I’m not a big fan of the Rome Metro but I was persuaded by my Italian friend that the Naples one is just about the best in Italy. So I decided to take a chance. To start, there is the usual Italian problem of any Metro entrance – where do you buy a ticket?! It’s a struggle. The ticket machine does not work, the guy that has the booth by the entrance does not sell them, and the woman at the top where the newsstand is wasn’t there. After five minutes of inquiry, we discovered a shop where you could buy these train tickets. I guess Neapolitans have season tickets or something but it sure was a bit of a struggle to figure out how to get on the train. Once down in the dungeon of the Metro though, it all looked pretty cool. The trains were clean, it was highly logical, and unlike the chaos of the streets above, the metro had a quiet sense to it. We were able to travel clear across town with ease. Sure, the Metro map was a little graffitied up and maybe some of the posters were a bit too raunchy for some tourists, but the trains were perfect. I quite liked the idea that Helmut Newton photographs were being advertised here and exhibited at a palazzo nearby.
Not far away from the nativity street is the entrance to the National Archaeological Museum right on the edge of the Centro Storico. Here there are lots of statues and art that easily rival or outperform anything to be found in the British Museum, the Louvre, or the Vatican. These are the great marble collections of ancient Rome, Pompeii, and Herculaneum. However, the main draw for me was that this is the only place in the world where you can actually see the artwork paintings of Pompeii. They are still as beautiful as if they had been painted on a wall only a few years ago. This is where you get to see the people, the backdrop, the landscape, and how people dressed in Pompeii. The most iconic fresco in the room is the “Woman with Wax Tablets and Stylus” also called “Sappho.” I wanted to stare at her forever. If you have never been to this museum, jump on a train and enlighten yourself. It’s a mindblower.
Strolling through the Centro Storico in Naples is a trip within itself. I was on the way to the Naples National Archaeological Museum but had to stop along the Via San Gregorio Armeno to check out the pedestrian street laden with a combination of kitsch nativity scenes and the real stuff. They’re called presepe which essentially means “a crib.”
This is where every single Neapolitan family comes to at Christmas time. In fact, my Italian friend told me that pretty much everyone in Italy has some kind of glass enclosed nativity scene that has been handed down or is part of the family treasure. These things are wild. Some of them have intricate waterfalls and the possibilities to extend across the room like train sets. The price ranges from the basic model for 50 Euros to over 10,000 Euros for elaborate ones. But for Italy, it is not just Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in these scenes, there is a whole hobbit village created around the manger with trees, vegetation, waterfalls, windmills, you name it. They can be made of terracotta, wood, and cardboard. Even my communist friends have a presepe! But to note, Jesus is always the last to enter the scene and is only placed in the manger on Christmas Eve.
Some of these nativity scenes are simply breathtaking works of art, and some of them have odd characters like Maradonna, Naples’ most famous soccer player, hanging out close by. Neapolitans love football more than anything so why shouldn’t they incorporate their most famous (albeit an Argentinian) into their presepe tradition?! Onwards and upwards to the National Archaeological Museum I went.
Let me start out by saying that I visited Naples on my own a few years’ back. It was just a quick
stroll from the station and around the city for about two hours before heading back to Rome. It was interesting but I really didn’t get a sense of the city. Now we have a client that I know that would like to go to Naples but the rap on the city is that it has a lot of petty crime. So off I went with my man bag in hand for a virgin overnight in Naples.
First of all, it’s only a 63-minute journey on the high-speed Frecciarossa from Rome to Naples. The train is super fast. The Italians love their high-speed train links. They’re really good at this stuff! After a particularly dreadful on-train coffee served by a particularly disinterested on-train steward (the Italians are really good at this stuff too), we had arrived in Naples. My mate had organized a taxi (booked) from the station and so far, so good. We safely got to our hotel on a nice stretch of the promenade that sits opposite the island of Capri. In between, there were the usual underground excavations for a project that would never be finished, but no matter, we were here. The trip had been entirely uneventful, no muggings, no hassles and now with the light of the early evening, we decided to go for a walking tour.
Here’s the thing about Naples – it’s handy to know your way around, there are lots of hills, it’s a chaotic, and there are lots of different areas with very different characteristics. The first stop was the Palazzo Mannajuolo which holds an incredible staircase; probably the most breathtaking internal staircase in all the world, la scala ellittica. We strolled around the hilly Chiaia and stopped at an old-world candy store in San Ferdinando. We came across a beautiful piazza with the pantheon-like structure of the church of San Ferdinando. The piazza here is open and full of light with Vesuvius in the background. The opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, was showing La Traviata. There is a spectacular galleria, the Galleria Umberto I, close by as well. It houses thousands of panes of glass sitting in a cross formation with a whole series of panels of Jewish stars that form part of the glass decoration. The history of Naples is more or less the entire history of the our ancient civilization. One thing’s for sure, it makes Rome look like a young lad.
The light was dropping so we wandered back to the harbor to prepare for dinner near the Castle Nuovo (not very nuovo actually). That is where I had the most incredible spaghetti alle vongole I had ever eaten. So, this was Naples and we had only been there a few hours. More to come. Wow.