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Naples

The writer Norman Douglas vividly describes the strange currents in the Mediterranean that consistently flow in the direction of Campania. It was these very sea currents that brought the body of the Siren Parthenope to her resting place, the place where Naples would be founded. Today, from panoramic Via Petrarca, exclusive Posillipo and the beating heart of the noble city, the waves continue to ripple around the edges of what is at once a picture and a story: Ischia, Procida and Capo Miseno to the west, Capri and the Sorrento Coast to the south and south west, “picture-postcard” Mount Vesuvius to the east, and in the centre the urban maze under high-rise towers in the business district, old buildings, monuments and churches in the vast old town, the fortified castles of Castel Sant’Elmo, Maschio Angioino and Castel dell’Ovo, and the Charterhouse of San Martino. Visitors to Naples will be enthralled by the sight of Piazza del Plebiscito, the Royal Palace and the San Carlo Opera House, and the unexpected flashes of green in Capodimonte, the gardens of Posillipo and the rocky cliffs along the coast. A virtual tour of this “city by the sea with inhabitants”, as Luigi Compagnone so eloquently called it, paints the picture of a Siren who has finally come of age and can at last call herself European. The city has discovered a new-found impetus and seems to be standing at the crossroads of progression. Naples has caught up with the rest of the world, driven to some extent by the incredible force of the Neapolitan spirit – creative, aristocratic, never conventional – and has at last broken out of its confines. But it’ll never give up its traditional pleasures: walks along the waterfront and evening seaside strolls in Mergellina, mandolins and serenades, coffee and pizza (don’t forget, this is where they make the best pizza in the world). Clichés apart, every age in this city’s turbulent history has always been very different from the last one, and the speed at which things are changing is a sign of activism across the board; in its profoundly humanistic yet intensely scientific universities, in its literary output and artistic expression (take a look at the contemporary artwork in some of the underground stations of the new metro), and in the classical modernity of its theatre, music and performing arts.

THE HEART OF NAPLES

The origins of the city date back to the first half of the 5th century BC. At that time, Cumae had become the most important Greek colony on the coast, following the arrival of Chalcidians and Eretrians from their first settlement on Pithekoussai (modern-day Ischia), and directed its expansionist ambitions to the south east, founding a new city called “Neapolis”. Not exactly new, it was in actual fact the enlargement of an even older settlement, “Palepolis”, already inhabited by Greeks from Rhodes. According to legend, the city was founded in the place where the dead body of Parthenope, one of the Sirens who attempted to lure Ulysses to his death with her bewitching song, was washed up on a small island just off the mainland.
The most obvious place to begin this essential tour of Naples is Piazza del Plebiscito. The huge square is enclosed on one side by the semi-elliptical colonnade of the Chiesa di San Francesco di Paola and on the opposite side by the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace). On the two remaining sides stand Palazzo Salerno and the Palazzo della Prefettura (Prefect’s Palace), while in nearby Piazza Trieste e Trento you’ll find the Chiesa di San Ferdinando, the San Carlo Opera House and the Galleria Umberto I.
The centrally planned Chiesa di San Francesco di Paola, whose dome is modelled after the Pantheon in Rome, was built between 1817 and 1846 by Ferdinand of Bourbon. It was intended as a votive offering after he regained the throne of Naples following the French occupation, and is a compelling sign of his return to power. The church dominates Piazza del Plebiscito, in the centre of which stand two bronze equestrian statues of Charles III and Ferdinand I.
The Palazzo Reale is a symbol of Spanish grandeur, built after the plan of the great architect Domenica Fontana in a strategic location not far from the port and next to a large open space, perfect for military parades and public gatherings. This was 1600, and two years previously Fernandez Ruiz de Castro had been appointed viceroy of Naples by Philip III. The main façade (169 metres long), the courtyard and part of the interior have survived from the original 17th-century building, but for over two hundred years, from the age of the Bourbons up to the Napoleonic decade with Joachim Murat, the palace underwent numerous alterations under the direction of other renowned architects such as Vanvitelli and Ferdinando Fuga. In 1734 Naples became capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and Ferdinand IV made a significant contribution to completing the palace. He added the Teatrino di Corte (Court Theatre), built in 1768 by Ferdinando Fuga, and the east wing, which since 1927 has housed the National Library. As you walk through the Throne Room, the Ambassadors’ Hall and the Royal Chapel, you’ll find yourself back in the sumptuous world of the 18th century, with displays of furniture crafted by Neapolitan cabinetmakers, textiles, carpets and tapestries of French manufacture or made at the Royal Tapestry Works in Naples, 16th- and 17th-century paintings and works from the Caravaggesque period, chinaware, ornaments and decorative artefacts of inestimable value.
Built into the palace is the magnificent Teatro San Carlo, the oldest opera house in the world. It was built on the wishes of Charles of Bourbon and inaugurated on 4 November 1737, the king’s name day. Designed by the architects Medrano and Carasale, the building is an absolute masterpiece. After being severely damaged by a fire in 1816, it was rebuilt by Antonio Niccolini, who added two 70-metre-deep circular shafts to improve the acoustics. The first Italian school of ballet was founded here and the theatre hosted many first night performances of major works by Rossini, Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. The theatre can seat up to 1,380 people.
Opposite the theatre is a popular hang-out both past and present, the Galleria Umberto I. This historic shopping arcade has a cross-shaped plan and elements of Renaissance Revival architecture typical of the late 19th century. It is in fact modelled after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. A 56-metre-high dome towers above the centre, while the four aisles are surmounted by barrel vaults. The arcade has an impressive polychrome marble floor with a central decoration depicting the signs of the zodiac and the points of the compass.
One of the four exits leads out onto Via Toledo, the street separating the port area from the Quartieri Spagnoli and its grid-like pattern of narrow roads extending right up to the Vomero hill. It was here that the viceroy Pedro de Toledo stationed his Spanish troops and today, this dense maze of narrow streets with its unmistakable working-class feel shows you a slice of Naples’ real identity.
A must-do tour of Naples’ vast historic centre, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, starts in Piazza del Gesù Nuovo. This is where the heart of the Graeco-Roman city begins, a maze of streets and alleys forming a perfect grid. The three Roman decumani (main streets running east to west) intersect perpendicularly with the cardi (secondary roads going north to south). It’s also the beginning of Spaccanapoli, the straight-as-a-die road splitting the city in two formed by Via Benedetto Croce, Via San Biagio dei Librai and Via Vicaria Vecchia.
In the middle of Piazza del Gesù stands the Guglia dell’Immacolata, a tall, ornate obelisk topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary. It was built in 1747 using money from a public fundraising appeal promoted by the Jesuit Francesco Pepe. Richly decorated, it’s a fine example of the sumptuous Baroque style symbolizing the religious power of the Jesuit order. The Jesuits had in fact bought the 15th-century Palazzo Sanseverino, transforming it into the splendid Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo between 1584 and 1601. The church’s Baroque portal incorporates an earlier 16th-century white marble door that contrasts strikingly with the grey background of the typical diamond-shaped ashlar stonework façade dating from 1470. The church has a Greek cross plan with a nave and two aisles, and is a celebration of Baroque style and culture, richly embellished with polychrome marble decorations and frescoes. The fresco by Francesco Solimena on the counter-façade depicts The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple. The interior was decorated with works by prominent artists working in Naples at the time, including Solimena, Luca Giordano, Cosimo Fanzago, Belisario Corenzio and many others.
Just a few metres further on is another of the city’s most fascinating sites, the Complesso Monumentale di Santa Chiara with its basilica and monastery, one of the first to be built in the historic centre. In the early 14th century, the Angevin monarchs housed their family tombs here. The church is a magnificent example of Provençal Gothic architecture. The impressive doorway dates from the 14th century, while the bell tower has preserved its original Gothic style. The interior of the church is also Gothic; it was completely renovated after a devastating fire and bombings during air raids in 1943. The single nave is flanked by twenty chapels (ten on each side), while in the centre of the presbytery are the remains of the tomb (the largest medieval funerary monument) of the lettered king Robert of Anjou. The chancel, known as the Coro delle Monache, was decorated in 1328 by Giotto (though only a few fragments survive). From here you can access the gardens and the famous majolica-tiled cloister of the Clarisse nuns, work – dating from 1739 – of Domenico Antonio Vaccaro. Vaccaro designed the wonderful decorations you can see on the majolica-tiled benches, while the tiles themselves were made by Donato and Giuseppe Massa. Blending in harmoniously with the vines and lemon trees in the pergola, the tiles depict rural and marine scenes in a riot of blues, greens and yellows. The interesting Museo dell’Opera di Santa Chiara houses objects, sculptures and decorative elements from the Franciscan citadel. You can also see the ruins of part of a 1st century Roman bath complex.
Back on Via Benedetto Croce, a series of colourful stores and craft shops create a vibrant atmosphere combining the ancient and the modern. The next building of note is Palazzo Filomarino, the scene of riots and destruction during the Parthenopean revolution of 1799. It was here that Benedetto Croce, one of the most important voices of Italian culture of all time, lived and died.
Piazza San Domenico Maggiore is completely surrounded by stately buildings: Palazzo Casacalenda, Palazzo Petrucci, Palazzo Corigliano and Palazzo Sangro di Sansevero. The Guglia di San Domenico Maggiore in the centre of the square s one of the city’s major sights. The Baroque obelisk (the work of Fanzago and Vaccaro) was erected after the plague of 1656.
San Domenico Maggiore is one of Naples’ most important churches in terms of age and artistic heritage. It was frequented by Saint Thomas Aquinas and Giordano Bruno, no less. Built between 1283 and 1324, the church underwent numerous alterations over the course of time. In the 16th century, Dominican monks introduced teachings of Greek, civil law and canon law in what had become a seat of the university. The main entrance to the church is through a 14th-century doorway set between two Renaissance chapels. The interior, meanwhile, designed with a nave and two aisles flanked by side chapels, was decorated in the neo-Gothic style in the mid-1800s replacing earlier 16th-century decorations. The church contains works by Luca Giordano, Mattia Preti, Francesco Solimena and Pietro Cavallino.
Hidden away in a narrow side street is the small but famous Cappella Sansevero, housing works of art and curiosities of the brilliant Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero. Writer, man of letters, inventor, experimenter and Masonic Grand Master, he renovated the family burial chapel between 1710 and 1770 based on a complex symbolic iconography. The statues of Pudicizia Velata (Modesty), Disinganno (Disillusion) and the celebrated sculpture of the Cristo Velato (Veiled Christ) by Giuseppe Sammartino are shrouded in mystery to this day.
Starting in Piazzetta Nilo and backing onto the university buildings, Via San Biagio dei Librai is a tangible reminder of the hundreds of years when printers and print shops played an important role in the cultural life of the city. As you make your way along the street crammed with stalls and small shops, you’ll pass by several old noble palazzi such as the Monte di Pietà and Palazzo Carafa. Take a detour to visit the former monastery of Santi Severino e Sossio (currently housing Naples’ State Archives), where the poet Torquato Tasso stayed at the end of the 16th century. Back on Via San Biagio dei Librai, keep on going until you come to the junction with San Gregorio Armeno, the bustling street famous for selling presepi (Christmas cribs). In December, this gigantic open-air display of cork, wooden and papier-mâché nativity sets becomes the world’s most brightly coloured and unusual Christmas market selling cribs and crib figures. No other place could give you a better idea of everything this age-old tradition means to the Neapolitans. The Chiesa di San Gregorio Armeno and its convent is also well worth a visit. The original church was erected in the 8th century on the remains of a pagan temple, but was rebuilt in 1580.
The church has a single nave and a beautifully carved wooden ceiling, just one of the many fine features you can see inside. The frescoes on the counter-façade are by Luca Giordano and depict the history of the Armenian nuns, the founding order. The fifth chapel houses the relics of Saint Patricia, much venerated by Neapolitans. She’s one of the city’s patron saints and every Tuesday her blood is said to liquefy.
Back on Via San Gregorio Armeno, the road leads up to the ancient Decumanus Maximus, now Via dei Tribunali. This is where you’ll find the Chiesa di San Lorenzo Maggiore, one of the highlights of the tour. It was here on 30 March 1336 that Boccaccio met Maria d’Aquino, daughter of Robert of Anjou, immortalized as “Fiammetta” in many of his works. Building was begun by Charles I of Anjou in 1266, but was not completed until 1324, after which the church subsequently underwent several modifications. The grandiose interior with its remarkable height and width is typical of French Cistercian Gothic architecture. A triumphal arch separates the nave from the transept. Excavations in the cloister have brought to light Greek, Roman and Medieval remains. The Sala del Refettorio (refectory) was once known as the Tribunale di San Lorenzo, as this was where Neapolitan councillors and local authorities used to gather.
The entire area lies on what was originally the acropolis of the Graeco-Roman city and architectural elements dating from thousands of years ago are still visible in early Christian basilicas and medieval churches built over this ancient site.
From the small nearby Piazza San Gaetano, you can visit Napoli Sotterranea, an underground journey into the bowels of the city (there’s another entrance in Piazza Trieste e Trento).This thrilling walk takes you on a fascinating exploration of myths, legends and much more through a maze of passageways, cisterns and caves extending several kilometres under the whole of the historic centre.
Not far away near the intersection between Via Nilo and Via Atri is the Chiesa delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco, an important stop if you want to try and get an insight into popular belief in Naples. For local women, the blessed Lucia venerated here is a symbol of fertility. The church was built in 1616 to intercede for “souls in purgatory”. The decorations of sculls on crossed bones together with hourglasses are Spanish in style, and the obvious symbolism here is echoed in the Chiesa di San Pietro ad Aram and the Cimitero della Fontanelle in the Sanità quarter. The church houses some fine works of Baroque art.
A little further on is the Complesso di San Pietro a Maiella, which houses the prestigious Conservatorio di Musica, one of Italy’s most illustrious academies of music. It’s home to an extraordinary library whose autographic material makes it one of the most important in the world.
From nearby Piazza Bellini you can either carry on through Port’Alba (famous for its bookshops) to Piazza Dante, or turn right into Via Costantinopoli (lined with shops selling antiques and bric-à-brac) and walk up the street to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. The archaeological museum is one of the city’s greatest treasures and houses some of the most important collections of classical antiquities in Europe and indeed the world. An outstanding series of exhibits, from pre-Roman Campania to Magna Graecia, takes you on an extraordinary journey through history. Not to be missed are the Salone della Meridiana (Meridian Room) and the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet), with its collection of erotic finds from the Roman age.
Going along Via Foria – one of Naples’ busy main roads – in the direction of the Albergo dei Poveri (Royal Hospice for the Poor) you’ll pass the magnificent walls of the Orto Botanico (Botanical Gardens). Founded in 1807 by Joseph Bonaparte as the Reale Giardino delle Piante (Royal Garden of Plants), the gardens are in fact part of Naples University and house a vast collection of plant species.
Returning to Via Tribunali and continuing east, you’ll come to the Pio Monte della Misericordia, one of the oldest charitable institutions set up to help the poor, founded in 1602. The art gallery and church house a large collection of works of art including Caravaggio’s masterpiece, the Seven Works of Mercy (3.9 m by 2.6 m), painted by the great artist between 1606 and 1607. The octagonal church has seven altars, each surmounted by a fresco depicting subjects related to the Corporal Works of Mercy.
A visit to the Duomo is an absolute must. The cathedral was built in the Provençal Gothic style and incorporated an early Christian cathedral dedicated to Santa Restituta and the 4th-century Baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte, with its splendid mosaic by Lello da Orvieto dating from 1322 depicting the Virgin Mary, Saint Januarius and Saint Restituta. The cathedral’s façade is neo-Gothic, but the doors date from the 15th century. The central tympanum contains a sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Tino da Camaino. Built on a Latin cross plan with a nave and two aisles, the cathedral is an art gallery in its own right, illustrating different cultural periods of the city’s thousands of years of history. The Cappella Minutolo is considered one of the most interesting examples of Gothic art in Naples (the mosaic floor depicts animals). The Real Cappella del Tesoro di San Gennaro was built to honour a vow made by the city to its patron saint following the plague epidemic of 1656. A Baroque masterpiece, the chapel houses the vials containing the blood of San Gennar, as well as an extraordinary collection of vestments and church plate, silverware, candelabras, reliquaries, and the prize exhibit, a 4th-century bust studded with precious stones. The bust is put on display in May and September during the religious ceremony in which the saint’s blood liquefies. The frescoes beneath the cupola are the work of Giovanni Lanfranco, while those decorating the vaulted ceiling, tympanums and pendentives are by Domenico Zampieri, better known as Domenichino. The oil on copper painting above the middle altar of Saint Januarius Emerging from the Furnace is by Jusepe de Ribera.
And now over to the seafront in the Chiaia quarter. Here, surrounded by noble palazzi and art galleries, designer boutiques and elegant buildings, is the Villa Comunale, one of Naples’ parks and once the Royal Garden of the Bourbons. It was designed by Carlo Vanvitelli on the wishes of Ferdinand IV. This would become Naples’ first public park, and was inaugurated in1781 as a royal promenade known as Villa Reale. Lined with pine, palm and eucalyptus trees as well as Neoclassical statues, busts and fountains, at the centre stands an Art Nouveau style Cassa Armonica (bandstand) in glass and wrought iron. Inside the park is the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, an internationally renowned research centre also housing Europe’s oldest aquarium. It was founded in 1872 by the German naturalist Anton Dohrn to study marine flora and fauna.
If you want to visit the posh part of Naples, head up through Piazza San Pasquale to take a walk along the upmarket shopping streets of Via dei Mille (where you can also find the PAN, Palazzo delle Arti di Napoli, housed in the 18th-century Palazzo Roccella), Via Filangieri and Via Carlo Poerio leading down to Piazza dei Martiri. Radiating out from the square are several streets full of art galleries, design showrooms, designer boutiques and antique dealers.
Alternatively, if you decide to carry on along the Riviera di Chiaia by the sea, you’ll come to the unmistakable Neoclassical façade of Villa Pignatelli, set in lovely grounds. The villa houses the Museo Principe Diego Pignatelli.
The walk along the seafront continues up to Mergellina and its marina, “gateway” to Posillipo, a stunningly beautiful hilly promontory made famous by the works of well-known 19th-century landscape painters belonging to the School of Posillipo. Dotted along the coast and surrounded by lush private gardens are many exclusive villas such as Villa Rosebery, residence of the President of the Republic, Villa Pierce, and the 17th-century Palazzo Donn’Anna. Don’t miss a trip down the winding road to the legendary old fishing village of Marechiaro. This is where you’ll find the famous “finestrella”, the window mentioned in a famous Neapolitan song written by poet and writer Salvatore Di Giacomo. Another place worth visiting is Casale, a little village founded in the 13th century with pretty little squares and narrow streets.

OTHER MAJOR SIGHTS

The history of the Museo di Capodimonte goes back to the creation of the independent Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The year was 1734. Bidding farewell to the Spanish viceroyalty, Charles III of Bourbon became King, and Naples was catapulted into a political arena where its importance came to match its already long-established influence in all things cultural in Europe. The vast collection of the Farnese family, dukes of Parma e Piacenza, to whom Charles III belonged on his mother’s side, was moved to Naples. To house the collection, the king decided to build – commissioning the job to Giovanni Antonio Medrano – a new residence in a panoramic position surrounded by woodland on the Capodimonte hill. It was to contain an orderly sequence of state rooms and a double-height exhibition gallery. The architect Ferdinando Sanfelice was in charge of landscape gardening and also designed the Casina delle Porcellane, where the Royal Porcelain Factory was transferred. Numerous alterations were made to the palace up to the decade of French rule under Murat, who rationalized the plan to set up a museum modelled on the Louvre and the British Museum, an idea brought to fruition after the return of the Bourbons to the throne. With the unification of Italy, members of the House of Savoy added further masterpieces to the gallery. The most recent rearrangement of the museum’s exhibits in 1995 gave greater prominence to the Farnese collections, including paintings by Bellini, Correggio, Parmigianino, Titian and Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which can be found alongside magnificent works by Masaccio, Caravaggio and many other old masters. Of particular interest in terms of the decorative arts is the Salottino di Porcellana (Porcelain Room) made for Maria Amalia of Saxony, wife of Charles of Bourbon. This amazing room is entirely decorated with over three thousand pieces of porcelain.

Castel Nuovo, towering over the city down by the sea, is better known as the Maschio Angioino. The castle was built by Charles I of Anjou at the end of the 8th century and housed the famous court of Robert of Anjou frequented by Giotto, Petrarca and Boccaccio. Alfonso of Aragon carried out radical alterations (including the magnificent marble triumphal arch at the entrance, one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture), commissioning the work to the Catalan architect Guillem Sagrera. The Cappella Palatina, inside the castle, is an expression of Gothic art in Naples (the style of the church of Santa Chiara), and was frescoed by Giotto and members of his school with stories from the Old and New Testaments. Unfortunately, very few fragments remain. For centuries the castle remained at the centre of political life in the city and in 1799 the creation of the Parthenopean Republic was proclaimed here. The Sala dei Baroni (Hall of the Barons), named after the mutinous barons who conspired against the Aragonese in 1485, is today the venue for city council meetings. The castle also houses the Museo Civico.

The six-pointed, star-shaped fortress of Castel Sant’Elmo, strategically located on the San Martino hill, is an unmistakable landmark on the horizon. Known originally as Belforte, it was built in 1329 by Robert of Anjou. When the Spanish viceroy Pedro de Toledo later renovated the castle, it became the centre of political and military activity in the city. The views of the city and the bay from the bastions are simply spectacular.

The Certosa di San Martino (Charterhouse of Saint Martin), built at the same time as the Carthusian monastery in Padula, belongs in the context of religious patronage common to the Angevin period and is a testimony to the expansion of the order of Benedictine monks. With the Counter-Reformation in the second half of the 17th century, many changes were made to the rooms, modernized in a sumptuous Mannerist, Baroque and Rococo style. The monastery complex contains countless masterpieces of architecture, painting and sculpture. The interior of the church, for example, is richly decorated with paintings, frescoes and marbles. The adjacent museum houses collections of porcelain, model ships, landscape paintings of Naples, portraits of members of the Bourbon royal family, 16th- and 17th-century works of art, still lifes, paintings from the School of Posillipo and a memorable collection of 18th-century presepi.

Castel dell’Ovo (Castle of the Egg), situated in the Borgo Marinari, was originally a Roman villa belonging to Lucullus. It was later used as a monastery, a Norman fortress, a Swabian prison, and an Angevin and Aragonese residence. The castle stands on a tufa rock islet called Megaride, and takes its name from the Medieval belief in the magical powers of Virgil. The poet is said to be responsible for the spell binding the fate of the castle to that of an egg placed in a hanging iron cage. According to the legend, as long as the egg remained intact, the city would be safe.

EATING

Taking the cue from a famous Neapolitan song about coffee called Na’ Tazzulella ‘e Cafè, let’s begin from the end. What would being Neapolitan mean without coffee? Or a sfogliatella riccia? Or a babà? These are not just everyday habits; they’re a way of life. To be enjoyed with your eyes shut. Onto more substantial stuff, what about pizza? That soft round of dough baked in a wood-fired oven oozing with mozzarella or fiordilatte cheese and basil, or topped with tomato sauce and oregano, or any other combination of delicious ingredients that seem to defy the imagination. You just can’t get enough of it. Enjoy it at a pizzeria, in the street – folded in half and then in half again the old-fashioned way – or in miniature form at increasingly popular pizzetterias, the fast food outlets of the future. You can also try your pizza fried, with a stuffing of ricotta and pork scratchings. Can you think of anything more mouth-watering? And we haven’t even started yet. The culinary universe of Neapolitan food is literally infinite. It’s not just about pizza and pasta, it’s about fabulous locally-sourced seafood, meat and vegetables, too. Ingredients bordering on the sublime prepared by traditional cooks at osterie and cheap and cheerful vini e cucina, and by top international chefs whose bold creations are as amazing to look at as they are to eat. Here are just a few typical Neapolitan specialities you may or may not know but should definitely try: alici dorate e fritte (butterflied anchovies dipped in flour and egg and then deep-fried), zuppa di soffritto (a spicy offal stew), fritto misto alla napoletana (a mix of battered vegetables, fritters and fries), spaghetti alle vongole veraci (the classic spaghetti with clams), frittata di spaghetti (spaghetti omelette), sartù di riso (rice timbale), moscardini “al pignatiello” (octopus in a rich tomato sauce), gattò di patate (potato pie), braciola di maiale al ragù (rolled pork with ragù), insalata di rinforzo (traditional Christmas cauliflower salad with olives, peppers and anchovies), and last but not least the iconic wheat and ricotta dessert, pastiera. Pastiera napoletana, of course.

RAGÙ

Naples’ signature dish is made with beef or pork, onions, tomato paste, bacon fat, lard, extra virgin olive oil, red wine, garlic, salt and pepper, all cooked up in an earthenware pot. Chop the bacon fat and garlic and place in the pot. Add the meat, tied up with kitchen string, along with the chopped onion, oil and a pinch of pepper. Cook, covered, over a very low heat for about an hour, stirring every now and then. Turn up the heat and add the wine a little at a time. Slowly add the tomato paste diluted in a little water followed by two or three ladlefuls of water. Lower the heat and simmer gently for a couple of hours, keeping an eye on the amount of liquid. The secret? As the ragù simmers it should make an almost imperceptible bubbling sound the Neapolitans call “pippiare”. When the meat is cooked, cut into slices and serve separately as a main course.

SHOPPING

No trip to Naples is complete without a walk along San Gregorio Armeno to buy some Christmas crib figures, even if it’s not Christmas. The atmosphere in this part of the city’s old town is amazing. Neapolitan nativity scenes and crib figurines are imaginative representations of the birth of Jesus, a window on the world of two thousand years ago. But they’re also a great take on contemporary society, as every year sees the addition of new terracotta statuettes of the latest cult figures in the world of politics, sport and show business made famous by the media. The Neapolitan presepe is all this and more, so it has to be a top-choice souvenir to take home as a reminder of your stay in the heart of Naples. An equally good alternative is Capodimonte porcelain, famous for its high-quality paste, finely hand-crafted decorations and brilliant colours. Each piece is unique thanks to the skill of local artisans. The centuries-old art of porcelain making is still very much alive today, though manufacturers have abandoned the traditional plates and statuettes in favour of more commercial items such as giftware, wedding favours, flower baskets and ornaments. They’re still as delightful as ever and can be found at specialist shops. Naples is full of talented craftspeople and is a shoppers’ delight. Some of the things you can buy here have a cult following all over the world. Neapolitan seven-fold neckties, for example, are the ultimate in sartorial elegance. And the list goes on. Bespoke suits and shirt, gloves, shoes, bags and jewellery, books and antiques. You’ll find artists, inventors and creators of all sorts working away in their craft shops, ateliers and show rooms. These places are shrines to all things “hand-made”, in a world of classic designer labels and new, upcoming talents, the great names of tomorrow.

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