“In Napoli, where love is king…”: March 15, 2012

By Anne Cohen

Naples

A street view in Naples. | Photo by Aby Thomas.

NAPLES – “It smells really nice. I think.” Sarah Laing’s comment says it all: Naples hit us like a smack in the face.

With a sigh of longing and of slight relief, our traveling circus left the Eternal City bright and early this morning. After piling onto the bus, those of us who had taken advantage of our last night in Rome – maybe a little overenthusiastically – took the opportunity to catch up on some much needed sleep.

We arrived in Naples around noon, and reveled over the unexpected luxury of our hotel. Apparently, large bathrooms do exist in Europe. There is no rest for the weary, so we dropped off our luggage and went off on a walking tour of the city with Angelo, our guide and a native of nearby Pompeii.

Naples makes Rome look almost organized. Architecture, culture, religion; nothing is coherent.

Angelo

Angelo, our tour guide, demonstrates how the remains of the ancient Greek city of Neapolis still sits under Napoli. | Photo by Anam Siddiq.

On one s­treet alone, Angelo pointed out a French-style Gothic church, a Renaissance building, a church from the Baroque era and one from the 7th century, built with recycled bricks and a cornice from a Roman temple. Angelo was delighted by the contrasts. “I love Napoli!” he exclaimed, almost getting hit by a car (nearly inevitable in the narrow streets). “You have to be very flexible here,” he laughed.

Religion in Naples is as supple as its architecture. According to Angelo, the city holds the highest concentration of churches in Italy, but local flavors of superstition remain. Walking towards our next appointment, we passed the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, built on the site of a temple honoring the twin Roman gods, Castor and Pollux. Two statues framed the entrance to the church, representing Saint Peter and Saint Paul. “The bodies are of Castor and Pollux!” Angelo explained. “Here you see the mixing of the religions.”

We continued towards the Church of San Gregorio Armano, a convent that used to house an order of cloistered nuns, now a school. After wandering the narrow streets filled with fish vendors, pastry shops, bookstores and hanging laundry, we now entered an inner courtyard garden filled with lemon trees and lush flowers. “A city within the city,” Angelo called it. We were led into the choir balcony, and were met with a Rococo enthusiast’s idea of heaven. There was not an inch of wall, ceiling or floor not covered in gold paint, carvings, paintings or mosaic. To use Angelo’s words, “It’s so heavy that it’s almost falling on us.”

Though our group of brave travelers was starting to feel the strain of sleeplessness, we powered on to the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore. The 14th century church is built on top of an earlier 7th century church, which itself was built over a Roman market.  We descended to the depths of Roman street level to visit the incredibly preserved ruins of the ancient three-story marketplace.

Napoli

Miniatures for sale at various shops scattered across the city. | Photo by Andrea Palatnik.

On the last leg of the tour, we walked down a narrow street filled on both sides with pottery vendors, selling anything from “cornettos,” or good-luck charms, to tambourines bearing former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi’s smiling face and even an Obama figurine or two.

Our group fianlly parted ways in front of the Church of the New Jesus, a medieval palace converted into a Jesuit church in the 16th century. The pyramid-like stones of the façade were engraved with unusual symbols – “music symbols,” according to Angelo. It was recently discovered that the notes carved into the stone actually formed a 45-minute concerto.

We couldn’t call it a night in Naples without trying the famous Neopolitan pizza. Even though we’d just had dinner, a group of us decided to split a box among ourselves.

The verdict is in, and New York pizza is forever out.

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