More Naples Adventures
Last weekend (April 26-27) I had a very busy couple of days in and around Napoli. The rain stuck around on Saturday, and at a loss for what to do, I asked Giovanni for some recommendations. He suggested visiting a Roman amphitheater, a volcano, and another royal palace. I don't know if he meant that I should visit all of them in one day, but I took on the challenge. I rode Metro Linea 2 from a nearby station out to the amphitheater and volcano. Between late trains and stopping before their supposed destination, getting there was a struggle and I almost turned back a couple times. I muscled through it and got there while it was still morning.
The amphitheater was worth my troubles. It's the third largest Roman amphitheater in Italy. It definitely felt like a smaller Colosseum, with underground passageways and pulley systems for bringing wild animals and props up to the main stage. Only a couple other people were there, so I got to run around the tunnels by myself. The somber lighting made it creepy, but I had a great time exploring. I think that this would be a great place for hide-and-seek.
Amphitheater thoroughly explored, I walked to the volcano, Solfatara. This is actually a volcanic crater in a massive volcano system comprised of 24 craters. Solfatara is now inactive, but a few spots in the crater emit steam. The route to the crater wasn't clearly marked, but I managed to find a lost German tourist and we asked a local for direction. As soon as we walked up, he smiled and said "Solfatara?" like he sees a lot of lost tourists. He kindly pointed out the direction and an Italian woman passing by offered to show us the way. We followed her a few blocks up the road to the entrance of the crater and camping area. The walk into the crater was gorgeous. Trees, cacti, and wildflowers concealed signs of urban life. From a high vantage point, I got a view of the entire crater. It didn't show up well in my photos, but steam billowed out of the bottom of the crater and up the sides.
The bottom was like a lunar landscape and everything smelled like eggs. This smell intensified to atrocious levels as I got closer to Bocca Grande, the biggest vapor hole in the crater. Still, I had fun standing in the harmless steam and being completely enveloped by it.
I walked by saunas used in ancient Roman times for healing purposes and on to my next destination, the royal palace in Caserta. To get there, I had to catch a train from the central railway station in Napoli. Getting back to the station on the Metro was confusing and my train at the central station was delayed by 35 minutes. I wasn't totally sure that I was on the right train, either. 45 minutes later, I felt relieved to be in Caserta.
The royal palace, constructed for Neapolitan kings in the 18th century, faces the train station. I rushed towards the palace and gardens, wary of monstrous thunderclouds and my time limit because of train departures. I headed for the gardens first because it wasn't raining yet, though it would clearly start soon.
The main path is mostly divided by a long series of fountains. On either side, it's lined by trees and half-concealed statues of figures from classical mythology. The rustling leaves and catching glimpses of these statues helped make an enchanting setting. I felt like I was in a fairytale or mythological story.
The path ultimately led to a large waterfall cascading down a hill. I spotted something at the top, but it took me 45 minutes to reach the end and I could hear thunder heading my way, so I hurried back to the palace.
The gardens and palace are very reminiscent of Versailles. It may be blasphemous to say so, but I liked the Caserta palace more than Versailles. I was sad to have such a limited time to wander through the apartments. There were many gorgeously frescoed, Baroque style rooms with art illustrating Napoli's long history. I think some of my appreciation may have come from knowing more about the history behind the palace in addition to appreciating it on an aesthetic level.
I tried to see as much as possible and then caught the train back into the city. Wiped out from a busy day, I grabbed a pizza from Gino Sorbillo's and returned to the hostel. Giovanni high-fived me when I told him about everything I did; I think he was surprised that I did it all in one day.
I got a good night of sleep and once again woke up at a loss for what to do. Giovanni invited me to join him on a trip to a nearby market. This involved going on his motorbike. I've hardly been on a scooter before in a calm setting, much less in a chaotic city like Napoli with the worst driving I've ever seen. Still, I accepted. I got worried when I saw a small, rickety scooter in the apartment complex courtyard, but Giovanni retrieved his motorbike, which was much larger and pristine. It was weird getting used to being on the bike, but was fun to zip around the streets and we didn't crash. The market was full of people selling fresh fruit and vegetables. Giovanni got some vegetables to use for lunch and we headed to a supermarket (if it can be called that--it was tiny) to get pasta. Both places were full of locals. One of the things I love about Napoli is that it isn't hard to go off the beaten path and be mostly surrounded by locals. It's a real Italian experience.
Once back at the hostel, I found out that one of my roommates, an Argentinian woman named Lucia, was going to visit a castle on a hill overlooking the city. She let me tag along and we walked to the station where a funicular would take us to the top of the hill. There were many interesting sights including a seafood market where live fish, eels, and cuttlefish swam around in tubs. We made it to the top of the hill to the star-shaped Castel Sant'Elmo. We walked along the top of the castle and the was a wonderful view of the city. Unfortunately, Vesuvius hid in the clouds.
There wasn't much to do in the castle itself besides visit a small modern art museum featuring Neapolitan artists. Lucia and I walked through it and then returned to the hostel for lunch. That night I attempted to visit Castel dell'Ovo, a castle on the water, but it was closed.
On Monday morning I joined Lucia and a Canadian named Sophia on a tour of tunnels beneath Napoli. Sophia is a classics major and we have a similar taste in books and movies so we got along quite well. We had some time before the tour would start so we explored the small streets around the tour's starting point. On streets like these, laundry and lucky charms hang from walls, plants decorate balconies, and there are many beautiful shrines, large and small, dedicated to family members.
The tour started at 10 and we were first led to an area where ancient Greeks carved out tuff to use for buildings. Then we went through a remarkably small tunnel to an area where people took shelter from bombs in World War II. In ancient times, this area was also used for channeling water. We followed another small tunnel to ancient Greek and Roman wells. Even with my arms pressed flat against my sides, both sides of the tunnel wall pressed onto me. I don't usually get claustrophobic, but this was an alarming experience. Additionally, we made our way through the tunnel using candlelight. I worried about all of our candles going out until I realized that we all probably had phones with flashlight capabilities.
After visiting the wells, we returned to the outside world and walked a couple blocks over to a Roman theater. The theater was built over when newer Naples was constructed; today eight or nine families live in and around it. Taking away part of a home's wall revealed the old wall of the theater. The area where people would exit the theater is below the house.
We visited a couple other spots of the theater and then the tour ended. It was fascinating and I'm glad that I did it! Lucia had to catch a train to another town so we said goodbye and then Sophia and I went to get a cappuccino at a nearby cafe. Our baristas were incredibly friendly and conversed with us even though they spoke minimal English. I was really happy to be able to converse in Italian and understand what they were saying. In Italian tradition, we drank our cappuccini standing at the bar. A friendly local walked in while we were drinking and joined in the conversation. I love the way Italians order and drink coffee when they go to cafes and I will miss this tradition when I go back to the States.
Sophia and I split ways afterwards and I headed to a museum next to Castel Sant'Elmo, Certosa di San Martino. Inside there was a church, a collection of religious artwork, a maritime museum, and a collection of nativity scenes typical of the area. Notably, it had the most impressive nativity scene I've ever seen. It was the size of a small room and whoever made it paid remarkable attention to detail. The angels towards the top of the ceiling were smaller than the angels towards the bottom, creating an illusion of perspective.
That was another long day and I was happy to get some rest that night and have a more relaxing day on Tuesday. On Wednesday I went to Paestum. Now I'm in Positano, a smaller town just south of Napoli. I'll try to catch up on the rest of my first Napoli stay soon!