Let me tell you that I was born in Naples. I have been living there 19 long years before moving to London. I started University right in the historic part of Naples, therefore I was thinking I knew pretty well my own city…
Yet, I was astonished when I had realised 2 days ago that I don’t know much at all about it.
I have gladly noticed how much it has changed in the past 20 years that I spent around the world. Not only the advanced infrastructures, the new metro line system, the surprising and exciting sound of the English language next to the Italian one for tourists, but also an increasing multi-ethnicity and different colours coexisting together in harmony.
I felt proud of it!!!
I have 9 more days with a plan to visit Pompei Scavi and Caserta Royal Palace, both UNESCO World heritage sites. Three new Domus opened to visitors last week in Pompeii that still reveals new wonders: the Italian Minister of Tourism, Dario Franceschini inaugurated these three new areas never opened to the public before on the 23rd of this month. This is the work financed by the EU as part of the “Great Pompeii Project”, including an entire district of the southern zone – an area of 50 thousand square meters and many monuments returned to light. I will go and check it all out!
So far, I have enjoyed like crazy a tour visit in the centre of Naples through the curious eyes of a ‘foreigner’ in its own city. While looking at tours and events, I bumped into something a little different that attracted my attention. I booked myself for a group tour in the poor areas of Naples that are also the most colourful and traditional. The Association “Insolita guida” started from an idea of a known archeologist, Luigia Salino. She felt that it was a missing opportunity for Naples to loose its hidden charme, its legends, its local traditions, its secret gems that you actually find at every corner of this exciting and unusual city. There are locations that every visitor coming to Naples pass by, such as Sorrento, Mergellina, Amalfi, Positano, Capri, Pompei and many others. On the contrary very few have experienced and breathed the soul of this city. So I found myself surprised, excited and impressed by so many things that I didn’t even know existed.
The visit was little more than two hours: “Napoli sott ‘n coppa: Sanita’, Cimitero delle Fontanelle” (also available in English and for only 7 EURO!!!). There are many interesting other ones you can find. If you happen to have a chance, I strongly encourage you to check those out. The tours are defined ‘unusual’, because on top of the history and facts, there is a lot more of what are the stories and legends that Neapolitans pass through generations. It is a narrative flow of secrets, local beliefs, uses and rituals that deliver a true and genuine taste of the city. The Association is also supporting the locals, by promoting the NGOs that are training and employing young people from the street.
Let me give you a little immersion in the local life of this authentic and unique city.
I arrived one hour earlier at the meeting point in Porta St Gennaro, so I had a little wonder around by myself. I first went to Cavour Square where is located the National Archaeological Museum that is particularly important for ancient Roman remains. Its collection includes works from Greek, Roman and Renaissance times, with Roman artefacts from nearby Pompeii, Stabiae and Herculaneum. To my surprise, many tourists buses outside and almost everywhere that gave me the hope for a ‘resurrection’ of my city as tourists’ destination.
Leaving the square behind, I crossed the street and started the walk through little alleys with stalls and lively atmosphere.
I must say…I didn’t know exactly where I was! I walked along this market looking up at monsters in the clouds…I was attentive to sounds, colours, vibrations and smells.
Here some snapshots.
An explosion of lively gestures and traditions that I was admiring…
I went back to the meeting point before 10.30am to pay my 7 euros at the organiser that was collecting our personal data.
I was offered a coffee during the wait at Porta St. Gennaro.
The group left at 10.30: we crossed the road to take the same exact narrow street that I had walked before by myself. This walk took us in the heart of Rione Sanità: a suburb located at the foot of the Capodimonte hill, a short distance from the historic centre. We made our first stop at the ‘Borgo dei Vergini’ where Giulia, the tour guide told us some stories on where that name came from. We made a left turn and found ourselves in a historic but never restored Palace built by Francesco SanFelice; I can’t deny my sadness in front to its present cramped and dilapidated state and yet, my incredulity at each corner hiding a piece of history.
A stunning piece of architecture that needs some TLC.
We kept on walking only to bump into another hidden treasure…
But before arriving to our next stop, Giulia showed us a famous patisserie, Fiocco di neve that created a special Neapolitan cake (Fiocco di neve) and a Pizzeria with an original and unique “pizza sospesa”, similar to the caffé corretto (with the addition of little alcohol). You can see from the bottles in display inside….
Having walked the same street twice, I realised to my surprise that I hadn’t seen any of that fascinating and charming architecture when I was walking by myself the first time around.
Our next stop was at “Palazzo dello Spagnolo” with a similar architecture to the previous one: a Rococo or late-Baroque-style palace in Rione Sanita’ with a grandiose entrance. The staircases with arches in shifting planes still grants an aura of complex scenography, with its choice of colors in yellow and green. The scene sets during the turbolent 17th century, when Naples went through several disgraces: the terrible eruption of Vesuvius in 1631, the short experience of the Neapolitan Republic with its revolt in 1647, a plague epidemic that decimated the city’s population from 400,000 to 200,000 inhabitants in 1656.
The Palace has been the location of many famous fictions and movies with Massimo Troisi, Sofia Loren just to name few, due to its eagle-wing monumental staircase visually striking.
From degradation to the recovery of a huge and hidden heritage, in a district that displays a propensity for art and creativity, the main strengths of this area are passion and enthusiasm-you can feel it as you walk through the alleys.
Carrying on our walk through smiles and lively atmosphere, we arrived in the heart of the district at the Baroque basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità, which provides access to the Catacombs of San Gaudioso. The Basilica is immediately recognisable from its yellow and green tiled dome, and its interior preserves the earliest image of the Virgin Mary in Naples, and precious works including paintings by Luca Giordano, Andrea Vaccaro, Francesco Solimena, Pacecco De Rosa, Giovanni Balducci. Interesting little stories on the “fertility chair”, the Sagrestia and more are linked to this place.
An underground world that blends with the present and becomes the engine of its rebirth.
This is the beauty of Rione Sanita’: faith, authenticity and the very unique Neapolitans’ distinctive feature – the “art of figuring it out” that has always helped the population to survive against all odds. No other place embodies better the city’s authentic essence and its intrinsic contradictions like Rione Sanita’. A process of redevelopment and enhancement of the district’s historic, artistic and human heritage started since 2000 thanks to the help of foundations, professionals and associations, which have created opportunities to benefit the youth. The intervention came from the idea that beauty makes people grow and can boost employment. The goal, therefore, was to create opportunities through the recovery of the district’s cultural and artistic heritage: i.e. you can visit the Catacombs in the Basilica only through the Foundation of San Gennaro (local NGO helping young people in the suburb).
Like never before, I gained a kaleidoscopic view of locals’ life, street’s art, and explicit signs displaying this population’s values, such as faith and happiness.
After having walked for about a hour overall, we made it to ‘Cimitero delle Fontanelle’. Of all the places in Naples dedicated to the “cult of the dead,” the Fontanelle is the most famous and it’s under the Chiesa Maria Santissima del Carmine. It is associated with the city chapter built on its folklore.
It is an ossuary, a charnel house located in a cave in the hillside in the Materdei section of the city. By the time the Spanish moved into the city in the early 16th century, there was a concern over where to locate cemeteries. Many Neapolitans, however, wanted to be interred in their local churches. To make space in the churches for the newly interred, earlier remains outside the city were moved to the cave, the future Fontanelle cemetery. The remains were interred shallowly and then joined in 1656 by thousands of anonymous corpses, victims of the great plague of that year.
Sometime in the late 17th century—it is narrated that great floods washed the remains out and into the streets, presenting a grisly spectacle. These anonymous remains were returned to the cave, at which point the cave became the unofficial final resting place for the indigent of the city in the succeeding years—a vast cemetery. Only following the second World War, the cemetery became a place of devotion for “anime del Purgatorio”.
The anonymous bones became the object of great veneration and are referred to by the Neapolitans as the “pezzentelle” (little wretches) – creating a link between the living and the dead. The local ritual consisted in bringing gifts for the bones, and then asking for favours in return.
It is at times a macabre walk in the dark through hundreds of remains each side in an overwhelming game of lights and shades. The place passes on stories of both, common people and known personalities: il Capitano, il Monacone, the two lovers and many others.
It is strongly steeped in myth, history and tradition and you can really feel how important was for this population the devotion for the dead. Today there are a reported 40,000 remains, but it is believed that thousands more are buried below the cemetery to a depth of 4 meters. I could not believe that somebody was seen adding another ‘teca’ only recently in 2014….as Giulia explained (teca is the container for the remains).
There is a lot to learn and see despite the cadaverous appearance…I got to know a side of my city that I had heard of but never experienced first hand. I got even more fascinated by the power that history linked to everyday life of common people can do for a curious audience.
We ended the visit with a reflection on a bitter but undeniable truth based on the famous piece of art written by the beloved Neapolitan actor Totò (Antonio de Curtis), A’ livella.
An old Italian saying goes: “see Naples and then you die”, meaning that once you’ve seen the famous Southern Italian city you have seen all what is worth seeing on Earth, and that after leaving it you will miss it terribly.
If you can, don’t miss the opportunity to let yourself be captured by the incredible array of images, sounds, colors, scents and, of course, tastes of NAPLES.
Contact me for any questions:-)