After our intermezzo in Sardinia, the Chasing Summer Italy adventure continued in Napoli (Naples) in the southern part of the country.
It’s said that Italy can really be divided into two countries – southern Italy and northern Italy. If you talk with a northern Italian, you’ll get the impression that all southerners are rude, crude and anarchistic. If you talk with a southern Italian, you’d think that all northerners are pompous, arrogant and elitist. Naturally, the truth is somewhere in-between.
Naples is certainly a bit rough around the edges. Cars and scooters zip through the narrow cobblestone alleyways so fast that you’re sure the driver is running late for something (perhaps his 2 hour lunch break.) The smell of exhaust is inescapable. If you don’t watch where you step there will be dog poo on your shoes.
All that said, there is much to see in Naples and the 1 day that most travelers give the city isn’t nearly enough. We were fortunate to find the world’s foremost authority on the city in the form of our hostel-keeper, Giovanni. He has lived his whole life in Naples and is passionate about assuring that all travelers who find their way to his hostel have a positive experience there.
On our first night in his city, Giovanni marked up a black-and-white photocopied city map with various colors of highlighter. The green marked the mafia-controlled areas… stay out of those. The red marked the poor areas… stay out of those too. The yellow line marked his recommended path through the city, with all the most important sites marked in pen.
Giovanni also showed us a video on his laptop containing security camera footage of pickpockets in action. We thought that he was trying to warn us to be vigilant in Naples, as it does have a reputation for crime. After exposing us to the videos he said with a twinkle in his eye, “All of these were filmed in Milano.”
We followed Giovanni’s walking tour of the city to the tee, which included various churches, museums, castles, and shopping areas. It was all interesting to see, but what made the biggest impression on me (Jared) was the famous “Veiled Christ” sculpture by Giuseppe Sanmartino, which Giovanni said is the second-most important sculpture in the world behind Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” We’ll include a photo of it below, but you really have to see it in-person to appreciate its sorrow, delicacy and strength.
Our walking tour also included Napoli Subterraneo, or the Naples Underground. These were a serious of tunnels first dug by the Greeks and then expanded by the Romans, used as ancient underground aquifers and cisterns. They were mostly abandoned with the advent of modern plumbing, except during WWII when they were used as bomb shelters (Naples endured heavy Allied bombing.)
Of course, no blog post on Naples would be complete without mentioning its pizza. The pizza was invented in Naples and nowhere is it better made. I’m not sure how they do it, but the worst pizza we had in Naples was better then the best pizza we’ve had in the States. Soft crust just barely charred around the edges, sweet fresh tomato sauce, perfected melted buffalo mozzarella… ah, what deliciousness.
Naples lives the shadow of majestic Mt. Vesuvius, a volcano most famous for destroying the Roman city of Pompeii under millions of tons of superheated pyroclastic material in 79AD. We visited the site of Pompeii’s excavation, along with that of Herculaneum, a less famous city that met its demise contemporarily with Pompeii. Herculaneum was a much smaller and less important city than Pompeii, but because Vesuvius didn’t hit it quite as hard with the eruption, its remains are much better preserved.
What stuck with us most from both sites were the amazing well-preserved frescoes. Ancient Romans didn’t care much for bare walls, so every home had floor-to-ceiling frescoes, usually painted by Greek artists and depicting everything from mythological stories to hunting scenes to whatever fruits and vegetables the homeowner preferred. It’s a shame that we don’t decorate our modern walls with such richness.
In the video, you may notice some frescos painted with some slightly more, um, erotic scenes. These photos were taken at the most-visited site in all of Pompeii, during both modern and ancient times: it’s brothel. Archeologists suspect that the frescoes served as a menu of sorts for customers…
You’ll also notice some plaster molds of a few Pompeii residents in their final repose. In the mid-1800’s, an archeologist figured out that if he poured plaster in the cavity left by a decayed body, he could uncover the form of the victim at the moment that he became covered with volcanic ash. The result is some haunting shapes.
After visiting Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum, we worked our way to Sorrento on the Amalfi coast. Sorrento is a beautiful town hugging a cliff overlooking the Bay of Naples. It’s quite picturesque although there isn’t much to do there except take a day ferry to Capri, so that’s what we did. Sorrento was still a nice place to relax for a couple of nights while Jared fought off a cold, probably induced by the stress of navigating Naples.
The tiny island of Capri is one of the more famous tourist destinations in Italy and there were hoards of tourists there to prove it. We overheard our first American accents there since arriving in Italy. Despite its high prices and crowds, a day trip to Capri is still well deserved just because it’s so damn beautiful. There are plenty of pics in the video below, some taken from the kayak that Jared rented for the afternoon.
Next on our itinerary was the small village of Castello delle Forme in the beautiful rural region of Umbria. Tourists don’t usually find themselves in Castello (population: ~80) and we wouldn’t have either if not for the hospitality of family friends Marty and Terri Lang. The Lang’s, who live most of the year in Wisconsin, bought a second home in Castello and visit it twice annually for 10 weeks at a time.
They didn’t just buy a home though – they bought into a community. The Umbrian people are famous for their warmth and generosity, which is especially acute in a village as small as Castello (which, as the name implies, was built within the walls of a castle.)
In our few days there, we saw neighbors gift to Marty and Terri several fresh vegetables, some watermelon, some coffee, and an invitation to a Sunday family dinner. The guy who brought the watermelon asked Marty how he liked it, and Marty made the mistake of replying, “It was delicious.” Several more watermelon arrived the next day.
Part of the reason that the Lang’s have been welcomed so warmly into the village is that they decided to live within the local language and culture, not above it. They’ve taken enough Italian lessons to become conversational, they worked hard to learn the name of everyone in their village, and when they are in Italy they adopt the Italian pace of life. We greatly admire their approach to living abroad, as Americans often tend to adopt a snobbish attitude to foreign languages and cultures.
We made a day trip from the Lang’s home to Assissi, a medieval Roman town most famous for being the hometown of Saint Francis, one of the most important men in Christian history, who literally changed the course of the religion by revolting against the then-decadence of the Catholic church by adopting a simple ascetic lifestyle focused on prayer and meditation. He had many followers both in his own time and today.
After Umbria we made our way to Tuscany, a region famous for its food, wine, cheese, and its stunningly gorgeous countryside. We weren’t sure if Tuscany would live up to its hype, but it did.
We based out of Volterra, an ancient city originally founded by Etruscans and sitting within a walled fortress atop a steep mountain. Volterra is much better preserved than most Etruscan settlements, partly because they avoided Roman invasion for longer than their neighbors and partly because once Roman influence was inevitable, they made a special deal with their captors that allowed them to retain home-rule for several hundred more years.
We stayed at a convent in Volterra housed within a stoned medieval church, which was actually a great way to do it. It was safe, quiet and inexpensive. We were just a bit bummed that the nuns didn’t have wifi.
One day we visited San Gimignano, which is arguably the most beautiful of all the medieval towns in Tuscany, due to both its views and its towers. While in other Tuscan cities, such as Bologna or Florence, most or all of their towers have been brought down due to wars, catastrophes, or urban renewal, San Gimignano has managed to conserve fourteen towers of varying height which have become its international symbol.
Wealthy residents built the towers in the 13th and 14th centuries, we’re told as both status symbols and for protection from invading armies. The towers are mostly just hollow space with small living quarters towards the top, accessible only by rope ladder with a narrow doorway at the top (so an attacker would have to remove his armor before entering.)
After seeing a bit of Tuscany, we started making our way back to Milan to catch a flight the next day to Mykonos, Greece. What should have been a 4 hour drive took closer to 8 hours, as our rented Fiat Panda was missing one of its cheap plastic hubcaps due to an ill-advised drive down a dirt road in Umbria. To avoid an astronomical damage fee from the rental agency, we drove to just about every Fiat dealership in northern Italy to find a replacement. After trying 4 different dealerships we finally found what we needed. The final picture in the video is Jared in his moment of final victory. Enjoy!