Whether you’ve been here for a while, just arrived or are just passing through, you’ve probably discovered Centro Storico, Naples’ Historic District, and know it as the oldest part of Naples. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Centro Storico bustles with modern day life amid a hodgepodge of historic structures that are a testament to Naples highly stratified history. In fact, the urban arrangement of this area still retains the grid street pattern laid by the Greeks in the 5th century BCE. Below the streets are ancient Greek and Roman ruins from the original city of Naples, once known as Neapolis. Dating to around 474 BCE, Centro Storico is certainly the birthplace of Neapolis, but that’s not the whole story, for not far away from here lies another area that some consider the true birthplace of the Neapolitan civilization.
To the southwest of Centro Storico is Via Partenope, a gorgeous stretch of road that follows the sea and plays host to Naples’ most exclusive hotels. Just off Via Partenope sits the oldest castle in Naples, Castel dell’Ovo or the Egg Castle as you might know it, which stretches out towards the sea on the small island once known as Isolotto di Megaride. Known today as Borgo Marinari, this tiny island is popular for its seafront bars and restaurants, trendy atmosphere, spectacular vistas, and it is a great place to while away a Sunday afternoon. It is also a popular place for wedding photographs, and on any given day you might find a bride and groom striking a pose in front of the infamous Castle.
What is less known about Borgo Marinari is its place in Naples’ history. There are many versions of the tale and by now I’m sure you’ve heard one of them, but it bears repeating. Once upon a time, in a land far away, in Greek Mythology that is, lived the siren sisters, Ligeia, Leucosia, and Parthenope. Half-women, half-birdlike creatures they were the daughters of Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, and the River God Achelous. According to legend they lived on an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea and with their haunting music they lured sailors passing by into their trap and ultimate death. Ulysses withstood their seduction having been forewarned about the Sirens’ ploy by the witch Circe. Devastated by her failure to lure Ulysses, the Siren Parthenope leapt into the sea and drowned. According to legend her body washed ashore on the tiny island of Megaride where it was later found by Greek colonists.
First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross-piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope’s ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster. Homer, The Odyssey
Whether or not this is the stuff of legend, it is fairly certain that Greek colonists, either from Rhodes or perhaps those who had first landed at Cumae made their way to Megaride. Though the timeline is uncertain, they surely arrived here sometime between the 9th and 7th centuries BCE. They made their way inland and built a walled settlement overlooking Megaride on top of Monte Echia, known today as Monte di Dio or Pizzofalcone in the area of modern day Santa Lucia. According to legend they named it Partenope, in honor of the Greek Siren whose tomb it has been said was venerated there. By the 6th century BCE Partenope was a thriving military and trade port.