Naples is one of the oldest cities in Italy, its Greek origins pre-dating even the Romans. This mixed heritage, combined with its origins as a port city, gives it a particular cultural flavour. I got a sense of this unique identity walking around the historic centre of Naples, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What I found was a recognisably Italian town, but with a few quirks of its own.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The historic centre (“centro storico”) of Naples became a World Heritage Site in 1995. This is partly because of its antiquity. You are very much aware of the age of the city as you explore the old town: as UNESCO describes it, the “contemporary urban fabric preserves the elements of its long and eventful history”. A second reason for the inscription is the town’s location on the Bay of Naples, making it a meeting point for different cultures since early times.
The World Heritage Site includes the streets of the old town. It also encompasses the waterfront area with several important buildings from varying eras, such as the 13th century Castel Nuovo and the 19th century Piazza del Plebiscito.
Exploring The Historic Centre Of Naples
This historic centre is compact, and easy to explore on foot. I walked through a maze of tiny streets, packed with churches, shops and private dwellings. The area has that typically Italian flavour, with old stone buildings, the smell of freshly baking pizza, and Vespas dodging in between the crowds.
But it also has its own distinctive character. This is a place where people live, where washing hangs from upstairs balconies and people bustle from shop to shop picking up their weekend groceries. By Italian standards, at least, there are not many tourists.
The Cathedral Of Naples
I began my exploration at the Cathedral (Duomo di San Gennaro), halfway up a hill that runs down to the port area. The main attraction here is the glittering collection of gold and silver in a side chapel, and I piled in behind the other visitors to admire the silver altar and candlesticks. I wondered briefly if photography was permitted, but when I noticed a nun snapping away with her i-Phone I decided it was probably OK! At the main altar a wedding was taking place, the participants oblivious to the tourists behind them.
The Cathedral’s most famous relic is a vial of blood from the 4th century martyr San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. Every year on 19 September the congealed blood is said to liquefy, an event that prompts pilgrimages, processions and rejoicing. (Those rare years where the miracle fails to occur are associated with major catastrophe. However it seems that pandemic conditions did not impede the liquification in 2020…)
The Heart Of Old Naples
Emerging from the chapel, I plunged into the heart of old Naples. Here, the streets are so narrow that even Italian drivers can only pass by one at a time. The tall buildings provide welcome relief from the sun: this is Italy’s mezzogiorno – the place of the midday sun – and even in late September I was glad of the shade.
The arcaded streets were lined with market stalls and traders with their wares laid out on the pavement. I walked along the Via dei Tribunali, past the entrance to Napoli Soterraneo, a vast complex of underground caves and passages built in the classical era which supplied the city with water until the 19th century. My next stop was the Church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco, where an array of skulls grinning on the outside wall indicated that this was no ordinary church. (Read more about the Church of the Dead.)
At the nearby Piazza Bellini I peered down at the remains of the old city walls and stopped for lunch at a small café where an accordionist was playing O Sole Mio. There were lots of pizzas being eaten: the pizza is native to Naples, and was unknown elsewhere in Italy until after it had become popular in the United States and other countries.
After lunch I walked down to the Spaccanapoli (literally “Split Naples”), a series of streets running parallel to Via Tribunali, and went into the cloisters at the back of the Convent of Santa Chiara. Apparently, this is one of the most photographed spots in Naples, and it is easy to see why. A museum by the side of the cloister includes the impressive remains of the Roman baths that were originally on this site. (Read more about the Cloister of Santa Chiara.)
I left Santa Chiara and made another obligatory Naples stop, this time for ice cream. Then on to my final destination, the Via San Gregorio Armeno. This is a whole street dedicated to selling materials for the building of presepi, the Christmas crib scenes that proliferate in Naples during December, and which can frequently be seen at other times as well. I looked at made-up nativity scenes, with Roman landscapes and Vesuvius puffing away in the background. Wooden figurines of peasants, politicians and footballers, left me with a whimsical image of past and present, pop culture against tradition. It was a fitting summary to the day, to a place where everyday life goes on in the shadow of history.