Monday, December 19, 2016

Return to Naples: The 2016 Italy diaries, Part II.

This was our second trip to Naples. My husband and I were in Naples in March of 1999 as part of a sabbatical year trip to Italy. We foolishly believed all the guidebook warnings about avoiding Naples and stayed for a week in Sorrento, a beautiful but not particularly interesting city. We decided to go on a daytrip to Naples and loved the city. Each morning we took a boat to Naples, regretting that we could not spend the nights in Naples and had to return to our prepaid hotel in Sorrento. We hoped to some day get back to Naples and do the city justice, but never managed to get it together . My love for Elena Ferrante’s books was the impetus for a return trip to Naples.

I had originally intended to go on a Ferrante tour and visit the places mentioned in the Neapolitan Novels. Then came Claudio Gatti’s revelations. Since Ferrante turned out to be a fictional character, camouflage for the identity of the real author (who grew up in Rome), I lost my enthusiasm for trying to track down the impoverished neighborhood where the main characters grew up. And my husband wasn’t particularly interested in trekking around the slums of Naples.

However, getting to know Naples intensified my love for Ferrante's Neapolitan novels which I am currently re-reading. Yes, there are many run-down parts of Naples but some of them, particularly in the old quarter, are incredibly picturesque:

And there are some very attractive neighborhoods. Naples is a very vertical city, with the desirable residential neighborhoods in the hills—-the Vomero (Professor Galiani lived for you Ferrante fans) and Possilipo (where Michele Solara lived).

Naples is much more prosperous than it appeared in 1999. I don’t remember expensive shops like those around the Piazza Martiri and the Via Mille, but perhaps we weren’t in that part of Naples. (For Ferrante fans, the Piazza Martiri was the place for high-end shopping in the 1960’s when the Solara brothers opened their shoe store there.)

We found a very affordable hotel, San Francesco al Monte. It was perched on a hill, just high enough to be above the bustle of central Naples and had a spectacular view—my main requirement for a hotel in Naples. View from the restaurant at San Francesco al Monte

The hotel was a converted monastery and I’ve always had an attraction to these former monasteries turned into hotels. Spain and Portugal are full of them. I never pass up a chance to spend a night in a former monastery!

We had enough time (six days) to visit various neighborhoods, to get a feel for the city, to take in its impressive site on the Bay of Naples, to visit the major tourist attractions and to take some side trips outside of Naples. The must see attractions in Naples include the Museo di Capidomante. When we were younger, we would have been more likely to spend a morning here and then rush off to something else. This time we spent the entire day at Capidomante. The fact that it was a dreary, rainy day was another incentive to stay there. It has an extraordinary collection of old masters--among my favorites, a chilling painting by Breughel the elder, The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind:

The Museo di Capidomante also has an amazing collection of Titian portraits:

Another must-see museum is the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, considered one of the most important archaeological museums in the world. The museum has undergone a major renovation since our last visit in 1999 and the treasures of Pompeii are beautifully displayed, especially the Gabbinete or Secret Room which holds an extensive collection of erotic items from excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. We missed the erotica our first trip to Naples as these items were only made available to the public in 2000. What was seen as scandalous is no longer particularly shocking:images from Pompeii

The classical world and the Baroque world are both very much present in contemporary Naples. We also managed to see many of Naples’ Baroque churches which we missed in 1999. I was reluctant to take day trips outside Naples because there is so much to see in the city, but Herculaneum and Ischia are not to missed. To be continued!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Return to Rome: The 2016 Italy diaries, Part I.

We postponed an October vacation because of the election; I was afraid of being glued to CNN, NYT and not focusing on Rome and Naples. So we made reservations to fly to Rome on November 9th. We thought we would be celebrating Hillary’s victory. I was in a state of shock on November 9th, thankful that we would have Italy to take our minds off the disastrous election results.

This was our 6th trip to Rome and probably our last. Rome was more beautiful than ever. We always stay in small hotels—there is usually better service and we’re more likely to get a sense of the city. Now that we are seventy-something travellers we need to stay in more comfortable hotels than when we started traveling together almost 40 years ago.

Also, since we didn’t want to spend a lot of time just getting around, we wanted a central location. We settled on The Inn at the Spanish Steps -—charming, but more expensive than we’d like. However, our traveling years are winding down, so it seems like this is the time to splurge. The staff was terrific, the breakfasts were wonderful and served on a lovely roof-top terrace. The hotel was on a side street off the Piazza di Spagna and therefore in a busy part of Rome--but it’s not so easy getting an affordable, comfortable, centrally located hotel in a quiet part of Rome.

We found ourselves doing what we had done in Paris when we returned after a long absence—we revisited the places we really loved. Our hotel was in walking distance from the Piazza del Popolo so that was the first place we headed to see the twin churches I love so much. As always happens in Italy, something you really want to see—this time one of the twin churches-- was closed for restoration.

What I love so much about Rome is the sense of history everywhere: ancient Egyptian obelisks, Trajan’s column, the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracolla--all right there in central Rome. We did a lot of wandering around taking in the open-air architectural museum.

I wanted to see the Vatican museums one more time. Rick didn’t think he could take the crowds, but I thought that maybe in November the crowds would not be so bad. I was wrong. There’s no such thing as off-season where the Vatican is concerned. But it was worth braving the crowds to see the Sistine Chapel one more time. The last time was right after the restoration of the Michelangelo ceiling frescoes and the subdued grays and browns were in bright, jewel like colors. They struck me as garish and I preferred the old unrestored frescoes. Now the colors have dimmed somewhat and no longer look so garish, but maybe I’ve just gotten used to Michelangelo in technicolor.

We also went to the Barberini Palace which is not a “must see” on the tour bus circuit, so was delightfully uncrowded. It has two paintings which alone are worth a visit. Raphael’s La Fornarina, a portrait of the love of his life, who worked in a bakery in Trastevere and Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holophernes.

La Fornarina

Judith Beheading Holophernes

If I were a young person, I would figure out some way to spend a year in Rome!