Naples’ treasures make for a classic holiday

Greco-Roman world is the focus of a tour

By Elizabeth Dalton
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2011

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NAPLES — After a harrowing ride, our taxi driver turned around and warned us that the feast of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, was approaching, and that if his blood, kept in a vial in the cathedral, did not liquefy on that day, the city would be destroyed by an earthquake or an eruption of Vesuvius.

With a menacing gesture he deposited us in a dark, cobblestoned street festooned overhead with laundry. We were in the heart of the Decumani, the old Greco-Roman streets laid out 2,500 years ago, where a friend had lent me his house on the Via San Paolo. Now, as my son, Matthew, and his wife, Yuliya, looked around doubtfully, I wondered whether I should have accepted.

When the massive wooden door of the house swung open, we found ourselves in a dramatic space rather like the cave inside a mountain in a fairy tale. Originally part of the Roman theater complex, the house had high vaulted ceilings, white walls left bare in patches to expose ancient brickwork, and a sleekly renovated kitchen.

There was, of course, no food in the kitchen, so in search of dinner, we went out again. By now it was dark, and we had to walk single-file down the narrow, curving street as cars and Vespas hurtled past. As we passed, we could see into the little “bassos,’’ the street-level Neapolitan dwellings opening directly onto the pavement, where the lives of the inhabitants — cooking, eating, ironing, watching TV — seemed exposed.

Turning onto Via dei Tribunali, the central one of the three ancient east-west roads, now dominated by great Baroque churches alongside small shops and restaurants, we were guided by hunger and ignorance to the one mediocre trattoria in the neighborhood. There Yuliya revealed that something or someone had jabbed her leg as we walked. Besides being frightened, she felt no ill effects, so we ate quickly and left.

On the way back up Via San Paolo, we noticed the many little streetside family shrines with images of Christ or the Virgin and photos of dead family members illuminated by candles. “These must be the places where people got shot,’’ said Yuliya mournfully. An old woman hobbled past us and croaked, “La borsa, la borsa,’’ pointing a bony finger at my bag. We all agreed we would not like to walk up this street at night alone.

The next morning everything looked better in the brilliant sunlight as we walked to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, the great museum that holds the artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by Vesuvius in 79 AD. There we saw works heroic in scale, such as the mosaic depicting the victory of Alexander over Darius, and more intimate pieces, among them the charming portrait of a girl student biting thoughtfully on her writing stylus. We were able to get into the “Secret Cabinet,’’ not always open, to see the little priapic statues and erotic images that have not quite lost their power to shock and fascinate even after 2,000 years. At last we succumbed to exhaustion. To see this museum properly would be the work of a lifetime.

On Tribunali that evening, we found a restaurant, Da Carmine, where everything was good, especially the vegetable antipasto dressed with the reddish olive oil flecked with pepperoncino known as “olio santo,’’ or holy oil. Our stay in Naples had taken a decisive turn for the better.

The next day we took the train to Pompeii. Matt and Yuliya explored on their own while I sought out places I hadn’t seen during a first visit years ago — the Villa of the Mysteries, with its beautiful mural of an unknown ritual for women, the newly excavated bath house, and the brothel, whose stone beds looked as if they’d be terribly uncomfortable, even with their original straw mattresses.

The next day Matt and Yuliya took the spectacular bus ride down the coast for an overnight stay in Amalfi, while I went on a trip in our neighborhood, leaving from Napoli Sotterranea, an office that offers tours of the Greco-Roman world lying just behind and beneath the streets. The first stop was a little basso, where a bed was unexpectedly moved aside to reveal a passage into the backstage galleries of the Roman amphitheater. A few yards away, another door led down into the network of aqueducts and cisterns that supplied Naples with water for 2,000 years. Grand and cathedral-like in some places, in others it was so dark that we had to carry candles and so narrow that according to our guide, Bill Clinton’s bodyguard got stuck during a visit.

I left the Greco-Roman world briefly that afternoon for a visit to the Capodimonte Museum, an 18th-century palazzo on a hill overlooking the city with a wonderful collection of Renaissance painting. But I was soon back on Tribunali, where I had dinner at a little restaurant called Cucina Casareccia. The grilled vegetables were coated with the ubiquitous peppery oil, and how can rigatoni with mushrooms, peas, Italian bacon, and cream be anything but good? Walking home alone in the dark, I felt slightly uneasy, but as I fell asleep, the occasional buzz of a passing Vespa was oddly reassuring.

The next day was the feast of San Gennaro, when the fate of the city during the coming year would be determined. The cathedral, just off Tribunali, was too crowded to get inside, but when cheers and applause spread into the street, I knew that Naples would be spared for another 12 months. After waiting across the street with a cappucino till the dignitaries had cleared out, I slipped into the cathedral to see the early Christian mosaics in its ancient baptistery.

Back on Via Tribunali, I stopped at Pio Monte della Misericordia, a charitable foundation containing “The Seven Acts of Mercy,’’ an astonishing canvas by Caravaggio depicting various acts of virtue. Tribunali is full of Renaissance and Baroque churches in various stages of decay and restoration, most of them dark and dilapidated without but resplendent within.

The next day was our last. We had lunch in the lovely Piazza Bellini, where parts of the Greek walls are still visible, then walked down to the harbor, where Matt and Yuliya bought tickets for an excursion to the island of Ischia and I decided to take a tour of the city. The bus went along the coast past the harbor of Mergellina and on to Posillipo, a peninsula whose hillsides are terraced with elegant villas and apartment houses overlooking the bay, a Naples quite different from that of Via Tribunali. On the way back I caught glimpses of some of the many monuments I hadn’t visited. Time had run out, and I had ventured out of the Decumani only twice.

That evening I returned to Tribunali for dinner in Piazza Miraglia. It was raining, but the tables were sheltered by big umbrellas, and the spaghetti alle vongole — clams with bits of tomato in the familiar reddish oil — was delicious. As I walked back up our street, I could see into the lighted bassos, where people sat eating and watching enormous televisions flanked by family photos, flowers, and brightly-colored religious statues and pictures like those on the little altars outside in the street. Alone in the dark, I felt quite safe, protected by those candle-lit presences, ancestral and wayside deities like those that have guarded the home and the road in this very spot for thousands of years.

Elizabeth Dalton can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay
Hotel Neapolis
Via Francesco del Giudice 13
Small but well equipped, with computers, free Internet, air conditioning, TV, fridge/bar in all rooms. On the third floor above a good trattoria/cafe on Piazza Miraglia. Well located for exploring the Decumani, the Archaeological Museum, and other sights. Doubles from $95, with breakfast.
Hotel Constantinopoli 104
Via Santa Maria di Constantinopoli 104
A beautiful hotel hidden behind a garden with a small pool just off Piazza Bellini with its cafes and bookshops, five minutes from the Archaelogical Museum. Doubles from $183 with breakfast.
Where to eat
Via dei Tribunali 32
Tiny place with brisk service and some of the best pizza in Naples.
Cucina Casareccia
Corner Via Tribunali and Via San Paolo
Small, immaculate, inexpensive, with classic Neapolitan fish, meat, and pasta dishes cooked to order in the open kitchen.
Da Carmine
Via Tribunali 330
Cozy, friendly, family-style trattoria, hearty portions of classic Neapolitan cooking at very reasonable prices.
What to do
Napoli Sotterranea
Piazza San Gaetano on Via Tribunali
Guided tours of Roman theater and aqueduct every day beginning at noon, 10 a.m. on weekends. Last one at 4 p.m., 6 on weekends. Bring a sweater, be prepared for stairs and dark, tight spaces. There are stop-off points for claustrophobics, $13.
San Lorenzo Archaelogical Complex
Via Tribunali 316
Unguided, open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., 1:30 on Sunday. Fascinating Greco-Roman underground with shops, textile-dyeing workroom, $6.50.
Bus tours Tours leave from Piazza Municipio on the harbor and generally cover one part of the city, e.g., the Decumani, Posillipo, Vomero, $26. Headphones with prerecorded information, no live commentary, but good for Posillipo, which is not easily seen on foot.