Cut through historic Naples on one straight road
Millenia ago when Neapolis was designed in a grid - three east-west streets cut through the city called the Decumani. The most southern of these, Decumanus Inferiore, is known around here as Spaccanapoli - Naples Splitter.
Two kilometers long, Spaccanaoli starts at Piazza Gesù Nuovo feeling a little like a rollercoaster about to plunge downwards, the rest is a slow ride through the most ancient part of town teaming with people, bikes, babies, markets, cables, washing, shops and cars in a haphazard ensemble of beautiful chaos. Spaccare is Italian slang meaning split, break or chop and this street seen from the sky does just that - it splits the centro storico straight down the middle.
When we were last in Naples, our taximan proudly drove us from the airport pointing out aspects of his city and sharing his life story. At the top of the Spaccanapoli, about to hit rollercoaster descent, he paused in flowing conversation, turned to us and said, "Siete pronti?" - "Are you ready?"
Ready for what, I wondered?
He was rhetorically asking if we were ready for Naples, ready for a city that opens your eyes, ears and senses, bad and good; ready for this chaotic street that slices through it, ready for the pulsating heart of old town... we nodded in unison and happily dived straight into it.
But no taxi ride will cut it in Naples, you need to get out onto the crazy streets. Walking down Spaccanapoli is like something on a stunt set in film production - there's so much going on, it's hard to keep up. Small shops push their goods onto the grimy pavement, washing lines criss-cross the sky, fading palazzi are inked in spray-painted poetry and scooters beep through the crowds. There's a fresh fruit and fish market half way down, an iconic, veiled statue in silent marble, churches, cloisters and the Duomo nearby, there's the world's most famous pizzeria and Underground Naples just off the drag and everybody simply carrying on with their day. The only order here can be found in the three ancient Decumani crossed in strict grid-fashion by north-south streets called cardini. 'Cardinal' brings 'compass' to mind - the Ancient Greeks and Romans were avid city-planners who loved an orderly and structured scheme. Their northmost Decumanus Superiore is now Via Anticaglia and Via della Sapienza while their central Decumanus Maggiore has become Via dei Tribunali - an equally fascinating street bursting with history and sights.
Spaccanapoli begins as Via Benedetto Croce and then converts to Via S. Biagio dei Librai before crossing Via Duomo and leaving the old centre. It's a thriving hub of town which has been thriving since long before our time, eons right here on these streets. Spaccanapoli, traced like a pencil line through the city map, brings sustenance to Napoli's ancient heart like a pumping vein. With so much to see, to eat and to soak up, make a point of spending a day here in the 'centro storico' or longer if you can!
We stayed in Comfort Suites Spaccanapoli which we'd highly recommend to anyone wishing to experience Naples's most ancient part of town. In a beautiful Neoclassical building at the top of Spaccanapoli, the staff were friendly and so helpful, it made the perfect base to explore from.
Here are some unmissable spots off Spaccanapoli from top to bottom.
For more to see and do have a read through our jam-packed blog post - Naples for a Day.
Escape the chaos for peaceful, porticoed gardens, bubbling fountains and dripping vines at the top of Spaccanapoli, these intimate cloisters form part of the mighty Santa Chiara Monasteries. The cost of a ticket is 6 euros and worth every cent on a hot, flustery day.
Paradise for craft and music enthusiasts, this little oasis sits in a grand 15th century palazzo once handed to the Venetian Serenissima Republic for their diplomats to reside in. It's now busy with music, arts and crafts courses, exhibitions, tours and the most gorgeous leafy bar serving drinks and coffees for a break from the bustle. See their website for what's on.
If you're a churchaholic, this will tick all your boxes. With a moody crypt, burial chambers, ancient fashion collection and oodles of ornate, basilica bling, the nave is an enthralling sight for sore eyes but make sure you get tickets from their website.
'It's Christmas all year round in this narrow lane of Via S. Gregorio Armeno,also known as the Via Dei Presepi, which will keep you mesmerised for much longer than you thought. Feel like a little child at Christmas and marvel at the sheer attention to detail in these Nativity Scene statues, some of them with moving parts animating the most menial of jobs in the most charming of ways. A wicked sense of irony and humour lies in the craftsmanship of Napoli's quirky tradition of caricatures, delighting particularly in celebrities such as football players, politicians and singers, one not be missed!'
Whenever someone asks what to see in Naples, I recommend they make time for this one thing. How to turn stone transparent is the magical Cristo Velato - The Veiled Christ. I know Italy is full with marbled masterpieces but this one has an awe about it which even David by Michelangelo didn't top. The small chapel is constantly packed with visitors, everyone sworn to silence, and while we shuffle around in the spotlit darkness, we're also sworn to no-photography. There are a couple of veiled statues in the chapel to admire but the most captivating of them is the one we all came to see - The Veiled Christ. Draped in a sheer veil of marble, here lies the perfectly-sculptured body of Jesus, preserved in a single block of stone. Go see it to appreciate the skill and mastery of Giuseppe Sanmartino.
'You'll need a couple of hours for this tour but if you love history, mystery and aren't claustrophobic, then book a ticket online and meet up under the ominous carving just off Via del Tribunale. Together with a small group, be ready to be led down into darkness. There's so much to see under this city, like pure water reservoirs and Second World War graffiti, but the best bit is when your only light is a candle while the walls close in around you. It's hauntingly unforgettable but try not to be the last in the line and make sure you haven't had that pizza fritta yet, the dark tunnels really do get narrow.'
Also known as the Cattedrale di San Gennaro in honour of the city's patron saint, the ancient, gothic seat of Napoli's Archbishop has been a site of religious importance since the Greeks built a temple to Apollo. Parts of that wall can be seen as well as an ancient Roman road and aqueduct under the apse. It's an impressive example of religious wealth and catholic influence. Even more impressive is the tiny vial of dried blood belonging to Saint Januarius which mysteriously liquifies three times a year when it is brought out on the first Saturday in May,19th September and 16th December.
Bad news if the holy blood stays dry because legend states disaster will strike the city!
Many theories exist of how the saint's blood transforms if you're a non-believer or scientist for example... hydrated iron oxide and thixotropic gel and the like... but who needs a theory if you believe in holy powers? And why bother picking it apart? Saint Januarius apparently loved Pope Francis as his blood turned liquid for the pope's visit in 2015 but sadly Pope Benedict XVI was not in favour in 2007. If you miss the three holy dates, do not worry, have a wander through the magnificent building and maybe pause to reflect at the sheer power and opulence of the church, or is it the mind?
In the feud of where the best pizza is made in Naples, Da Michele is certainly the most iconic. Their claim to fame, besides being the home of pizza, is having Julia Roberts munch on their slices of gooey margherita in the movie 'Eat, Pray, Love' - they even have her on their website. It's small and cramped but the simplest and most world-famously scrumptious pizza makes for easy distraction from elbow-bumping and extremely loud chatter! There are only two pizze in Naples - Margherita and Marinana - tomato, basil and mozzarella di buffala or tomato, garlic and oregano. And if you think think that's skimping on the options, all I can say is, "Don't knock it till you've tried it."