It’s hard to believe it’s already the second week of December. Only 16 more shopping days until Christmas. The tree isn’t decorated yet and not a gift has been bought, but I had to take time out this week to visit my very favorite place in Napoli during the Christmas season, Via San Gregorio Armeno. Christmas Alley as it is known, it is the undisputed world capital of the Nativity and home to the artisans and merchants who specialize in the art and the craft of the Neapolitan Presepe.
From the religious to secular, the sacred to the profane, the presepe is a snapshot of Neapolitan life past and present. A centuries old tradition elevated to new heights by Neapolitan artists of the Baroque period, it continues to evolve as successive generations of artists put their own stamp on this time honored craft.
A tiny alley in Naples Centro Storico, along with the fish market at Porta Nolana, Via San Gregorio Armeno is the heart and soul of the Neapolitan Christmas. And by the first week of December, it is jam packed with shoppers seeking to add to their nativity scenes and thousands upon thousands of curious tourists. Open year round, I’m lucky enough to get to enjoy it without the crowds. But San Gregorio Armeno has a one of a kind vibe at Christmastime that never fails to entice.
It’s indescribable really. An ancient, narrow alley from the street plan laid down by the Greeks of the 5th Century BC. Either side lined by tall, dark palazzos creating an eerie dusk like quality that glows with twinkling Christmas lights and street and shop lights. A sea of temporary stalls carved into every alley, every palazzo, every conceivable open space adding another dimension to the permanent shops that ply their trade year round.
Shops like Ferrigno, Fratelli Capuano and Di Virgilio. Artisan’s who have passed the tradition down for the last 150 years or more. Many of whom still have tiny workrooms in the back of their stores and a few who have museums above. Some specializing in the mangers, others in the figurines.
Handcrafted of wood and terracotta, there are figurines of every type imaginable. From the traditional Nativity pieces to characters who have symbolic meanings. Figures like the Gypsy, the shepherd Benino, or Bacchus, the ancient God of Wine. From tiny replicas of everyday life, shopkeepers and innkeepers, butchers and fishmongers, animated bakers and pizzaioli. To the annual inductees into the presepe hall of fame. Everything you need to create your own Neapolitan Nativity.
But there’s more. Also on display are other traditional Neapolitan crafts like the famed Pulcinella or the Tammorra Napoletana. Hand painted with beautiful scenes of the Neapolitan seascape.
Or the latest cast of public characters.
And of course, there are mass-produced presepi made of plastic, wax or poor quality ceramic, novelty items and a wide selection of Christmas decorations.
From artisan craft to Christmas kitsch, you’ll find it all on Via San Gregorio Armeno. A magical, mystical place, it is one of my favorite strolls in the city, especially at Christmas.
Visit Via San Gregorio Armeno
More about Christmas in Naples