Well, that’s all folks! Yesterday I had my 19th Century Italian Lit final, my fourth and last, meaning that my semester studying abroad has come to a close. Be that as it may, I still have until Tuesday before I trek back home (certainly listening to Christmas music nonstop on the plane to have one of those Full House moments in the airport when I return) and a couple more days to explore Bologna and its Christmas markets, finally get into the Pinacoteca Nazionale (if it’s finally open), and day trip to Florence with some Bowdoin friends who will be around this weekend. There are a couple of things that I didn’t get to jam into this crazy fast semester abroad like visiting a good friend in London, getting to Siena though I’ve tried on three different occasions, etc. but those missed experiences always call for a reason to return.
This past weekend, I visited a good friend in Naples and ventured to Italy’s south for the first time. If you spend a good amount of time in Italy with Italians, you’ll realize that the country is very much divided along a north-south line. Movies like Benvenuti al Sud depict this divide in a comical way but it sometimes can be a more serious issue with political, separatist groups like Lega Nord that exist in the country today. The furthest south I’d ever been until this weekend was Rome, so I was excited to get my first flavor of Southern Italy. And I loved what I found in Naples.
1.) Herculaneum–I arrived in Naples late Thursday night by the Freccia (which everyone visiting Italy should take to get between the major cities) and was ready to hit the ground running Friday morning. I took the Circumvesvuiano train from the city out to Herculaneum (Italian: Ercolano) at my friend Fulvia’s recommendation. Herculaneum, though smaller and less famous than Pompeii, was better preserved and also twenty minutes closer to Naples. There were maybe two school groups visiting and a handful of couples or solo travelers, so I, by and large, had the place to myself for the bulk of my visit.
Step into the houses of ancient Romans, admire the incredibly bright and preserved frescoes on the walls, and try to imagine what life would have been like before that fateful day in 79 A.D. when Vesuvius erupted and brought life to a complete halt. I enjoyed my visit so much that I was itching to go to Pompeii as well afterwards. I had every intention of visiting but found out eight stops in that I was on the wrong train from Herculaneum, so I headed back to Naples, a little disappointed by my stupidity but pleased that I had a glaring reason to come back.
Should you go, make sure to bring your student ID. Admission is free for students in the school which I am in at UniBo (Scienze della Formazione), so if you can prove that you study there, enjoy your free ticket. There are also combo tickets with Herculaneum and Pompeii.
2.) Guided tour by Fulvia–After my morning day trip, I met up with Fulvia, a native Neapolitan, again to explore the city. We met at Piazza Dante and had to duck into a cafe to avoid the pounding rain, which wasn’t the worst thing as Naples as known for its great coffee and caffè del nonno. Once there was a break in the rain, we trekked around the whole city, more or less. We began down Via Toledo, a famous shopping street, where we picked up some amazing sfogliatelle at Pintauro. We strolled down to the Piazza del Plebescito and then to the gulf which was covered in fog. We made our way to Castel Nuovo, an old castle used for the defense of the city, and in front of it is actually an ancient Greek port which the city found while digging for the metro. We continued back up Spaccanapoli to see Fulvia’s school, two churches which stand in stark contrast to each other (Santa Chiara, a simple and subtle church, and Gesù Nuovo, a blaring example of Baroque art and architecture with its gilded interior and studded exterior), and then wound up at San Gregorio’s market. There’s a big tradition in Naples, and throughout Italy for that matter, of setting up an elaborate Nativity scene and every year adding a figure or a little something to spruce it up. The market is full to the brim of street stands and storefronts selling both religious figurines but also the likes of Barry Gibb, Italian soccer players, and Lady Gaga. I bought a Benino figurine, or the sleeping pastor, who you’re supposed to hide somewhere different in your Nativity scene every year (there’s also a pooping boy who you’re supposed to find, but we had less luck finding one at the market).
3.) PIZZA–Another major highlight of the weekend was pizza from its birthplace. After wrapping up at San Gregorio, we went to a nearby wine bar for aperitivo and then to Di Matteo. I think pretty much every pizza will be a disappointment from now on because what I tasted in Naples was essentially celestial and like nothing I’ve ever had before. The crust is perfectly fluffy and supple, the sauce rich and also perfect, the bufala mozzarella creamy and delicious. My friends couldn’t agree on which place is the best: Starita, Da Michele, and I Decumani also get high marks, although Fulvia said that Di Matteo has the best sauce. Fulvia also said that there is a real Neapolitan pizza place in New York, so I think I’ll have a mission to complete when I get home…
4.) Tracking down ancestors–On Saturday morning, we left Naples by car and made our way to Avellino, the town of my great grandparents. We met my friends’ friend Maura, who’s from the city, and she showed us around the historic center and we had a wonderful lunch with her family (read: antipasti, pasta AND lamb, fruit, cookies, and blueberry grappa). Our afternoon stroll through the historic center was really nice as the sun was starting to set and the town is quiet. Avellino is in the hills of Campania and is wedged among some beautiful landscapes. The city itself is small and a lot of buildings were covered in scaffolding, but I liked it just the same. To my disappointment, while I was there, I found out that my great grandparents were from the province of Avellino and not the city proper. On the bright side, this news meant that I had yet another reason to return to Naples.
5.) San Martino–After our adventure out to Avellino, we returned to Naples Saturday night, braved the Neapolitan weekend traffic, and headed up to the Vomero neighborhood for the night. Perched up on one of Naples’ hills, this neighborhood is home to San Martino, from which you get a sweeping view of the city, the gulf, and Vesuvius. While I wish it hadn’t rained quite as much while I was there, I still got a great nighttime view of this beautiful, Italian city.