A (Very Long) Walk Through Old Napoli

I will start with a disclaimer: I know that this kind of ‘walkabout’ is not for everyone. I tend to plan ‘aggressive’ sightseeing schedules and this day certainly met that criteria. I adore visiting churches and the only thing I love even more are cloisters. I subscribe to the ‘leave no cloister unseen’ travel philosophy. The Spreadsheet (obviously) reflects these preferences.

Having said that, our day started out by seeking out a place to have breakfast as we had opted out of having it at the hotel. There were plenty of coffee bars around so we just walked into the first one. ‘Un cappuccino, un caffé e one of those pastries in the window that I can never remember the name of per piacere’. A Sfogliatelle of course.

I neglected to take a picture but you can google this shell-shaped typical sweet that is made of pastry dough (mille feuille) filled with cream. It makes for a very messy and rich snack or Italian-style breakfast.

I do not have a very big sweet tooth so the one I had was almost too heavy for me and I did not even finish it (and there is also the fact that I try to save as many calories as I can for wine). I know, sacrilege! I’m supposed to wax poetically about this quintessential Neapolitan pastry, but it is what it is. The texture, with a slightly crunchy bite, was very satisfying. I thought I would give it another try but never really got around to it.

The day had been loosely planned around a combination of Rick Steves’ ‘A Slice of Neapolitan Pizza’ walk and the Michelin Green Guide suggested itinerary. Mr Steves suggests three hours for this walk. Maybe he just refers to the actual walking part at warp speed, but it took us the entire day and we did not even cover anything south of Piazza Caritá.

Our first stop was at the Gesú Nuovo church. This 15th century palazzo of the Sanseverinos was sold to the Jesuits and transformed into a church. The façade is probably one of the most unusual church exteriors. It looks so modern it could be the work of Gaudí, Aldo Rossi or Louis Khan. Utterly unexpected. The interior is classic Neapolitan Baroque.

The interior is completely baroque. Somewhat separate from the main church there is a small museum combined with a large chapel dedicated to St. Giuseppe Moscati, a biochemistry teacher at the University of Naples and head physician at a local hospital who was canonized in 1987. The walls are covered with ex votos. There is a small chapel inside the church where his remains are located. He seems to be very popular with the Neapolitans and there was a short but constant queue to touch his statue’s hand.

Two things I noticed right away in this church and they both remained true throughout our road trip of southern Italy. First, the Catholic faith is alive and well in this region. Most churches will keep close to the entrance a lectern with the day’s liturgy bookmarked; people will pop into the church, read the liturgy, pray for a minute or two, and then go about their daily business. Whenever we walked into a church during mass, there were actually people of all ages in there (as opposed to only older folks as we see back home).

Second, the devotion to Padre Pío is firmly set throughout the south and the further south you go the more obvious it becomes. Every church will have at least a picture of the sainted miracle-working priest. From Naples to Santa Maria de Leuca there seemed to be as many street corner and altars and front lawn shrines dedicated to him as to the Virgin Mary. I noticed this because my non-Italian grandmother was a devotee and he was sainted while we were in Rome during our very first trip. Even though I do not identify as Catholic anymore, he holds a special place in my heart.

Just across the street from Gesú Nuovo is the gothic church of Santa Chiara. What a contrast! It was built in the 14th century following very elegant and simple lines. The interior seems almost stark. I adore these old, old churches.

The Santa Chiara complex also has a convent with an outstanding cloistered courtyard. If I was ever to become a cloistered nun (fat chance!) this would be a serious contender for location. It was renovated in the mid 1700’s and it is a riot of Majolica tiles. Absolutely lovely and joyous. Worth every penny of the entrance fee and the ticket gets you a 25% discount in several of the city’s catacombs. The museum has several interesting pieces.

We had to hustle to our next destination because we were getting dangerously close to the lunchtime black hole knows as ‘La Pausa’. Everything, EVERYTHING, unless otherwise specified and even then, will close down between 12:30 and 3:30 at the very earliest. All the smaller churches and museum, shops, offices… everything except restaurants.

We battled our way up San Gregorio Armenio street where tourists gathered at body-to-body density to gawk at the souvenir stands and nativity sets. This is ground-zero for kitsch. I lead a rather minimalistic lifestyle and I could not even bear to linger around to take pictures. It was borderline claustrophobic and slightly horrifying knowing that all the junk sold on this day would just make its way into landfills by the end of the year.

The church of San Gregorio Armenio was first founded in the 10th century by byzantine nuns over the remains of a roman temple. They brought along the relics of Gregory in the form of his bones when they fled the iconoclastic persecutions. The current edifice was built in the late 1500’s and then refurbished in the 18th century in a no-holds-barred baroque style. Two massive organs almost overpower the smallish church.

The point of interest in the church (the main event is the cloister) is the side chapel dedicated to Santa Patrizia. I could not get the full scope but there were lots of ex votos in the form of babies as well as pink and blue ribbons, so I’m guessing that the saint is known to aid in conception. Hey…you don’t have to be Catholic, just bear along with the story.

Actually, the temple is known popularly as the Santa Patrizia church. Though not as popular, there is also a ‘blood liquefaction’ miracle with her relics, similar to the one of Saint Genaro.

Funny, there was an older woman sitting by the altar telling people that photos were not allowed and to keep quiet. At constantly increasing volume. When she got to loud it was the nuns that shushed her.

I kept looking for the entrance to the cloister. Nowhere to be found. It was almost noon and everyone had disappeared. Well, I finally gave up and we started walking (wading upstream like salmons was more like it) up the street when I spotted a small sign pointing to the convent and cloister.

Up the stairs and into the convent just before the posted closing time. A thriving community of nuns still lives here and they ask not to take pictures. The cloister is huge and is divided into several areas. The fountain and flower garden were beautiful. I could not help myself but made sure not to include any of the sisters or private areas.

According to the Green Guide we still had time to visit one more place before its closing time. We waded back down San Gregorio street and made it to the church/museum of Pio Monte della Misericordia. This church houses what some believe to be one of Caravaggio’s best works.

The painting, known as The Seven Acts of Mercy, was originally commissioned as seven separate canvases to be placed in each panel of the round church, each dedicated to a single Act. But Caravaggio changed it to a single painting depicting all seven in a tour de force of pictorical composition and iconography.

We went to the Pinacoteca upstairs but we were in deep need of a break, so I do not remember it with particular enthusiasm.

We semi-collapsed into a little restaurant in a small piazza in front of the museum; Trattoria Caravaggio. Food was decent, the price was ok, service was adequate, and the wine was cold. We had one primi each; C had linguini alla vongole and I had the thicker Paccheri with seafood.

C did not love his because he was getting fed up of ‘way stiffer than al dente pasta swimming in olive oil’. All discuss this later at length because it did put a damper on his enjoyment of southern Italian cuisine. This is a matter of personal taste, not of the restaurant. And then a lot of his vongole (clams) did not open, so he was not pleased with this either. We both agreed that the sauce was excellent albeit oily.

Suitably revived with food and copious amounts of drink, I could bear to look once more at The Spreadsheet to see what was next on the list. Time to head towards the Duomo, technically named the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta but better known as the Cattedrale di San Gennaro.

There is outstanding artwork galore but the undeniable attraction is the Royal Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro where the miraculous vials containing the saint’s blood are held in absolute veneration. The sculptures and objects displayed, particularly the silverwork, are amazing.

But the cathedral holds yet more treasures for the committed visitor, through a side entrance (fee required) you can enter the 4th century paleochrisitan Basilica of Santa Restituta, but the true jewel of the crown (at least for my personal taste!) is the small 5th century Battisterio di San Giovanni with its wonderfully vibrant mosaics.

Upon exiting I almost flaked out of the next programmed visit: the Museo del Tesoro di San Gennaro. But for once, C was all ‘well, we are here now, and you wanted to see it so let’s go in’. No pictures allowed. I loved the intricate jewelry work exhibit and artwork. But we were tired and did not linger.

Back down into the spaccanapoli where apparently the entire population of Naples and nearby towns was hanging out along with the tourists. Of course, we could not pass on such a deal. And yes, that is a doorstep where we are sitting.

We relaxed and people watched for a while before heading out to the final must-do destination for the day: the Sansevero Chapel. Do yourself a favor, buy your tickets in advance.

I left C at the end of the very long queue and went to the front to investigate. The people said they had been in line for not more than 15 minutes. Ok, that was doable. I went back to hold the place in line and sent C to get the tickets which are sold at the office in the corner. Do not queue without the tickets.

Even as tired as I was, I thoroughly enjoyed this visit. No pictures allowed and strictly enforced. The veiled Christ was as magnificent as described. The Veiled Modesty (Pudizia) and the Release from Deception (Disinganno) are equally superb.

As you exit on the lower level you can gawk at the “anatomical machines”, the bodies of a man and a pregnant woman showing the skeleton encased in every single blood vessel in the circulatory system. Fascinating. It was long believed that these were real blood vessels somehow plasticized but recent research has proved them to be artificially made.

And that was it for the day. We were beat and C was complaining of heartburn. Evening #2 in Napoli and pizza was ruled out… again. But the man had soldiered through my sightseeing marathon so he deserved to eat whatever he wanted. And he wanted risotto. In Naples. Sigh. Ok.

And he (we) was not up to walking far from the hotel to eat. We were in ground-zero for tourists traps. I steeled myself for an awful meal but C has a knack for picking restaurants so I let him choose without complaining. Trattoria del Carmine was the one he selected.

It turned out the risotto he had seen was ‘al forno’ which is like a rice lasagna with tomato sauce. He declined and opted for a Zuppa di Fagioli (bean soup) for primi and Spezzatino con Patate (lamb roast with potatoes). I had the risotto al forno and scaloppini al limone. The risotto was tasty, very filling and I should have stopped at that. Mercifully the very lemony bordering on acid but still good scallopini were small. C’s lamb was the winning dish. Not five Michelin star ‘good’ but certainly a solid choice.

I will admit that I was skeptical, but overall it was a very good meal and, at €32 final bill, the quality vs price ratio was excellent.

A short walk back to the hotel where we pretty much unceremoniously crashed for the day. We deserved it. The next day’s schedule was just about as aggressive. But C did not know that yet. He slept well.

Notes from Saturday, April 30th


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