Within an hour of landing at Naples airport, we found ourselves hurtling through the narrow cobbled streets of Naples’ Centro Storico, in a taxi ride worthy of a Fiat 500 advert. Pedestrians leaped out of our way, Vespa’s parped their horns, but regardless, our driver was determined to give us a fast initiation into Neapolitan life. Depositing us in the Piazza Bellini we made our way to our hotel, set inside a 16th century palazzo complete with marble fountain and cobbled courtyard. Our room, on the top floor, was chosen for its terrace overlooking the humpbacked Mount Vesuvius, and the scars of lava flow clearly visible running down it’s sides.
Armed with a list of tips from friendly Neapolitan colleagues we began our exploration of the city on foot through the same narrow streets of our taxi ride, dodging Vespa’s, pedestrians, and cars. To stroll through the old town is to be bombarded with history; from 4th Century Greek Ruins, underground Roman network of cisterns, medieval churches, renaissance baroque palaces to the modern day graffiti adorning every available inch of space, there is layer upon layer of history to explore.
Our ‘to do’ list began with the Subterranean City, begun by the Greeks extracting the ‘tufa’ stone used to build the city walls of Neapolis, the New City. The Romans extended the aquaducts, and built both private wells opening into villas above for use by a single family, and public wells with several access points above. A cholera epidemic in 1884 caused the aquaducts to be closed and abandoned, but the caves were used during World War Two both as air raid shelters and as a refuge for those who had lost their homes to bombings. We were given lighted candles and squeezed our way through narrow passageways to get a glimpse of the Roman cisterns; vast underground caves with deep pools of clear water.
Above ground again, we discovered part of the ancient Greek-Roman theatre in the basement of a house which until recently was still occupied. The walls are built with an attractive diagonal brick pattern, interspersed with the thin red bricks typical of Roman construction. It was an early design for resisting earthquake collapse, and as the walls are still standing today, seems to have been very effective.
Nearby is the Museo Cappella Sansevero, an impressive baroque chapel built in the 1740’s. The stunning ceiling decorations, can currently be viewed via 12 circular mirrors placed around the floor, diligently patrolled by uniformed guards to prevent visitors from stepping on them. The majority of tourists visit this Chapel to see the famous statue of the Veiled Christ, which transforms a solid block of marble into a flimsy gauze shroud for the figure of Christ. While the carving is truly impressive, the guide books overlook two other magnificent statues, one featuring another veil entitled Pudicizia (Modesty) and Il Disinganno (Disilusion) depicting a man emerging from a carved marble tangle of fishing net. Down in the crypt are two gruesome figures whose skeletons and blood vessels are preserved by a mysterious technique long since forgotten, a testament to the 18th century alchemists who created them.
Our next stop was the 13th Century Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore. Much of the building was closed for renovations, but the real reason for our visit was the archeological excavations beneath the calm medieval cloister. Here you can walk through part of the original city of Neapolis built by the Greeks and later the Romans . A street of barrel-vaulted shops, bakeries, laundries, dye shops, a covered market complete with counters and serving hatches, water supply and drains line a paved road some three metres wide.
Sustaining ourselves with street food of pizza, deep-fried cheese pasties dripping with grease, and of course some delicious gelato, we headed towards the Bay of Naples, and clinging tightly to our valuables, a brief dip into the bustling streets of the Quatieri Spagnoli. Finding ourselves at the ferry port, we turned back inland to the final item on our list for the day, the Castel Nuovo.
This impressive, battle scarred fortification, with its sturdy buttressed towers and crenellations dates from the 13th century, and today hosts an uninterrupted stream of wedding parties tripping their way through the marble Renaissance Triumphal arch and across the magnificent courtyard. In the Palatine Chapel was an exhibition of jewelry, though the theme was unclear. The Armoury Hall, was impressive for it’s glass floor, suspended over the remains of some Roman archeological remains. The impression was of being underwater, floating above the ruins, and we found it stomach churning to step into the apparent void beneath. We rested a while in the Baron’s Hall with its grand vaulted ceiling, then made our way back to our hotel on foot after a day of heavy duty tourism.