I’ve never been disappointed by any of my trips to Italy. The splendour and the history of Rome, the fabulous architecture of Florence, the volcanoes of Sicily, all of that was extraordinary but this week of holidays in the region of Naples might have been even better. It was simply perfect, from the beginning until the end, and I can hardly think of one day better than the others between the ruins of Pompeii, the colours of Procida or the stunning Amalfi Coast. Not to mention Naples itself! Here’s the story of the first half of this trip.
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The second half of this trip with Pompeii, the Sorrento Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast will be online soon, as well as another article with more details about my favourite places in Naples.
Where to begin? There are so many things to say about this week that I’m getting a bit confused as I’m starting to write this article. First, February is an excellent month to visit Naples and its surroundings. It’s a very popular region during summer (especially Pompeii or the Amalfi Coast), but not much frequented at this period. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to find an accommodation, prices are lower, and there are no other tourists! A real blessing compared to the crowds of July and August. And even if it’s still winter, if you’re lucky you might have the same extraordinary weather that we had: sunny the entire week, with temperatures between 16 and 20°C (although quickly chilly in the evening and cold at night). The perfect weather for an active week of exploration!
Naples is known to be a dirty city. It’s unfortunately true, and it’s not just Naples but also its surroundings. On our way to the Amalfi Coast, we saw countless garbage bags left by the side of the road. Don’t be too afraid though: the main tourist sites are mostly clean, and this is probably a way bigger problem for locals than for visitors. I also read that it was a dangerous city, but we never felt unsecure at all; it’s the same as in every other big city around the world, be careful with your belongings, avoid some specific neighbourhoods and everything will be fine.
One other thing to know about Naples: here, as well as in many other places in Italy, football is almost as important as religion, and Diego Maradona might be more worshipped than the pope. Nicknamed “El Pibe de Oro” (The Golden Boy), he was one of the greatest footballers of the 20th century; he led Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup, including two memorable goals in the quarter-final against England (the first one scored with his hand, known as “the Hand of God”, the second one 5 minutes later called the “Goal of the Century” and considered as one of the greatest individual goals in history). He played for Naples between 1984 and 1991, during which the team won its first and only titles of Italian championship (1987 and 1990) and Europa Cup (1989). There are still many murals representing him everywhere in the city, and even if he was known to have connection with the Camorra (the mafia) and was a drug addict, he’s still an icon in Naples.
Finally, Italians have the reputation of being crazy drivers. True as well! You need to be constantly focused on what’s around you when you meander in the lanes of Naples as scooters and Vespas are going really fast, and driving on the Amalfi Coast was a little bit scary sometimes. I think that many Italians might have switched their brakes with a horn! We tried a little game while we were in Naples: time the interval between two horning sounds. It never exceeded 30 seconds!
Now that the introduction is done, let’s get to the story of these holidays.
Day 1 – a first glimpse of Naples
The arrival in Naples was quite strange. Our flight landed at 8.40pm, and we took the shuttle bus from the airport to the main train station on Piazza Garibaldi. The bus stopped in a very dirty street, 300m away from the station, directly in front of a few street peddlers. A surprising welcoming committee! From there we took the metro until Toledo station, which with its futuristic atmosphere is one of the most beautiful stations in Europe (picture below). Even though it was only around 9.30pm, it felt like it was very late as the subway was completely empty, with only some groups of young people going out. Once again, a very weird first impression!
Our Airbnb apartment was on the fourth floor of a building in the Quartieri Spagnoli, the Spanish Districts of Naples, which quickly became my favourite part of the city. They take their name from their construction in the 16th century to accommodate Spanish troops as the city belonged to the Crown of Spain. We woke up early enough the next morning to see the first of many sunrises over Mount Vesuvius, perfectly visible from our window (picture to the right). After a good coffee and a pastry at Augustus, a great little café nearby on Via Toledo (one of the main streets of Naples), we started exploring the lanes of the Quartieri Spagnoli.
Until very recently, these districts had a bad reputation; poor and underprivileged people lived there, and the criminality rate was high. They have evolved a lot in the past few decades, and we never felt unsafe there (well, apart from the constant danger of the hundreds of Vespas speeding down the narrow lanes). But gentrification has not reached this part of the city yet: they are still working-class districts, with laundry hanging on every balcony, “homemade” street votive shrines at every corner, street art on the walls… and not so many tourists, although it provides great pictures options. I loved walking there, enjoying the amazing atmosphere of these narrow, noisy and sometimes dirty but at the same time colourful and extraordinarily alive districts. Definitely a great place to stay to visit Naples!
There’s quite a big contrast between the Quartieri Spagnoli and the Galleria Umberto I or the Piazza del Plebiscito nearby. The Galleria Umberto I has been built at the end of the 19th century, shortly after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan to which it is very similar, while the Piazza del Plebiscito is in my opinion the most beautiful of the many large squares of Naples, with the massive domes of the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola on one side and the large facade of the Palazzo Reale in front of it.
I would have liked to visit the Palazzo Reale which is apparently really beautiful, but we didn’t have enough time to visit everything in Naples so instead we decided to follow the coast on Via Nazario Sauro, a beautiful street with large buildings and an impressive fountain at its end (the Fontana del Gigante).
It leads to one of the nicest areas of Naples: the little harbour of Santa Lucia and the Castel dell’Ovo. I found the harbour really lovely, with sailing boats and little colourful barks; it’s a great place for lunch, on one of the nice terraces next to it, or just sitting on the edge of the pier with sandwiches as we did.
Before this very pleasant picnic, we climbed to the top of Castel dell’Ovo for a great 360° view over the Gulf of Naples, the island of Capri, the city, and of course the stunning Mount Vesuvius. It’s the oldest standing castle of Naples, and its name (which literally means “Egg Castle”) comes from a legend saying that a wizard put a magical egg into its foundations; if the egg was broken, the castle would be destroyed and Naples would face terrible consequences.
On our way back to the centre in the afternoon, we stopped on Piazza Municipio, currently under reconstruction. That’s where the massive and very impressive Castel Nuovo is; despite its name meaning “New Castle”, it’s almost 800 years old as it has been built during the 13th century! There’s also a large and (in my opinion) beautiful open-air art exhibition on the square, where 100 fierce iron wolves have been installed by the Chinese artist Liu Ruowang. It will be visible until the end of May 2020.
At the end of the afternoon, we took the funicular from Montesanto to the Vomero Hills overlooking Naples. There are two main places to visit there: the Charterhouse of San Martino and the Castel Sant’Elmo. We decided to only visit the castle, the highest point of the city, and as it was just after 4.30pm, the entrance was half-priced (2.50€ instead of 5). This is the best place to admire the city and the view shortly before sunset was extraordinary: we embraced the entire Gulf of Naples, from the islands of Ischia and Procida to the right until the Sorrento Peninsula to the left, with the threatening and characteristic shape of Mount Vesuvius overlooking this magnificent landscape. After enjoying this beautiful moment, we took the 414 steps of the Pedamentina stairs to go back to the Quartieri Spagnoli.
With so much exploring on that day, we were very impatient to eat our first real Neapolitan pizza. During our stay, we went to a few “trattorias” in the Spanish Districts. Pizzas were excellent everywhere with their thin and spongy crusts, but also extremely cheap: not more than 3€ for the cheapest (yes, a normal size pizza, not just a slice!), up to 8 to 10€ for the most expensive. Delicious food for a great price!
Day 2 – the colours of Procida
This entire week of holidays was amazing and every day was full of fabulous discoveries, but I think that the few hours we spent on the island of Procida were my favourite.
There are three main islands close to Naples. Capri, to the South, is the most famous; Ischia to the West is the biggest; and Procida next to it is the tiniest with less than 4 square kilometres, as well as the least touristic… which is hard to understand, as it’s a pure wonder. It takes 40 minutes to one hour to get there from Naples, depending if you’re taking the ferry or a fast hydrofoil. We booked our tickets with Caremar, one of the two companies sailing to Procida, and at 9.30am we were at the Marina di Sancio Cattolico on the North shore of the island.
If there would be only one word describing Procida, it would be the word “colours”: the multicoloured boats in the harbour, the yellow and white church Santa Maria della Pietà, the red and ochre houses along the lanes going up to Terra Murata, the highest point of the island where the first village was founded during the seventh century…
…but the best is yet to come. The view from Terra Murata reveals the extraordinary Marina di Corricella below in an explosion of colours: pink, blue, green, white, yellow, red, orange… Piled up on each other with the dome of the Sanctuary di Santa Maria della Grazie above them, the houses of Procida create one of the most exceptional man-shaped landscapes I ever saw.
On this sunny mid-February day, we were completely alone in front of this fabulous sight. After the noise of the city the day before, it was such a pleasure to enjoy the quiet of Procida. We kept going into the village of Terra Murata until we reached a second great lookout at the easternmost point of the island. We were facing Cape Miseno which marks the entrance to the Gulf of Naples; we could distinguish the silhouette of Capri to the South, while a little fishing boat was sailing on the glittering swells of the Mediterranean Sea 90m below.
Our only regret was that the Abbey of San Michele Archangelo located on the summit of Terra Murata was closed, but we still enjoyed another beautiful view over the church Santa Margherita Nuova, the Punta dei Monaci (the Monk’s Peak) and the bay of Procida, with the mountainous silhouette of Ischia in the background.
The only way to go down to Marina di Corricella is taking one of the stairs from the streets above. We thought that we would easily find a restaurant there but the few places we saw were all closed: another proof that mass tourism still hasn’t reached Procida. Let’s hope that it will remain a hidden gem for many more years! Anyway, it was extremely enjoyable to walk along the harbour of such a gorgeous place (and we eventually ate slices of pizzas at Bar Capriccio on Marina di Sancio Cattolico).
We did a beautiful hike in the afternoon to the beach of Pozzo Vecchio on the western side of the island, with dozens of lemon trees along the way and a detour on Via del Faro to enjoy the view over the sea. There’s no proper walking path going there, and in many occasions not even a pavement which means that we had to walk by the side of the road, carefully watching out for the traffic. But it was part of the adventure and it was a lovely stroll! We were again really tired when we took the ferry back to Naples at the end of the day.
Day 3 – a second day in Naples
Catholic faith is highly important in Naples. I couldn’t find a reliable number, but it is estimated that there are between 500 and 1,000 churches in the city, not including the countless street votive shrines! There’s literally one church at every corner, and often two facing each other. We visited a few of them during that second day, and we were amazed by how beautiful and rich they were.
We spent most of the day in the Historical Centre, between the parallel streets of Spaccanapoli and Via dei Tribunali. Spaccanapoli (which means “Naples splitter”) is one of the main arteries of the city; it begins from the Piazza Gesù Nuovo, where we began our explorations with a visit of the eponym church. Its unusual facade (picture above) was originally built for a palace, but a church was erected instead of it at the end of the 16th century. It’s hard to imagine how sumptuous it is inside when you’re in front of it, but it’s a real architectural marvel with extravagant baroque decorations made of marble and a very high and splendid painted ceiling.
Almost in front of it, the Basilica of Santa Chiara is one of the most iconic religious buildings of Naples. It’s the biggest gothic monument in the city, and its green roof is an easily recognisable landmark from the hills of Vomero (picture below, right of Spaccanapoli, the main street in the middle – it’s easy to see where it took its name from on this photo!).
The inside of the church itself isn’t as breathtaking as its neighbour Gesù Nuovo, mostly because it has been very badly damaged during World War II and rebuilt later, but the cloister behind it is exceptional. The entrance costs 6€ and I strongly recommend buying it! The external walls are entirely covered with beautiful paintings, while low walls, benches and pillars on the inside are decorated with stunning majolicas (Italian ceramics). There’s also a museum presenting relics of the ancient church, ruins of a Roman thermae from the first century of our era and a giant nativity scene, a tradition in Naples (everything included in the entry price). We completely forgot about the effervescent city nearby while we were visiting this amazing complex!
That giant nativity scene in Santa Chiara was the first of many others we saw that day. A lane perpendicular to Spaccanapoli called Via San Gregorio Armeno is entirely devoted to nativity scenes settings construction. Nothing compared to the traditional barn that we are used to in France, with only a few characters: here they could represent the inside of a castle, the ruins of an antique building or even an entire neighbourhood! Many of them are still handmade, and we stayed a couple of minutes watching a craftsman at work in the courtyard of a shop.
Nativity scenes mean also nativity figures. You can choose between thousands of different characters in the shops of this street; the usual Wise Men, Virgin Mary or obviously Baby Jesus, but also butchers, bakers, musicians… or even football players! A little bit anachronic…
There’s a beautiful mural at the end of Spaccanapoli, at the corner with Via Duomo (picture to the right). We turned left at this intersection and quickly reached the Cathedral of Naples, also often called Duomo di San Gennaro (St Januarius, one of the patron saints of the city). Similarity with the Church of Gesù Nuovo, the outside wall doesn’t presage of the fantastic beauty of the inside: a remarkable floor, an entirely painted ceiling, extraordinary marble sculptures, a Byzantine inspiration mosaic and a stunning dome.
This was our last visit of the day. On our way back to our apartment on Via dei Tribunali, we walked past some other beautiful churches but they were either closed or we had to pay for the entrance, and to be honest after so many religious buildings in the same day (we visited other less remarkable churches or chapels that I haven’t mentioned here) we started to be a little bored of it… There would be many more things to do in Naples, but it feels like we managed to see most of the unmissable sites during the couple of days we spent there!
Have you ever been to Naples? If so, what did you like the most? Let me know in the comments!
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