It’s hard to imagine anything further from Capri’s elegance, beauty, and wealth than Naples’ grit, garbage, and poverty. But here we are and – though we are a distinct minority among travelers – we love Naples. If Capri is the most beautiful place on earth, Naples might well be the most flavorful place, at least in Europe. Capri is just a few miles offshore from here, but it might as well be on a different continent. At one point when Mark was just out wandering he had the sense – more from the surroundings than the people – that he had somehow turned up in West Africa. It’s a beguiling and fascinating city.
Naples is Italy’s third largest city, after Rome & Milan. And while today it’s a gritty, dirty city with an ugly organized crime presence (though nothing a tourist would encounter), it was once one of the great cities of Europe. In the 17th century, in fact, it was the second biggest city in all of Europe after only Paris. It had the first secular University on the continent, founded by Frederick II in 1224 – then the Holy Roman Emperor – so its history is not trivial. Going back further Naples – then called Neopolis, or New City – was one of Greece’s first Mediterranean colonies and was later a favored vacation spot for Rome’s elites.
Reflecting that history we had two attractions we wanted to see: the Royal Palace in Caserta, about 40 minutes by train out of Naples, built by the Bourbon kings of Naples in the 18th century to rival Versailles; and the National Archeological Museum. We had two full days and two big destinations so no problem, right? Except that we were there on a Tuesday and a Wednesday and both sites were closed on Tuesday. We had to choose one, and as the temperatures were in the mid- and upper-90s – it was scorching hot – we decided to forgo the Royal Palace. The idea of getting in a potentially crowded train with no AC, definitely a possibility in Naples, was just too intimidating.
The Archeological Museum, though, is a stunner, considered the most important archeological museum in all of Italy. Massive and masterful statues from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla and more grand statuary from the Farnese collection, started by Cardinal Farnese who later became Pope Paul III. A huge part of the collection is made up of excavations from Pompeii and Herculaneum. I’ve been to both sites but never remotely appreciated them until seeing the stuff here; you get a sense of how wealthy some people, at least, were before that Mt. Vesuvius messed up their lives. And then there’s still just lots and lots of other good things in the museum. I was disappointed to have missed the Palace at Caserta but this was a great day.
It’s a little embarrassing to say that the Museo di Capodimonte, atop the big hill that overlooks downtown Naples, is almost an oversight compared to the Archeological Museum. I walked up there (in the blazing heat, I might add) after our first lunch in Naples as I remember the parks around it one of my favorite places back in the 1970s when I was stationed in Naples. At 160,000 square feet, it’s the second-largest museum in all of Italy and includes masterpieces by Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, El Greco, and so on. And on top of that the descriptions were often in English, which was helpful.
Otherwise, Naples is all about walking through the UNESCO certified historic center, particularly the three main streets, collectively called the Decumani, which were actually laid out by the Greeks when Rome was just a little baby. Part of what’s fun about these streets – besides knowing you’re walking on streets that were ancient when Julius Caesar walked on them – is the way people live their lives out in the open there. These are narrow streets used only by scooters and pedestrians. Apartments on the first floor just open right onto those little streets, whether it’s the kitchen, living room, or even a bedroom – or a combination of all three, as happens not infrequently. It all just adds to the flavor that is Naples.
And it’s worth adding that besides the sights and sounds and smells of Naples, the food can be fantastic. Naples is the original home of pizza, and they still make the best in the world (though we usually have to avoid it or we’d be a lot bigger than you see in these pictures). And the bread is the best in the world, too, in my opinion at least. Dense and crusty and really tasty; I’ve never had bread I like as much as the Neapolitan variety. Add to that all the great seafood and wine and we’re in cuisine heaven here, all at a fraction of the cost of Capri or the Amalfi Coast.
So we’re done with Italy, for now at least. It’s early August and way, way too hot to enjoy. So from here we fly up to Sweden for a couple weeks where the forecast is for temperatures that are 30 degrees less than in Naples. We’re OK with that.