The highlight of Naples according to the guidebooks and the travel guru Rick Steve, is the museum, in particular the top floor which houses all the great mosaics and artifacts discovered in Pompeii, and promptly carted off. This was my #1 priority and I’d see what else I could squeeze in once I got there.
Unfortunately, on reading my guidebook on the train journey there, I discovered the Museum was closed just one day a week, the day I was travelling (so the answer to the question in first paragraph is clearly “what”).
I also discovered that I needed information I didn’t have to complete my document before I could notarize it, AND that it didn’t need completing after all until my shipped items reached the USA. Doh! I needed to research those other Naples sights rapidly, thankfully I had an hour and a half on the train and I made a rough loop of an itinerary, despite the distractions of the stunning mountain and coastal scenery that I was being whisked through.
It turns out those guidebooks do Naples a disservice, there is plenty to do, and much of it impressively good (or maybe the museum would have truly outshone all of what I did see in the day). It is however all set amid kamikaze traffic, and often crowded by ugly modern needs thoughtlessly installed to ruin the views.
Shops in Napoli's historic district
Just wondering the streets of Naples bombards the senses, especially in the old part of the city where, in narrow cobbled streets, cars amazingly vie for space with pedestrian locals going about their shopping or chatting and gesticulating with friends. Tiny fronted, crammed and exquisitely presented food shops, all specializing in something, were irresistibly picturesque to me.
One area of the historic center in particular is clearly the place to purchase your beautiful hand made nativity scenes (Cribs). Of course they don’t just make nativity scenes any longer, but many 3D scenes of numerous themes: artisans at work, housewives gossiping or doing their laundry, farm animals, and more (anything you can think of no doubt, although generally they seem to be styled in the 1700’s and 1800’s). These are no tacky memento but amazing works of art, beautifully built and stunning to me to view. Way beyond dolls houses! They are also large, centerpieces for a table perhaps, but way to large for a mantelpiece. Naples is the first area to have created the scale down, but realistic, models of the nativity scene (Until then all figures were built life size. I’m not 100% sure, but something to do with the technology that allowed for articulated models at such a scale, providing realistic looking figures; Plus the genius of a Napoli artist of course). As an aside, the first of such scenes I’ve ever seen was one built by our friend Pasquale. A beautiful nativity scene rotates 180 degrees to reveal a 17th century rural village scene – stunning and what talent.
A quirky item I saw a lot of in Naples was miniature scenes set within walnut shells. These included individual saints, or whole villages it seemed, whatever the whim of the artist. I’ve no idea how they worked with so many tiny and intricate pieces.
Yet another oddity was the battered small orange car I found chained to a post, for protection against theft I assume? It was small, but I doubt anyone would really just carry it off, hilarious.
I went to a number of churches (and the cathedral/Duomo), including one (Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco) dedicated to those souls in purgatory where the followers pray to old skulls in creepy, darkened, cobweb filled crypts (the pope officially disapproves, but that doesn’t stop anyone; Neapolitans are feisty). The skull of Lucia is a particular favorite of new brides it seems.
The cult of dead at Santa Maria
I went to monasteries and walked beautiful cloisters. I partook in the underground Naples tour, where ancient tuft mining has left large caverns which over the years (from the Greeks, on) have been used as water cisterns for the city, rubbish dumps, bomb shelters, wine stores, and plant growth experiments (among so many other uses).
The subterranean tour includes a walk over about a mile of the cisterns (a small fraction of the network), 40m or more underground, linked by narrow (very, very narrow) passageways, and in some areas the tour uses candle light to proceed. Also under the modern city experts have recently located a giant Roman amphitheater. This has been mostly built within and on top of over the centuries, and now has many of the archways in use as cellars, workshops, B&Bs and more, and until recently without the current owners having any idea that they were using part of such a huge amphitheater. The tour took us to the stage area and some of the seating areas, each a block or so, and a rapid walk through busy town streets, from each other.
Roman city beneath modern Naples and San Lorenzo church
Of course the tourist oriented subterranean tour isn’t the only show on the road with cool stuff underground. The San Lorenzo Maggiore church has an extensive Roman shopping precinct beneath it – all available to amble around and imagine yourself buying your fish and fresh bread from the appropriate stores.
Scenes from atop the hill at San Martino
I took one of the town funiculars up a hill for the views and found myself at the St Elmo Castle (also closed on Tuesdays) and yet another church/monastery (San Martino). Readying myself happily for another church tour, I was stunned to find an impressively grand residence (and views) but also an amazing museum. The rooms of the museum included original royal carriages, a giant royal barge, and a extended display of exquisitely detailed ‘Nativity scenes’ – including one that was large enough to have filled a standard stage and must have included 100’s, if not 1000’s of figures in stunning scenery settings.
Terribly dark photos but I hope you get an idea of the scale and magnificence of these 'cribs' - here are two different areas of the same giant scene
Eventually I walked and bussed back to the train station, exhausted, but in time for dinner with Enzo and Pasquale. Tantalizingly the train passed by both Pompeii and Herculaneum – two different sites overcome by the Pompeii eruption, and since excavated. Oh to have the time to see it all - just two more reasons to add to the many to return to Italy I guess.
And of course you can’t go to Naples, the home of pizza, without sampling the food. At lunchtime I did my duty, I approve!