This time it took less than thirty minutes to clear with the formalities at the rental car pickup in Naples airport and the good news was that they had a full tank return policy, not like the rental company in Sicily that I had to return the car empty. Since it is practically impossible to return the car running on fumes, I estimate that they make 5-10 euros on each rental from gas leftovers.
Driving in Naples is an experience not for the faint hearted. Now that I think about it, walking the streets is also for the bravest among us. I am used to aggressive driving in my home country and I visited many third world countries where pedestrians are considered mere annoyances but Naples is in a league of its own. It is easy to figure out who has the right of way: it is the guy with the biggest car, while a beaten truck wins hands down. Therefore it came to no surprise that they checked the car thoroughly at the parking station and pointed out that there was a tiny scratch on the bumper. “You are aware of this, right?”
The boutique hotel Piazza Bellini was right on the square with the same name, in the historic center of the city. Which offered us easy access to a number of restaurants for lunch. We picked the one that was five meter away from the entrance and did not regret it. Excellent buffet with Sicilian cooked delicacies at a bargain price. The system ws simple: you load the tray and pay according to how much it weighs.
The long walk to the catacombs of San Gennaro gave us the opportunity to walk along some typical Napolitan streets featuring innumerate balconies decorated with drying laundry. I am not sure whether they do this to reinforce the city image or they have not discovered the dryer. Naples is a typical harbor city, busy and dirty and above all colorful. The catacombs are paleo-Christian cemeteries dating from 3rd century, where the tomb of San Gennaro, the city’s patron saint, is found. The one hour tour is definitely worth the time. Back to center for visiting the Duomo, an impressive gothic cathedral dating from the 13th century.
Pizza is invented here, so there is about a thousand pizzerias to taste it. Apparently the ones with the best reputation get extremely crowded by tourists and locals alike. After walking up and down the streets of the center we settled for what seemed the best with a free table on the terrace. Pizza was good, very good indeed but I would refrain from being too excited about it. After all, pizza is pizza and you can have a good one in any good Italian pizzeria in the world that uses the traditional oven and fresh ingredients.
The next morning we drove to Pompeii, a short 30 minutes drive from downtown. Pompeii is an impressive archeological site that offers a view on the Roman past. Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD in a cataclysmic event that buried the coastal cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under five meters of ash. The second explosion created a pyroclastic surge of at least 250 °C that killed instantly those of the 20’000 inhabitants that did not leave after the first explosion on the previous day. The city was buried for centuries and was rediscovered in 1599 and then again in 1748 and since then it is an ongoing excavation site. The ash cover allowed for the near perfect preservation of structures and human artifacts. The famous discovered bodies are not actually human remains, since they have disintegrated long time ago. But as the bodies disintegrated, the produced hollow forms of the body shape that the archaeologists fill with plaster to recover the original body forms with posture at the time of death and burial of the humans. Really impressive.
It was sunny and warm so we took the road to the Amalfi coast with the top of the our Golf down. We drove the Autostrada to Vietri sul Mare and took the famous SS163 eastbound. The reason why I rented a cabriolet was just to drive this road and the feeling was really great, if only darl clouds had not started piling quickly over the afternoon sky. For half an hour we enjoyed the ride and a quick stop in Cetara before the rain set in. The Amalfi coast is so beautiful that it did not really matter. It actually accentuated the late season mood. We stopped in Amalfi for a short walk and coffee and by the time the rain was over we were back to the car with the top down again. From there it was about 45min drive to Positano, our destination for the night.
Once more, the Amalfi coast is really beautiful and those small postcards towns a remarkable spectacle, but I really do not want to imagine how it would be in August. It was early September already and the narrow SS165 still heavy on traffic. Parking space is almost impossible, the American tourists in abundance and an espresso costs 5 euros. As for the beach, good to see but I would not set my foot in the water. Positano is probably the most beautiful of the Amalfi coast towns, therefore the most expensive. Our hotel had a nice view, the dinner at the hotel restaurant was really good and the walk to the port with the 250 steps a nice digestive exercise, but at 180 euros a night plus 27 euros for the car park, I have had a lot better. One day at the coast was enough.
The same was true for Capri. We left the car in Sorrento and embarked the hydrofoil for a 40 min ride to the resort of the rich and famous. Honestly if I had to skip one part of the trip that would be Capri. Do not get me wrong, Capri is beautiful but it is clearly past its prime, the people that frequent the island are not to my taste and it has very little to offer to those that do not go there to be seen and shop. Prices are out of the roof and you can get all this plus excellent beaches and nightlife in Mykonos or Santorini for less money. Not to mention that our lodge in Anacapri which was booked through booking.com had no availability and we stayed in a nearby hotel. At the least they had the courtesy to offer us the stay for free. In short the Amalfi coast and Capri are beautiful but simply overrated.
The way from Sorrento to Naples through SS145 took a little more than hour, but with the top down and the sun shining it was enjoyable. In the afternoon we visited the Museo di Capodimonte, housed in a wonderful Bourbon palazzo, a must see for anyone enjoying painting. The highlights of the very interesting paintings collection, dating between 13th and 18th century, are undoubtedly the Flagellation of Christ by Caravaggio and the Crucifiction by Masaccio, both exhibited in their own rooms. Besides the painting collections – including a contemporary art collection on the third floor – the museum is a piece of art in itself, with its original furniture, frescoes and sculpted ceilings, offering the visitor a view on the 18th century life of the nobility.
The evening we had the oportunity to confirm how great the Neapolitan cuisine is. We did not have to move more than 10 meters from the hotel entrance to enjoy a great dinner with cooked local delicacies and good Italian wine. For the last day we saved the best. We started with a visit to Capella Sansevero, a chapel in Via Francesco de Sanctis, hosting one the famous Il Cristo Velato by Giuseppe Sanmartino, a breathtaking sculpture of the dead Christ covered by a veil. The chapel is decorated with excellent artwork and the ceiling by Francesco Maria Russo is a masterpiece. The most surprising exhibits are the two anatomical models of a man and a pregnant woman on the basement. They we constructed ca. 1760 and display a detailed 3D model of the human artery system down to the finest detail. The next stop was at the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a small church close to the Sansevero chapel, to admire the famous Seven Works of Mercy by Caravaggio. This masterpiece leaves you speechless and it is worth watching the informational video available in the church to fully appreciate it.
With a couple of hours to spend, we walked through the narrow streets of the center to the Mercato di Porta Nolana, a busy street market. What I saw in these these alleys is a level of poverty that I did not know it existed in Italy. Obviously there is a great divide between the rich north and the poor south in Italy and there is no better place to observe it than here.
We took the Autostrada back to Fiumicino to catch our afternoon flight to Athens, tired but richer in experiences. South Italy is a great destination that offers a great variety and if I did again I would allow for more days to see more things and be able to sink deeper in its daily life.