'Around the city'
June 2018/November 2019
Napoli is a big city. One needs several days to walk around its center. There are so many places to visit in the city and you will feel soon overwhelmed.
My advice is to stick only to the most important attractions of the city, otherwise you will end up stressed not being able to visit everything and exhausted.
Remember: the best attraction of a city is its people, its aromas and its colors, not the palazzi, the churches and the museums.
I will describe here the places I visited, devided into three walks.
Walk 1 : The south part of the city (coastal/central Napoli)
Walk 2 : Medieval Napoli
Walk 3 : Vomero area
Via Chiaia and Pallonetto
I was lucky (or should I say clever?) to book a room in Via Chiaia both times I visited the city recently. Via Chiaia is one of the two central pedestrianized commercial streets in central Napoli.
The other one is Via Toledo. Walking around these two, always full of cheerful people streets, is a pleasure. There are so many shops, cafés and restaurants here.
The two streets meet at piazza Trieste e Trento around which stand the “must-see”: Teatro San Carlo (the Opera House of Napoli); Galleria Umberto I (elegant, glass-and-iron covered gallery built in the late 19th century, housing shops & cafes); and Piazza del Plebiscito (pedestrianized landmark square with equestrian statues), home to the neo-classical Palazzo Reale di Napoli (a 17th century palace with period furnishings, a home theatre & lavish ballroom) and Basilica Reale Pontificia San Francesco da Paola (a Pantheon-style church).
👍 We start our walk around the city from the beginning of Via Chiaia, where stands the famous Gran Caffè Gambrinus. The street continues under the Ponte di Chiaia (an overhead roadway arch), then to Parrocchia Santa Maria Della Mercede to Pallazo Cellamare (located on the curve of the street) and ends at a small tree canopy, that casts thick shade on street cafés and gelaterie (ice cream shops).
North of Via Chiaia starts the area called Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarters). In this neighbourhood the Neapolitan language is stronger than anywhere else. The area consists of a grid of around eighteen streets by twelve, including a population of some 14,000 inhabitants. While Via Chiaia is the southern border of the area, Via Toledo is the eastern border. To the north and west the neighbourhood is limited by the hills.
The Quartieri were created in the 16th century to house Spanish garrisons, hence the name, whose role was to quench revolts from the Neapolitan population. The area has always been one of the poorest/working class areas of the city. Today, besides being still a poor residential area, the neighborhood has been evolved in the culinary and night life heart of the city.
👍 At Ponte di Chiaia there is a public (free) elevator that brings you up to Pizzofalcone Hill. The elevator is rather hided away if you do not know its existence. It is located just under the arch on your left hand coming from Piazza del Plebiscito. This is the easiest and fastest way to visit the neighborhood on the hill called Pallonetto, which is the oldest part of Napoli (actually it existed before Napoli itself). There are of course stairs and steep roads going up from several points around the hill, but it is not that easy, especially for older residents.
In 2009 started the construction of (another) passenger elevator that will connect via Santa Lucia (at sea level) with the top of Mt. Echia. The idea of actually connecting the sea-level sections of Santa Lucia with the top of the hill so residents could get up and down easily instead of walking the long way around was not a bad one. All it would take is a single elevator shaft and a bit of time. But, alas! This is Napoli. Ten years after the begging of works, one can see only the two neglected construction sites, standing there like two huge wounds on the hill’s fragile body. The project seems to have stopped.
Today, Pizzofalcone's prominence is obscured by the modern square blocks of tall buildings added to the city during the Risanamento (urban renewal) in 1900 between Mt. Echia and the sea, as well as the very large buildings now built on the hill, itself.
The Nunziatella military academy, a huge red/pink building seems to stand out the most. Another, also red building, Caserma Nino Bixio stands at the very southern tip of Monte Echia, where a "zig zag" road leads to the foothills.
Yet, before there was Castel dell' Ovo, and even before there were Romans in Napoli, this place supported a prehistoric population and was the hill upon which the Greeks later built their city, Parthenope, which then merged with the late-comer, Neapolis (Napoli).
In Roman times, Monte Echia encompassed the famous villa of Lucius Licinius Lucullus, who added the expression "Lucullan splendor" to our vocabularies. His villa and gardens extended down the side of the hill to the waters in front of the isle of Megaride, where the Castel dell' Ovo would later stand.
The rock that Mt. Echia is made of is the classic yellow Neapolitan tuff, the most widely used of all building materials in Naples. The inside of the hill is honeycombed with quarries, caves, aqueducts and tunnels both old and new. These underground spaces include everything from the Greek cavern and Temple of Mithra to the modern Vittoria Tunnel (1929).
👍 At the tip of the hill there is a twisting road that takes from the top to the foothills, just opposite the Castel dell' Ovo. On this road the visitor can see a number of cave houses dug into the ocher colored volcanic rock.
👍 Use the elevator to come back to Via Chiaia. Leave Via Chiaia back and walk towards Piazza dei Martiri.
If you have time, it is worthwhile to turn right (instead of going ahead) to Via Gaetano Filangieri and then Via dei Mille and Piazza Amedeo, where the lower station of one of the three funiculars going up to Vomero is.
The area around these streets and all the way down to Riviera di Chiaia (at the north of the large seaside park known as the Villa Comunale) is an upscale and posh neighborhood. There are galleries, upscale restaurants and expensive boutique shops and designers’ shops.
During the night the area is a bar/cafe/restaurant paradise.
Monumento ai Martiri Napoletani in the center of Piazza dei Martiri was built around a column already standing since the Bourbon period, when the square was called Piazza della Pace. The column was repurposed, and atop now stands a bronze statue depicting the Virtue of the Martyrs. Four lions stand at the corners of the square base, each represent Neapolitan patriots who died during specific anti-Bourbon revolutions:
a) Lion dying - to fallen defending the short lived Parthenopean Republic in 1799. b) Lion pierced by a sword- to fallen during Carbonari revolution of 1820. c) Lion lying down - to fallen during revolution of 1848, with 1848 statutes under paw. d) Lion striding on foot - to fallen during successful Garibaldini Revolt of 1860.
Behind this last lion is a tablet that states: « Alla gloriosa memoria dei cittadini napoletani che caduti nelle pugne o sul patibolo rivendicarono al popolo la libertà di proclamare con patto solenne ed eterno il plebiscito del XXI ottobre MDCCCLX. Il Municipio Consacra».
👍 Exit the triangular square to Via Calabritto, do some window-shopping at Armani, Ferragamo and Valentino and continue to the seafront, passing thru Piazza Vittoria.
On your right starts the long Villa Comunale park, which stretches for more than a kilometer along the shore. This is a great place for walking and jogging.
👍 Instead of going right, turn left on Via Partenope and enjoy the best views of Castel Dell’ Ovo and Capri island (weather permitting). On this seaside avenue were built all the big and luxurious hotels at the turn of the 20th century.
At the end of Via Partenope and opposite Fontana del Gigante, stands Hotel Excelsior built at the beginning of the 20th century.
At this hotel lodge Katherine and Alex Joyce (played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) in Rossellini’s 1954 masterpiece “Viaggio in Italia” (Journey to Italy). The film is a tribute to 50’s Napoli.
👍 Before reaching Fontana del Gigante (a monumental white stone fountain designed in the 17th century by Pietro Bernini) there’s no way to miss the entrance to one of the two seaside castles of central Napoli, Castel dell’ Ovo.
The impressive Castel dell'Ovo is located on the former island of Megaride (now an artificially made peninsula).
The entrance to the castle is free of charge and certainly it worth the visit. It is very well preserved and the views from it over the city and the Gulf of Napoli are beautiful.
The castle's name comes from a legend about the Roman poet Virgil, who had a reputation in the Middle Ages as a great sorcerer and predictor of the future.
In the legend, Virgil put a magical egg into the foundations to support the fortifications. Had this egg been broken, the castle would have been destroyed and a series of disastrous events for Napoli would have followed. Oh well, the castle still stands strong!
The Castel dell' Ovo is the oldest standing fortification in Napoli. The island of Megaride was where Greek colonists from Cumae founded the original nucleus of the city in the 6th century BC.
Its location affords it an excellent view of the Napoli waterfront and the surrounding area. In the 1st century BC the Roman patrician Lucius Licinius Lucullus built the magnificent villa Castellum Lucullanum on the site. Fortified by Valentinian III in the mid-5th century, it was the site to which the last western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was exiled in 476. Eugippius founded a monastery on the site after 492.
The remains of the Roman-era structures and later fortifications were demolished by local residents in the 9th century to prevent their use by Saracen raiders. The first castle on the site was built by the Normans in the 12th century. Roger (Roggero) the Norman, conquering Naples in 1140, made Castel dell' Ovo his seat.
The importance of the castle began to decline when king Charles I of Anjou built a new castle, Castel Nuovo, and moved his court there. Castel dell' Ovo became the seat of the Royal Chamber and of the State Treasury. It also served as a prison. Some famous prisoners were: Empress Constance of Holy Roman Empire (1191), who became Queen of Sicily one year later; King Conradin (1268) was imprisoned here before his trial and execution; and Queen Joanna I of Napoli (1381) was also imprisoned here before her final assassination.
The current appearance dates from the Aragonese domination (15th century). It was struck by French and Spanish artillery during the Italian Wars; in the Neapolitan Republic of 1799 its guns were used by rebels to deter the philo-Bourbon population of the city.
In the 19th century a small fishing village called Borgo Marinaro, which is still extant, developed around the castle's eastern wall.
After a long period of decay, the site got its current appearance during an extensive renovation project started in 1975.
It is now known for its marina, fish restaurants and bars.
👍 Continue on Via Nazario Sauro and enjoy the stanning views of Vesuvius and the Gulf of Napoli. When you reach Statue d'Umberto I turn sharply left and after a couple of blocks you are in Via Santa Lucia.
👍 Turn on the left and on a small alley, perpendicular to Via Santa Lucia (Via Vincenzo de Giovanni di Santa Severina) and opposite Conad City supermarket, you see a small trattoria called “A’ Tiella e Patrizia e Ninona”. If it is to have only one full lunch in Napoli, this is the place. A genius traditional Sicilian trattoria with excellent food at low prices. Choose the fixed price Menu and for 15€ you have primo, secondo and coffee. The restaurant is really tiny, no more than 25 seats inside. Locals come here during their lunch break and families enjoy their dinner in an atmosphere where the room with tables and the kitchen are practically all one not by choice, but out of necessity. The only drawback, is the bad ventilation in the restaurant and expect you to smell like fried squid afterwards. When the weather is good try to get one of the 5-6 tables they have on a patio by the street, as we did during our visit. Staff is sufficiently courteous and friendly. We promised to come back, but alas we did not have time. Next time we are in Napoli for sure.
👍 Continue on via Santa Lucia towards the east and the Giardini del Molosiglio. On your right hand you’ll see the Basilica of Santa Lucia a Mare.
The church is so called because it was once a few steps from the beach. The legent says that it was founded by a nephew of the emperor Constantine. It belonged to the Basilian monks (monks who follow the rule of Saint Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea) who had a convent on the nearby islet of Megaride, where today is Castel dell' Ovo and later the church passed to the nuns of Santa Patrizia, a female branch of the same order. It was largely restored and modified in 1588 by the will of the abbess Eusebia Minadoa.
In 1845, the reorganization of the urban area and the landfills caused the burial of the original structure, on which the present temple was built. The new church bombed in 1943 during the Second World War and rebuilt soon after.
Saint Lucia is the protector of the eyes, of the blind, eye doctors, electricians and masons.
There is also a common popular exclamation in Italy, "Oh Santa Lucia!" when you have been long looking for something which is actually under your nose and you finally find it.
So, it is not much of a surprise that in 1957 the church was visited by a famous pilgrim: Totò, afflicted by a serious visual disturbance that prevented him from working; after a few months of treatment, his eyes improved so much that he allowed the actor to go back to acting in front of the camera.
👍 Exit Via Santa Lucia and turn left on Via Cesario Console towards Piazza del Plebiscito. There is a green space (park) along via Cesario Console, at the end of which stands the Statua di Augusto looking towards the Gulf of Napoli. As this little park is elevated, one has great views to the marina, the Castel Nuovo and the port (Porto di Napoli) below. Further away, at the background, stands the impressive mount Vesuvius.
Just beneath the Cesario Console park stand the Molosiglio Gardens.
Piazza del Plebiscito
👍 At the end of Via Santa Lucia, turn left uphill at Via Cesario Console and walk towards the emblematic Piazza del Plebiscito, the vast open square on the west side of the Royal Palace (Palazzo Reale).
On the east side of stands the large basilica of San Francesco di Paola directly across from the palace. With its impressive dome, temple-like entrance (pronaos) and semicircular portico supported by 38 Doric columns, the church is one of the “postcard icons” of the city and one of the most impressive structures in Italy. The church built in 1816 based in plans by king Murat to build a Parthenon-like tribute to his boss, Napoleon Bonaparte. Before that it was the site of two churches, the church of San Luigi di Palazzo and the church of the Santo Spirito, with relatively easy access across what was then called “Largo del Palazzo” (Palace Square, referring to the Royal Palace).
In front of the church, in the middle of the square stand two big equestrian statues of Charles III and his son, Ferdinand.
This impressive square did not look anything like what it looks today. In 1994 they decided to converted it from a gigantic parking lot into a grand square for people to walk around in. The public reaction to that change was favorable, even from those who had to find somewhere else to park their cars. Since that time the square has served as a playground, a parade ground, a venue for all kinds of celebrations and music events.
The Palazzo Reale
The Palazzo Reale stands on the site of an earlier residence, which had housed the former viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo, Marquis of Villafranca. The palace has its main façade on Piazza del Plebiscito, but the most impressive side is the southern one overlooking the Bay of Napoli. At the main façade are displayed in niches a series of statues of prominent rulers of Napoli since the foundation of the Kingdom of Napoli in the 12th century. The statues are displayed in chronological order, based on the dynasty of each ruler. The series starts with Roger (Roggero) the Norman followed by Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Charles I of Anjou (Angiò), Alfonse of Aragon, Emperor Charles V, Charles III of Bourbon (Spain), Joachim (Gioacchino) Murat and ends with Vittorio Emanuele II, the tallest statue and the last to be added.
Palazzo Reale was one of the four residences near Napoli used by the Bourbon Kings during their rule of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (1734-1860): the others were the palaces of Caserta, Capodimonte overlooking Napoli, and the third Portici, on the slopes of Vesuvius. The building conceived by Ferdinando Ruiz de Castro, Count of Lemos, Spanish viceroy in Napoli (1599-1603), to be a residence for King Phillip III of Spain, who was planning a visit to the city. The architect chosen was Domenico Fontana (1543-1607). The building was put up on the site of the older Spanish vice-royal residence. Since then, the building has undergone several additions and changes.
Today, the palace and adjacent grounds house the famous Teatro San Carlo, the smaller Teatrino di Corte, the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III, a museum, and offices, including those of the regional tourist board.
Teatro San Carlo
Teatro San Carlo, the most ancient opera house in the world, is part of the royal palace complex and its main entrance on Via San Carlo is just across Galleria Umberto I.
“Do you wish to know whether a spark of this devouring flame inspires you? then run, fly to Naples and listen to the masterpieces of Leo, Durante Jommelli and Pergolesi”. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dictionnaire de Musique).
The foundation of this shrine to Italian opera precedes the Scala theatre in Milano by 41 years and the Fenice theatre in Venezia by 55 years. It was in 1737 that the first king of Bourbon, Charles III became the promoter of a project that combined magnificence with amazement and became a clear sign of his power: a theatre! It was the architect Giovanni Antonio Medrano, the Spanish colonel brigadier stationed in Napoli, who was responsible for the design. Medrano's design was of a hall (28.6 x 22.5 m) with 184 boxes distributed in six tiers and a Royal box for ten people. A total amount of 1379 seats.
The opening evening was celebrated with the performance of ‘Achilles in Sciro’ by Pietro Metastasio, with music by Domenico Sarro and 'two dances as an intermezzo' created by Grossatesta and scenes by Pietro Righini. At that time, women used to play the main character of operas, so Achilles was interpreted by Vittoria Tesi, called "La Moretta".
On the night of February 13th 1816, a fire destroyed a large part San Carlo theatre in less than an hour. The only parts of the building to survive the fire were the external masonry walls. The restoration was carried on in only nine months, was directed by Antonio Niccolini who re-made the theater by keeping its previous main features.
“The first impression is that you have been transported to the palace of an oriental emperor. Your eyes are dazzled, your soul enraptured...” (Stehdhal, Rome, Naples et Florence, 1817).
The Tuscan architect, in fact, kept the horseshoe shape of the boxes and the proscenium configuration, just adding the wonderful clock with the low-relief of the 'Time and the Hours' that we can still admire. The center of the ceiling was decorated with a painting of Apollo introducing the greatest poets in the world to Minerva. The restoration of San Carlo Theatre was completed by the side facade made. As official architect of the royal theatres, Niccolini will also coordinate the next works of maintenance and restoration. Among these activities we remember the modernization of 1844.
The foyer we can see nowadays, in the eastern wing of the Royal Palace, was built in 1937 upon a design of Michele Platanìa. It was completely destroyed in 1943 by a bomb and rebuilt immediately after the war.
Piazza Municipio & Castel Nuovo
👍 Some meters down Via San Carlo, after the Royal Gardens, you enter to the heart of the city, the Piazza Municipio.
The importance of Piazza Municipio (City Hall Square) goes back to the late 13th century, when the ‘Maschio Angioino’ (Castel Nuovo) was built. The castle and area around it thus became the symbol of authority. Besides the castle, a new harbor was built directly in front of the castle. Later, the Aragonese and then the Spanish expanded the fortifications, such that, at its height, the castle housed the royal armory, foundry and the corps of the Royal Guards, taking up most of the present-day square. In the late 19th century, the urban renewal of Napoli started to shape to the area around the castle and transform it into the Piazza Municipio we see today.
Much of the transformation had to do with enlarging the port area and building new facilities for shipping. The final touch in that transformation didn’t come until the construction of the new Maritime Passenger Terminal in 1939. This imposing building is one of the several fine architecture examples of the Fascist regime. The Maritime Passenger Terminal, together with the central Post Office building at Piazza Giacomo Matteotti, are two of the architectonic masterpieces of that time.
The most characteristic feature of the impressive Castel Nuovo, was built during the reign of Aragonese Alfonso I who, like his predecessors, used the Castel Nuovo as the royal residence. On the outside walls, between the Torre di Mezzo (Halfway Tower) and the Torre di Guardia (Watch Tower) the impressive Triumphal Arch was built to celebrate his victorious entry into the city of Napoli.
Over the years, the castle was surrounded by buildings of all kinds, warehouses and houses, and this happened time and time again. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the Municipal Council began the work of isolating the castle from the annexed buildings in recognition of the historical and monumental importance of the fortress and the need to reclaim the piazza in front of it. The castle is today the venue of cultural events and also houses the Municipal Museum.
Today the area on the east of the castle and the lower part of the Piazza Municipio is inaccessible due to extensive works for building a new metro station.
👍 On the north of the square stands the Palazzo San Giacomo, known as the Municipio (city hall). This Neoclassical style palace houses the mayor and the offices of the municipality. The entire office complex spans from Largo de Castello to Via Toledo, along via di San Giacomo. In 1816, King Ferdinand I of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies commissions the construction of a centralized building to house the various ministries of the government. The area for this palace was chosen, and the buildings therein were either demolished or incorporated including the monastery and church of the Concezione, the Hospital of San Giacomo, and the offices of the Bank of San Giacomo. The church of San Giacomo degli Spagnoli was incorporated into the palace. Work was only completed in 1825. In the atrium are two statues of Kings Ruggiero the Norman and Frederick of Swabia. The statues of the Bourbon Kings, Ferdinand I and Francesco I of the Two Sicilies, that once stood in niches here, were substituted by allegorical figures. The entry way also has a head from a bust which has been assigned to the mythical representative of Naples, the siren Parthenope.
In the middle of the square stands the Fontana del Nettuno. The fountain is circular and surrounded by a balustrade. Water flows from four lions who hold shields with the symbols of Medina y de Carafa. Two sea monsters pour water in the central shell, adorned with dolphins and Tritons that also emit water. In the center, on a rock, two nymphs and two satyrs hold up a saucer that features a statue of Neptune with trident.
There are very few pieces of sculpture that have traveled as much as this one. This fountain was built in 1601 by the Arsenal. It was built on the order of Enrico de Guzman, the Spanish viceroy at the time and was situated so that it faced his residence.
In 1629, it was transported to Largo di Palazzo (now Piazza del Plebiscito), but since it hindered the festivals held in the plaza there, the fountain was again moved to Borgo Santa Lucia, near Castel dell' Ovo.
In 1638, it was again moved, this time to Largo delle Corregge, today Via Medina. During the revolt of Masaniello in 1647, the statue was damaged. Further damage occurred during the sacking of Napoli in 1672 by the Viceroy Pedro Antonio de Aragón.
In 1675, it underwent restoration and was moved to the Molo Grande.
This migratory fountain has continued to move through Naples: in 1886, it was dismantled, to reappear in 1889 in Piazza Plaza della Borsa (now Plaza Giovanni Bovio), where it stood till 2000, when she was returned to Via Medina to allow for work on the Napoli Metro. Indeed, they finished the station at Piazza Borsa in 2011, but instead of returning Neptune to that site, they put in its place a large statue of king Victor Emanuele II.
So, the decided to move it finally to Piazza Municipio after works for the metro station Municipio finish. Indeed in 2015, Napoli’s most travelled fountain is now in front of the city hall and Neptune stares down across the entire length of the still unfinished metro construction site to the main passenger terminal of the port of Naples. It's probably a better location since it's a pedestrian zone and you can now walk completely around the fountain and see it from all angles.
Galleria Umberto I
👍 Walk Via Giuseppe Verdi (the road in front of the City Hall) southbound and at Via Santa Brigida turn right and after some meters you see the northern entrance to Galleria Umberto I.
You can cross the Galleria from north to south and exit from the main entrance (south), directly across from the Teatro San Carlo (the Napoli Tourist Office is located at this exit), or after reaching the central hall you can turn right and exit to Via Toledo. Here at this exit you can stop for some tasty street food at ‘Passione Di Sofì’.
The Galleria Umberto in Naples is in the shape of a Crux immissa, that is, one in which the main, vertical beam sticks above the crossbeam. The Gallery is oriented almost precisely to the four cardinal points. The long "beam" is 138 meters long, while the shorter crossbeam is 108 meters long. They meet at a large space called the "crossing." If you stand in the middle of the crossing, the top of the dome is 57 meters above you. Where the sections of the cross meet at the central space, they form large surfaces at the NW, NE, SW and SE points. These are quite large and are entrances to the offices on the upper floors of the Gallery.
The Gallery was inaugurated in 1890, and named for Umberto I, who was king of Italy from 1878 until 1900 when he died at the hands of an assassin. Part of the Risanamento was also to renew the area across from San Carlo known as Santa Brigida, and this is how the Gallery was built. The Galleria Umberto was based on the design of the gallery in Milano completed in 1865; yet, it was a more aesthetic fusion of the industrial glass and metal of the upper part and the masonry below, which, itself, is a spectacular collage of Renaissance and Baroque ornamentation, tapering off to clean smoothness of marble at the ground concourse.
The Gallery has been recently renovated, after a lengthy procedure. The tragic reason for this renovation is because few years ago a chunk of masonry fell from the east entrance on via Toledo and struck and killed a teenager boy, a youngster who was out for a stroll with friends. When something like that happens, there is understandable public outrage. "Why can't the city maintain these buildings!?" is the common cry, and so the city starts another round of slow and underfunded repairs.