Up and Down (and Down and Up) Old Napoli

Technically today’s agenda was not as aggressive (ambitious?) as yesterday’s, but there was a big caveat: a lot of terrain needed to be covered as almost everything we (I) wanted to see was far apart. A lot of thought (read potential overthinking) had gone into setting things up in The Spreadsheet.

Though it was not the #1 To Do for the day (normally the first thing I tackle), we started by taking a taxi up to the Catacombe di San Gennaro. Visits are only allowed by guided tour and opening hours are reduced on Sunday to mornings only.

English tours depart every hour on the half hour and on this particular mid-morning Sunday in late April, the tours were packed. I’m not sure which is the limit on the amount of people allowed, but it might be a good idea to pre-book higher in the season. The French tour had a big group as well and there were even more people on the Italian tour.

The opening hours were the reason we started the day there, otherwise I would have gone first to the Capodimonte Museum with the taxi and then walked down to the Catacombs.

This was only our second experience with the underground cemeteries, a few weeks before we had been to the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome – highly recommended!- and from what I had read, the Catacombe di San Gennaro would be very different. And they were.

These were not ‘secret’ catacombs where the paleo-Christians met clandestinely. Since the location was outside the city walls, it was legal to bury the bodies here, therefore no reason to hide. They are also very ample, not claustrophobic at all. The lower catacombs are almost semi-open.

The tour starts at the top of the hill by the visitor center and then you go down a long flight of stairs. Not awfully steep or difficult but the tour guide was not slowing down for stragglers. Then you go into the catacombs and keep going down. And down. All perfectly fine…. Except that what goes down, must eventually come up.

We had a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide that spoke clear-enough English that most of the non-native speakers (the English tour is the default for most nationalities) could follow without problems. She explained the scavi (excavations) and development for tourism of the Catacombs was a community initiative, not government sponsored or funded, that started out only 10 years before to rescue, preserve and share with the world one of Naples’ many languishing treasures. One more reason to visit.

I will just come out and say it. The experience was superb. We started the tour on the upper level, formerly a 2nd century private crypt, it begun to be used for paleo-christian burials in the 3rd century. The first expansion was to house the remains of San Aggripino, the first patron of Naples. The soft tuffa rock was excavated to make a large underground basilica.

The cemetery underwent another 4th century expansion when the remains of Saint Gennaro were brought for burial and the catacombs became a pilgrimage site.

The frescoes are outstanding. They include the images of female priests/deaconess Bitalia and Cerula (5th to 6th century). The layers of history are absolutely fascinating.

The lower level was dug out in the 4th century to accommodate the faithful that wanted eternal rest close to the saint’s remains. Centuries later a basilica and monastery were added to the complex.

We both loved this visit. Very highly recommended.

When we exited, we briefly looked into the bus that could take us up to the museum, but the queue as well as the wait were long. We hauled ourselves up the looooooong flight of stairs to the top of hill. There is construction and the way to walk to the museum’s entrance was a bit confusing but we made it.

The gardens of  the Capodimonte Museum were absolutely lovely and full of Neapolitan families enjoying the beautiful day.

There were multiple entrance options and we were totally confused with the explanation given. Apparently you could buy an entrance to see the special Picasso exhibit, or you could get the Pinacoteca, but if you got the Pinacoteca with the Private Apartments for an euro or so more you would still see the Picasso exhibit because it was set up in the apartments. Oooookay….our crude Italian was not good enough to follow the details but we were able to visit everything for less than it would have cost to pay for the entrance and the exhibit.

I will not bore you with the details, you can google them, but this gallery is absolutely amazing!!! Tiziano, Raphael, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Artemisia Gentileschi, and many others are very well represented with ‘secondary’ but still outstanding works.

C was beginning to wilt so we skipped the Contemporary art section. The Picasso exhibit was very well curated and comprehensively presented. He also bowed out that one, just saw the minimum required to get to the exit point.

 

It was finally time to head back down (down, down, down) to the Centro Storico. Easier said than done. In hindsight we should have taken the Shuttle Museo di Capodimonte to go and return for €8 per person but… too late. We opted to take the regular bus down to Piazza Dante after purchasing the tickets at a tabacchi store. It was fine, but waiting for the bus by the dusty street without a place to sit on a reduced Sunday frequency took FOREVER. Well, it was really something like 30-35 minutes, but it felt like forever.

I was actually scolded by an older Italian woman for not holding my handbag tight enough during the bus ride, it was hanging across my shoulder. Not that there was anything really critical in the bag except my phone, and that was 3 zippers in, lol.

But yeah, we used the Neapolitan public transportation and emerged unscathed.

This is not meant by any means to minimize the reports, even those of extremely savvy visitors, that petty crime is ubiquitous in the city. And it might be, but we did not witness it. I’m just pointing out that we were very vigilant but not paranoid.

We found a spot at an outdoor table in Piazza Dante, the city’s main public space and transportation hub to have a restorative drink (finally beer weather!!!) and a bite to eat before proceeding with the rest of the schedule. After people watching for a while, we got up and headed to the ‘other’ side of town to find the Vomero Funicular that would take us up (and up, and up) to our next destination.

Once on top of the hill we walked past the St Elmo castle and headed straight for the Certosa di San Martino church and monastic complex.

The trip up the hill is justified by the view from the lookout point.

IMG_5560

I would have liked to take the more extensive guided tour of the monastery but somehow I had not been aware of its existence until I saw groups of people popping in and out of locked doors. Oh well, you cannot see everything.

The baroque church was beautiful with its intricate stonework, the sacristy and chapter house outstanding, the convent worth every step…. But the view from the terrace and gardens was drop dead, take your breath away, spectacular.

After the visit we were done. Did not even attempt to visit Castel Sant’Elmo. A throng of people was coming up to watch the sunset around the time we took the funicular back down.

I was almost afraid to tackle the dinner conversation, but it was inevitable. Once again, for a third consecutive night and on our last evening in Naples, the man with whom I have had a pizza date every single frigging Tuesday night for the last 15 years, refused to have pizza for dinner.

He still wanted risotto. The same man that did not want to go to Northern Italy when I proposed it as destination, spent the entire trip looking for coniglio con polenta, risotto al funghi, fegato alla veneziana… Oy.!!! And yes, he is very much aware of the regional differences in cuisine. But I must state in order to be fair, that I did not expect the northern dishes to be so excluded from the mainstream restaurant options.

When you go to southern Italy, you eat southern Italian cuisine. Period. If you want something else, you need to find a ‘specialty’ restaurant and those are few and far between.

We are both omnivores but I can happily go for weeks gorging on fish and seafood without missing meat or poultry. Though he enjoys it occasionally, he is not as appreciative of the bounty of the sea as I am. And he dislikes dealing with shells and peels. This became more and more of a complication as we made our way south.

But I try to as good of a wife as I can be and agreed as long as he picked the place. He chose Trattoria da Carmela, a small and kind of cute restaurant smack in the middle of the main tourist drag and only steps away from the hotel.

We were early(ish) so we were able to ask for a different table when we were seated next to the service window. Thankfully the new table was almost in a corner, because later the restaurant filled up and diners had stand up while they were eating to let other people go by.

I guess most of the time everyone wants to sit out on their nice terrace, but it was cold and windy. The heaters were not cutting it.

He finally got to order risotto and he requested it to be ‘bien cotto’ (well cooked) in hopes of getting a rice mushy enough to meet his taste. We shared a mixed salad to start, I ordered a swordfish fillet which was good but slightly overcooked and he got his rice. It was very tasty and the texture was almost ok for him but still, not mushy enough.

The place was packed and they had a queue outside. It must be written up in some guidebook. By the time we were done eating it was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded in the small dining room.

I inquired about dessert as I was craving something sweet for once, but nope. ‘Not available tonight’. Wait…there were several on the menu. We tried to order coffee, nope, ‘not available on this night, try the bar next door, they serve better coffee anyway, with a real machine’.

What!?!? Yup, he actually said this to us, lol. This was NOT an issue of a mistranslation. This was what he said. Verbatim. So we paid up and followed his ‘advice’. I appreciated the honesty.

The bill was a very reasonable €37 but I don’t think I can fully recommend this place.

We did go into Caffe della Epoca for coffee and to get a taste of the other Neapolitan dessert staples: cannoli and baba. I had a few bites from both but was not impressed with either.

After that we headed back to the hotel and prepared for our morning departure.

So that was it. Day #3 was over and our time in Napoli had come to its end.

A fourth night would have been perfect and given us a more relaxed pace. Although this is total BS, I would have filled another day to its brim as well. There is certainly enough to see in Naples for 5 full days at a good pace.

Things which were on the wish list but remained unseen: the Lungomare, the Palazzo Real, the Castel de Uovo, the Teatro San Carlo, Piazza Plebiscitio, Porta Capuana, Chiesa di San Giovanni a Carbonara, Chiesa di Sta M Donnaregina Vecchia , the Napoli Sotterranea Tour, the Rione Sanitá tour, Cimitero della Fontalle, the excavations of San Lorenzo Maggiore, and of course, last but not least by any means: eating a Neapolitan pizza.

So did we like Napoli? Well… in a very weird and funky way, we actually enjoyed Napoli tremendously. Shocking, I know!

It is a city with its own identity. It embraces its quirks, its grittiness, and its chaos. It is what it is, take it or leave it. Napoli remains utterly unapologetic for living and thriving in its authenticity, and that, in my opinion, deserves a lot of respect.

Notes from Sunday, April 30th


One thought on “Up and Down (and Down and Up) Old Napoli

  1. Stella! Such a lovely post, very detailed indeed. I particularly appreciate that you shared pictures of the catacombs. I remember having read about the catacombs of Napoli in a short story, I forget the name of the story now. But it is quite a popular one

    Like

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