Naples (Napoli) Began with Pizza

The title of this post notwithstanding, I don’t imagine pizza was responsible for the founding of Naples (Napoli in Italian). But I took the high-speed train from Rome to Naples (less than an hour and 15 minutes) this morning and after I got to my hotel, checked in, and figured things out it was time for lunch.

Naples is often cited as the birthplace of pizza. I don’t know if any other cities or towns contest that contention, but a pizza lunch seemed like a fitting way to start my time here.

I found a pizza joint with a good rating on Google Maps, ordered a Diavola pizza (tomato, cheese, spicy sausage, and basil) and a glass of wine, and tucked into my meal.

The pizza was delicious. Pizza as pizza should be. Lunch made for a fine introduction to Naples.

Or I should say reintroduction. I was in Naples once before. That was in 2013, so more than a decade ago.

Believe it or not, there’s more to Naples than pizza. So after lunch I did a little wandering and visited a couple of sights.

The Naples Duomo

I’m in an old European city. I’m required to visit at least one beautiful old church. I think it’s a rule. I decided to fulfill that requirement right off the bat. The Duomo in Naples is a cathedral for all ages. No. Strike that. Make that a cathedral of all ages.

Okay. “All” is more than a bit of an exaggeration. None of the Naples Duomo is, for example, of the Stone Age or Bronze Age, or any other age that I can’t think of before the Stone Age or between the Bronze Age and the 4th century CE. The one Prosecco I had as my hotel’s welcome drink might have affected my ability to think of them. I’m a cheap drunk. Or I might just be an idiot with or without alcohol.

The baptistry of the cathedral apparently contains mosaics from the 4th century and a 6th century baptismal font that came from a previous church on the site. You have to pay to go in to see those and I didn’t. Hence the “apparently contains” in the first sentence of this paragraph.

Construction of the cathedral that formed the bones of the current cathedral started in 1272. It was consecrated in 1315. Then it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1456.

Why do earthquakes go for churches? Aren’t they supposed to be houses of God? That’s a heck of a way for God to force a renovation of His house, particularly when you consider the human and other collateral damage that usually goes with it.

It’s been rebuilt in the intervening centuries. The neo-Gothic facade wasn’t completed until 1905. So it’s basically brand spanking new as far as old European churches go.

I found the interior quite attractive, with a beautifully decorated, flat, high ceiling. Off to the side, not far back from the altar, a gorgeous pipe organ hangs under an arch.

There are two large side chapels, on either side of the central nave. Both of them are large enough to be small churches on their own.

Joel’s rating: Not the most spectacular old European church he’s ever seen, but very attractive and well worth a visit*. On the other hand, you’d be a fool to base any decisions in your life on Joel’s ratings. He is tasteless and knows nothing about anything. And if he keeps talking about himself in the third person he might have much deeper issues than that to worry about.

(* That is to say, it’s well worth a visit if you’re in Naples. If you’re in say, Topeka, Kansas, it’s probably not worth the trip just to visit the Duomo. Then again, I’ve never been to Topeka. Maybe they have a worm hole that allows people in Topeka to get to Naples in a fraction of a second. Probably not, though.)

Napoli Sotterranea

A lot of what makes Naples a world heritage city lies beneath its streets and buildings. I took a tour through a small piece of that, Napoli Sotterranea. “Google Translate” tells me that translates to “Underground Naples,” which you might have guessed from the similarity between “sotteranea” and “subterranean.”

Napoli Sotterranea is a tour that takes you 132 steps below the street level of modern day Naples in the historical centre of the city. No, I didn’t count the steps. When we were about to go back up, the guide told us that we had 132 steps to climb, but he’d rest a bit about halfway up.

On the approximately hour and a half tour, the guide provided a lot of very interesting information about the history and nature of the underground infrastructure in old Naples, much of which I forgot. But I did recall some stuff when I sat down to write this. Here are some of the things I vaguely remember:

  • At some time, I forget when, but I think it was the Greeks, used slave labour to mine the compressed volcanic ash from underneath Naples. Apparently, it makes a very good building material. The tour took us into one of the quarry caverns.
  • Wells were also dug. Access to the underground was gained only by climbing down rungs fastened to the sides of those wells.
  • The Greeks (and possibly also Romans, I’m not clear on that) built underground aqueducts. They are now the tunnels that the tour walked through.
  • The Greeks like to dig narrow aqueducts to force the water to flow through it faster. We walked through a series of those. But before we did, the guide told us that it’s very narrow and very dark. If anyone didn’t want to do it, they could wait and we’d be circling back in about 15 minutes.
  • How narrow? There were some sections where we had to walk sideways because it wasn’t wide enough to fit both shoulders through at once. Although, at a couple of points it opened up to a walkway around a cistern that has water in it still. (Why do people insist on throwing coins into every such pool of water?)
  • How dark? The guide told us we had to use the flashlights on our phones because they didn’t install any lights in the narrow tunnels. It’s underground. There is zero natural light. Let that be a lesson to you boys and girls, always carry a smartphone. (The areas that opened up to accommodate cisterns were lit.)
  • At one point in time, I forget when, the sewage tunnels leaked through to the aqueducts and resulted in a plague of cholera. The water was then diverted and the aqueducts were no longer used as aqueducts. Lucky us. We get to tour through them dry shod now.
  • Before the Second World War, climbing down the rungs of the wells remained the only way to get into the underground tunnels and caverns. But so those spaces could be used as bomb shelters during World War II, they dug stairways down there. Obviously, the tour uses now those to go down and back up. You know this to be true because you’re reading about me taking the tour. There’s no damned way I would have climbed down and back up the height of the equivalent of 132 steps using just rungs on the side of a well.
  • Naples had the honour of being bombed by both the Allies and the Nazis during World War II—by the Allies when they sided with the Nazis and by the Nazis when they switched allegiances.
  • There are some wells beside churches leading into the underground. When the tunnels were used as bomb shelters Naples didn’t bother sealing them up because they figured neither side would bomb religious institutions. They were wrong about that. The tour went by some unexploded bombs from World War II. Fortunately, the bombs fell in such a way that the detonators didn’t smack into the ground, so they didn’t go off. The bombs have since been deactivated, but remain in one of the caverns.

After we came back up, the guide led the group outside, walked us a short piece along Naples’ very busy central historical street, into a not at all busy side street, and in through the door of an unassuming ground-floor apartment.

Inside was what the guide said was a typical old Naples home. There was a vintage stove and refrigerator. I don’t know how old they were, but they looked like they could have been from at least when I was a kid (I’m 71 now) or maybe even earlier. There was also a simple, old single bed.

The guide then pointed out a section of the wall where the plaster had been pulled away to expose some old, narrow, red bricks of the type the ancient Romans used.

The guide then told us the story about that. Apparently, some time ago, an archaeologist asked the old woman who lived there if he might do some work to see what’s underneath her walls. She agreed. Pulling away the plaster exposed the old Roman brick work. The archaeologist told the woman what it was and she responded by saying something to the effect of, “Oh, I remember seeing some of that in the basement.”

With that, the guide rolled the bed into an alcove to expose a trap door. He lifted the trap door and there was a staircase that we used to walk down one level and into what once had been the vestibule of an old Roman theatre. A little further on we saw an entrance to the theatre. Both had the same type of thin, Roman brick. Albeit, one section had small, beige, squarish bricks angled so the corners pointed up and down and side-to-side rather than having the sides horizontal and vertical. Apparently, the Romans thought this would help to channel the forces of an earthquake and lessen any damage.

The guide explained that the ancient Romans, including the emperors who performed in the theatre, wouldn’t have seen those bare brick walls. He said the walls had been covered with marble tiles. But the marble was affixed with iron nails, which eventually oxidized and the marble tiles fell and were destroyed.

Toward the end of the tour, the guide told us that if you dig pretty well anywhere in Naples you’ll find something of archaeological significance. And if you don’t, dig a little deeper and you’ll get to an aqueduct.

I found it all very interesting indeed.

Wandering in Naples

I also did some wandering today.

Naples has a very large, very imposing old fort beside the port. I didn’t go down to the port today, but I walked along a street that passes in front of the fort. If you are near the port I don’t think there’s any way you could not notice the fort. Did I mention big and imposing? Why, yes I did.

Here’s the weird thing that I suspect says much more about my memory than my powers of observation. I know I was down at the port the last time I was in Naples because I took a day trip on a ferry from there to Capri. But I had absolutely no recollection of the fort when I saw it today. It came as a total shock to me.

I don’t know if the public can go into the fort or if there’s anything interesting to see in there. I may check it out on this trip, if only to imprint it on my brain. That and, despite being so taken aback by it today I didn’t think to snap a picture of the fort. I have to do that so I can prove, if only to me, that it’s not a figment of my imagination.

A fair piece away from the fort, but the district where my sightseeing took place today, Naples’ historical centre has a gritty old world feel, probably because it’s gritty and it consists of old-world streets and architecture. It hasn’t been in the least sanitized the way some old city’s have.

It’s real and bustling, very bustling. By that I mean very crowded. I like it nevertheless.

That’s it for today. I’m in Naples for four nights, three full days, but I’m considering a day trip on one of them. See you soon, rhetorically speaking.


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