After seeing off Ed and Rita, we headed further south, to Naples. We ended up staying there quite a while, because it was a) cheap, b) surrounded by lots of stuff to do, and c) full of pizza. That being said, compared to other cities in Italy the historical centre of Naples is way, way grungier. Naples has its nice fancy areas too, but for some reason the part with all the old churches, ruins, tourist pedestrian streets, etc. is covered in graffiti and everyone throws their trash on the ground. It’s a bit weird, but maybe that’s why it’s so cheap to stay there.
Anyways, our favourite part about Naples was that you could get a Napoletana pizza for 5 Euros, so we didn’t feel bad about going for pizza once a day. And there are so many pizzerias! Apparently there is an association in Naples that upholds the standards for Napoletana pizza, and you are required to apprentice for a few years before you can become a true pizziola. Pizzerias that meet the criteria have a “La Vera Napoletana” sign outside, so you know that you’re getting proper pizza.
True Napoletana pizza has very thin crust and a sprinkling of toppings. One of the tour guides we had in Naples went on a bit of a rant about how American-style pizza is pizza PIE and not pizza, because it’s so thick and usually has layers of cheese and other toppings. Since Napoletana pizza is so thin, every pizza is a personal pizza and it comes to you uncut, with a knife and fork to eat it with. Out of habit at first I kept cutting mine into triangles anyways, until we noticed most Italians just cut them up any which way. We saw several people eating from the middle outwards, leaving a circle of crust, which Chris thought was ingenious.
Also, unlike American pizza, it’s not uncommon for Napoletana pizza to come without sauce or cheese. Some types are literally just toppings on crust. which was different but also delicious. I like to think that this kind of pizza is healthier so it’s OK to eat it every day. RIGHT?!
Naples Historic Centre
The AirBnB we were staying in was in a traditional building just off the main pedestrian street, which was excellent because it meant we were in close proximately to lots of pizzerias and could walk almost everywhere. The whole area was made up of narrow cobbled lanes, with lots of old churches and shops. There also was a market nearby, which is where we discovered that it’s hard to buy fruit and veggies if you don’t speak Italian, because here you tell the seller what you want and how much, and they get it for you. This was difficult because our Italian is not so good, and also the Asian in me likes to personally pick through all the offerings to get the nicest ones. We eventually managed to get some grapes and peaches though. We also learned the hard way to watch out for stores with fancy displays and staff that speak perfect English, because they will probably sell you the most expensive cheese and salami they have. On the plus side, the cheese and salami we ended up buying gave us almost 2 weeks of delicious sandwiches, so it wasn’t a bad purchase in the end.
Naples National Archaeological Museum
One of our first stops was the Naples National Archaeological Museum, which we mainly visited because it’s where most of the valuable relics from Pompeii are kept. We decided to see them first so that when we went to Pompeii later we had a better idea of what is was supposed to look like. There were lots of nice frescos and crazy mosaics that looked like they took a painfully long time to complete. They also had a pretty impressive, if largely reconstructed, collection of Roman sculptures.
The best part however was their collection of erotic art, which was apparently quite controversial back in the day but is now on display in an “Adults Only” section of the museum. And it’s pretty hilarious. Or maybe I’m just immature for thinking flying penises are funny.
Nearby to our AirBnB was a lane known as “Christmas Street” because it is full of shops selling Christmas decorations and very ornate dioramas, which Chris loved. The most common trinkets we saw for sale were cornicello amulets and Pulcinella dolls. Cornicello are these little red horns that look like chilli peppers and are supposed to ward off the evil eye. Pulcinella is a masked figure who originated as a stock character in classical Neapolitan puppetry. He is a kind of bumbling everyman that manages to unintentionally prevail in any situation.
Pompeii, which is about an hour away from Naples, turned into a pretty epic day trip. Chris was super enthused and insisted we get the guidebook and audio tour so as to make sure we visited every building on display. So in the end, it took us a solid eight hours to visit the whole site, because Pompeii is REAL BIG.
Pompeii was a bustling Roman city before Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered it in ash, killing everyone but preserving the city. Archaeologically Pompeii is significant because it shows a snapshot of an ancient Roman city in its prime (instead of after its decline, like most ruins). Little things like snack bars and bath houses revealed a lot about day to day life at the time. Many well preserved frescos and murals were also found in the houses, demonstrating how interior design evolved over time (there are actually four different periods of Pompeian mural painting).
Much of Pompeii is closed of for preservation, but you can still visit the most important/impressive sights. These include the gymnasium, theatre, arena (complete with gladiator training grounds) and brothel, where there is some pretty good erotic art. Due to the suddenness of the eruption, they were also able to make make plaster casts of the bodies of fallen citizens, which you can see on display.
To break up our day trips we spent a day visiting the castles around Naples. The most “castle-like” of these is Castel Nuovo, which basically looks exactly like the castle in a children’s book would look.
Inside you can walk around a bit and see some of the ruins under the castle. There is also an infamous room called the Baron’s Hall. Apparently a whole bunch of conspiring baron’s were invited to a banquet there, then locked in and executed, Red Wedding style. The hall is also historically important because a pope was once elected there.
Next we went into Castel dell’Ovo. This castle is free to visit because you can’t actually go into any of the rooms, but you can wander up into the open areas and look at the nice views of the city and sea.
The castle is named so because it supposedly once housed a magical egg. The people believed that the wellbeing of the city and castle was tied to the wellbeing of the egg, so they went to great pains to prevent it from breaking.
We stopped for a seaside pizza and then headed up to Castel Sant’Elmo via the funicular. This castle is on top of a big hill, so you can see Naples all around you. There is not much to see in the castle but you can get a great view of the sunset from the top.
Our next day trip was to Herculaneum. Herculaneum is a smaller, less known city that was also destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius. It’s actually better preserved than Pompeii because it was mostly just covered by ash and not lava flows, so some of the original wood is still intact. Skeletons of citizens that didn’t escape were also found along the shore and are on display at the site.
The other upside of Herculaneum is that it’s way less crowded than Pompeii (some buildings there are so popular you have to wait in line to get in). The downside is that unfortunately a lot of the buildings in Herculaneum can no longer be entered for preservation reasons. This wouldn’t be so annoying, except the audio guide still talks about them as if you can go inside, thereby pointing out all the cool things you’re missing.
Anyways, we did get to see some nice murals and really old, charred wood. At one point we saw a pigeon pecking at the wood and Chris was horrified on the park’s behalf.
We also took a day trip out to Capua, which was honestly mostly because it’s where Spartacus is from and Chris had been watching the TV show. Despite having the second largest arena in Italy (after the Colosseum), Capua is not a very well known tourist destination. Not much is left of the actual arena walls, however the underground tunnels are all still there, and unlike the Colosseum you can actually freely go and see them.
It was a drizzly day when were visited and we were actually the only ones there, so it was pretty eerie to wander around down there. It’s also quite pretty, because the walkways and animal cages are all moss covered now.
This arena is not the one where Spartacus fought however, it’s a bigger arena that was built on top of the original, smaller arena. You can still see some of the ruins from Spartacus’s arena around the site though.
Our ticket to the arena also got us admission to a local archaeological museum and temple, but they weren’t that exciting (the temple wasn’t even open).
Catacombs and Cemetery
We also visited the Catacombs of San Gennaro, one of several catacombs lurking underneath the city. They are named so because they used to hold the remains of Saint Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. They were used as burial grounds for centuries, though today all the bones have been moved to cemeteries for health reasons. It’s pretty creepy down there still though.
After visiting the catacombs we figured we should go see the actual skeletons, which are now at the Fontanelle Cemetery. It’s a pretty crazy place, not really my idea of a traditional cemetery but instead a giant cave full of bones. The skulls are all lined up in rows on top of stacks of femurs, with the rest of the bones seemingly thrown in piles higgledy piggledy behind them. Chris tried to find all the different types of bones because he was pretty sure there was an inordinate number of femurs compared to pelvises.
Most of the skulls were unmarked, but some were more recent (like 1900’s) and were in labelled boxes. Lots of them had offerings of flowers, coins, and other little trinkets around them.
The Miracle of the Blood of Saint Gennaro
Our AirBnB host Luisa tipped us off to a religious miracle happening on one of the days we were in town: the liquification of Saint Gennaro’s blood. Saint Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples, and they have a vial of his dried blood in the Naples Cathedral that supposedly miraculously turns back to liquid twice a year. We walked by the church, where there was a big screen broadcasting the ceremony inside and hundred of people gathered outside, cheering whenever the blood was shown. You could also fight your way inside, but it didn’t seem like good form for non-Catholics like us.
Anyways the blood was already liquid when we arrived so I can’t really vouch for that miracle as I didn’t see it with my own eyes. The best part in my opinion was that the bakery by our apartment was selling delicious filled pastries shaped like Saint Gennaro’s hat. They were amazing.
UPDATE: We were there in September, but apparently in the following December the blood failed to liquify, signifying impending (and probably Trump-related) disasters for 2017.
We went on two underground tours of Naples, but only because we accidentally went on the wrong one the first time. Naples is actually built on top of some older, ancient cities, so there are several areas where you can go on tours to see the ruins. The first one, which we accidentally when on, visited the ruins under a church, which were fine but nothing new after visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The second, admittedly more touristy and theatrical (and therefore more fun) tour allowed you to go inside the maze of underground cisterns. The cisterns were built to provide water to the city way back in Roman times. They were used until the 1600s when they were emptied after being contaminated by the plague, then turned into bunkers during the second world war for people to take shelter from bombings. The tour took us through various cisterns where they had some displays to show you what it might have been like back then. For extra fun, at one point we were given candles to walk through a really skinny passageway, which ended at a cistern partially filled with water and complete with some musicians playing for ambience.
Afterwards we went to see the ruins of an old theatre found within an apartment building. They set up a whole theatrical reveal for the tour, with a bed hiding a secret door, which was pretty funny.
We took a day trip on the train over to Sorrento, the home of limoncello. Sorrento is a cute and touristy seaside town with numerous sunbathing areas and little shops.
We wandered around and made friends with a possibly stray local dog by giving him some salami. We also had our first crema cafes, which are these little ice cream-like coffee drinks we had been seeing everywhere.
While wandering around we also stumbled upon the inlaid wood museum, much to Chris’s delight. Sorrento is apparently well known for it’s elaborately detailed inlaid wood furniture, and everything in the museum was pretty impressive and looked like it took a looong time to make.
From Naples, we decided to head down to the Amalfi Coast!