Why I Love Southern Italy

Baia, just north of Naples, combines antiquity with the modern
Baia, just north of Naples, combines antiquity with modern

When I dream of Italy, I see myself wandering along the shimmering Bay of Naples.  A mountainous backdrop rises up to meet a baby blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. I inhale the salty sea smell mingled with driting aromas from restaurants passed along the way.  A gentle breeze tugs at my hair as I watch several white boats skim the water’s surface, leaving a bubbling trail behind them. An old castle fortress stands high on a hilltop, its many levels adding dimension to the landscape.

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My life has been blessed with the good fortune to travel to Italy several times, and I am passionate about every region. Italy never ceases to fascinate me and each time I visit, I feel myself pulled deeper into its history, culture, exotic beauty and genuine people. A return visit is always on my mind.

Although the south of Italy is poorer than the north, to me it is the real Italy. It is true that transportation by train or bus can be slower and sometimes undependable, but to really see Italy and experience the culture it is essential to leave oneself a bit vulnerable. Who knows what kind of adventures await you at a bus stop when the bus shows up late? A slow train provides the opportunity to meet the locals and strike up a conversation.

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It is the people who I have encountered along the way in the south that have put heart and soul into my experience in Italy. This young woman and her son ran a tiny restaurant next to my hotel in Naples. The hotel manager personally walked me over to her and introduced us. She wined and dined us with delicious home-made food and charged only a couple of euros. Of course we couldn’t allow it, but she staunchly refused to take any more. After the meal, she took out a laptop and brought up her Facebook photos. We had a wonderful evening even though it wasn’t easy to communicate as her English and my Italian skills were challenged.

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While spending time just north of Naples,  I spoke with the educational director (above) aboard the glass-bottom boat Cymba, which takes people out onto the shallow waters of the bay in Baia to see the underground ruins of the palatial palaces and statues of the rich and wealthy of the first centuries. When I arrived and found no excursion was leaving for the day due to murky water conditions, she brought me aboard and spent an hour educating me on the ancient luxury resort of Baia.

Happy Tummies, Great Company!
After I spent a morning walking through the wonder and grandeur of Naples, I stop for lunch at Pizzeria Da Michele. I shared a table with a young couple, who are both attorneys in Naples. They encouraged me to order Margherita pizza with extra cheese. I never imagined pizza could be so delicious. As you can see by our plates, not much was left. They were delightful to meet and spend time with. Now, when I order pizza, I usually ask for extra cheese!

Surrounded by Giovanni and his two brothers

 

Three brothers who own De Paola Cameos in San Martino, a neighborhood in  Naples, invited me in to see their art. Warm and talkative, they graciously let me observe them hard at work bent over lovely pieces of mother-of-pearl while they carved them into delicate cameos. Of course, they lured me in with intentions of selling a cameo, but I did enjoy a slice of culture that deepened my understanding of life in the south.

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I love the ‘passeggiata’, which means ‘walk’, on the waterfront in Naples during the early evening hours. The passeggiata is typical of most towns and cities in Italy. Families, friends, lovers, kids, all kinds of people from every walk of life enjoy strolling together as they intermingle with the crowd. It is warm, friendly and full of life. It signifies the shifting down from the hustle of the day and the beginning of a slower pace before mealtime, which is typically after 7:30pm.

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Where else can you stumble upon a Sunday crowd of locals and take part in rooting for the teams playing water polo? The splashing and fast action is thrilling, and I am welcomed into the group. We all pack together tightly and cheer on the players.

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The shops and street markets are abundant and colorful

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Crazy street markets sell everything you can imagine….at the most amazing bargain prices. I bring my bag and fill it up with fruits and vegetables. I love learning the ropes of bargaining.

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Morning street below my hotel balcony in Naples

I’d love to return to southern Italy and the culture I have come to understand more and to love. This time I’m excited to push further south and discover the ancient regions of Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia and forgotten Molise. They, too, have stories to tell, ones that go back to the early beginnings, developing a unique culture over time. Genuine, authentic travel among real people doing what they have done for centuries; simply live.

‘Jack Nicholson’s’ Cameo Appearance in Naples

Cameo necklace in shop window
Cameo necklace in ‘Jack’s’ shop window

It all started in Naples, typically alive with activity. Shop proprietors were busy selling their wares while lines of hungry people formed in front of several small pizzerias for a lunchtime snack. All was bustling and full of the sights, sounds and smells that make Naples uniquely what it is. Before long I found my funicular, Centrale to Piazza Fuga. It would take me up to San Martino, a neighborhood of Naples high above the city.

After arriving in San Martino, I bumped into Giovanni on the road leading up to Castello San Elmo. His genteel manner and friendly countenance put me at ease immediately, and I found him easy to talk to. We immediately engaged in a lively chat and soon ended up at his shop, De Paolo Cameo factory. I was delightfully amazed. The shop windows were alive with many mother-of-pearl cameos, all delicately carved into beautiful ladies, mythical creatures and lovely flowering scenes. But that wasn’t my only surprise!

Surrounded by Giovanni and his two brothers
Here I am surrounded by Giovanni (far left) his brother, and ‘Jack Nicholson’ on the far right inside the Cameo factory. 

After stepping inside the small shop, I was greeted with warm smiles by Giovanni’s two brothers. One looked a lot like Jack Nicholson. I never said a word to him about it, but when he sold me one of his prize cameos, he gave me a wink and assured me I could tell others that ‘Jack Nicholson’ sold me a cameo.

The shop was fascinating. I learned that the tradition of making cameos had remained in the family for three generations, keeping the Neapolitan tradition of cameo engraving alive and lucrative. Vincenzo De Paolo, founder and CEO, opened shop in 1932 and since then has kept up the passion, pride and uniqueness of product that has built a legacy of this creative family tradition.

Hard at work carving a cameo
Hard at work carving a cameo out of mother-of-pearl

‘Jack’ (never caught his real name) was carving a cameo just inside the door of the shop. It was very intriguing to watch the fine etching that turned each shell piece into a lovely design. There were no two alike.

Two types of shells are used. One is the Sardonic, coming from the Caribbean or the Bahamas, with a brown underside that enables clear incisions. The other is called the Carnelian, which tends toward red tones, of Africa origin.

Proudly displaying many beautiful original cameos
Displays of many beautiful cameos made right here and lin the upstairs factory.

Necklaces, earrings, pendants and bracelets were all bedecked with cameos portraying intricate flowers, female profiles and mythological figures from vintage to modern. Upon closer inspection, I was very impressed by the delicate detail of hair curls and facial expressions.

Lovely Coral Necklaces
Lovely Coral Necklaces

Vibrant displays of coral necklaces and earrings were sprinkled throughout the displays. Interestingly enough, coral has been found in the Etruscan excavations and paintings. I found that even today many people believe coral contains strong healing powers and helps to keep disasters at bay. Coral has always been in vogue, it seems, and is quite striking in appearance.

De Paolo Cameo Factory
De Paolo Cameo Factory window display
Giovanni
Giovanni kindly explained much of the process of Cameo making

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When I left with the hand-picked cameo necklace that ‘Jack’ sold me, Giovanni walked me down the road toward Castello San Elmo and the Museum of S. Martino which was once a monastery, built in 1368 (more on this to come later). The views of Naples and the bay between these two was breathtaking and I took a number of photos. Giovanni wished me well and retraced his steps back to the shop. I stood looking down at Naples, taking in the early evening sunset that began to streak the sky with delicate cameo colors.

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