Stepping back into antiquity – a report about our Naples and Pompeii visit and tips for your own journey to the South of Italy, a place full of joie de vivre.
Die deutsche Version des Beitrags findest du hier: Von Neapel nach Pompeii.
To my eyes, Napoli is beautiful and ugly at the same time. It is a city of contrasts.
If you want to experience la dolce vita, sit in romantic small cafés, stroll around parks or enjoy the silence at the waterfront, Napoli is not the right place. It is a passionate city, noisy, dirty, dangerous, historical, crowded, adventurous – simply full of life.
With its nearly one million inhabitants, Napoli is the third largest city of Italy. The history of Napoli began around 750 BC, when inhabitants of the nearby Greek colony Cumae founded a new village called Parthenope. As they decided to expand, they built a new city nearby – named „Neapolis“. Thanks to the influence of the powerful Greek city-state Syracuse it grew fast.
Because of its closeness to the Gulf rich in fish, as well as the fructuous earth around the two volcano areas around the Vesuvio and Campi Flegrei, it became one of the most densely populated places in Italy, which it is still today.
This is also a reason why the environmental pollution in Napoli is very high and the waste disposal – also thanks to corruption and the mafia-like organisation Camorra, which is secretly reigning the city – is devastating.
But keep your eyes open: Between all the hills of waste can be found some impressive, nearly overseen gems and hidden treasures from past eras.
We only spent four days in this fascinating and unique city, so the following report including my personal impressions and tips could of course be filled with many more ideas. There is a lot to discover in Napoli.
But I think this is the best excuse to say: I will come back another time!
The via Duomo in the Centro Storico leads to the Duomo di San Gennaro.
The Centro Storico
If you only have a few days in Napoli, then the best thing to do is exploring the historical city centre. Many sights are in walking distance, and it is also a great opportunity to dive into the Italian way of life in the narrow streets around the Centro Storico, with all its bakeries, small churches and street vendors.
Tip: Napoli offers the “Campania Artecard”. We paid 32€ for three days (February 2018, there is also an Artecard for one week available), which included public transport all around the city as well as free and reduced entries to lots of sights. I would recommend this one for your visit, if you also wish to see places like Pompeii or some museums, as the single tickets can be quite expensive.
Narrow alleys and the ugly truth around the city centre
The city is structured in a logical way, which makes it easy to get around as a tourist. Furthermore lots of sights can be found by walking, so you can explore the historical city centre within one day per pedes.
A labyrinth of narrow alleys, some of them are relicts from the time of the Roman Empire, outstanding squares and architectural highlights shape the countenance of the Centro Storico.
The sunrays find some small gaps to break through the rows of high buildings. This special atmosphere can hardly be captured on photographs.
But as this shall be an honest report about my experience and impressions, I also want to show you both sides of the city, the way we got to know it. When walking along the streets of Napoli one literally has to circulate around piles of rubbish. It is not a polished, luxurious touristic city, it presents real life. The gap between rich and poor is quite large, the unemployment rate lies between 20 and 30 percent.
Locals warned us to not stroll through the small streets alone at night, as well as to stay away from the left-handed area behind the main station. Also you should always be aware of pickpokets and keep your belongings close to yourself.
It is a pity that so many inhabitants have to struggle, as well as it seems that the government is not taking care of various amazing historical buildings, which are simply left to deteriorate. Napoli has a big potential and could be an amazing place on earth!
But now let us get back to all the beautiful corners and highlights that I would love to show you!
Il Duomo di San Gennaro
The main church of Naples, surrounded by the Centro Storico, was commissioned by King Charles I of Anjou. It is hidden between lots of high buildings, so you have to keep your eyes open to find this impressive church!
Il Duomo was built on the foundations of two paleo-Christian basilicas, their traces can still be seen nowadays. It is named after the city’s patron Saint San Gennaro and also houses a vial of his blood.
The blood of San Gennaro is brought out twice a year, on the first Saturday in May and on September 19th. On these dates the blood usually liquefies. If it fails, so does the legend say, a disaster will befall Napoli. (Of course scientists doubt this thesis and explain it with the use of a special substance that decreases if moved.)
Tip for your visit: If you go to see the Duomo, you can combine the walk with the visit of the Caravaggio painting which I recommend below. The church that displays this masterpiece is right around the corner!
On the left there is the entrance to the Cripta of San Gennaro. As you see, the light is truly magical in this church!
Below I am walking through the Royal Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro. It is the main attraction of the Duomo, as it hosts some amazing Italian frescoes and altarpieces by Domenichino.
La Piazza del Plebiscito
A place that one should definitely see when coming to Napoli is the Piazza del Plebiscito, the „place of the referendum“.
This large public square was named after the plebiscite from October 1860, which made Napoli become part of the Unified Kingdom of Italy under the House of Savoy. The church with its 53 metres high dome is reminding of the Roman Pantheon. The church was dedicated to Saint Francis of Paola.
From the Piazza you can take a good walk down to the seaside of the city, followed by the Castell d’Ovo and the Parthenope street, which I speak about below as well.
The facade is fronted by a Portico of six columns, that is also offering an amazing view over the Piazza to the other side, where the Royal Palace is situated.
The dress I am wearing in these photos is an amazing Herringbone garment by Gracy Q, called Drape Dress. It is part of the Teddy Girl – inspired collection of this Leipzig based label. Reminding of the rebellious Teddy Boy’s styles from the 1950s, it combines some elements of menswear, such as the black velvet collar and the strongly flared pockets accentuating the hips.
I love taking fashion from my hometown around the world with me!
This dress is an absolutely favourite of mine from this collection, which is also avalaible on reduced prices at the moment! I combined this amazing, feminine piece with a white blouse, a velvet belt from Gracy Q as well, a golden vintage necklace and a beautiful 1940s hat I found at Highhat Couture*, one of my favourite vintage shops, where you can find original hats in good condition.
I absolutely love the silhouette that this dress creates.
A 2000 year-old world – A touching day in Pompeii
Pompeii and Herculaneum: Two villages on the foothills of a volcano
If you believe time-travelling is not possible, then you have never been to Pompeii and Herculaneum. Only this time the time machine is not a super complicated, magical high tech gadget, but an old train taking us from Napoli’s central station to a village about 40 minutes away from the city – the ancient Pompeii.
Pompeii was founded in the 6th or 7th century BC and came under the domination of the Romans in the 4th century BC. It is only 8 kilometres nearby the Vesuvius, so the menacing volcano can be seen from every corner of this place.
Remains from the everyday-lives of pompeian inhabitants.
With its about 11.000 inhabitants it was one of the major cities of the Campagna. In close neighbourhood to Pompeii lies another world famous place, which was buried by the volcano: Herculaneum. Herculaneum could be seen as an even more interesting place to visit than Pompeii.
While roofs in Pompei collapsed under the weight of falling ash, only a few centimetres of ash fell on Herculaneum, causing less damage. There was a succession of six pyroclastic flows (a mixture of ash and gases) which then solidified. These buried the city’s buildings from the bottom up, resulting in relatively little destruction.
There are many well-preserved buildings in Herculaneum, some with the upper stories still intact, and some impressive frescoes and mosaics to be seen. Unfortunately we did not have enough time to visit both of these sites, but as I just mentioned before – this is a good reason to visit the area Campagna again.
The last hours of Pompeii
It was around 1 pm on August 24th, 79 A.D., when Pompeii residents saw a pine tree-shaped column of smoke bursting from the volcano. It reached nine miles into the sky and began spewing a thick pumice rain. A big number of residents rushed in the streets and tried to leave the city.
This first phase of the eruption caused 38 percent of the deaths. Volcanologist Claudio Scarpati says, that many skeletons of those who tried to escape show fractured skulls, meaning that they died from collapsing roofs or large fragments falling from the eruptive column.
In the early hours of Aug. 25, an about 10-foot-thick carpet of pumice had covered the streets and bottoms of buildings. After the first eruption ended, fast-moving flows of hot gas and rock at temperatures ranging from 392 to 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit were coming to the city.
Between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., a final phase, punctuated by more pumice rain, buried Pompeii. What followed was a deathly silence.
Unlike many people may think, there are only a few„stone bodies“ displayed at the ruins. Really fascinating is the story behind them: When archeologists began to uncover Pompeii, they were finding bones inside air pockets within the layers of pumice and ash. They started filling these air pockets with plaster, bringing out these bodies.
Even though it was calculated that 75 to 92 percent of the residents escaped the town at the first signs, it is not known how successful they were to survive. Hundreds of victims were found outside the city walls.
The position of some skeletons on the volcanic deposit indicates that some individuals were lying on beds at the moment of death. Others were found hugging their loved ones. Very sad were also the remains of a dog which was displayed in Pompeii, captured in his last fight, who tried to escape his chains.
Today’s historical site: A moving walk around the ruins
Walking around the ruins of this unique city is a very touching experience, making the story of late August 79 AD come to life over and over again. It seems like this place was frozen in time.
Tips for your Pompeii visit: The area of Pompeii embraces around 64 hectare. You should definitely wear flat, comfortable shoes on your day at the ruins. Also I recommend getting an audioguide at the entrance, as there are many fascinating houses to be discovered and there are hardly any written explanations to be found at these sites.
The thick layers of volcanic material left the city intact until the present day. The walls of the houses are painted with electoral propaganda messages or jokes aimed at special citizens. One can see signs on the doorways, indicating the activity carried out there or the name of the owner.
Alongside the luxurious villas belonging to the nobility and the residences of the middle class, we saw modest houses where several families lived in two or three generations, together with their slaves, small shops which offered food, or public houses such as theatres, temples, a basilica or the gymnasium for the children.
To find the way through the labyrinth of the ruins a map is essential. We spent about four hours on the site, but one could also stroll around for a whole day to discover everything!
The House of Menander was brought back to light in the 1930s. It is one of the city’s richest houses and must have been owned by an aristocrat involved in politics.
The Amphiteatrum of Pompeii, which is still today an impressive building. It was built in 70 BC and is the oldest surviving Roman theatre.
The House of the small Fountain, the Casa della Fontana Piccola, is situated along the Via di Mercurio and displays the high social status of the owner. The precious fountain has recently been restored and is covered with beautiful mosaics and shells.
Sometimes, when we strolled through the narrow streets of big ancient cobble stones, along the ruins and high walls of former houses, I stood still for a moment, closed my eyes, took a deep breath and thought: Why can’t I just wait for a second, open my eyes again and be standing at the same place 2000 years before now… only for a few hours.
I would love to find the people that are now captured with their last movements as stone bodies all over the streets, walking around happily, simply living their daily lives.
I imagined the busy streets full of people, women chatting about the health of their kids, men having business talks or trading with food, and little boys and girls playing with dogs or running around, laughing and giggling.
While we were standing in front of the stone bodies, we were discussing whether the fate of these people was a sad one, or whether it was also good and meant to be. Sad of course because so many families, mothers, fathers, children died a horrible death.
But also a kind of good, as these people will never be forgotten. There are millions of tourists every year coming to visit their homes and remembering them, some are even known with their names. And these numerous relicts from Pompeii, Herculaneum and all the other villages that were captured in time in 79 are an amazing help for scientists and historians to research the lives of our ancestores, to recapitulate these, to see what great intelligence their culture had developed.
Everything that was built in Pompeii was built with amazing craftsmanship and extensive knowledge about material, acoustics and statics. Even today, although many seats of the amphiteatro are missing and the hills are overgrown with grass, the acoustics inside this building is really impressive.
Some remaining wall colours and frescoes let us know how beautifully painted all the buildings must have been. I can imagine how the artist stood at the same place where I was standing myself, creating masterpieces with his simple handmade brushes and colours, which were made to last for eternity.
Below you see an amazing comparison between the restored wall painting and the original one. These two artworks were to be found in a quite large house, probably owned by a wealthy family.
Reds, yellows, greens, ochres and black were used to decorate the columns, the house walls and entrances. In combination with the rich wall art and those incredibly detailed mosaics on the floor, Pompeii must have been a place of colour and beauty.
To complete the Pompeii visit: Everyday-life artefacts at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale
To have a complete Pompeii visit and experience I would also recommend visiting the Museo Archelogico Nazionale afterwards – it is also possible to visit both places within one day, as the Museo closes mostly around seven in the evening.
I need to mention that all the important artefacts of everyday life in Pompeii and Herculaneum, whether it is statues, dishes, jewellery or decoration, even precious and well-preserved mosaics and frescoes, have been removed and are nowadays displayed in this museum.
A photo I took in the archeoligical museum – the fresco shows Flora, painted in Pompeii in the 1st century AD. I cannot describe the feelings of standing in front of a piece of art which was created 2000 years ago!
At the time of the 18th century, when the explorations of Pompeii and Herculaneum fully started, Antiquity got „into fashion“. The Antique time of Italy and Greece was seen as the highest level of democracy, culture and knowledge, antique reception became popular in arts and literature.
„The only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if possible, is to imitate the Greeks.“ Johann Joachim Winckelmann
For educated and rich people, it became a must to travel to Italy and Greece, to visit the Antique and Renaissance sites of Rome, Florence or Pompeii and Herculaneum. Poets and authors wrote stories taking place at that time, or collected arts, such as antique (reproduction) sculptures of Caesars or philosophers.
This happened also thanks to the German „father of modern archeology“, Johannn Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), whose work influenced the rise of the neoclassical movement in the 18th century as well as the research on the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
In the end – whether it shall be Pompeii or Herculaneum, I think everybody should have visited one of these place once in life.
Back to Napoli – Don’t miss these highlights
The Seven Acts of Mercy by Caravaggio
View from the gallery to the altarpiece in the center.
Between all the crowded streets of the city centre there is one hidden gem that should hardly be missed – the altarpiece by Caravaggio.
Right around the corner of the Duomo, one of my favourite Italian painters – Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – placed his fascinating work „The Seven Acts of Mercy“. The church of Pio Monte della Misericordia, the place this artwork was made for and where it can still be found today, belongs to a charity brotherhood, founded in 1601.
This is why Caravaggio’s painting represents the seven acts of mercy, which describe compassionate acts concerning the needs of others.
With your Artecard you will get reduced entrance to the church and the gallery, which is also part of the exhibition. An impressive painting, whose atmosphere can hardly be captured on a simple photo.
Enjoying some quiet minutes and a good Italian coffee (if you want a „normal“ black coffee, you should order an „Americano“, otherwise you will get Espresso) at Piazza Bellini. This photo also shows the lovely Herringbone and velvet details of the Drape Dress.
As I already mentioned, Napoli is a very busy and noisy city. Calm places are rare, so finding Piazza Bellini in the middle of the Centro Storico was a lucky coincidence for us to sit down for a moment and enjoy the few sunrays breaking through the clouds and for looking at the green trees.
The small bars and cafés are a popular place for students and bohemians, especially in the evening. At the Piazza you will also find some excavated ruins from the 4th century Greek city walls!
Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), a famous Italian composer, overseeing the Piazza.
A walk along the seaside at Parthenope
Last but not least a walk along the Gulf of Napoli is a must! The deep blue sea, the shrieks of the sea gulls and the waves hitting the stone walls are a wonderful change to the loud traffic of the streets.
We found a beautiful view from the Castell del’Ovo, had some lovely minutes holding our noses into the fresh air and watching the birds flying high over our heads. A great end to an exciting trip.
Above you see the Castell del’Ovo, below there’s the beautiful view from the Castell walls down into the deep blue sea.
„Rome is stately and impressive, Florence is all beauty and enchantment, Genoa is picturesque, Venice is a dream city, but Naples is simply – fascinating.“ L. Whiting
I could not describe my impressions in a better way. I cannot tell that this city is beautiful or that I love it, but there is something special and unique about Napoli that is difficult to express. It is simply life, in all its facets.
I am curious, have you ever been to Napoli? What where your impressions, and do you have more recommendations to visit?
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