Sunday, October 9, 2011

Naples – You Won’t Believe It Until You See It

Naples – what can I say that you haven’t already heard? It’s crowded, noisy, hectic, colorful. It has the Bay, Vesuvius and the world’s best pizza. Here’s something you may not have heard: Naples is a destination. Yes, you read that right. Not just a place to travel through on your way to Capri or Sorrento. Naples is an almost unbelievable combination of high and low, sweet and sour, rough and smooth. Naples has to be experienced, and not just for a few hours. Spend some time in this one of a kind city and I’ll bet you’ll be smitten.

I stayed at the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia on the breathtaking Via Partenope. It’s elegantly appointed in an old world style and the staff really goes the extra mile for its guests. The rooms are spacious and quiet. At night I turned off the air conditioner and threw open the French doors to allow the sounds of Naples to wash over me while I slept. In the morning, I opened the curtains to see the sun’s rays over the Bay of Naples, Mount Vesuvius, the islands of Capri and Ischia, the Comencini marina with its brightly colored fishing boats and the Castel dell’Ovo (more about that later). Room price includes full breakfast served in a sunlit room off the lobby.

You can always grab a late-morning cappuccino at Gran Caffe Gambrinus on Via Chiaia. Perhaps Naples’ most storied café, it was a hub of elite literary life in the early 20th century. The surroundings are opulent, complete with chandeliers and a grand piano. Imagine yourself swapping stories with Ernest Hemingway (a frequent patron) while you indulge in gelato, pastry and specialty chocolate creations.

Naples is a truly urban multi-cultural Italian environment. Narrow streets, graffiti, fast cars, buzzing vespas. This isn’t Tuscany, baby. It’s something else - more challenging, more surprising, maybe more frustrating. As a tourist in any big city, you have to keep your eyes and ears open. But you should be doing that anyway, to take in what Naples offers the intrepid traveler. Storefronts line Spaccanapoli in the historic district, offering treasures of artisanal craftsmanship alongside tourist chatskis. You have to learn the difference. Trattorias, gellaterias, pizzerias; it doesn’t stop. There’s plenty to do, whether it’s out on the street, inside a centuries-old structure, on the waves, underwater or underground.

Here’s just a summary:

The Capodimonte Museum. Built during the reign of Charles VII of Naples and Sicily, this Bourbon palazzo is home to a vast collection of artistic treasures. Paintings from the 13th – 18th centuries include stunning works by major names like El Greco, Caravaggio, Titian and Raphael. Part of the Farnese collection of sculpture is housed here, as well as furniture, porcelain and majolica gathered from royal residences.

Naples National Archeological Museum. This is considered by many to be Italy’s most important archeological museum, and in Italy, that’s saying a lot. Its holdings include marbles, bronzes and mosaics from Greek and Roman antiquity. It houses Italy’s third largest Egyptian art collection and an impressive collection of Roman erotic art.

Cappella Sansevero. Also known as the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pieta, this small space in Naples’ historic district is bursting with work from some of Italy’s best 18th century artists. Here you can be mesmerized by the quiet, mournful beauty of Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ, while being surrounded by majestic Baroque sculpture.

Castel dell’Ovo. The Castle is named for the legend that the poet Virgil placed an egg in its foundation and, as long as the egg is unbroken, the Castle will survive. The spaces within the Castle are marked with stone archways and afford beautiful views of the Bay of Naples on one side and the charming marina on the other. The Castle hosts art exhibitions, conferences and weddings. The long, bricked causeway leading to the Castle is a popular spot for wedding pictures.

Agnano Spa. This beautiful spa is located just outside of Naples and easily reached by train. Located in a volcanic crater, the area’s hot springs soothed the aching muscles of ancient Greeks and Romans alike. The spa includes natural tuft stone formations that create 5 separate dry heat sauna experiences, progressing from mild to OMG it’s hot! But don’t worry, it’s nothing a dip in one of the indoor or outdoor pools can’t cure. Or perhaps a mud treatment. Or perhaps a meal in the delectable restaurant.

Cuma. Located northwest of Naples, this was the first Greek settlement on Italy’s mainland when it was considered Magna Grecia (Greater Greece). Dating back to probably the 8th century B.C., it was the seat of the Cumaean Sibyl, the prophetess presiding over the Oracle of Apollo. A large crater lake nearby was a mythological entrance to the underworld. Today Cuma is a fascinating archeological site open to the public.

Pompei. About 40 minutes outside of Naples, Pompei is a must see. No matter how jaded a tourist you might think you are, Pompei will amaze you. It’s larger than you expect and the sheer number of details illustrating ancient daily living invite you to consider your place in civilization’s continuum. Buy your water/souvenirs before you reach the site.

What to do underground:
Subterranean Naples. Visit the city below the city. Remnants of ancient Greece and Rome survive in the form of aquaducts, cisterns and winding tunnels emptying into large cavities. During the bombardment of WWII, many Neapolitans moved here to protect themselves. These days, the stone labyrinth hosts daily tours and classical musical concerts.

San Gennaro Catacombs. This is an underground Pagan and Christian burial site dating back to the 3rd century. Unlike the Roman catacombs, these are spacious and (believe it or not) airy, allowing you to stand up straight as you walk among some of the oldest and most evocative frescos in Italy. The Catacombs were consecrated to San Gennaro in the 5th century, when his remains found a home here. The Catacombs house a church, a baptismal font and of course, graves. The complete cycle of life and death was commemorated here. Take a tour with one of their impressively knowledgeable guides and emerge into the sunlight a little wiser.

What to do on the water:
Take one of the entertainment boats docked in the Bay of Naples marina and sail gracefully onto the water for an unforgettable evening. Appetizers and cool breezes above deck, followed by a full course dinner below. After dinner, return above deck for dancing to a live band and delighting in the glow of the full moon (when I was there). This is a popular date spot for the locals; why shouldn’t it be for you, too?

What to do underwater:
Go snorkeling or scuba diving in ancient waters and peek into Roman villas from centuries past. Statutes, pillars, pottery, even tile floors remain in the depths to be enjoyed. You can explore the underwater cities of Baia and Portus Julius in a glass-bottom boat at Baia Underwater Park, if getting wet isn’t your thing.

How to get there:
Meridiana Eurofly has frequent, conveniently scheduled flights direct to Naples Airport from JFK.

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