Natale Italiano | Naples – Day 1: Coastline Castles and the Spaccanapoli
After the dazzling ancient spectacles and baroque masterpieces of Rome, and the elegant watery wonderland of Venice, we weren’t exactly enamoured by Napoli when we arrived one late afternoon after Christmas. Described by some as the last bastion of civilisation before Italy turns savage to the South, it felt to us a little like civilisation had gone away for the holidays. Our purported 4 star hotel, La Ciliegina had to be accessed up some dark and dingy lift shaft in a side street block of flats; everywhere we ventured in this crowded rowdy city was doused with layer upon layer of graffiti (even their most sacred palaces and churches) and a most unwelcome rain shower meant that the darkest most intimidating of Naples’ unfriendly looking cobbled streets took on an even more sinister guise, not helped by the shuttered (graffitied) shops and the eery lack of visitors. And all the time our ears were ringing with the forewarnings which had been consistently delivered at every mention of a visit to the city: beware pickpockets, muggers, criminal gangs. Gosh, we had even left our wallets locked away in the hotel safe for fear of attack!
But come the following morning when the sunshine washed its warming radiance across the city, suddenly Naples was a different place. Walking up to the hotel rooftop and seeing the dazzling spectacle of mount Vesuvius, its slopes partially shrouded in mist like some ancient Japanese silk painting, and its grand peaks rising up into the blue sky at the end of the wide sweeping bay of Naples, was like a postcard dream straight out of the summer. Filled with a new sense of excited anticipation, we headed out into Naples to reacquaint ourselves with the city afresh.
It’s so true what people say: the sun changes everything, and the Naples we found that morning was no longer a dingy den of backstreets but an elegant city of faded grandeur, with its stunning shopping arcade straight out of the Belle Époque (the Galleria Umberto I) and its vast semi circular Piazza Plebiscito nestled between the Basilica di San Francesco and the old palace dating back to Bourbon rule.
But with the weather so good, we were not about to hang around in the city centre. Rather, after so many months separation, there was only one thing we wanted to embrace that sunny morning – the sea. And so heading down the pine tree lined Via Cesario Condole, our nostrils filling progressively with the light salty perfume of the sea, we soon encountered an even more spectacular view of Vesuvius – with the sparkling sun-drenched waters of the Mediterranean sea lapping up against its feet.
And so began possibly our favourite day of the whole Italy holiday, as we got to know the seafront of Naples with its small marinas, two castles and lines of elegant hotels all under the warmth of a very welcome winter sun.
After a quick stroll around the Castel Nuovo, we headed down to the much prettier Castel dell’Ovo, which juts out to sea at one end of the bay of Naples, and encircles in its embrace a little marina. That delightful situation became the sight of an hour or so of enthusiastic photography (see tomorrow’s post) and a divine coffee by the waterside. We also trekked around the vast castle walls from where views of Vesuvius to the south and Naples’ urban sprawl to the North were better than ever. And in the latter vantage, we set our eyes upon a rather welcoming looking seaside cafe and headed straight there for a well earned lunch.
The Castel Nuovo
and the Castel dell’Ovo and its marina
What does one eat in Naples? Well pizza of course, and I ate my first with this spectacular seaside view before me. I have to say, Neapolitan pizzas were a little stodgier than I was expecting, but then I am used to the crispier bases which I gather may be a bastardisation of the north. There was no denying taste or flavour though – covered with a rich pesto, my pizza tasted as good as it looked, helped down by a very chilled and very summery glass of white wine.
After a stroll through the nearby Villa Comunale gardens, we begrudgingly turned inland away from the sunshine to see the area of Naples which really can’t be missed – the Spaccanapoli. This area, slightly inland from the sea and the port and off the main Via Toledo, is the concentrated historical hub of the city, whose tiny maze of cobbled shop-lined streets are the bustling core of the city; the buzzing, beating manifestation of its heart and soul. The streets are filled with shops and cafes, with produce and salesmen literally pouring out onto the cobbled roads which are otherwise crammed with locals and tourists alike – no wonder it’s such a haven for pickpockets! But despite the inherent risks of the area, it is also a must-see of the city, filled as it is with a peppering of elegant palaces, incredible churches, and all of the little shrines, street art, performers, fountains and statues which make Naples such a feast for the eyes.
The Villa Comunale gardens
The Spaccanapoli and the exterior and lavish interior of the Gesu Nuovo
Amongst all of the shops, the little churches, the vast diamond-point rusticated facade of the Gesu Nuovo and the enticing little piazzas is one street in particular which cannot be missed – the Via Saint Gregorio Armeno – where every shop sells one thing and one thing only – the nativity figures for which Naples is famous. And this fame is the result not of the typical nativity of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, but a nativity which includes a huge array of characters who are both local Naples characters, and famous figures from all around the world – we even saw William and Kate there with new Prince George cradled in their arms! The street is so uniquely charismatic, and the sheer intracacy and diversity of the nativity paraphernalia on sale makes for a really engaging sight. But everyone else thinks so too – the street was so crammed when we went that it took us about 30 minutes to get from one end to another.
But just in case a reminder of Naples’ prowess of nativity craftsmanship was needed, the superb chef who cooked our dinner at the Ristorantino dell’Avvocato that night had himself been made into a nativity character – now that’s an accolade for which we all should aim. His food was, however delightful, and I’m pretty certain that the talents of this lawyer-turned chef more than warranted his place in the stable next to the newly born Jesus…
See you next time!
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