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"In Naples, everyone lives in..." Naples Favorite Tip by MVMT

Naples General: 136 reviews and 140 photos

Favorite thing: In Naples, everyone lives in an inebriated forgetfulness of himself, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in 'Italian Journey,' an account of his travels in Italy between 1786 and 1788, when he was in his late 30's. 'That also happens to me. I hardly recognize myself and I feel myself to be an entirely different man. Yesterday I thought 'Either you were mad before or you are now.' '

Naples has long had this effect on people, the insane vitality of the place -- the cheerful clamor in the streets, the music in the air, the purposeful energy of its citizens in pursuit of their often chaotic lives, the dark dramas and comic scenes played out daily in its ancient streets and grand piazzas. It is not by accident that Italy's most popular 20th-century playwright was Eduardo de Filippo, a native Napolitan whose bittersweet comedies, written in the local dialect, express the joys and sufferings of a population that has survived 2,500 years of history.

'See Naples and die,' goes the old saw about the place, alluding to the beauty of the city's incomparable setting in the shadow of its volcano and the blue waters of its enormous bay. 'See Naples and live!' is what Naples provides to even the most casual tourist, the humanity and good humor, even in adversity, of its citizens is one of its main attractions. Strike up a conversation anywhere with anyone in the streets of Naples and you are likely to be rewarded with a bit of wisdom or an observation that will startle by its originality or make you laugh. Not long ago, on a visit to the top of Vesuvius, Europe's smallest but still active volcano, I commented to an old guide seated at the edge of the crater that the mountain seemed to be dormant. 'He sleeps with one eye open,' the old man answered. More recently, after I'd been regaled by an outpouring of detailed information from a bright young man giving me an unsolicited tour of the exquisitely beautiful Chapel of Sansevero, the vendor of postcards at the exit explained cheerfully that my guide was 'a well of science.' It helps to be able to speak at least some Italian to appreciate such linguistic subtleties, but many Neapolitans get along very well in English and are eager to be helpful, which they express by the small touches of gentility that dignify public life.

I often find myself marveling at this, because surely no major city in the world has survived more calamities than Naples, from volcanic eruptions and earthquakes to floods, plagues, wars and foreign occupations. The most recent of these was an earthquake in 1980. Centered in an area some 50 miles to the southeast, it shook the city hard enough to crack the facades of many of its most splendid palazzi and to force about 50,000 people to leave their homes for temporary shelters. The tourist industry, a mainstay of the local economy that had long suffered from a high rate of unemployment, ceased practically overnight to exist. It has taken nearly a generation to build it up again, but any traveler interested in the arts, architecture, archaeology or history will rejoice in its recovery. Naples is like a great courtesan dressed in the tattered finery of her past and with a great story to tell.

The man most responsible for the city's rebirth is Antonio Bassolino, an independent, forceful politician who was elected mayor in 1993 and devoted most of the seven years he was in office, until he recently became president of the entire region, to what he himself defined as a 'cultural and civic awakening.' Not only did he oversee the repair and reopening of many of the most damaged private and public buildings -- among them the great Bourbon palazzi in the heart of town, the museums and the exquisite 17th- and 18th-century theaters -- but he also sponsored a vast cleanup of areas once much favored by foreign visitors but allowed for decades to decline into crime-ridden filth and despair. The section of the waterfront stretching for several miles from the Santa Lucia district, with its luxury hotels and popular restaurants, to the verdant peninsula of Posillipo has been restored to its former glory and partially closed to traffic; parts of the once badly polluted waters of the bay have been cleaned up and reopened to swimmers; and the dark volcanic rocks of the long scogliera, over which fishermen, bathers and picnickers once had to scramble through discarded rubbish, now gleam pristinely in the sun.

Under Bassolino's enlightened regime, the municipal government also began closing piazzas and entire neighborhoods to traffic, creating large pedestrian islands where everyone can shop, eat, drink, sightsee and stroll without having to hug building walls to avoid a honking automobile or a noisy motor scooter. A walk along the entire length of the Via Roma and Via Toledo, with their luxury shops and inevitable franchise outlets, past the vaulted arches of the Galleria Umberto I to the Piazza del Plebiscito, in front of the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) and the San Carlo Opera House now provides visitors with a perfect symbolic view of old and new Naples. To the left are mostly modern office buildings, but to the right, threading their way up the steep slopes of the Vomero district to the Castle of Sant'Elmo and the Carthusian Monastery of San Martino, are the vicoli of the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarters), where for centuries the poor of Naples have lived in noisy squalor in their tottering but picturesque tenements. Poverty breeds at least petty crime, so it's still not safe to wander alone in this part of town, especially at night, but take a long look up the Vico della Tofa, the Via Trinit degli Spagnoli or, especially, the Vico d'Afflitto (the Alley of the Afflicted), and you will see life as it has been lived here since the mid-18th century.
Museums, theaters and palaces have been restored and reopened and pedestrian zones established

Signor Bassolino's administration even tried valiantly to reform the city's chaotic flow of traffic by improving public transport, creating special lanes for taxis and buses and assigning more police to enforce the regulations. Unfortunately, the Neapolitans, who are great improvisers and have a long history of evasion when confronted by authority, still pretty much make up their own rules. Few people bother to wear helmets as they weave swiftly in and out of heavy traffic on their motorini, with small children sometimes mounted on the handlebars, and traffic signals are routinely ignored.
There is so much to see in Naples that a week seems barely enough, especially if the plan is also to take in the nearby ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, where teams of archaeologists are still unearthing ancient Roman and Greek treasures buried for centuries under volcanic ash. Beautifully put, because Naples can date its first flowering to its beginnings as a Greek city, Neapolis, back to the fifth century B.C. It blossomed under the Romans and has continued, despite periodic cataclysms, to remain 'world famous' until the present day.

To an extent matched only by Rome, Naples is a hub of museums and churches. The great palaces and castles, such as the Castle Sant'Elmo, the Castle Nuovo, the Palazzo Reale and the Castle dell'Ovo at Santa Lucia, are architecturally and historically worth a visit, quite apart from their function as museums. Another royal palace, built between 1738 and 1838 in the spacious hilltop park of Capodimonte, with its dramatic view over the whole city toward the dark mass of Vesuvius, houses one of the world's great art collections -- works by Giovanni Bellini, Lorenzo Lotto, Mantegna, Titian, Raphael, Vasari, Botticelli, Dosso Dossi, as well as Peter Bruegel the Elder's haunting depiction of 'The Blind Leading the Blind,' painted in 1568, a year before the artist's death.

Many other cities have great art museums, but none more important or fascinating than the National Archaeological Museum, with its huge collection of treasures -- paintings, sculpture, mosaics, jewelry, household objects, coins -- assembled from the diggings at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Newly refurbished and partly restaffed by multilingual bright young people, many of them students hired specifically to cater to foreigners, the Museo Archeologico quite simply overwhelms the senses. Among the hundreds of enthralling objects is a huge dramatic mosaic depicting a battle between the armies of Alexander the Great and King Darius of Persia, in which, as my wife, Alice, pointed out, Alexander behaves like a typical Neapolitan: 'He isn't wearing a helmet.'

The Bourbons were a dismal ruling family, corrupt and cruel, but the first of them, Charles III (1734-59), was a tremendous builder and patron of the arts. An indifferent ruler, he spent lavishly to make Naples a great cultural center that would justify his exalted opinion of himself, and hired the architects and artists to carry out his many projects, among them the building in 1738 of the splendidly Rococo San Carlo Opera House, all cream and gold and called after his name saint. He left his personal stamp upon the city to an extent unmatched anywhere else, for which we can forgive him his excesses.
Naples still sings, though not as preeminently as it used to. There is, of course, the San Carlo, less celebrated internationally than La Scala, but larger, equally impressive and steeped in tradition, the house where Rossini and Donizetti scored their early triumphs. Tickets here are cheaper and easier to come by than in Milan, and the year-round repertory of operas, symphonic concerts and ballets ranges from the traditional to the adventurous.

The popular music industry that brought such classics as 'O Sole Mio' and 'Turna à Surriento' into the world no longer dominates the national scene, but the tradition is still very much alive, and lovers of the old songs have only to ask where they can be heard to be rewarded. A courtly middle-aged man named Mariano Apicella sings most evenings on the outdoor dining terrace of the Hotel Vesuvio in Santa Lucia. He and his father, who also sings, have their own local television show and are well known to regional lovers of music. Accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars, they know hundreds of songs and deliver them in the parlando style many of them require, as opposed to the operatic blastings we've become accustomed to. The traditional popular music of Naples calls for accompaniment by such stringed instruments as the mandolin, mandola and guitar. A recently formed group for solo voice and six instrumentalists calling itself Almalatina has already won awards for putting on programs of Neapolitan songs dating back to the 16th century that speak for the heartaches and longings of an entire population.

Street musicians, as they can in every tourist hub, can become a hazard, but less so in Naples, where at least one is less likely to be assaulted by boom boxes and raucous attempts at rock. Neapolitans have subtler ways to separate people from their small change. Luciano De Crescenzo, a well-known chronicler of Neapolitan life, recalls a time he was having lunch with a friend at an outdoor restaurant table. They were approached by a man carrying a guitar who parked himself close to their table, then held up a sign saying, 'I don't play in order not to disturb.' Amused and relieved, De Crescenzo tipped him and the man bowed and left. The waiter appeared. 'Poor man,' he said, 'the sole support of four children and he can't even play the guitar.' So Neapolitan.

All About Naples

Naples is easy to get to from anywhere, by air, train, cruise ship, bus or car, though foreigners unaccustomed to coping with the city's chaotic traffic would do better not to drive into it. To get around, taxis and buses are plentiful, and there is also a subway system that is being greatly expanded and will soon link the Centro to the international airport at Capodichino, only a few miles away.

Traditionally, most foreigners have chosen to stay at the luxury hotels in Santa Lucia, such as the Excelsior and the Grande Albergo Vesuvio (double rooms cost up to about $275 at either), with their open-air terraces overlooking the bay. But there are now other choices, among them the Villa Capodimonte (66 Via Moiariello; telephone: 081-459000; fax: 081-299344), set in a hilltop garden with a spectacular view over the whole city toward Vesuvius. Double rooms, with breakfast, are about $165. For the more adventurous there are also a number of charming small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. Two of these, the Soggiorno Sansevero (Palazzo Sansevero, 9 Piazza San Domenico Maggiore; 081-5515949) and I Vico-Letti (46 Via San Domenico Soriano; 081-5494644 or 081-5641156; fax: 081-5448006), are within easy walking distance of most of the museums, churches and archaeological sites. They are modestly priced (doubles cost up to about $75, including breakfast) and clean, with modern conveniences and services. Bookings can be made directly or through the Assessorato Regionale del Turismo (Regional Tourist Office) at 81 Via Santa Lucia (081-7691111; fax: 081-7962027) or at 7 Piazza del Gesù Nuovo.

Naples prides itself on its coffee -- black, bitter and very strong -- and its food. All one has to do is ask, to be regaled with accounts of great meals based on antique recipes for pasta, fish and veal dishes, then told where to find them. I generally avoid the touristy spots along the Santa Lucia waterfront, with their overblown prices and caterwauling tenors, and seek out spots favored by the Neapolitans themselves. My favorite is Da Ciro, 71-73 Via Santa Brigida (081-5524072), behind the Galleria Umberto I and near the San Carlo. It's one of the great restaurants of Italy, serving the exquisite mozzarella di bufala from nearby Mondragone and such specialties as scallopine alla Zaza, tender veal slices under heaps of fresh mushrooms, tomatoes and peppers. All for about $50 for two, including a light local table wine.

Naples, as almost everyone knows, invented pizza, and nowhere else in the world does it taste quite as good as it does in such neighborhood establishments as Bellini, at 79-80 Via Constantinopoli (081-459774). Another typical spot that I wandered into one day, Brigantino, at 29 Via A. D'Isernia (081-660134), in a middle-class residential quarter near the waterfront, listed 32 different kinds, each costing no more than $5.

For seeing the sights, Fine Arts, at 8 Vico San Marcellino (081-291634 or 081-7901011), is an independent association that promotes the city's main cultural and artistic events and organizes tours in English, French and Italian. A brochure is available on request.

A word of caution: Over the years Naples has acquired a reputation for petty crime, such as purse snatching and pickpocketing. Although in recent years the Centro has been made much safer, no one should go wandering carelessly about with a Rolex watch on one's wrist, wads of dollars stuffed into one's bag or a heavy gold necklace around one's neck. But then, as a Neapolitan friend of mine put it, 'All great cities have problems. If they didn't have problems, they wouldn't be great.'

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  • Written Aug 24, 2002
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