Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Saturday Stroll - To Ischia Porto

By mid June, the rain has usually stopped and Naples is stifling hot. This weekend was the rare exception – but that didn’t dampen our spirits any. Rain or shine, Ischia is our favorite weekend getaway in the Bay of Naples. A 10 mile wide gulf that opens to the Mediterranean Sea, the Bay stretches from the Sorrentine coast on the south; east to Pompeii, Vesuvius, and Herculanium; and north to Naples, Pozzuoli, Baia, Bacoli, and Monte di Procida. The cluster of islands in the Bay of Naples known as the Campanian or Neapolitan Archipelago includes five principal islands: Capri, Ischia, ProcidaVivara and Nisida, and a number of islets including Castello Aragonese off of Ischia, Gaiola at the end of the Posillipo coast, and the famous Faraglioni of Capri.

The Island of Nisida

The most popular destinations in the Bay are definitely Sorrento and Capri. The characteristic small town charm and laid back beach resort lifestyle in Sorrento attracts a large English crowd, and it’s where we go when we need an English break. Capri on the other hand is a renowned tourist destination of immense natural beauty. With crystal clear blue waters, panoramic vistas, the famed Blue Grotto, a chic upscale atmosphere, and high end hotels and designer stores, Capri attracts the rich and the famous, and has the price tag to match.

By contrast, the tiny and oft forgotten island of Procida attracts far less crowds. The antithesis of Capri, it is little more than a small fishing village really, and with no upscale hotels or designer stores, it has a quaint charm and local character that makes it the perfect place for a day trip.

Then there is Ischia. The largest of the Campanian islands, it is the perfect middle ground between touristy Sorrento, upscale Capri and tiny Procida. It boasts some of the best thermal spas in the area, is considered almost rural by some, attracts less crowds – mostly locals and Germans, and everything is reasonably priced (except the taxis). In other words, it’s a great weekend getaway from the city.

And getaway we did. Not just one weekend, but the last two. I don't know what it is, but something keeps drawing me back here. Maybe it's the respite from my chaotic city life, maybe it's the short journey to a whole other world, or maybe, I just love the hotel.

In today's world of nightmare travel this has to be one of the most pleasant journeys by far. No waking up at dawn to catch a flight or train; no airport security lines or the customary metal detector and strip search; no traffic jams or toll boothes. A five minute bus ride from my apartment and a short walk and I'm at the Mergellina port waiting for an Alilauro Aliscafi (hydrofoil). The only thing I have to contend with is the classic Neapolitan queue - or lack there of - and I choose simply to wait it out and let everyone else cram on.

Such was the case when I left on Friday. The line didn't look that long so I had no real worries, but I forgot that the ferry was coming from Naples main port, Porto Molo Beverello and all ready filled with passengers. By the time we made it on the boat - there was no room at the inn. But it was a blessing in disguise, as we were "forced" to stand outside on the deck and soak in the stunning views.

We reached our destination, Ischia Porto, in about 35 minutes or so (it's a little quicker from Mergellina than from Molo Beverello). There are two other ports on Ischia, Casamicciola and Forio which we will visit another day, but today we go to Ischia Porto, the largest "city" on the island.

A Caremar Ferry pulls into Ischia Porto

Just beyond the pier, the taxis are lined up and waiting for your business - minivans, sedans, and little three wheelers. But this is one expense I just can't abide. The €15,00 fare to take me the kilometer or so to my hotel seems outrageous compared to the €5,00 or €7,00 I'd pay in Naples. Instead I grab a few bus tickets at the newspaper stand and walk a block to the main piazza and get on a bus. €1,30 euro and I'm at my summer hideaway in 10 or 15 minutes.

Normally we rent an apartment when we travel, but a few years back we tried this hotel, the Continental Terme, on a whim and we have never been able to bring ourselves to stay anywhere else. Just like a comfortable pair of old shoes, it just fits us perfectly. Though its billed as a four star hotel, more for its amenities than its rooms I'm sure, it doesn't put on airs. Rather it feels like coming home to family and old friends and takes you back to the simpler times of the 1950s and 60s. It always reminds me of Dirty Dancing and the great resorts of the Poconos.

The property I was told, dates back to the late 50s or early 60s and started with just 20 rooms. Today, there are some 250 rooms spread across three hectares that cross two comunesIschia and Barano. But its thoughtful design makes it feel small and intimate. Rooms are spread out over the complex in small two story buildings painted in classic Mediterranean colors - pale blues, soft peaches, terracottas, and sunset pinks.

Fuchsia and purple bougainvillea and lush greens climb the walls and the entire property is drenched in the local flora. Nearly every room has a balcony or terrace - some large and sunny, some small and shady.

Our days are spent lying by the hotel's main pool (one of five thermal pools on the property) - a half Olympic size pool that is kept at about 28°C. To break things up we head up to the gorgeous 36°C tropical pool which is set inside a greenhouse filled with tropical plants.
The rest of the time we spend at the the Olympic Bar that overlooks the main pool. And it was there that we spent Sunday afternoon watching Italy play in the World Cup amidst the thunder, lightning and pouring rain of a rare early summer storm.
Luckily for us, we had done our jaunt down to the port for dinner on Saturday evening so we were happy to ride out the weather at the hotel. Vibrant and bustling but with a small town feel, the whole port area comes alive at night. Stores along tree lined shopping streets keep their doors open until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m.
Bars and cafes fill with tourists and locals alike for the pre-dinner gelato, afternoon caffe, or an early evening drink. And by 10:00 p.m. every one of the restaurants that line the port are filled with diners enjoying the local speciality - seafood.

Before we feasted on a huge meal though, we stopped for a drink and watched an incredible sunset.
There is much to see and do on Ischia, but this trip was just about rest and relaxation. We will definitely explore the island in future posts, but in the meantime, learn a bit about Ischia's history in Ischia, by Gabriella Sannino.
Until next Saturday :)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Saturday Stroll - To Summers Past

Saturday stroll is a little late this week, mostly because it lasted until Monday. Yes, we took a long and much needed weekend away. Arriving home late Monday afternoon, there was the unpacking, laundry, a zillion updates to make to the website, and a thousand RT thanks to make on twitter before I could actually sit down and compose my thoughts.

With the unseasonably cold and rainy May we had this year, I thought we just might have another week or two of spring left to explore the city, but it went from chilly to scorching with a snap of the finger. And as soon as it gets this hot, all strolls are off and you either run and duck for cover or join the rest of the Neapolitans in a four month long celebration of the sun. One of what I call their five religions, God, family, the sun, the sea, and football, and not necessarily in that order, they don’t hide from the sun, they bake in it.

Whether out in their boats which fill the bay like a thousand Navy sailors decked out in their summer whites, or basking along the shore line, sun lovers appear sometimes as early as April and stay as late as November. Along Lungomare they crowd into the few small public beaches, one at Rotunda Diaz and one at Piazza Vittoria, or bask on the characteristic white rocked reefs that dot Naples shoreline.

Rotunda Diaz - Before the Crowds

Along the Posillipo coast they flock into the famed bagnos (bathing beaches) – Elena, Sirena, and Ideal or the Marechiaro bagnos at the Capo Posillipo where for €10.00 or €15.00 you can rent a sun bed and umbrella for the day.

Early Morning at the Posillipo Bagnos

Then there are the private beaches hidden in the many coves along the Posillipo coast, which is where we spent our last four summers. Each day we made the long and arduous journey across the street to a gated residential area known as Villa Martinelli. Not really a “parco,” Villa Martinelli is more an odd collection of turn of the century palazzi (five or six story tall apartment buildings), the more modern condos built around the 1960s or 70s, and the remains of Villa Mazziotti and Villa Cappella, which eventually became Villa Martinelli, from which the area takes its name.

Villa Martinelli in the foreground and Villa Mazziotti in the background

Perched along the shear tufo rock cliff, this conglomerate of old and new buildings make their descent from Via Posillipo to the water’s edge, which by my estimation is some 20 stories down or more. And into that cliff, the product of pure Neapolitan ingenuity, an elevator shaft was installed, our primary transportation to our summer hideaway. For € .20 you can cram three people into a tiny and sometimes unlit box to make the long descent through the cliff, that is, when it is working.

Otherwise, it is a long trek down a windy and narrow one lane road with five hairpin turns, where traffic runs in both directions, and car horns and mirrors at each bend direct the traffic. Strolling down the hill, either on the street or trekking down the three staircases that span the levels of the road is a fairly enjoyable walk with spectacular views. Making the journey up in the sweltering 90+ degree heat when the elevator is not working – well that’s another story.

Once you reach the bottom of the road, it is just one more staircase to the final destination, a Pompeii red two story building with bright blue doors set at the center of a wide cove, home to some 50 or so little cabinas (cabanas). Fairly rare in this city, they are larger than the typical changing room type cabana you might be familiar with. Almost tiny apartments really, they have a bathroom with a shower, a small kitchenette with a stove and refrigerator, and room enough to cook and change clothes. And while the two of us might have felt a bit cramped, most cabinas are home to families of eight or more.

The Villa Martinelli Cabinas and Villa Mazziotti

Most of our friends in the neighborhood have a cabina at Villa Martinelli, so every weekend is like going to beach with your large extended family. Moms and dads, grandfathers and grandmothers, and tots to teens gather to worship the sea, the sun, and of course there is fabulous food, great wine and animated conversation. Fresh cozze (mussels) harvested right from the sea are thrown into big pots to cook and served in the classic manner, either with lemon or pepper; pans of Pasta al Pomodoro (tomato) simmer on the stove; plates are piled high with fresh balls of Mozzarella di Bufala; crumbs from crusty fresh loaves of bread litter the tables; jugs are filled with ice cold white wine and peaches; and fresh watermelon, cantaloupe, cherries, and in late summer, Indian figs top it off. The smells and tastes of summer.

There is a definite rhythm to Villa Martinelli that repeats itself each weekend during the summer and everyday during ferie (the summer holidays in August). Families start to arrive mid morning and the kids head immediately for the water. The men pull out the tables, chairs, sun beds, toys, and other beach paraphernalia while the women put the groceries away. Next, the men head out to get mussels and the occasional polipo (octopus) while the women start cooking. Emerging from the water with overflowing netted bags of mussels tied around their waists, they all meet up to clean them. Lunch is usually served around two, three courses followed by fruit, dolce (dessert), and of course caffè. Then it’s a nap or a swim for the adults and play time for the kids. In the late afternoon you’ll find groups of men and groups of women playing cards in the shade.

An amazing summer routine we were very fortunate to be a part of. So why give it up, you wonder? Well we really haven’t… we have a standing invitation to Villa Martinelli with just about everyone in the neighborhood. But this year we wanted to do something a bit different – head out and explore the many fabulous destinations that are just a short ferry ride away, the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, and maybe even journey to some other beaches around the Med. Our first jaunt this weekend took us to our favorite island in the gulf, Ischia. And in fact, we enjoyed it so much we are heading back there again next weekend. So next Saturday stroll we'll take you to our favorite hideaway on Ischia, and after that who knows where you'll find us next. 

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Saturday Stroll - Downhill

It was a late night Friday night. Well, to be honest, the night ended early Saturday morning. It was a Paella and Sangria spettacolo at what is becoming one of our favorite haunts in Fuorigrotta, the Pitagoras Restaurant. The food was great, the flamenco dancers (from Andalucia) were fantastic, the guitarist and singer reminded me of our time in Andalucia, Spain, and the Sangria did its job.

Arriving home late, we found the crowd at the JenLine pub below our apartment had thinned out so we sat down to catch up with some old friends. Antonio, who you met on last Saturday's stroll was in the mood to reminisce about his childhood, the years just after WWII. Times were tough then, tougher than most of us can imagine now. His five brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, ten in all cramped into a on room apartment in Casale di Posillipo. Some days the only thing they had to eat was a small piece of bread and broth made from discarded pea and bean pods. Meanwhile, the rich would crowd into the restaurant that is now Reginella's and the young kids would stare into the windows dreaming of what it would be like to have a real meal.

We finally made it upstairs just a few hours before sunrise and put our weary bones to bed. A cool breeze snuck through the window shutters waking us up just before noon. Stumbling to the kitchen I put on the caffe, and we followed it with a hearty Neapolitan breakfast of melon, prosciutto crudo, and fresh squeezed OJ. Shaking the self-induced cobwebs from our head we started the day. Normal stuff, you know, the life of a twitter, blogger, apartment dweller in Napoli.

As the bright afternoon sun started its descent, we grabbed our cameras and headed out the door. Since we  took a right and headed up the hill last Saturday, we took a left and headed down the hill. Not only do we love the views this way, we also both knew that at the end of this journey, we would find a Cappucino Freddo and Caffe del Nonno waiting for us at Chalet Ciro in Mergellina, one of the best pasticcerias in the city.

There are no "you have to see" monuments this way, with perhaps the exception of the forever photographed Palazzo Donn'Anna.

There is, however, an endless and priceless panoramic view of the Gulf of Naples, the city, Vesuvio and Capri. Flowers are everywhere, whether they're in gardens, on terraces or simply in boxes on the many balconetti along the way.We pass restaraunts setting up for the receptions of the many June weddings here. We catch a glimpse of Castel Sant'Elmo looking down on the city. 

Further down we walk by Bagno Elena,  Bagno Sirena and Bagno Ideal, three of Naples best bathing beaches. It's still early in the season and the chairs are lined up like red, yellow and blue soldiers. 

The beach has been smoothed, and the only footprints you see were made by the sand zamboni operator.

One last turn, a walk around Largo Sermoneta, and we have a seat at one of the yellow tables at Chalet Ciro. See you next Saturday!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Saturday Stroll - Strolling The Dream

Naples 16th annual May of the Monuments came to a close this weekend and we were sad to see it go. Bravo to Comune di Napoli and everyone involved for putting on an excellent event that highlighted the historical, artistic and cultural heritage of this great city. We found ourselves in neighborhoods we didn't know about and exploring sections of the city that, even after 5 years here, we didn't know existed. This Saturday Stroll takes us back into the familiar - our neighborhood. We chose this stroll for a couple of reasons: first, we're exhausted after running all over the city this past month, and second, we wanted to share what a normal Saturday for normal Napolitani is like.

As chaotic as it seems, here in Napoli things run on a fairly rigid time schedule and after you live here a while, you tend to fall right in. Up by 8 a.m., either by habit or the noise on the street pushing you out of bed, one starts the day with caffe. Kimbo caffe and a Bialetti espresso maker become your best morning friends. Add a few cornetti and you have the classic Neapolitan breakfast.

Next, we make short work of the dishes (by hand of course - no dishwashers in this apartment except for me), make the bed, throw on some clothes and we're out the door to do our daily shopping. We learned early on that its best to shop daily and that the earlier you get out, the better selection you'll find. Neapolitan store owners know exactly how much to stock. Get there late and they are liable to have run out, especially when it comes to bread and fresh fruits and vegetables.

All the negozzi (small stores) in our neighborhood are local. No supermarkets to really speak of. There is one down the hill, a CONAD, but even that's the size of a 7-11 in the States. The stores generally open their doors around 8:30 a.m., close for pausa around 2:30 p.m. and re-open again from around 5:00 p.m. until 8:30 p.m.

We start at Salumeria Buono, our neighborhood grocer if you will. The word salumeria translates to delicatessen, but it is so much more. The deli case is filled with the finest prosciuttos in Italy - crudo and cotto; speck, pancetta and mortadella - the original Bologna; the best salamis, Milanese and Napoletano of course; the all important parmeggiano-reggiano and a variety of other cheeses; and tubs filled with all types of olives. Mozzarella di Bufala, big white balls float in huge bowls of water on top of the deli case. Hard, crusty breads spill out of the bins behind. But that's only half the story, because the Salumeria also carries most of the essentials like olive oil and vinegar, pastas and rice, flour and sugar, milk and butter, sweets, and much more. And if we are too lazy to go to the Enoteca (wine store) or Panificio (bread store) down the road, we grab our wine, beer and bread here as well .

Walking into the Salumeria you immediately sense the difference between shopping here and in the States or the UK. A family run operation like all of the stores in our neighborhood, Ricardo and his son Salvatore are manning the deli counter while Rosa is minding the cash register, her new grandson Antonio on her knee. People are catching up on news, eating hunks of bread or cheese, and if it's a holiday season, you just might get offered a glass champagne or some other confection to celebrate the season. More of a social event than a shopping trip, the buying of merchandise is really secondary to catching up with family and friends.

Making our way up the sidewalk we say Buon Giorno to Antonio. The father of three and grandfather of five, including his namesake, Antonio from the Salumeria, he is in the pub cleaning up from the night before and getting ready for lunch service. A family operation in every sense of the word, everyone helps out. Antonio's wife makes all of the fresh contorni (vegetables and side dishes), his son-in-law cooks in the evening and his daughter and sons do everything else. Even his son's father-in-law helps out by cooking the daily lunch menu - your choice of two pasta dishes, a drink and bread  for €5,00. We'll definitely be back for that!

Next stop is Bottega del Pollo da Carlo, our neighborhood Polleria (chicken butcher). A tiny shop filled with the freshest poultry, Carlo took over the polleria from his father many, many years ago, and he will soon pass it on to his son Massimiliano. His rotisserie sits just outside his store luring customers in with the wonderful aromas of roasted chicken.

Inside, his meat case is loaded with whole chickens and rabbits, chicken parts, pork loin, and sausages. Fresh eggs are stacked to the ceiling on the shelves nearby. We've known Carlo and his wife Claudia since the day we moved here and can always count on their friendship. We can also always count on him to make our second caffe of the day. Taking a seat on the small step ladder inside his shop, we sip our caffe and catch up on all the news of the day.

Next door is Mario's. Mario runs the Fruttivendolo (fruit and vegetable store) and a little Salumeria of his own with his wife and three kids. Fresh vegetables and fruits are why we're here and Mario doesn't disappoint. Overflowing green crates that climb the walls outside of his store are filled with the freshest produce - cherry and Sorrentine tomatoes, eggplants and zucchini, crisp green lettuces, red and yellow peppers, lemons and oranges, and the best fruits of the season. Mario sells seasonal produce only, so you don't want to be asking him for melons in November, but he and his wife are always happy to offer tips on how to prepare their produce, Neapolitan style of course.

Walking across the piazza we run into other friends from the neighborhood. The morning shop is a way to let everyone know that you're OK, all is well (or not well) with your family, whether you're working or not, and generally saying hello and wishing others well in our small piece of the city.

A "quick" stop in the Farmacia (pharmacy) comes next to pick up a prescription, then its off to the Tabaccheria (tobacco shop) next door. More a catch-all store than a tobacco shop, they carry pretty much everything else you need: bus tickets and lotto tickets, cleaning products and sundry items, copier and fax services, birthday gifts, and of course, tobacco.Your one-stop shop. I walked in here the other day and after a big order including my monthly bus tickets, I found myself €18,00 short. Not only did Antonio tell me to pay him later, but he reached in the till and offered me €50,00 back so I wouldn't be out of cash. When is the last time that happened to you? Only in Napoli.

Walking through the crowd in front of Gelateria Bilancioni (for unbelievably great gelato) our last stop is at the Macelleria (butcher). A side of beef and half a pig hang in the glass reefer and fresh cuts of beef, veal and pork fill his display cases. Both the macelleria and polleria have few pre-butchered products so if you want to make a veal scallopini that night, he will slice it (and pound it) to order. No need to buy a pound  or 1/2 a pound - just tell him how many slices you want and that is what you'll get - even if you only want one. Bruno works with his son Gianni and is a Neapolitan history buff who loves to regale us with stories, this time, the tales of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Our morning shop and stroll is done. We covered no more than 300 meters in just less than 2 hours. We've caught up with our friends and our neighbors. Now I'm getting hungry for lunch. What's the pub serving today?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Saturday Stroll - Through the Valley of the Dead

May of the Monuments has given us the opportunity to explore parts of Napoli we've never ventured into before. Places rarely listed in the tour guides and that would definitely never make the top ten list. And this Saturday Stroll took us to just one of those places. Our journey was to a cemetery that opens its gates for only two days a year, however along the way we found the religious and historic core of this city. To understand Napoli, you must understand the Quartiere Sanità and the Borgo dei Vergini (Quarter of the Virgins). As fascinating as it is macabre, it lives between wealth and poverty, light and darkness, ecstasy and agony.

Located on the north side of the city, the Quartiere Sanità sits in a valley just beyond the orignal city walls, nestled between the Capodimonte, Materdei, Scudillo, Miradois, and Stella hills. Here, was the final resting place of many Neapolitan souls, buried within the rocky cavities that at the same time gave the materials from which the Neapolitans built their homes. Once accessible only from the city gate - Porta Gennaro, today however, we simply took the Metropolitana Line 2 to the Cavour station.

Popping out of the station we took a left on Via dei Vergini and found ourselves on one of the busiest, liveliest streets we've seen in this city. The daily market was in full swing with shopkeepers calling out their wares, cars and motos weaving in and around the pedestrians shopping in the street (no wider than an alley really), baskets on ropes being dropped from 4th floor walkups so that shoppers didn't have to make the long trek up and down again, and the aroma of flowers, fish and caffe in the air.

As we normally do, a kind of custom I guess, we popped into a cafe and enjoyed a couple of graffe (sugar doughnuts), marmelade filled cornetti and some fresh squeezed orange juice (spremuta).  After finishing we made our way back onto the street and wandered the market. Everything you'd ever need could be found here, meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, clothing, cleaning materials... even pots and pans are here.  Hundreds of people wandering, buying, catching up with friends, continuing conversations from yesterday or just simply watching it all occur. You know, like a neighborhood. 

Right in the middle of the market, we saw a magnificent courtyard on our left, the reknowned Palazzo Spagnuolo. Its magnificent staircase, exemplifying Baroque and Roccoco architecture, was commisioned by Nicola Moscati and designed and built by Baroque architect Ferdinando Sanfelice. The double staircase, known as Ali di Falco (Wings of the Hawk) was meant to provide a social setting so that people could meet and converse. I have to admit, we spent some time here simply admiring this structure (and kinda thinking about moving to this neighborhood).

Wandering through the market we came to a fork in the road. We chose left. The market began to thin as we walked upward and found that we were on Via Arena della Sanita. The narrow street was shared by cars, motos and pedestrians. We were ducking and weaving our way upward when a courtyard struck both our attention. Simple in construction, deteriorated with age and yet beautiful in its simplicity. This wasn't a landmark or a tourist attraction of note, however the laundry hanging across to dry signified that families lived here, making it all that more beautiful to look at.

Smiling as we left the palazzo, we continued upward.  Upward is a key word here as this stroll is always uphill. Eventually, we rounded a corner and saw the cupola of Santa Maria della Sanita.

We entered the church, which is also home to the Catacombs of San Gaudioso, and were struck by the magnificent altar. The church interior was white like a cloud and the paintings, mammoth in size befitting the height of the ceilings and the width of this gorgeous structure. We wandered around awestruck. Everywhere we looked there was beauty and peace.

Determined to make it to our original destination, the Cimitero delle Fontanelle (Fontanelle Cemetery), we reluctantly departed. After asking someone in the church courtyard how much further up the hill the cemetery was, we opted to take the C51 bus up the rest of the way. Not your normal bus, more like a huge van, we, along with 20 or so other passengers that were already on it, took the crammed bus up to Piazza Fontanelle.

From Piazza Fontanelle it was another long hike uphill to the cemetery. Once there we were met by a long line of people anxiously awaiting the rare opening of this amazing place. Once we finally got in, we knew why. Never before had we seen anything like this. There are no burial plots, mausoleums or headstones. There are no well manicured lawns or flowers. One enters into a gigantic tuffa rock cave, on a dirt path, and the first sight you see are human skulls and bones neatly stacked (the skulls resting on top of an orderly stack of leg and arm bones). Not one or two, not hundreds, but thousands.

More precisely an ossuary, Cimitero delle Fontanelle is the final resting place for Neopolitans and also served as a paupers cemetery between 1600 and 1800. It has a long and fascinating history, and you can read more about it in our article Naples Fontanelle Cemetery on our website. Let me just say however, that it was definitely a place not to be missed. It is so important in fact, that the Il Mattino reported on Sunday that a group of citizens, social activists, and religious organizations had remained in the ossuary after the last tour on Sunday to protest that the cemetery is only open two days a year.

Leaving here, after catching our breath and gathering our senses, we started the walk down. What else could this "simple" neighborhood have in store for us? About halfway back to the Chiesa Santa Maria della Sanita, we discovered one of Naples' many stairways at the corner of Via Allessandro Telesino. 

Wondering how may steps this staircase has? Well without us asking, a 12 or 13 year old raggazo told us, in perfect English I might add, that there are 137 steps. We did not climb them to verify that.

Making our way back to the church, we saw an ascensore (elevator) just beyond Piazza Sanita. Operated by Metro Napoli, it took us up to Via Santa Teresa degli Scalzi. The elevator is in a bridge that was built in the 1800s to improve the route from Napoli to the Capidomonte Palace. From the top, we got a birds eye view of the valley of death and the cupola of Chiesa Santa Maria della Sanita.  It also put us on a main bus route back to the Cavour Metro Station.

We caught the 546 to Cavour and found a nice little restaraunt with outside seating in the section of the neighborhood where we started our stroll. We ambled into 'O Core 'e Napule Ristorante and Pizzeria and experienced one of the best lunches we've had in a while. The Vino della Casa, Pasta e Fagioli and Spaghetti con le Vongole were perfect.

Note:  Quartiere Sanità and the Borgo dei Vergini neighborhood isn't the most outwardly aesthetically pleasing, nor is it the safest in the city. But the neighborhood's importance cannot be understated. It is the guardian of the dead, from paupers to saints and filled with treasures of the past, from monuments hidden and on the street. It is also the most alive and vibrant neighborhood that we've had the absolute pleasure of strolling through. It may not make a list of things to see in Italy or Naples, but it should certainly make yours.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Saturday Stroll - Centro Storico in the Rain

May of the Monuments is in full swing, so we decided to head down around Centro Storico to take a peek into another Roman Thermal Complex and Domus and visit a few of Naples' many churches along the way. Oh yeah, and we also had to shop for dinner.

Our Saturday stroll started on the 140 bus that took us from our apartment in Posillipo to the top of Borgo Santa Lucia, the point on Via Santa Lucia nearest the port and Piazza Plebiscito.

Hopping off the bus, we headed toward the piazza and as we got closer to it, we couldn't help but notice all the police activity. A swarm of policemen in full regalia, dozens of police cars and buses... even a helicopter was sitting in the piazza. Not to worry. As we found out later, the Polizia di Stato were celebrating their 158th anniversary and were showing off their equipment, forensic science capabilities and doing hands on displays for passers-by and school kids. Some great jazz was playing over the loudspeakers providing a fitting and enjoyable soundtrack to our slow walk across this enormous piazza.

We grabbed the R2 bus outside Galleria Umberto, which surprisingly wasn't packed on a Saturday morning, hopped off at Via Duomo, and began the trek up the hill towards Via dei Tribunali. We stopped for a couple of graffe (sugar doughnuts) and some fresh squeezed orange juice (spremuta) at a little cafe and got out of the sprinkling rain. Once the rain stopped, we continued strolling up the hill. Along the way, we noticed an art show in a chapel, San Severino al Pendino, and stopped in to see some excellent work by some local artists. The Signore who was watching over the exhibit didn't know if we could buy any, but let me tell you, there was a piece by Raffaele Magie that was excellent and would have found its way onto my living room wall if he did know.

Before we knew it we were turning onto Via dei Tribunali. Dodging cars and motos and the now pouring rain we made our way along this narrow cobblestone alley, the main decumanus of ancient Naples. Our first stop took us to Pio Monte della Misericordia, a charitable institution that was founded in 1601 by a group of young Noblemen, to see Caravaggio's Seven Acts of Mercy.

Our next stop, the Roman Thermal Complex under the Bank of Naples on Via dei Tribunali, very near to Castle Caupano. This excavation was being presented by Gruppo Archeologico Napoletano, the same organization that presented the Archaeological Thermal Bath Complex at Via Terracina that we visited last Saturday. As luck would have it, Antonio Cammarota, the English speaking guide who showed us around last week greeted us with great big smile. We had a wonderful tour with Antonio, and without getting into the specifics, let me just say that it was surprising to see again another example of the archeological treasures that Napoli hides under her surfaces. See the translation of Gruppo Archeologico Napoletano's document The Urban Thermal Complexes of Ancient Naples for all the details about the complex.

After spending an hour or so with Antonio (thanks for the little sandwiches and tea!), we were on our way to the Holy House and the Church of the Annunziata. On our way there (see how easily distracted we are), we found a store called Lomax next to Castle Capuano that sold food products from South America, Africa, Poland, Romania and Russia. We wandered around the store without a clue for 20 minutes or so just checking out all the neat food and spices that they had to sell. 

Entering the Holy House and the Church of the Annunziata, we were immediately met by three young girls who wanted to guide us through the complex. Many of Naples local schools have "adopted" monuments during May of the Monuments, and these three eager raggazze were ready to show us everything. We passed on the church tour but met them later to see the Ruota, the Wheel of the Esposti. The Church is absolutely gorgeous!  The altar reaches to the heavens, the Cupola even higher, and a feeling of peace falls over you the minute you sit down. Dating to the 14th century, the church was completely redesigned by among others Luigi and Carlo Vanvitelli in the 1750s. An interesting blend of Baroque and classical elements it has a single nave with three chapels on each side. The most striking feature of the church was how bright and airy it was, it was almost as if it had been done in a thousand shades of white.

Founded as a charitable institution in the 14th century, the church has always served as an orphanage, taking in babies abandoned by poor families and mothers who had secretly conceived them. Up until the 19th century, babies were anonymously left with the church through a "drop box" if you will, a wooden revolving wheel into which the child was placed from the street outside the church and the wheel turned inward to the church where the child would be recieved by the nuns. The child was immediately washed and baptized in the same room, and before being entrusted to a nursing mother, a leaden medal showing a registration number on one side and the image of the Virgin on the other was put around their neck. Everything the nuns knew about the child, including the clothing they were wearing was recorded in a book in case the parents wanted to reclaim them later. The abandoned babies were known as Madonna's Sons, Children of Nunziata, and many took on the surname Esposito, which comes the verb esporre and the past participle esposti, meaning to be exposed, put out, or displayed. The wheel system was abolished in 1862 throughout Italy because it was also being used to abandon teenagers. Cramped into the wheel's tiny space, many suffered permanent malformations.

Leaving here, we were off to Porta Nolana Market (like I said, we had to get dinner). This market is considered the best fish market in Naples. The fish and shellfish you find here are fresh and cheap. Making our way through the crowds, we picked up some pesce spada (swordfish), vongole (clams) and cozze (mussels). Taking our bounty, we were off to catch the bus home.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Roman Thermal Bath Complex at Fuorigrotta

Saturday Stroll - A Traveler’s Way Station in the Hinterlands

Saturdays at the mall are a thing of the past, and thank God for that! With so much to see and do here, hardly a weekend goes by that I don’t want to be out and about exploring, and this Saturday was no exception. As part of Naples' May of the Monuments, the all volunteer group, Gruppo Archeologico Napoletano held a rare opening of a little known site in Fuorigrotta, a 2nd century CE Roman thermal bath complex that sits just off today’s Via Terracina.

Traffic buzzed up and down the street as we got off at the first bus stop along Via Terracina and made our way by foot. Leaving the mesh fence to our left for a moment, our eyes fixed on the sign across the street that read “Pizza Dough, 1,50 per kilo" and the bulb went off in both of our heads. Oh so much easier than making it ourselves. But that was not what we were here for so we turned our attention to the fence. Running along the side of Via Terracina, it didn’t conceal the site, but one could easily pass by without any notice. Another hidden gem in a city filled with ancient ruins that are typically passed up for the more well known sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Vestibule and Frigidarium

We were met by the very gracious Antonio Cammarota, a biochemical engineer at the University and one of Gruppo Archaeologico Napoletano’s volunteers. Extremely knowledgeable about the site and archaeology in general, for the next two hours Antonio took us on a private tour, in English, of this impressive complex. I had been eagerly awaiting the chance to see it because I had been trying to figure out for some time why there was a Roman thermal spa complex right smack in the middle of nowhere, at least what would have been nowhere during the Roman era. In fact, even today the area of Fuorigrotta (meaning outside the tunnel), one of Naples’ western “quartiere” still feels somewhat disconnected from the city – sort of like a city unto itself on the other side of Posillipo hill. Be that as it may, I would soon learn the answer to my question.

It turns out to make perfect sense. Before the Romans arrived the Greeks needed to establish transportation and trade routes with their western colonies of Pozzuoli, Cuma and beyond. With Posillipo hill standing right in their way, they built a road that traversed Naples’ northern hilly districts, today’s Soccavo and Pianura. A long and arduous journey, the road went up and over the hills and came down in the marshy zone of Fuorigrotta and then on to the western colonies. When the Romans came along, they found a shorter route, building a road over Vomero hill, but it too came down in Fuorigrotta, right in the area of today’s Via Terracina. A short time later, thanks to the brilliance of the Roman architect Lucius Cocceius Aucto, a more direct route would be established when Aucto found a way to tunnel 705 meters through Posillipo hill. Known as the Crypta Neapolitan, the tunnel remained in use for centuries.

View of the site from street level

But that still doesn’t explain the thermal baths does it? Well actually it does. No matter how much quicker the trip was, it was still a long way to go. Not the 20 minutes or so it takes to get from the Autostrada to Pozzuoli on the Tangenziale today (unless of course you happen to get stuck in traffic). So what does every road weary traveler need, a rest stop. And that’s exactly what this Roman thermal spa was - a travelers respite right in the middle of the marshy hinterland between Naples and Pozzuoli. And not only a place to stop and rest for a while and rejuvenate, but a place to meet, greet and just generally conduct the business of the day.

A "warm room"

Discovered in 1939 during the construction of Mostra d’Oltremare, the site has received precious little attention over the years, but despite that it has remained fairly intact. And as an added bonus, its position below modern day ground level gives you multiple vantage points from which to orient yourself to the layout of the site and to see how the complex functioned. That most of the decorative elements and its marble and frescoed façade have been lost to time is disappointing, enough traces remain to give you a general idea of how the complex might have looked, and it has the hidden benefit of allowing you to see more fully the construction techniques that were used to build the complex.

Some remaining marble on the walls

The rooms of the complex are typical of an Imperial age spa: a frigidarium – the cold baths area, the caldarium – the warm bath area, several "warm rooms" - the saunaus, a large vestibule, and there is even a beautiful Roman era bathroom, "la latrina' to boot. But the jewels of the site are the black and white mosaics on the floors of the vestibule, frigidarium and latrine, that though weathered by time still persist.

Detail of one of the floor mosaics

The English translation of Gruppo Archeologico Napoletano's extensve document about the complex - Archeological Thermal Bath Complex at Via Terracina with more pictures is now available on the webiste.

Thanks to the Antonio Cammarota and the Gruppo Archeologico Napoletano for an excellent tour and for the work they do documenting and safeguarding Naples' history.