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.
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 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. Read more →
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!
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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 delicatecameo colors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The inner courtyard within the museum was very old but beautifully arched. This large marble square was marked with skulls all the way around.
The Castle stands tall and mountainous next to the museum.
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.
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 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 .