To kick off the fall season, our Saturday Strolls return us to Napoli’s streets. This week we’re off to explore the characteristic alleys of Centro Storico(Naples Historic Center), the typical walk made by most first time visitors to Naples, be it on their own or with a tour guide. Earlier this summer I took Kathy Ayer from Food Lover’s Odyssey on this stroll (an abbreviated version of it anyway). We explored some of the city’s most important sites and lesser known treasures and ended up at one of Naples most notorious landmarks, L’antica Pizzeria Da Michele. An Italian-American who combines her obsession for food with her passion for travel, Kathy had to see if it would live up to all of the hype. I won’t give it away though – you’ll have to check out her post, The Dish from Italy and Naples – Pizza Margherita Napoletana.
More recently, I was invited to do a walk along with Context Travel, an organization that offers private and small group walking seminars led by scholars. Our guide for the day was my dear friend Fiorella Squillante, a Napoletana with an engaging nature and a passion for her city. Fiorella’s knowledge and local stories brought the city to life for first time visitors Jacqueline, a feisty native New Yorker with Neapolitan roots and a command of the Neapolitan dialect (I was so jealous) and her niece Joie, an absolutely lovely woman with boundless curiosity and great appreciation for all of the sites we visited. I so enjoyed seeing the city through their eyes. The awe and the “Oh my God” moments that, like your first kiss, are experiences you never forget but can never quite recreate.
The oldest district of Naples after the Greek settlement of Partenope, Centro Storico is full of “Oh my God” moments. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, Centro is the original Neapolis founded by the Greeks in the 5th century, with some 25 centuries of history layered on top.
While you can’t explore 25 centuries of history in a lifetime, let a lone a day, you can do this stroll of the major sites in about 3 or 4 hours. Still, there is a lot to see, so I will break this up into two or three posts. It’s best to start early in the morning as many of the churches close around 1:00 p.m and remember to dress appropriately when entering Naples churches – if you are in shorts or tank tops you might be asked to leave.
This Saturday we started our stroll of Centro at Naples 13th century Gothic Cathedral, the Duomo. Though it was dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta (Our Lady of the Assumption), most visitors know it as the Cathedral of Naples’ Patron Saint, San Gennaro (Saint Januarius) and it is famous for the Miracle of San Gennaro Blood Liquefaction Ceremony that takes place here three times a year. But Naples Duomo is one of my favorite places to visit because inside its walls is the entire breadth of Naples’ highly stratified history. From the Greek, Roman and Paleo-Christian ruins beneath the church (unfortunately they are temporarily closed for renovations) to Enrico Alvino’s 19th century neo-Gothic façade, reminders of just about every chapter in Naples history can be found in the Duomo.
13th century Gothic vault in the back of the left aisle
Around the corner from the Duomo on Via dei Tribunali is the oldest spire in Naples and one of three in Centro Storico, the Guglia or Obelisco di San Gennaro. Designed by Cosimo Fanzango, it was erected at the south entrance to the Cathedral in Piazza Riario Sforza as an ex voto to San Gennaro in gratitude for protecting the city from the 1631 eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The Spire of San Gennaro
A few doors up on the right is the Pio Monte della Misericordia, the church that is home to the charitable institution of the same name founded in 1601 by a group of young noblemen. The octagonal church is interesting in its own right, but it is the painting above the high altar that everyone comes to see, Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy.
Heading back to the Duomo we cross the street to peak inside the cloisters of the complex of the Girolamini. This mammoth late 16th/early 17th century complex includes the Girolamini Church, two cloisters, a State library with some 60,000 volumes, an Art Gallery, an Oratorian Archive, and a Neapolitan Music Archive second only to San Pietro a Majella.
Cloister of Girolamini
The front of the church is around the corner on Via dei Tribunali, where we enter into the the iconic narrow cobble stoned alleys of Centro Storico, the most animated district in the city.
Our first stop along Via dei Tribunali is the 13th century Church and Monumental Complex of San Lorenzo Maggiore in Piazza San Gaetano. Another one of Naples “Don’t judge a book by its cover moments,” the weathered facade hides one of the most important Gothic monuments in the city. Highly “Baroquized” in the 16th and 17th centuries, decades of renovations removed all traces of the Baroque except for two chapels (Carace and San Antonio) and returned the church to its original Gothic splendor.
But for us, the church is not the main attraction, rather it is what is hidden under the church. Built on the site of an early-Christian (6th century) basilica in honor of San Lorenzo, that basilica was built over the nucleus of the commercial part of ancient Neapolis. Excavations carried out in the 1980s and early 1990s uncovered a large area that was a Greek Agora first and later, a Roman forum. Recent excavations completed in May of 2009 doubled the size of this impressive Greco-Roman site. We headed across the cloister and downstairs to have a look. There was not another soul in sight and we were left on our own to wander through Naples ancient history.
There is also a museum at San Lorenzo Maggiore but we will save that for another day. Back outside, the entrance to Napoli Sotteranea in Piazza Gaetano beckons us and the massive church of San Paolo Maggiore catches our attention. There’s no time for a tour of Subterranean Naples today, but there is surely time to admire the Basilica of San Paolo Maggiore. It is immediately recognizable by its double staircase and the two columns on the front that are from the 1st century temple of the Dioscuri that once sat on this site.
The inside is even more spectacular, but you will have to wait until next week to see it when we continue on with our Saturday Stroll – The Classic Tour of Centro Storico (Part 2). See ya then!!!