For people in Munster the new direct connection between Cork and Naples will bring true adventure within a couple of hours. The southern Italian city gets a lot of bad press. The exciting stories of modern day Naples are all about the Comorra, drug gangs and violence but don’t forget that the expression ‘See Naples and Die’ stemmed from the dizzying impression left upon German and British tourists from the 18th century who were privileged enough to make the journey to this remarkable city and report back on its beauty.
Today, a visit to the centre of Naples will feel like stepping back a little in time to a place that might not even be in Europe, such is the dizzying foreignness of its atmosphere. Here, there is real life in abundance.
Stroll through the narrow streets in the Spanish Quarter (Quartiere Spagnoli) that seem to breathe a medieval sigh — their narrowness crisscrossed by multicoloured lines of washing blocking out the intrusion of the 21st century. The street level buzzes with noisy life: the sing-song Neapolitan dialect and the drone of mopeds weaving casually through the crowds.
For most people arriving in Naples, the first point of contact with the city will be when they emerge into the daylight from the underground/ bus/ tram/ mainline station at Piazza Garibaldi. From here, you can walk down Via Carbonara or take the metro (line 1) to the National Archaeological Museum (Museo Archeologico Nazionale).
This is a great place to start because not only does it contain great treasures from the famous nearby ancient sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, it is also a place to get your physical and historical bearings on the city.
Once you’ve seen the museum, you’ll be ready for a stroll in the historical city centre just south of here. The two places not to miss are the Sanservo Chapel Museum (Museo Capello Sanservo) and Naples Cathedral (Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta).
The first one is located down a typically narrow Neapolitan street where the daily lives of the residents in full view as you pass by their windows. The entrance to the Museo Capello Sanservo is so discreet that you can easily miss it but this former church (now museum) contains one of the most stunning collections of sculpture pieces you’ll see anywhere.
Even if visiting art museums isn’t quite your thing, I defy you not to gasp when you see The Veiled Christ laid out in the middle of the old chapel. It is chillingly lifelike and you can only wonder how the artist who created it managed to get the effect of seeing the form of Christ through a semi-transparent veil — all chiselled from a lump of marble.
It is said that the man who commissioned it and all the other stunning and creepy works in this museum (Prince Raimondo di Sangro) had the eyes of the sculptor gouged out after he had completed his extraordinary work.
There’s more ghoulish living history to be found at Naples Cathedral. The main attraction of this impressive building that took about 600 years to finish (starting in the 13th century) is the Royal Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro. In this chapel, the blood of the patron saint of Naples is contained in a glass phial. Twice a year, a massive crowd gathers to witness Saint Gennaro’s blood liquefy miraculously.
If it fails to happen, then according to tradition, a great disaster will befall the city of Naples. This has occurred only twice in the last century. Once was in 1980 when a great earthquake struck the city, killing 3,000 people. Scientists will tell you that it’s some kind of gel that liquefies when shaken or warmed but locals will tell you otherwise and it’s hard to argue with them.
Naples is also the birthplace of the pizza. The pizzas that the Neapolitans make and eat, however, is a very simple sort. It is devoid of any complex toppings that we in Ireland are more accustomed to associating with pizzas. In Napoli, you may only find pizzas with little more than the base, olive oil and tomato sauce.
Cheap pizzerias abound and despite the simplicity of the approach, you won’t be disappointed with taste. The base is soft and succulent, the oil is fragrant and tasty and the flavour of the tomato sauce has depths that will surprise.
One of the top places to try is the Antica Pizzeria da Michele on Via Cesare Sersale (www.damichele.net). Even though it has served some of the best-known faces in the world (including US actress Julia Roberts who filmed scenes from Eat, Pray, Love here), you’ll be happy to find it in a down-to-earth district in Naples.
While you tuck into your good-value lunch, you can admire the photos of the various American and Italian superstars who have done the same.
The port area offers a more grandiose and upmarket impression of the city and it’s a part of town that feels a bit more familiar, with the Castel Nuovo dominating and the promenade east along the port or west towards the aquarium looking inviting.
During the evening, this whole area comes alive with an uplifting mixture of families taking their evening stroll (the great Italian tradition of the passeggiata) and youths out for the night. Across the bay, Mount Vesuvius (the only volcano on mainland Europe to have erupted in the last 100 years) cuts a dramatic and brooding presence.
Naples has a fascinating mix of historical and architectural influences from the Greeks through the Spanish, the Bourbons and even the Americans (who left their mark on the post-war music scene here).
Naples has absorbed them all, fed and watered them and sent them on their way with a slap on the back and a song in their heart. Naples, you feel, will never be over-run by mass tourism and it will be all the better for it.
How to Get There:
Ryanair.com has a seasonal twice-weekly direct service from Cork with fares from €28.99 each way.
Where to Stay
In general, aim for the Centro Storico near the university if you want a good central base at a reasonable price, while closer to the port area means higher prices and around Piazza Garibaldi to be avoided.
Grand Hotel Vesuvio, Via Partenope, 45, 80121 Napoli, Italy, +39 081 764 0044 (www.vesuvio.it).
If you’re going for a splash-out, this 19th-century hotel of modern 5-star standard has it all — overlooking marina, Castel dell’Ovo, views of the Bay and Mount Vesuvius.
Hotel Il Convento, Via Speranzella, 137/a, 80132 Napoli NA, Italy, +39 081 403 977 (www.hotelilconvento.it). In a former convent in the historical city centre, it’s a charming three-star base in middle of a wonderfully chaotic city.
What to Do
From Piazza Garibaldi, you can take the circumvesuviana train line to visit Herculaneum and Pompeii. Another option is to take the regular ferry across the Bay of Naples to the beautiful town of Sorrento or the lovely (but very crowded in summer) island of Capri.
Where to eat
Osteria Donna Teresa dal 1913, via Michele Kerbaker, 58, 80129, Napoli, +39 081 556 7070. Located in the Vomero district (up high and quite expensive leafy residential area full of great restaurants, ice-cream shops and bars) close to the funicular station.
It offers hearty cooking just like Mama used to make, with locally-produced vegetables, oil and wine at reasonable prices. www.comune.napoli.it for good basic information on getting around, with links to sites of cultural interest.
Also visit www.naplespass.eu for the best way to get around.