across the street, an enormous shell that looks more like the remains of an open theater is named the Temple of Venus.

From these temples, whose tips probably once towered three stories high, I drive up another hill until I find the gate to the Archeological Park of Baia.  A vast complex of three terraces, this park has a labyrinth of stairs, open space forums, detailed floor mosaics, dilapidated frescoes and arched walkways.  Archeologists guess that this could have been baths or villas replete with theaters, stadiums, saunas, and more.  At the bottom terrace, a dome hulks out from the dirt.  Travelers in the eighteenth century called this the ‘Temple of Mercury’ or ‘Temple of Echoes’.  I make my way inside the dome, crossing a plank over green-algae water and once inside, I yell high-pitched, my voice bouncing off the smoothed stone in rumbling god-like acoustics.

After roaming the park, I take a short drive to the Baia Castle towering over a cliff.  Although occupied throughout the centuries by many different owners, it is believed to have once been the summer residence of Julius Caesar.  The sheer views down to the sea remind me that pirates during Virgil’s time might have tried to scale these walls in hopes of finding loot.  Inside the castle, staircases lead up to an opulent dining hall with a blue tinted floor, Greek marble statues in alcoves, and a scene of Ulysses giving black wine to a Cyclops, the heads of the statues now gone.

The Aenied is said to be both an imitation of Homer and a political tract lauding Emperor Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar.  According to the epic poem, when Aeneas traveled to the underworld, he reached the land of joy.  Here he found his father, Anchises, who prophesized:  Under his auspices will be founded Rome in all her glory, whose empire shall cover the earth and whose spirit shall rise to the heights of Olympus….  Here is Caesar, and all the sons of Iulus… here he is, Augustus Caesar, son of a god, the man who will bring back the golden years to the fields of Latium…”  (Book Six, lines 781-792)  From this castle, I admire the majestic view of the Archeological Park as well as the Baia port and I am convinced that Virgil believed the Italian Olympus had been constructed right here in these Phlegraean Fields.

After a decade of writing The Aeneid, Virgil traveled to Greece with Augustus.  During the trip, he caught a fever and died in Brundisium.  He left The Aeneid unfinished, but Augustus charged two of Virgil’s friends to edit the work.  Once published, the epic poem became an instant success.  Virgil’s ashes were sent back to the city of Naples and a park exists between the districts of Mergellina and Fuorigrotta, where presumably his remains still lie at rest.

Square placards dot the grassy areas and give explanations of the plants – strawberries and myrtle, among others – that have been specifically selected from vegetation mentioned in Virgil’s works.  Cut into the tuff-stone, at the top of the park I come to the Crypta Neapolitana, also called the Grotto Vecchia.  A locked fence bars visitors from entering this 700-meter long tunnel dug in the first century B.C, but its grandiose height and triangular shape already leaves the visitor breathless.  To the right of this crypt, steps take me up and across the grotto to a shrine.  Inside, a tripod burner originally dedicated to Apollo sits in a hollow space.  This may have been where pilgrims came to venerate Virgil’s ashes.  Today his remains, however, are lost to time.

I end my meanderings within the modern day traffic of Naples.  The volcanic activity underfoot and the ancient ruins blend fiction, history, and geologic time together into my present-day existence.  These Phlegraean Fields and Virgil’s legacy leave me wondering if his own soul crossed through these fictions that he once shored up not solely from his imagination, but from the places he once roamed and wrote down in an epic poem for us to explore… and perhaps even believe.


Castel Nuovo

Castel Nuovo (also known as the Maschio Angioino) towers over the port in downtown Naples. Charles I of Anjou ordered its construction, which began in 1279. He called it the “New Castle” to distinguish the palace from the older Castel Capuano and Castel dell’Ovo. Throughout the centuries, the castle underwent many renovations. Today it has a trapezoidal plan made up of tuff stone walls with five cylindrical towers.

To understand the history of Naples is to know that after the fall of the Roman empire, the region didn’t have a national identity, but rather was owned by many foreign monarchs, including the Normans, the Spanish, the Austrian Habsburgs, and the Bourbon French. The two most notable influences on Naples’ structure and architecture today continue to be Spanish and Bourbon.

Cannon BallSpanish rule, beginning at the time of the Italian Renaissance, spanned almost three hundred years and Castel Nuovo remains a strong reminder of this period. In 1422 King Alfonso I moved his capital from Barcelona to Naples and renamed this part of his region “The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.” While he retained Spanish customs, traditions, and language, Alfonso also supported the arts, the philosophical movement of humanism, and launched numerous building projects within Naples. The nobility also at this time rediscovered the ancient city center and built palaces within the Quartieri Spagnolo (Spanish Quarter or Spaccanapoli) of the city. The narrow streets with high-rise palazzo along Via S. Biagio Dei Librai and south in the Centro Storico still look as they did during this time. Alfonso also made renovations to the Castel Nuovo and took up residence here.

Wandering into the castle, you first enter the grand courtyard. Going up the stairs, the Baron’s Hall touts a dome vaulted ceiling and noble seating. The room is so called because in 1486 the barons plotted against King Ferdinand I of Aragon, but were arrested in this space instead, after being invited by the king to celebrate his grand daughter’s marriage. The hall is still used for civic meetings.

Ancient ruins have also been found underneath the castle and you can walk through the Armory Hall where the floor is made of glass. Beneath your feet, you can view rubble that might have been the swimming pool of a Roman villa.

There’s also a bronze door in the upstairs rooms of the Museo Civico, which still has the cannon ball embedded in it. This is the original 15th century door of the castle, which was taken as war booty by the French and then later returned.

And finally, search for the mythical trap door where Queen Joanna II dropped her lovers to be eaten by “sea monsters,” possibly crocodiles. Queen Joanna I also lived inside along with Robert the Wise. Petrarch was also here.

Getting There: Overlooking the port, the castle is located across the street from where the cruise ships come in at Molo Beverello. The ferries to the islands also leave from here. The address is Piazza Municipio.

Velia and Paestum

Impecunious Greek philosophers wandered not only around the agora in Athens, but likely expounded their theories throughout today’s Italian peninsula. Some of the earliest Greek philosophers, the Eleatics, lived in an area about three hours south of Naples.

Parmenides was the founder of the Eleatic School and a citizen of Elea (today Velia). Born towards the end of the sixth century B.C., at the age of sixty-five he met Socrates in Athens. He also drew up laws at Elea and his main belief was, simply stated: All is One.

Eleatic SchoolBuy the book to get directions to Velia and more.

Getting To Paestum:Easy to find, from the A3 heading south take the SS18 all the way into Paestum.

Soccer In Naples

It’s impossible to talk about life in Naples without mentioning soccer. The fans are rowdy, the Stadio San Paolo is old, and you can frequently see flairs and firecrackers launched inside the stadium during games. Soccer is a huge sport here and it seems that all young males devote their afternoons and weekends to honing their skills on the field.

For those of you who don’t know much about soccer, here’s a small summary: the season runs from August through May. The Naples team plays forty regular season games per year – twenty at home and twenty away, playing each Serie A team twice. The Naples team is excellent, so they are in Serie A or the Italian Premier League. This league is considered one of the three best in the world alongside the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga.

Throughout Italy, almost every town has its own team, so there are also Serie B, C, and D. Each year, the top teams in each division move up to the next division the following year. The bottom four teams of a Serie move down a division. This makes the competition within each Serie fierce.

Most of the players on the Naples team are from Italy, but they also have their fair share of foreign players, including Edison Cavani from Uruguay and Ezequiel Lavezzi from Argentina. The great Argentinian Diego Maradona played for Naples from 1984 to 1991 and led the Azzurri to its only two Serie A championships.

The sport can get complicated because not only do Italians play teams within their country, but European tournaments also run throughout the year. The most famous tournament is the Champions’ League, which pits the top teams in Europe against each other in a year long competition with a finale in May.

To see a live game, it’s best to go downtown and purchase the tickets near the stadium rather than buy on-line. Go to Azzurro Service at Via Francesco Galeota 19, Naples, which has a TicketOnline s.r.l. inside.

Website Recommendation: The Naples soccer team is known as Societa Sportiva Calcio Napoli or SSC Napoli.


A Few Words About Trash

It’s time I say a few words about the trash in Naples. I’ve received quite a few emails inquiries about this topic and, of course, trash in Naples has been an on-going discussion within the national, European, and international press.

When I talk to Neapolitans, I find that trash is a topic of great embarrassment. Trash, after all, holds connotations of people being dirty and environments being unsanitary, if not toxic. So when outsiders discuss trash in Naples, a cultural sensitivity has been hit upon. And perhaps rightly so. What city or country doesn’t have its problems that are an embarrassment to its inhabitants?

But to the best of my ability, I will try to comment on what I have observed about the trash problem in Naples. Someone once told me that ever since the seventies, the old adage has been: “You come to Rome to see Italy, you come to Naples to smell it.” This would have us believe that trash has been an on-going problem for decades.

Many explain that the trash problem is bound up with the stronghold that the local mafia has on the region. While nothing can ever be pinned down to exact facts, I’ve noticed two things:

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What may be some of your ideas to help solve this on-going crisis? Write me to tell me your thoughts about the issue.

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Here is a heart-wrenching letter published on March 16, 2010 in Il Mattino (translated by me):

I return to Aversa and we are again submersed in trash

Aversa (15 March) — Yesterday evening I returned to Aversa, a town in the province of Caserta where I have lived for more than ten years, from a weekend in the mountains where my family and I had the good fortune of evading the gross accumulation of trash on the streets, and in the background the gigantic placards of the regional election campaigns.  Leafing through the local newspapers, I read that the new trash emergency is the cause of a collection strike due to a lack of payments of their salaries.

Whatever the cause, we are again in the middle of trash for which we can do nothing.  I have two children that attend the elementary school and who have lived in an unsanitary environment for years.  What can I do?  The only idea that comes to my mind is to escape as soon as possible this almost unbearable reality.

The thing that affects me the most is to see how in spite of everything, life continues, people continue to busy themselves as if nothing is happening, and those who lament, come to the annoying deduction that we are used to all this trash.

I won’t vote in the next regional elections because I believe that everything is futile.  I hope only to leave as soon as possible from a land that has taken away all hope for the future.

P.S.  Every evening for years, at dusk onwards, in Aversa and the neighboring zones one smells a strong stink of burning trash.  Could it be the trash of factories?  Who knows?

Rosanna Vitolo

Pompeii: A Self-Guided Tour

The Forum: Walk from the entrance through the Sea Gate, an inclined cobblestone pathway that goes under an arched tunnel. (Remember, Pompeii was once a port town and the sea was close to where you are walking.) You then spill into the center of the city – the Forum. Take a look at Mt. Vesuvius in the distance and imagine that day when pumice spewed from the sky. The Forum itself is surrounded by public buildings, including the Temple of Jupiter, the Temple of Apollo, a storehouse with pottery and plaster casts of Pompeiians, and a market where the woolen cloth guilds once sold their wares. The Temple of Apollo is the oldest in Pompeii, dating back to the 6th century B.C. The largest edifice in the Forum, the Building of Eumachia, was sponsored by a wealthy female priestess of Venus.

Via dell’Abbondanza: The liveliest street in Pompeii, the name was made up by archeologists along with every other street name in the city because we don’t actually know what the Romans called these roads.

Follow this street to see the dolia (terracotta receptacles) in shops that sold all manner of food. Pompeii was most famous for its garum, or fish sauce. Some of these places were stores and others were bars. Tour guides will tell you the citizens of Pompeii always ate lunch outside the home. Oil lamps within the restaurants and bars hint that they had customers all day and all night, which makes sense considering most people lived in cramped quarters, so they likely lived most of their lives either outside or in these establishments.

Via della Abbondanza in Pompeii The streets had very high stone sidewalks because garbage collection always posed a problem, as it does today. They also were likely strewn with refuse dumped from chamber pots, animal dung, rotting vegetables, and even on occasion human body parts. The smells would have been pungent. Notice also there were no drains in the streets, so when it rained the roads would turn into torrents of water that, helpfully, washed away the trash… best not to ask where.

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Napoli Sotterranea

Every visit to Naples should include a tour led by Napoli Sotterranea. Located along a side-street in the Centro Storico, don’t confuse this comprehensive tour given in many languages, including English, with the tour given at Caffè Gambrinus by the same name. Also don’t confuse this underground with the similarly advertised tour one block down at the San Lorenzo Maggiore Underground.

Napoli Sotterranea in Downtown Naples The tour begins with a walk to an apartment building. Some years back, archeologists noticed a recycled Roman marble slab used in the construction of the edifice’s top corner. They guessed that Roman ruins lay underneath the building and knocked at the door of an apartment on the bottom floor. The owner told them his apartment included an underground cellar as well as a parking garage for motorini (scooters). Archeologists climbed down to take a look, then asked if they could start digging. Sure enough, they hit upon a Roman odeon built during Emperor Nero’s reign.

The tour guide brings you inside the apartment decorated with 1950′s furniture. He lifts up a bed, reveals a trap door, and leads you down stairs into the cellar/parking garage. Diagonal lattices (opus reticulata) against some of the walls show how the Romans built their structures in such a way as to make them earthquake proof.

Leaving the underground through a side door, the tour guide leads you back to the ticket entrance and takes you down a long stairwell. At the very bottom, you come to a vast underground of hollow areas and narrow passageways.

This underground was first used as an aqueduct during Greek and Roman times and dates back to the 4th century B.C. The water system continued to be used until 1825 when officials shut it down because of a cholera outbreak. The aqueduct was re-opened and used as a bomb shelter during World War II.

Underground Kitsch Napoli Sotterranea has created a kitsch-like museum in several hollow areas, including World War II displays of army tanks, military uniforms, and toys left by children. Over 20,000 people waited out the war here and graffiti can still be seen on the walls, from the words Help (Aiuto) to pictures of bombs drawn by children.

In another room, a display of fake rocks and an electric pulley show how the ancient Greeks and Romans once used these cavities to cut tuff stones with large axes, hauling the pieces through holes in the ceiling. The materials were then used in the construction of buildings.

Down one corridor, biologists have set up a bed of plants that never need to be watered because the underground atmosphere boasts eighty percent humidity. The guide explains that when you exhale, you can see your breath.

Underground Botanical Garden Next, the guide hands out candles and takes visitors through thin passageways. This part is not for the claustrophobic; you follow the guide through hallway circuits until you reach a water cistern. During Roman times, the public used the larger cisterns for drinking water, while wealthy families would buy a cistern for their private use, pulling up water through holes leading into their homes.

The tour ends in a cavity that sits below the San Gregorio Armeno Church. Here, the Saint Patricia Order of Nuns store their homemade wine. The tour, terribly enough, does not include a taste of the wine and their cellar remains closed to the public.

Getting There: The address is Piazza San Gaetano 68, Naples.

The Blue Grotto at Capri

Capri is a resort island reached by boat from Naples. When you arrive, take the funicular to the piazzetta (little square) where It Started In Naples was filmed starring Sophia Loren and Clark Gable. From here, walk two kilometers along narrow roads lined with white washed buildings and where hotel carts zip past. You’ll end at the eerie remains of Emperor Tiberius’ villa, called the Jovis Villa.

The emperor’s summer villa still exists in Sperlonga, but Tiberius exiled himself to the Jovis Villa with its stunning views of the sea. He then left the day-to-day ruling of Rome to his ruthless praetorian guard Sejanus.

Villa of Tiberius in Capri

The two historians who documented Tiberius’ life, Tacitus and Suetonius, claim that by the time he lived in Capri, he was a depraved man. Known by his subjects as “Biberius” for his hard drinking, Suetonius seemed to almost enjoy the detailed descriptions of Tiberius’ time on the island. Seutonius wrote:

“Bevies of girls and toy boys, whom he had collected from all over as adepts in unnatural practices and who were known as spintriae, would perform before him in groups of three to excite his waning passions. A number of small rooms were furnished with the most indecent pictures and statuary obtainable, as well as the erotic manuals of Elephantis; the inmates of the establishment would know from these exactly what was expected of them. He furthermore devised little nooks of lechery in the woods and glades of the island, and had boys and girls dressed up as Pans and nymphs posted in front of caverns or grottoes, so that the island was now openly and generally called “Caprineum.””

Leaving the governance of Rome to his ruthless Sejanus, Tiberius was no less ruthless on his island. Suetonius also said:

“In Capreae they still talk about how the place at the cliff top where Tiberius used to watch his victims being thrown into the sea after prolonged and exquisite tortures. A party of marines was stationed below, and when the bodies came hurtling down they whacked at them with oars and boat hooks, to make sure that they were completely dead. An ingenious torture of Tiberius’ devising was to trick men into drinking huge draughts of wine, and then suddenly to knot a cord tightly around their genitals, which not only cut into the flesh but prevented them from urinating.”

Tiberius became so ruthless while exiling himself on Capri that upon his death at the age of seventy-seven, he was denied the usual divine honors of a Caesar and mobs of people in the streets of Rome yelled “To the Tiber with Tiberius.” They refused even to bury his body.

Today, beaches and quiet nature make this island beautiful. The Blue Grotto is the main tourist attraction, which would be a wonderful experience – if it wasn’t also a real assault on the pocketbook.

You pay a fee at the harbor and a boat takes you along the sheer cliffs until you reach the opening of the grotto. Here, you’re required to pay another fee to get into a row boat. The rower then tells you to lie down in the boat. He pulls at a chain strung through a small rock opening and the boat rushes inside. You enter a cavern where startling electric blue ambient light shines from the bottom of the water. The rower sings a song – often this is O Sole Mio but we got something from the Spanish group Gypsy Kings – his voice echoing throughout the cave along with the many other boatmen. He then asks for a tip before you leave his rowboat… and asks for an additional tip after that.

It’s brief, has a measure of magic but is, above all, an expensive experience that may leave you with a Tiberius-like sense of fiduciary perversity.

Getting There: You can catch a fast hydrofoil (aliscafo) to Capri every hour of every day at the Molo Beverello port in downtown Naples across the street from Castel Nuovo. Slower ferries (whether a nave or traghetto) depart from the nearby Calata Porta di Massa port. Check timetables (orari) at any tourist office or on-line at the ferry and jet services, including: Caremar and SNAV.

Tourist Offices

Tourist offices around the city provide a directory of guided tours given during this month also. The four tourist offices I recommend are run by the Azienda Autonoma di Soggiorno Cura e Turismi di Napoli (AAST) and can be found at these addresses:

Piazza Trieste e Trento 1, Naples;
Via San Carlo 9, Naples;
Piazza Gesu Nuovo, Naples;
Piazza dei Martiri 58, Naples. (Walk inside the courtyard past the guard and up the stairs on your right.)