Thursday, March 17, 2011

First Stop: Naples

Colorful pastas of Naples
Ciao from Napoli home of some of the world’s best pizza and pasta!  We had an uneventful and unexciting flight from Newark to Naples.  Unfortunately, flying to Europe has become as miserable as any domestic flight at home.  The food was lousy, and the inflight entertainment was poor – just the usual.  The bright spot of the journey was the long layover in Munich that gave us a chance to drink some German beer.

Naples is pretty much what we expected: dirty and loud with towering, crumbling buildings strung with laundry, and narrow lanes infested with fast-moving motorcycles.  But it is vibrant, authentic Italy, and we love it!
Hectic streets of Napoli

   We are staying in a great central location right in the middle of the Citta Antica (Old City) at Hotel Neapolis.  The street called Via Tribunali, which is pretty much pizzeria central here, is just around the corner.  Speaking of corners, Naples has a church on almost every one of them, and we visited several including the impressive Duomo.

The highlight of our first day was a tour of Napoli Sotteranea (Underground Naples).  A whole ancient world lies beneath the city streets.  We started our tour in what was until recently a typical, extremely narrow Naples townhouse.  Our guide pushed back what would have been the owner’s bed to reveal a trap door leading to the basement.  The basement is actually part of a Greek/Roman theater built 5,000 years ago.  The stonework is gorgeous.  In fact, the stones comprising the walls were laid in a diagonal pattern to prevent cracking during earthquakes, one of the first anti-earthquake building techniques.   Nero himself famously performed his own operas in this theater (apparently he considered himself quite a musician – and who was going to argue?).  Legend has it that Nero once performed during an earthquake and even that couldn’t stop him from singing!

Walls designed to withstand earthquakes

The second part of the tour took us down 121 steps (about 50 vertical feet below the surface) to a 260-mile series of tunnels and cisterns that were once part of a Roman aqueduct.  The aqueduct was shut down after a cholera outbreak in 1884, but the tunnels were reopened during WWII to be used as a refuge from the Allied bombing of Naples.  2,000 people found shelter in just this one section of the tunnels for weeks at a time during the bombing.  Displays of artifacts of that time included rusty toy cars plus army helmets and weapons left here by German and Italian deserters who ditched their Army duds and escaped into the tunnels.

Claustrophobic underground tunnels

The cisterns are linked by the narrowest tunnels you can imagine.  The cleaners of the aqueduct moved around the complex by balancing themselves above the water.  Using footholds carved into the walls of the narrow passageways, they moved like circus performers placing one foot into footholds on the left side of the passageway and the other foot into footholds on the right side.  To get a feel for the passageways, we were each given a candle and inched our way through part of a tunnel.  At times, we had to slide along sideways against the walls.  Not an experience for the claustrophobic!
Back at ground level, we headed for a nearby “Limone” store where the friendly owner showed us his vats of homemade Limoncello.  He even gave us a tasting of regular and cream-style.  The Crema Limone was a revelation – creamy and less harsh but still very lemony.  Yum!   At night, we dined on delightful thin-crusted pizza trying various toppings including artichokes, basil and ham. 
Almost all the people we met were very friendly and gregarious.  In fact, once we got them started, they talked non-stop.  One woman joked around with us and pointing to the veins in her arms said, “I am Neapolitan, I have humor in my DNA!”
Our favorite sight of all was the Capella di San Severo.  This ornate baroque chapel was designed by a mysterious character named Prince Raimondo de Sangro who was an inventor, an alchemist, and a Mason.   The 200-year old chapel ceiling was painted with a special concoction invented by Raimondo, and the amazingly vibrant colors have never been retouched in any way.  On display in the basement are two bizarre skeletons with complete circulatory systems also designed by Raimondo that show an understanding of human anatomy that was highly unusual for the time.

"The Veiled Christ" by Giuseppe Sanmartino

Raimondo had a thing for intricate sculpture, and the chapel was filled with remarkable works.  One piece showed a figure untangling himself from a rope net – very detailed right down to what looked like actual knots in the rope.  But the star of the chapel was a sculpture called “The Veiled Christ,” a masterpiece created by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753.  We have never seen a sculpture like this one.  Somehow Giuseppe created a translucent marble veil that drapes over the features of the Christ figure beneath it.  This is a phenomenal engineering and artistic feat, but gazing at the statue is also extraordinarily moving – almost a religious experience.  As you move from the feet of the statue to the head, Christ’s expression changes from painful agony to peace. 
We enjoyed Naples more than we thought we would and were sorry to leave.  Last night, we boarded a ferry operated by the Tirrenia Line and made the overnight journey to Palermo, Sicily.  This is no Celebrity or Holland America cruise ship, but our very basic ferry cabin was bearable, and it was fun to be out to sea again even if it was just for one night.   


  1. Wow! What an interesting time in Naples. I tried to go when I was in Rome for a few days in 2007 but they had a train strike on the day I set aside for the trip. I can't wait to go back (thanks Trevi Fountain!) and see these sites...particularly the underground system! How did you learn about this tour?

    I'm also moved by the Veiled Christ sculpture. Anytime I see a sculpture with some sort of veil or cloth over the head, they always seem to amaze me and I find myself getting lost in trying to understand how the artist did that.

    Can't wait for more. Safe travels!

    - Kristen

  2. Hi Kristen!

    I discovered the Underground tour on Frommer's website and then aslo read about it on Trip Advisor. It really deserves more attention. And it's great because you don't need to reserve ahead, you just show up.