If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the city of Naples in the Campania region of southwestern Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea. In 1995 UNESCO declared the Historic Center of Naples a World Heritage Site. We certainly can’t say that Naples is undiscovered. But it is definitely less tourist infested than many, many other Italian cites. You really should consider visiting Naples, as you should consider visiting other parts of Campania, described in companion articles in this series.
My generation remembers Dean Martin singing That’s Amore (Napoli) in his perhaps less memorable 1953 movie, The Caddy: “When the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool; That's amore (that's amore); When you dance down the street with a cloud at your feet, you're in love; When you walk in a dream but you know you're not dreaming, signore; 'scusa me, but you see, back in old Napoli, that's amore.” My parents’ generation remembers the phrase See Naples and Die. Some say that the famous German author Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (who wrote Faust, a charming story about a guy who made a pact with the devil) coined this phrase on his extended visit to Italy in 1786-1788.
Greek colonists founded Neopolis (new city) between the Seventh and Sixth Centuries B. C. The city maintained its Greek character during the Roman occupation. Over the centuries this sometimes beautiful, often ugly city was dominated by nearly a dozen nationalities ranging from the (French) Angevins to the (German) Swabians. Things were not always quiet. For example, in 1647 Masaniello, a Neapolitan fisherman, led a tax revolt against the Spanish occupiers. He died but became a national hero, and the revolt led to a short-lived Neapolitan republic.
At one time Naples was the third largest city in Europe and a major cultural center. When the Bourbon kings established the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1738 they chose Naples as its capital. After joining Italy in 1860 Naples started to decline. The Campania regional economy ranks near the bottom of the Italian regional economies, but these statistics are somewhat misleading as they don’t count the underground economy. Unlike the cities of northern Italy Naples has few immigrants, perhaps forty thousand, in a metropolitan population of at least three million. Unemployment remains high. The Sicilian-based Mafia is not very present, but the local Camorra is. Like anywhere else, and probably more so, you should watch yourself and your belongings in this fascinating city.
We’ll start our tour underground. Naples is home to miles and miles of subterranean Greco-Roman reservoirs and tunnels, some of which are available for visiting. People who lived above these tunnels once got their drinking water from wells in their homes. Much of Naples is constructed from stone removed during tunnel excavation. During World War II underground Naples served as air raid shelters whose walls display legible graffiti more than sixty years later. Unfortunately many tunnels are still blocked from World War II rubble. The rest of our tour will be above ground starting with Royal Naples.
The Castel Nuovo (New Castle) was first built by the Angevins in the Thirteenth Century and includes a decorative marble arch honoring a Spanish king. The castle includes numerous frescoes from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. The moat surrounding the castle once contained a crocodile that devoured prisoners. The crocodile was killed and stuffed, and hung above a castle doorway where it remained until the mid-19th Century. The nearby Palatine Chapel includes the ironically named Sala dei Baroni (Baron’s Hall) in which a king doused boiling oil on rebellious barons who thought they were going to a quite different kind of party. In another version of the story, they were arrested and executed. In any case the room is still used for city council meetings.
The Twelfth Century Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle) was built upon the ruins of a Roman villa in Naples Harbor. As they say in real estate, location, location, location. Should you so desire, you can get a hotel room right on the promontory.
The Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) built in the beginning of the Seventeenth Century was one of four Bourbon Palaces in the Kingdom of Naples, the only one in town. Napoleon’s youngest sister and her husband, the King of Naples, lived there. Be sure to see the royal apartments to get a look at real luxury. Next door to the palace is Naples largest square, the Piazza del Plebiscito (Plebiscite Plaza), designed for that king and named for the plebiscite that joined Naples to Italy in 1860. The highlight of the square is the San Francesco di Paola, which resembles the Pantheon in Rome. There are literally dozens of historic churches in Naples, spanning the centuries.
If we are going to cite Dean Martin, we should give equal time to Mario Lanza. In 1950 he produced an English-language version of the popular Italian tune Funiculì, Funiculà featured in many movies and in the very first episode of The Flintstones. What does all this have to do with Naples? Take the funicular (a self-contained cable railway in which a pair of vehicles on rails moves up and down a very steep slope counterbalancing each other) to the upscale Vomero neighborhood high above the Bay of Naples.
The Fourteenth Century Castel Sant’Elmo (Saint Elmo Castle) was built to honor Saint Erasmoso. Perhaps Erasmo was too hard to pronounce. The Spaniards rebuilt this castle in the Sixteenth Century to deal with artillery fire. The castle is so well built that it still serves for military exercises as well as the site of art exhibitions. When you admire it, you should remember that it served as a prison for many years. The Certosa di San Martino (Saint Martino Charterhouse) is an ancient monastery transformed in the Seventeenth Century into one of Naples finest Baroque buildings with beautiful garden terraces. It houses the National Museum. Among its many treasures be sure to see the presepi (Christmas crèches) and Tavola Strozzi (Strozzi's Board), a depiction of Fourteenth Century Naples. The Villa Floridiana was built by King Ferdinand I of Bourbon for his second wife, the Duchess of Floridia. Not a bad gift; the grounds contain over one hundred species of trees, flowers, and plants as well as statues, fountains, temples, and even a fake ruin or two. The villa does honor to the site, and its view of Naples is spectacular.
Spaccanapoli (Split Naples) street is what the Neapolitans call it. You’ll find it on the map if you look for Via Benedetto Croce, Via San Biagio dei Librai, and Via San Gregorio Armeno depending on the neighborhood. Sights to see on the street or near it include the Gesu Nuovo (New Jesus) Church, originally built as a palace in the Fifteenth Century, the Fourteenth Century Santa Chiara Church and religious complex, the Sixteenth Century Cappella Sansevero (Sansevero Chapel) with multiple tombs and three quite distinctive sculptures, the Thirteenth Century San Lorenzo Maggiore Church complex built over Greek and Roman excavations, the Sixteenth Century Girolamini Church and monastery, and the Thirteenth Century Duomo (Cathedral) just across Via Duomo. The Cathedral includes the Sixth Century Santa Restitua Church. In addition to these historic churches, Spaccanapoli street is definitely worth the walk, whatever its official name.
Last but not least, make sure to visit Naple’s excellent museums. The Museo Archeologico Nazionale (National Archaeological Museum) has a great collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. The Museo di Capodimonte includes an extensive collection of paintings by Italian and other European masters and Bourbon royal apartments. The Palazzo delle Art Napoli (Palace of Neapolitan Art), known as PAN, and Museo d’Arte di Donna Regina (Donna Regina Art Museum), known as MADRE, are devoted to contemporary art.
What about food? Naples is the home of pizza of which three varieties are most famous: Pizza alla Napoletana (with Tomatoes, Garlic, and Oregano), Pizza Margherita (with Tomatoes, Mozzarrella, and Basil), and Pizza Marinara (with Garlic, Tomatoes, Oregano, Basil, and Anchovies). I love them all.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Alici in Tortiera (Baked Anchovies with Pecorino Cheese). Then try Ragú Napoletana (Veal Shank and Short Rib Stew). For dessert indulge yourself with Pasteria Napoletana (Cheese and Grain Pie). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We conclude with a quick look at Campania wine. Campania ranks 9th among the 20 Italian regions for both acreage devoted to wine grapes and for total annual wine production. The region produces about 64% red and and close to 36% white wine, as there is little rosé. There are 17 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Only 2.8% of Campania wine carries the DOC designation. Add a G for Guarantita, and you’ll find three, the red Taurasi, the white Greco di Tufo, and the white Fiano di Avellino. I have tasted the Fiano and found it to be top of the line. The white Campi Flegri DOC and the red or white Aversa DOC are produced not far west of Naples. Both whites are also available in sparkling version. Frankly, I’d go with the Fiano di Avellino.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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