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.

Stunning Naples from a Birds Eye View

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Twilight begins to set over Naples from the old steps leading up to San Martino

San Martino, a small community high above the sprawling city of Naples, is a refuge from the chaos and confusion of overcrowded metropolitan life. With a reputation of being one of the best neighborhoods in the city, it is also the home of two outstanding historical buildings; Castel Sant’Elmo and the former Carthusian monastery of San Martino which is now a museum. As impressive as these two landmarks are, it is the sweeping view of Naples and the surrounding bay that take my breath away.

Museum of San Martino on the left looking out over Mt. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples
Museum of San Martino on the left looking out over Mt. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples

To reach San Martino at the top of the hill, I took a funicular from the crowded shop-strewn area of Montesanto. A funicular is a cable car that is pulleyed up the hillside. The neighborhood was clean and calm by comparison to the bustle below. I found it a refreshing escape. People drove normally and the streets were clear of bumper to bumper cars parked along the curb.

Mt. Vesuvius looms in the distance over Napoli
Mt.Vesuvius, like a camel’s back, looms in the distance over Naples
San Martino, now a museum
San Martino Monastery, now a museum

Once I reached the museum of San Martino on foot, which was a short uphill climb from the funicular, I was greeted by stunning views of the city of Naples below. Land and sea spanned out in every direction with a vast multitude of buildings that housed the crowded metropolis.

The former monastery, finished and consecrated in 1368, is now a museum with outstanding Bourbon and Spanish era artifacts. World-renown nativity scenes, old wooden ships, horse-drawn Cinderella carriages and several rooms of beautiful paintings brought the museum to life. In the center is a courtyard with gardens and an old monks graveyard.

View from San Martino
Veranda at San Martino Museum with commanding views of the Bay of Naples

This huge covered porch is part of the old monastery museum. As I walked around the entire perimeter, views of Naples, the water and surrounding districts sprawled out before me in one vast sweep. Sparkling and beautiful, my camera was fast at work in a futile attempt to capture it all.  But still the photos give a glimpse of its boundless splendor. 20131114-140541.jpg

Creepy Skull Courtyard inside the museum
Creepy Skulls, one on each corner, in the courtyard of the museum

The inner courtyard within the museum was very old but beautifully arched. This large marble square was marked with skulls all the way around.

Castel Sant'Elmo, situated right next to San Martino Museum
Castel Sant’Elmo, situated right next to San Martino Museum

The Castle stands tall and mountainous next to the museum.

Up close and personal-I zoomed in on the waterfront and palace
Up close and personal -I zoomed in on the waterfront and the palace of Naples
Stairs leading down from San Martino to the city
Stairs leading down from San Martino to the city

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On the way back down I took the stairs instead of the funicular. It zig-zagged back and forth, providing many wonderful views of Naples as I descended. Old homes and garden walls framed the stairs tightly.

Strolling through a neighborhood street while descending Vomero hill.
Strolling through a neighborhood street while descending, with Naples ahead.

These houses were so close to the pathway that I could clearly hear conversations coming from them through the open windows. Older women were hanging their wash out to dry, and smells of cooking drifted through the air, making me hungry!

I had worked up an appetite! This sign looked good so I stopped on by.
I had worked up an appetite! This sign looked good so I stopped on by.
I think this will do nicely!
I think this will do nicely!
Bay of Naples
Bay of Naples

I hope to return to San Martino and stand once more at the old fortress walls to gaze out at the vast beauty of Naples with all its charms. Mt. Vesuvius, the sparkling bay, reddish-pink sunsets that streak across the sky….all that encompass the ancient symmetry of an aging land .

 

Canoe Polo in Italy

Fast Action
Canoe Polo, Fast Action in Baia, North of Napoli on the Bay of Naples

What was all the commotion about? Winding down from a day of exploring the ancient thermal bath complex of the emperors, I stopped by a waterfront park. I walked across the grass to see for myself. A voice over the loudspeaker was excitedly announcing a water sport competition in progress. Cheers and yells came from the crowd gathered around the embankment.

Picking my way through the spectators, I caught sight of a soccer ball flying through the air over the water. Then I saw a skirmish of paddles. Men in canoes were smacking the ball around using either their hands or their paddles. It was aggressive. I found out soon that it has a name: Canoe Polo!

Take a look at this 2 minute video I took of the game…it also gives a good glimpse of the spectators toward the end. Make sure your volume is up as the announcer is half the fun!

There is no doubt that the Italians take these games seriously and harbor competitive spirits. Supportive spectators give the teams their all. What I learned about Canoe Polo is that it begins with two teams of eight. Only 5 from each team are in the water at one time with the other three in reserve. Each ‘race’ involves two periods of ten minutes each, with intervals of five minutes. And the point of it all? To fight ones way through the onslaught of the opposing team and swoosh a ball into a suspended basket, much like basketball.

Approaching the crowds watching Kayak Polo
Approaching the crowds watching Canoe Polo

The game here was held on the Bay of Naples, but any body of water will work. Games are often played on lakes or even in pools. A helmet, life jacket and spraydeck are required to play. I had to ask what a spraydeck was, and this is what I found out. A spraydeck is a sheet of tight cloth sized to fit over the opening of the canoe to prevent water from entering the boat. Good idea, since water was splashing everywhere in the mad skirmishes and fast paddle action.

In Italy there are more than one hundred teams entered in the championships. Circolo Nautico Posillipo, a famous canoe polo club in the port area of Napoli, has won most of the titles in Italy, including the Italian Cup finals numerous times.

Winning Cups await the Champions
Winning Cups await the Champions
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Goal boat keeps tabs on the game score
Canoe Polo - This is serious business!
Canoe Polo – This is serious business!

What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. A sudden glimpse into the real Italy, with its wonderful people enjoying the company of family and friends, doing what they do, is always a treasure find.

Roman Baia, Forgotten Paradise of the Rich and Famous

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Bay of Baia near Napoli

Once the exotic playground of Roman emperors Julius Caesar, Nero, and Caligula, the one-time seaside resort of Baia just north of Naples enticed and tickled the fancies of the first-century elite. Horace described it as “Nowhere in the world is more agreeable than Baia.” Pliny praised the medicinal qualities of the water.

Rich Romans built magnificent villas along the coastline that have since become submerged under water. Because the land of Baia and its surroundings are a volcanic area, the land has dropped six meters Read more

Naple’s Secret Below the Chaos

Working my way down the vibrant street markets of Napoli just recently was mind-boggling. Scooters roared and car horns impatiently pierced the air. Throngs of people clogged the medieval arteries of the city, pressed in to look over and purchase their products from busy shopkeepers. Store windows behind them displayed rows of hanging tripe, lamb, and prosciutto, as well as mouth-watering bakery items and slices of pizza for a euro.

In a crowded intersection where two streets meet is Piazza San Gaetano. It was here that I found something I least expected in the heart of this bazaar world. Standing in front of me towered an old basilica. San Lorenzo Maggiore was a sight to behold.

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This handsome thirteenth century Gothic church was built on top of a previously existing city hall by the Franciscan order in Naples during the lifetime of its founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Evidentially, Charles I of Anjou decided to build his fortress, Maschio Angioino, where the Franciscans had an existing church. Charles compensated them by providing this site for the present church of San Lorenzo Maggiore.

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What is surprising and not noticeable until you enter the building is that it is also a monastery as well as a museum. The museum takes up three floors and gives a history of the area around San Lorenzo beginning with classical archaeology.

But the most astonishing part of all are the remains of an original Greco-Roman market that was excavated over a period of 25 years and has been opened to the public since 1992. Located in the middle of the historical center that began as the Greek-Roman city of Neapolis (new city), this market is one of only a couple of large-scale Greek-Roman sites excavated in the downtown area. For those of you who love ancient Rome, you won’t want to miss this.

Very close by is the Napoli Sottoterranea, the Napoli underground which is seen only by tours, but this is not part of San Lorenzo’s underground.

The following photos were taken while I explored the area. It truly is a rare experience of stepping back in time, from the old earthy smell to the uneven stone streets and arches. However, it requires patience and some imagination to figure out just what you are looking at. There are no tour guides or audio guides, and most of the information is posted in Italian. What was labeled or partially described I have identified below the photos.

Once an outdoor street lining the doorway to small shops. Once an outdoor street lining the doorway to small shops. This is the original street level of the ancient city of Neapolis.

Both a Greek (Agora) and Roman (Macellum) marketplace are the main discoveries that lay below the church. Dating from the sixth to the first century B.C., these streets are perfectly preserved underneath present-day bustling Napoli. Built into layers of volcanic ash and rock called tufa, these ruins are remarkably well-preserved.

Stairway leading up from the road and old arches with shops between them.
This covered space was a market area, and shows seven interconnected rooms, with barrel vaults pierced by skylights to draw in air and sunlight.

Small shops, called tabernae, line the roads and each one has a skylight of sorts. They would be dank, dark and creepy without them.

In these shops it is possible to notice selling counters and wall-niches for the storage and display of various articles. Fascinating….

This a laundrette where clothes were scrubbed clean.
This is a laundrette where clothes were scrubbed clean.

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A ‘tintoria’ was a shop to dye fabric
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Possibly a well of sorts….I just know it is very deep!
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One of many small shops with tables and storage underneath, that lined the ancient streets. Notice the ‘skylight.’
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More tables with storage underneath

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A ‘fornaio’ was a bakery. Imagine all the business they must have had!

Once you are ready to return to the surface, a stairwell leads you up to a courtyard, which is the 14th-century cloister of the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore. Outside the cloister and back into the streets of Naples, it seems inconceivable that below all the surrounding congestion and frenetic activity lay a still, silent world that once was a bustling marketplace of its own.