Monday, April 4, 2011

Centro Napoli

For Paige and Julia's first day in Naples, we headed off on the Metro to tour Centro (Naples downtown area). Centro can go either way for visitors. It is chaotic, urban, loud, and crowded. You have to constantly watch for speeding motorscooters, cars driving down the small alley where you're walking, and keep one hand on your purse, which must be looped across your body rather than just hanging from one shoulder. And no nice or flashy jewelry visible. Centro is filled with gorgeous architecture that is difficult to see because you are (a) watching the ground to avoid those pesky, uneven cobblestones that are so very charming, (b) looking over your shoulder for the car or scooter that's about to run you down, or (c) trying to avoid the sheer mass of people bouncing off one another like ping-pong balls. For those who can handle the urban jungle, centro is fantastic - filled with the gorgeous architecture I already mentioned, hundreds of lovingly cared for shrines tucked away on the exterior walls, Italians living their lives rather than catering to tourists, housewives on their balconies hanging laundry on the line strung across the alley or lowering the bucket with her money to pay the vegetable man as he sends up her order, and churches filled with beautiful floors, walls, and artwork are quite literally on every corner.

Our first stop was the Naples Archaeological Museum, considered one of the foremost archeological museums in Europe. Beyond a first floor so filled with beautiful, marble statues that I eventually couldn't focus on the individual works, the upper floors contain the treasures excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum - the two main cities buried under the ash of Mount Vesuvius's 79AD eruption. I love the frescoes - frescoes are everywhere in this country, on the ceilings, the walls, and even among quiet, barely known and visited ruins. The ancients, and then 1500 years later, the renaissance folks, loved their frescoes (although the renaissance time period frescoes were the economical answer to the very expensive, labor-intensive, tapestries previously favored among the upper classes). And a week later, when I took my aunt and uncle to the same museum, I found that Paige, Julia and I had missed an entire wing of the museum with astonishingly intact frescoes. So the frescoes are great, but where I really drop my jaw is with the mosaics. I have zero skill in drawing and painting, so when I look at the mosaics, I just can't believe that the artists took tiny, chips of stone and then arranged them into scenes that show life, movement, shading, and emotion. Even the smallest of the mosaics captures my amazement, so the wall sized ones are nothing short of a miracle.

Centro is also home to the very best pizza in the entire world (confirmed by numerous critics and travel writers, so not just my very biased opinion). My absolute favorite is Sorbillo, which a friend and I found one day by accident as we wandered around downtown after our language class. The wait wasn't too bad, we enjoyed the pizza, and I later found out that we'd just happened upon a local favorite. It's the only place I ever return to over and over in spite of the rude service (atypical in Italy). Paige and Julia had their first taste of pizza in Naples, and it was good!

Christmas Alley is nearby, an area where artisans make the presepes (nativities) and presepe figures by hand and one of the things Naples is most known for. And Cappella Sansevero is only a few, short blocks away. Cappella Sansevero, I've written before, is home to the Veiled Christ sculpture. No photos are allowed, but following the link will show you exactly why this small chapel is, to me, the single most important site in Naples - an absolute "don't miss." I've been blessed with the opportunity to travel throughout Europe in the past, and we've lived all over the U.S., including near the Smithsonian in D.C. I enjoy museums and will usually visit what's nearby. Of the thousands of sculptures and statues I've seen, this one is "The One," more beautiful than David, in Florence's Accademia Museum, more emotional than Michelangelo's Pieta, in Rome's St. Peter's Basilica. In person and up close, the Veiled Christ brings tears to your eyes, either due to the subject matter or awe of the sheer skill by sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino or both. I wrote of my amazement in taking little pieces of stone and creating a mosaic, but even more confounding is taking a block of hard marble and chipping out a discernible body with muscles and veins defined, yet the whole thing covered with a skin clinging veil. How? As if the Veiled Christ weren't enough, Cappella Sansevero is home to yet another amazing sculpture, Disinganno, of a fisherman surrounded by a fishing net that is folded in on itself in places - all out of marble, and yet one can so clearly see the the holes in the net, the places where the net lies on top of itself, and underneath, the man. I did a quick check, and Veiled Christ doesn't even make the top 100 in lists of greatest sculptures. To visit it, you walk down an alley most likely filled with garbage, make a turn, buy a ticket from the office that may or may not close for the afternoon, then walk down the block and enter an unassuming door...and into a place that will prove itself far worthier than those ever more popular museums so crowded you must make a reservation, wait in line for hours, spend more hours walking through miles of corridors filled with jostling tourists, all just as tired, hot, and hungry as you are, before being spit out into the street, unable to remember what you've just seen.

As if all this we'd seen in the past few hours wasn't enough to actually fill several days, we also did an underground tour of Naples through Napoli Sotterana. I'd heard how interesting it was and had yet to take the tour. We dutifully joined in with the English speaking group, followed our adorable guide down the street and around a few turns to an unmarked door with apartments above it, into a lobby with some nice, presepe examples, and down the stairs to the ancient, Greek theater. Before the Romans were here, this place was part of Magna-Grecia. Beneath modern Naples lie Greek and Roman ruins, complete with forums, temples, theaters, and a huge network of tunnels and cisterns. Many of these places became the landfills for the homes built above them - what's easier than opening your window or the little hole in your floor to get rid of the garbage. In fact, in one place we walked, our guide explained that the trash was too difficult to remove, so rather than digging beneath it to the original floor, a new floor was just paved on top of all the trash. "What lies beneath" is a near constant refrain as I wander around ruins, both those of the urban chaos and when I'm out in the suburbs watching a ruin disappear into a shrub covered hillside.

The main part of the tour took us down into the aforementioned network of cisterns and tunnels, once used by the Romans. We could see the foot and handholds used by the man in charge of skimming the water with a net - he'd climb down into the cistern using small square indentations cut into the rock, then walk above the water with the net to clean it. In some areas, there is still a bit of water that flows through. During WWII, these areas were used as bunkers, and hundreds of people spent much of their lives down here to escape the bombing. During WWII, Naples was the most bombed city in Italy. While Neapolitans lived under fascism for more than 20 years, German occupation was just taking things too far. The people of the city rebelled and freed Naples in 1943.

Following our Sotterana tour, we found that we'd been a little too interested in all that Centro has to offer and had seen only about half the sites on our  list. Aching and blistered feet dictated a return to the metro and home. We would just have to return.

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