Naples, Italy Oct 15-22, 2015
This was just the third part of our Italy trip in October. Our trip started with a Travel Market business meeting in Rimini, a seaside town of 145K inhabitants on the Adriatic Sea. My partner and I then split up. I went to Cinqua Terre region and he spent time in Florence and the surrounding Tuscany region. We finally met up days later in Florence and rented a car. The next few days, we checked out properties in Tuscany and Umbria and finally, we took a 4-hour drive down the Autostrade on A1 to Naples.
Our base for the 5 night experience was the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia, a 4* built in 1900. It is right on the Bay of Naples, with the vista including: the seaside fortress of Castel dell’Ovo, a 19th century small fishing village, and Mt Vesuvius. The Castle is the location of the first Greek fortification in the 6th Century BC, and has been rebuilt many times. The castle’s name comes from a legend about the Roman poet Virgil, who had a reputation in medieval times 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 would have transpired in the city of Naples. A bit about Naples.
A bit about Naples.
Naples’ historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its museums boast some of Europe’s best archeology. The city’s history remains a fundamental component of present day society.This is revealed in numerous archaeological ruins, monuments and buildings. The people are friendly, and Neapolitan cuisine is honest, authentic and most delicious. Proud birthplace of pizza, which is midway between refined cuisine and a traditional working-class meal, Neapolitan pizza has been one of the region’s main dishes and a symbol of Neapolitan gastronomy since the 18th Century. The region also boasts: the best pasta and coffee, fresh and delicious seafood dishes, and street snacks and sweet treats — from thick-crusted rectangular pizzas to deep-fried sugared dough. We intend to look beyond the grime and graffiti and discover amazing frescoes, sculptures, magnificent vistas of Vesuvius, and warm people with lively and thought-provoking conversations filled with legends and humanity.
October 17, Saturday. Antonella, my partner in Amalfi Coast and tour organizer for this trip, advised us against taking a car into Naples and instructed us, instead, to drop it off at the airport. This was a very wise decision. It was relatively easy drive to the airport and drop off the car. I called Antonella, and she was, in fact, on the way to pick us up. (Naples airport is only 30 min or so from the ciy center.) We were off to hotel to meet our tour participants – a group of travel agents for a week- long educational tour of Naples and the surrounding area.
After we had some time to check-in and explore the vistas and waterfront promenade/exercise path, the group met for personal introductions and an orientation. Then, we departed to familiarize ourselves with this region, new even to me region – Phlegraean Peninsula.
Antonella invited local experts for this area, which included a geologist, an anthropologist, and a historian and archeologist to join us for that evening.
The day was like a mini seminar or rather a candy store of information for your mind.
Phlegraean Peninsula, located just north of Naples on the coast, had: two amphitheaters, ancient ruins, an old Greek fishing market, and an array of underwater artifacts from a long ago forgotten home submerged in very shallow water. There are snorkel and scuba dive centers locally that will gladly help you visit the protected sites. You can also learnLearn about the geology of the region, especially the cauldron and then you can actually visit an ancient aquifer used by the Greeks, Romans, and all the conquerors through the centuries. While in this area, we visited the Church of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. His blood has reportedly been saved in a vial and kept in the church. It allegedly liquefies once a year. This is the same San Gennaro, for whom the feast is celebrated in New York’s Little Italy. There is no place in Italy where street food, espresso, and friendly people do not enhance your experience.
October 18, Sunday.
Capri by private boat. After breakfast, our driver picked us up for our departure to Sorrento, where we boarded a private boat for day trip to Capri. You can also take a ferry from Sorrento to Capri but the best way to do is to explore by private boat. We had a captain at our disposal, and he told us he would sail around island and will dock where we wish.
A boat trip across the scintillating waters of the Bay of Naples leads to this stunning and legendary island, surrounded by rose-tinted rocks and coves washed by a translucent sea, giving it the look of a precious marine gem.
Over the years, enchanting Capri has attracted its fair share of superstars. Cesar Augustus had a particular love for the island and, more recently, its guest list has included Naomi Campbell and George Clooney.
We arrived at Capri, docked, went up by funicular to Anacapri, with its spectacular vistas. The whitewashed houses, cobbled stone streets, and the views over the Amalfi coast are jaw-dropping. We had lunch in one of the outside cafés, shopped for souvenirs, including the famous “Capri Watch”. One highlight is the Church of San Michele, which was once part of an ancient monastery. Decending, we hopped into two open-air taxis, pink colored (!) Cuban style!
While in Capri, you must take the time to visit the enchanting Blue Grotto, one of the island’s wonders. The visit inside the sea cave by row boat is remarkable, but alas, there were very long boat lines to get in, so we skipped it. For clients we usually prebook it but we kept for this day itinerary flexible.
Back to the boat, the captain set sail to the beautiful east side, to see the subject of one of the most famous postcards of Capri, Monte Solaro, the Bay of Marina Piccola, and the Faraglioni. It was an enjoyable day and the weather also cooperated.
In the evening, we journeyed to the Tunnels which were a sneak-peek preview of the Museum to be opened in December. The volunteers did an amazing job! We wandered on, through the interconnected passageways, below the bustling Neapolitan streets, and saw aqueducts that had been used for 23 centuries. Then, we descended 121 steps deeper to the air-raid shelters. In 1941, almost 250 miles of tunnels and waterways under Naples were cleared of water and refuse, most wells were sealed, and stairways were built and electricity installed. The Neapolitans, who waited in the shelters as bombs pounded overhead, left markers of their tense days and weeks there: drawings on walls of bombs and planes, and the word “aiuto” (help).
Afterwards, we had dinner in one of the waterfront cafés near our hotel.
October 19, Monday: Naples walking.
10:00am. After breakfast, we took our minibus into the center of town to meet our local guide Roberto.
We began with a panoramic tour to the top. Here, at the observation point, Roberto explained the history of Naples – from a Greek settlement in 470 bc it grew and expanded and was therefore called “Neapolis” – “New City”.
Naples is very ancient city, built layer over layer on volcanic stone called “tufo”. Later, the Romans came and excavated the tufo and building aqueducts. We saw samples of the Roman excavations also. Then we went to see Roman Theater. It has exceptional views from hill to sea.
We continued on to Fontanella cemetery, where Roberto, with local flair and exuberance, relished us with old stories and legends of love and the unfortunate “little skull” venerated by the Neapolitan people and linked to Neapolitan tradition. This is where, in the 1600s, they interned all the victims of the black plague. It has recently been rearranged, with 40,000 skulls sitting on a 1 meter bed of long bones, lined up along the walls of the catacombs. Locals visit the place light candles and “adopt” skulls, thinking they will grant them wishes.
We were back in town to see the typical streets and alley ways of the Naples – with the laundry hanging to dry. These narrow streets are actually a UNESCO World Heritage site and the true heart of the city.
By now we were hungry and Roberto took us to the really local places, where we enjoyed local food. Of course this included pizza in different forms – fried pizza, baked pizza and the city specialty “arancini” –fried rice balls with meat filling. That was at the famous “Pizzeria del Presidente” which former president Clinton visited years ago.
After pizza, we went outside and sampled delicious deserts from street vendors, and we were just on time to have a sweet little break to try the real Neapolitan coffee with the famous “sfogliatella “, in one of the oldest bakery of Naples.
Afterwards, we continued to Piazza Dante, where we will entered the ancient heart of Naples, through Port’Alba, one of the four citygates.. We passed among the old craftmen’s shops: the luthiers, the artisans making cribs, the booksellers, the potters, the Hospital of dolls. We passed through the famous “Spaccanapoli” and in particular, the Via San Gregorio Armeno, famous for its “Christmas shopping”. We ended up in the historic center of the city a beautiful place, with monuments. . It was an unique opportunity to learn about the peculiar everyday customs of the people of Naples!
Next we went to the synagogue, where Roberto gave us and in-depth inspection, and also talked about the Jewish community in Naples, of which he, himself is a member.
Afterwards, we visited the famous Cappella Sansevero – a museum, built in the late-Baroque style, which houses almost 30 works of art.. The A Christ Veiled under a Shroud (also called Veiled Christ), shows the influence of the veiled Modesty. Itwas completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino. This piece alone was worth the time and cost of the visit!
In the evening, we joined together for our welcome pizza dinner. It featured the famous Neapolitan Pizza in an old, traditional pizzeria, withspecial historic, conic-shaped ovens.
October 20, Tuesday: Sorrento – Positano
We drove to Sorrento after breakfast.
Heading south from Naples along the Bay ,with is vistas of the Isle of Capri and Mt Vesuvius, was majestic thrill. The road propels you long the side of the bare cliff – the mountain on one side and a shear drop to the Bay of Naples on the other.
Pastel-washed towns spill down the cliffs towards the sea. Beautiful trailing bougainvillea and zesty lemon groves add the perfect finishing touches. Sorrento is a picturesque town with a vibrant population, cafés, stores, artisans, an opera house and historic grand hotels with terraces that offer impressive views. Our local guide, Angie, took us for brief walk to show us her hometown. Besides the street scenes, we visited a cameo shop and watched the artisans perform their craft.
There is a lift that takes you down from the mountain height to the beach and marina. Once down, we then took our minibus further south to Positano.
We arrived in time for our lunch appointment in the famous 5* hotel, Le Sirenuse
Le Sirenuse commands one of the premier spots on the southernmost side of the town. It has been used as the location in several movies, most recently the 1994 film “Only You” starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr. The restaurant boasts a Michelin-starred chef and hosted our magnificent lunch. Positano is cut into and built up along both sides of the mountain cliffs. The cut looks as though it was made through the ages by a river, which once led to the sea. Positano’s near-vertical alleys, crammed with cafés and boutiques, shower down the cliff-side, each one with its own perfect view We got to experience this from an insider’s perspective with our local guide, Lucia. She took us on a walking tour where we visited some off-beat, un-touristy, unique places in the nooks and crannies of the hillside.
October 21, Wednesday: Irpinia wine tasting.
Naples is the capital of the Campania region of Italy. The region itself has numerous calls to fame. These include the sun drenched Amalfi Coast, aka the Italian Riviera, with its old Castles set in the mountains and picturesque villages hidden behind the rocks. The region is also known as a place for skiing, strolling through the woods, and tasting good cheese and great wines. The wine region centers around the town of Irpinia, about 40 km east of Naples, where you can relax, while drinking a glass of wine in the garden and admiring the views of vineyards and olive trees over the surrounding hills.
We traveled to Irpinia and met Gaetano, a local wine producer. He first took us to a farm to see how Mozzarella is made, and we sampled some mozzarella and another local specialty cheese.
We then proceeded to a small farmhouse, which also has few rooms and functions as B&B. The grapes were still plump on the vines. We tasted both red and white, and with each, the flavor exploded in our mouths. These over-ripened grapes were left to harvest later for sweeter desert wines. We were served a wonderful home cooked meal with local wines. Italy has this “zero kilometer agrotourismo policy”. Everything you eat is grown and consumed locally. Nothing is consumed outside the range, except for certain staples like sugar, salt, and pepper.
We continued to a working winery, to sample more wine, local olive oil and cheese.
We napped a bit on the hour’s drive back to Naples. Then, we got ready for another wonderful evening – a show and dinner in a very typical Neapolitan restaurant, where performers sing and dance to old Neapolitan music, as they move among the tables. They even sang Sinatra for us as they announced for “Antonella’s Americani”!
October 22, Thursday: Herculaneum and Vesuvius.
After our hotel breakfast, we met today’s local guide, Ludovica to go Herculaneum.
When Vesuvius erupted on 24 August AD 79, it engulfed two flourishing Roman towns, leaving an impression of the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the wealthier citizens of the Early Roman Empire. Most people are aware of the destruction of Pompeii that occurred on August 24, 79 A.D. The ruins of Pompeii are world famous. Each year thousands of visitors flock to Italy to view the archeological wonder, and they are one of the most visited attractions in the country. We visited the lesser known town of Herculaneum, on the other side of Vesuvius. While the mountain spurted out rocks and ash, the heavy materials carried by the prevailing winds crashed down upon Pompeii, crushing most of it. Herculaneum, on the other side of the mountain, was upwind and spared of its sister city’s wrath of raining debris. Instead it was flooded with mud and filled from the bottom up. It was not immediately excavated because the Romans had no way for digging into the hardened mud and meters of covering ash. So the city sat, and when it was finally uncovered some buildings still had their roofs intact. The marble statues were where they had been, and the plaster on the walls was mostly preserved, including the frescos! It’s smaller than Pompeii, less crowded and easier to navigate.
We then visited a working winery on this same side of Mt Vesuvius. The sulfur from the mountain eruptions concentrates in the local soil, making for a very robust grape and hearty wine. We had a wonderful meal and enjoyed the wine very much.
After lunch, we continued our tour to the top of Vesuvius where the tragedy had begun. We visited and walked through the lava fields and learned the history. We visited the big crater and enjoyed panoramic views over the Bay of Naples.
We still had time before to going to airport, so ventured to historic Naples to look at B&B Neapolis Bellini, which Antonella and her partner Lisa own. It is located in a meticulously restored historic building which used to be stables centuries ago. It does have a small elevator, but the marble stairs are beautiful. The 6 rooms are generous in size, but we only were able to see one, as the rest were occupied. We had some coffee, refreshed and departed for the airport for our next destination, Palermo, Sicily.
That concluded our wonderful trip to the Naples area and Amalfi Coast, I strongly recommend it for anyone’s bucket list.
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