Searching for the Old and the Unusual in the Historic Centre of Naples

If you believe its reputation, Naples is a den of cut-throats and pickpockets, with nothing much to see. I’d avoided it for years but, lured by the offer of a cheap flight, I decided to see for myself.

As I walked along cobbled streets, catching the occasional glimpse of the Bay of Naples or Mount Vesuvius in the distance, I reflected on the friendliness of the people, and realised how wrong I had been. I felt safer here than in many European cities.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Naples is one of the oldest cities in Italy, and the historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • The compact centre is typically Italian, but has a few quirks of its own.
  • This is the birthplace of pizza.
  • Good for: anyone who loves Italy or historic cities.
Street scene, Naples

Typical street in the historic centre

I was wrong about there being nothing to see, too. Naples is one of the oldest cities in Italy. Its Greek origins predate even the Romans, and the centre remains a maze of tiny streets, packed with churches, shops and private dwellings. It has that typically Italian flavour, with old stone buildings, the smell of freshly baking pizza, and Vespas dodging in between the crowds. But it also has its own distinctive character. This is a place where people live, where washing hangs from upstairs balconies and people bustle from shop to shop picking up their weekend groceries. By Italian standards, at least, there are not many tourists.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Naples is an ideal city to see on foot, so we set out to explore, starting at the Cathedral, halfway up a hill that runs down to the port area. The main attraction here is the glittering collection of gold and silver in a side chapel, and we piled in behind the other visitors to admire the silver altar and candlesticks. I wondered if photography was permitted, but I noticed a nun snapping away with her i-Phone so I decided it was probably OK. At the main altar a wedding was taking place, the participants oblivious to the tourists behind them.

Emerging from the chapel, we plunged into the heart of old Naples. Here, the streets are so narrow that even Italian drivers can only pass by one at a time. The tall buildings provide welcome relief from the sun: this is Italy’s mezzogiorno –- the place of the midday sun –- and even in late September we were glad of the shade. This part of Naples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because of its age and because of the influence of different Mediterranean cultures.

Lost Souls

Skull outside Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco, Naples

Bronze skull outside Santa Maria Church

The arcaded streets were lined with market stalls and traders with their wares laid out on the pavement. We walked along the Via dei Tribunali, past the entrance to Napoli Soterraneo, a vast complex of underground caves and passages built in the classical era which supplied the city with water until the 19th century. Our next stop was  the Church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco, where an array of skulls grinning on the outside wall indicated that this is no ordinary church. The name refers to souls in Purgatory, and it was here that people traditionally came to pray for dead relatives, a practice frowned upon by the Catholic Church, but nonetheless widespread.

At the nearby Piazza Bellini we peered down at the remains of the old Greek walls and stopped for lunch at a small café where an accordionist was playing O Sole Mio. There were  lots of pizzas being eaten: the pizza is native to Naples, and was unknown elsewhere in Italy until after it had become popular in the U.S. and other countries.

Cloisters of Santa Chiara

After lunch we walked down to the Spaccanapoli (literally “Split Naples”), a series of streets running parallel to Via Tribunali, and went into the cloisters at the back of the Convent of Santa Chiara. Apparently, this is one of the most photographed spots in Naples, and it is easy to see why. The frescoed cloister surrounds a garden full of 18th century seats and pillars covered in decorative majolica tiles, depicting fruits, plants, and the local landscape. The seats are for ornament only: when I bought our tickets the attendant sternly warned me not to “sit on or touch the tiles”.

Convent of Santa Chiara, Naples

Tiled columns at Santa Chiara

A museum by the side of the cloister includes the impressive remains of the Roman baths that were originally on this site. We left Santa Maria and made another obligatory Naples stop, this time for ice cream. Our final destination was the Via San Gregorio Armeno. This is a whole street dedicated to selling materials for the building of presepi, the Christmas crib scenes that proliferate in Naples during December, and which can frequently be seen at other times as well. We looked at made-up nativity scenes, with Roman landscapes and Vesuvius puffing away in the background. Wooden figurines of peasants, politicians and footballers, left us with a whimsical image of past and present, pop culture against tradition: a fitting summary to the day where everyday life goes on in the shadow of history.

Practicalities

  • Naples has a metro system, but it is limited and confusing to use. You can get around more easily by bus or tram, and the centre itself is small enough to walk everywhere
  • Although the city is safer than its reputation would suggest, as with any large city, you should take care with personal possessions.
  • There are plenty of places to eat and drink.

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