Working up an appetite for adventure in Naples
Published 10/03/2014 | 02:30
For those who have only visited northern Italian cities, or even for those who have gone no further south than Rome, Naples is a shock to the system. Not only do you feel like you've gone through a portal out of 21st Century Italy, you can also feel like you've ended up somewhere on an entirely different continent.
Litter seems to be thrown nonchalantly onto cobbled streets festooned with washing lines, streets whose very narrowness seems to block out sunlight, law enforcement and globalisation. Each block feels like a small community where everyone knows each other and a tourist is a visitor far from his/her home.
But by the very same token, you find yourself wandering amongst real communities of real people who speak and shout in sing-song voices around you, buzz past you on bleating mopeds or in honking cars. It makes you feel as if you're experiencing human emotion in the raw. For my wife and me, our first glimpse of this city was emerging from the underground station at Piazza Garibaldi. This intersection of mainline trains, metro and all other local public transport was, our guide book told us, a chaotic terminus teeming with louche characters, pickpockets and thousands of ordinary Neapolitans going about their daily business. Again, we were a little disappointed and relieved at the same time to find it about as threatening and civilised an atmosphere (in equal measure) as you're likely to find around Connolly Station/Busaras.
Keeping a closer eye on our bags than most locals evidently do, we hopped on a bus and headed in the direction of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (National Archaeological Museum). Here, you find the majority of the real treasures found at nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum, including entire frescoes, Roman-era sculptures and various other fascinating artefacts recovered from the famous archaeological sites.
Picking up a warm mozzarella and ham sandwich, we then strolled through the grid-patterned historical centre of Naples towards Naples Cathedral. It's located on Via Duomo – a reassuringly wide and bright street that runs the length of the old city. Started in the 13th Century and completed over a 600-year period, the huge gothic/renaissance masterpiece's main claim to fame is that it houses the Royal Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro with a vial containing the blood of the patron saint of Naples. The vial is taken out twice a year in the course of a ceremony that sees the enormous place of worship packed to the rafters with crowds spilling onto the square outside. On the first Sunday in May and on the 19th of September, the vial of the blood of Gennaro liquefies miraculously before the worshipping crowd. Tradition has it that failure to do so will result in a disaster befalling Naples. This has only happened twice in the last 100 years, including the time in 1980, when an earthquake struck Naples killing 3,000 people. Sceptics say that it's a thixotropic gel that liquefies if shaken or slightly warmed, but for the many legions of faithful in Naples, it's nothing short of a miracle.
If you're still in the mood for the mysterious in this city, one of the unmissable sights in Naples is the Museo Cappella Sansevero – the Sanservo Chapel Museum. Its unassuming exterior is one that you can easily walk past (which we almost did); tucked away into one of those typically narrow streets of crumbling plaster. The impatient-looking attendant gave off no saintly overtones as we paid our entrance fee into this extraordinary place of worship that's now a museum. Inside the little chapel, a packed display of eye-popping sculpture and painting (mostly from the 18th Century) includes the centrepiece of the Veiled Christ. This extraordinary sculpture of a prone Christ covered with a seemingly transparent veil is like nothing we'd ever seen and it's difficult to work out how the artist achieved the "veiled marble" effect, which is reproduced on other works within the chapel.
The building and the works inside it was commissioned by the 'sorcerer' Prince Raimondo di Sangro and many legends have cropped up about the prince, including the story that some form of witchcraft was used in the production of the artwork and that he had the eyes gouged out of master sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino as soon as he had finished the work.
Naples is also the home of the pizza. Many first-time visitors to the city may be surprised to learn that the Neapolitan version of the much-loved food concept doesn't involve much elaboration and usually consists of the base, olive oil and tomato sauce.
But it is a decidedly delicious, warm, freshly baked succulent pizza base that I don't believe you'll find in any Irish pizzeria. The fresh sauce and herbs are also of a simple but truly tasty variety. One of the best places to indulge is the Antica Pizzeria da Michele. This was most recently celebrated in popular culture in the Julia Roberts film Eat, Pray, Love. The real thing is a surprisingly small restaurant with refreshingly affordable prices. Pictures on the wall tell you of the many famous people who haven't been able to resist sitting down to try one of the world-famous pizzas. They include Diego Maradona, Sophia Loren and Forest Whitaker, as well as the afore-mentioned Ms Roberts.
Visiting cities in Europe can leave you with a whole series of remarkably similar experiences. Every main shopping street features the same shops; every pedestrianised street seems to be designed by the same person. Everywhere, sound bites come at you in English and there is an unnerving feeling that there's nothing left to explore any more – as if the sense of adventure is gone from travel.
The one thing that visiting somewhere like Naples will do is to restore your faith in travel. As in all big cities, you have to have your wits about you, but Naples is a city with a real sense of history and a sense of place that is more vivid than most. Bellissima!
Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) operate direct flights from Dublin to Naples three times a week, starting at at the end of March, increasing to five times weekly from May to September.
Try www.comune.napoli.it for good basic information on getting around, with links to sites of cultural interest.
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