Naples and Pompeii
In this program we go shopping Neapolitan style, dodge scooters in Naples' crazy traffic, explore the city's vibrant neighborhoods, admire exquisite ancient mosaics at the National Museum of Archaeology, taste pizza in its birthplace, climb the lip of Mount Vesuvius, and wander the amazing ruins of the Roman town it destroyed: Pompeii.
Church of Gesù Nuovo
This church's unique pyramid-grill facade survives from a fortified 15th-century noble palace. It stands directly across Spaccanapoli from the Gothic Church of Santa Chiara.
As this place is often jammed with a long line, arrive early or late to get a seat.
Many tourists don't know that you can easily visit the summit of Vesuvius — you can ride a private bus, hop a trolley, hire a taxi, or simply drive up in your rental car. Up top, it's desolate and lunar-like — the rocks are newly born. You can even walk a fair amount of the crater lip. If you're still, you can hear the occasional cascades of rocks tumbling into the crater…Vesuvius could indeed blow again. (But probably not during your visit — there'd likely be at least a few hours or days of warning.) While Europe has other dangerous volcanoes, only Vesuvius sits in the middle of a three-million-person metropolitan area that would be impossible to evacuate quickly.
Pompeii is easily reached from Naples by a sightseeing bus or the Circumvesuviana commuter (or Campania Express) train (roughly 30 minute trip on any of those). It's possible to day-trip to Pompeii from Rome, if you start early and plan on a long day. To skip the lines at the site's entrance, purchase your ticket online (for a small surcharge). Highlights: Roofless (collapsed) but otherwise intact Roman buildings, plaster casts of hapless victims, some erotic frescoes, and the dawning realization that these ancient people were not that different from us.
For a private tour of the excavations at Pompeii, consider Gaetano, who brings energy and theatricality to his tours.
Naples' Archaeological Museum is one of the world's great museums of ancient art. It boasts supersized statues as well as art and decorations from Pompeii and Herculaneum (another ancient burg destroyed by the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius). For lovers of antiquity, this museum alone makes Naples a worthwhile stop. When Pompeii was excavated in the late 1700s, Naples' Bourbon king bellowed, "Bring me the best of what you find!" The finest art and artifacts ended up here, leaving the ancient sites themselves barren (though still impressive). It's a great place to get up close and personal with the ancient world.
This is the perfect spot to try both the sfogliatella pastry and the mushroom-shaped, rum-soaked bread-like cakes called babà, which come in a huge variety.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Rick: Oh, vongole! [clams]
Man: Lupini. [lupini beans]
I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're exploring Naples! It's a city that's living in the streets today as it has for centuries. Bella Napoli! It's lovable chaos.
Naples is Italy in the extreme. If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go further south — it just gets better. If Italy is getting a little overwhelming by the time you get down to Rome, think twice about going further. Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper. And plunging deeper? That's exactly what we're doing this time as we explore Naples.
We'll go shopping Neapolitan style, dodge scooters in Naples' crazy traffic, explore the city's vibrant neighborhoods, admire exquisite ancient mosaics, taste pizza in its birthplace. Then we climb the lip of a slumbering volcano, and wander the amazing ruins of the Roman town it destroyed.
So many European travel dreams take you to Italy. The Bay of Naples area, about three hours south of Rome, is filled with fun and fascination. From Naples, we'll climb smoldering Mount Vesuvius and visit the ruins of Pompeii.
Centuries before Christ, Naples was a thriving Greek commercial center called Neapolis — or, the "new city." Over the ages it became an important center ruled by a series of foreign overlords. In the 18th century, Naples finally became the capital of its own independent kingdom. Then, with the unification of Italy in 1861, Naples fell from being an important political capital to just another provincial town.
Neapolitans lament that after their city joined the newly united Italy, its riches were swallowed up by the new country. As the city's wealth was used to fund the industrial expansion of the north, Naples eventually lost its status and glamour.
Today, Italy's third-largest city feels in many places like an urban jungle. Its lack of open spaces or parks makes it Europe's most densely populated city. Watching the police try to enforce traffic sanity is almost comical in this gritty city. The vast Piazza Garibaldi facing the train station provides an off-putting welcome to those arriving by train.
But get beyond this and Naples surprises the observant traveler with its good humor and decency. Its people have an impressive knack for living, eating, and raising children in the streets.
Southern Italy's leading city, Naples offers a fascinating collection of museums, churches, and eclectic architecture. This tangled mess — as intense an urban scene as anything you'll find in western Europe — still somehow manages to breathe, laugh, and sing…with a captivating Italian accent.
Naples' fish market wiggles and squirts from under one of the city's surviving medieval gates. Each stall is eye-catching. Is the seafood fresh? Most of it's still alive! Wandering through this scene, enjoy the playful competition of the singing merchants.
In so many ways, you'll find southern Italy is a distinct culture from the north. People here are more fun-loving and easy-going.
Naples has long suffered from a bad reputation. Unemployment is chronically high, and past local governments set an example that the Mafia would be proud of. But lately, with mayors committed to safety and law and order, the city has more police, and feels much safer.
Still, just to be cautions, assume any jostle or commotion is actually a smoke screen created by a thief team up to no good. Con artists are more clever than you. And also, assume able-bodied beggars are actually pick pockets. Keep your money belt hidden.
Neapolitan traffic is thrilling. Red lights are considered discretionary. Pedestrians need to be wary, particularly of the motor scooters. Be careful, but be assertive. While many timid tourists get stalled on the curb, I get across quicker by jaywalking in the shadow of confident locals.
Rather than seeing Naples as a long list of sights, see its great archeological museum — which we'll visit later — and then capture the spirit of the city by walking through its historic core.
Spaccanapoli, literally "split Naples," is a perfectly straight street that dates from ancient Greek times. It leads through the colorful heart of the old city.
Echoes of ancient Neapolis survive. The original Greek street plan is remarkably intact, and back then, like today, small businesses by day became private homes after hours, and life tumbled out of the homes and into the lanes. Today, this scene is just one more page in the 2,000-year-old story of Naples.
And to understand that story, I'm joined by my Neapolitan friend and fellow tour guide, Roberta Mazzarella.
You name it, it occurs right on the streets today, as it has for centuries. Kids turn a wide spot in the sidewalk into a soccer field. Walls are crusty with posters and death announcements. Neighborly chitchat and heated arguments take place curbside. Blue buckets help busy moms connect with the delivery boy. Everyone seems connected by cell phones. And fast food comes in the form of a folded pizza.
The tiny streetside Chapel of Maradona is dedicated to Diego Maradona, a soccer star who played for Naples back in the 1980s.
Roberta: We love soccer. In Italy soccer's like religion, in Napoli especially. Look here, look what we have: Maradona, our big superstar, the soccer hero. That's his hair. And when we traded him, the city cried…that's the tears. Lacrime napoletane!
Rick: So, this the temple of Maradona?
Roberta: The temple of Maradona.
Even though for many Italians, soccer is like a religion, churches remain an important part of the community. Stepping into the lavishly Baroque Gesù Nouvo church you'll learn how, along with sports heroes, Neapolitans have their religious heroes too.
This much-adored statue celebrates Giuseppe Moscati, a Christian doctor famous for helping the poor. A steady stream of the neighborhood faithful remember him and hope he remembers them as a stop here is a part of their daily worship routine.
Moscati was so loved by the local community that when he died in 1927 there was a movement to make him a saint. After it was shown that he had cured two people of deadly diseases, he was fast-tracked to sainthood in 1987.
The church where the saint preached has made a small museum covered with ex-voti. These are given as thanks for prayers — in this case to Saint Moscati — that were answered. Each has a symbol of the ailment cured: heart disease, lung problems, a sick child, whatever.
A display shows the great doctor's apartment, his possessions, and photos.
A bomb casing hangs in the corner. In 1943, it fell through the dome of Father Moscati's church, but destroyed almost nothing — some say yet another miracle.
The nearby Spanish Quarter is Naples at its rawest and most characteristic. Pause at any street corner to enjoy a vivid slice of Neapolitan life.
And don't forget to look up. With no yards, families make full use of their tiny balconies.
Roberta: This is basso living.
Rick: Basso living.
Rick: What does that mean, "basso"?
Roberta: It can mean "low."
Rick: So literally, "low."
Roberta: Yeah, it's like a small apartment, two, three bedrooms, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine people join the family.
Rick: OK the traditional sort of romantic life in the streets of Naples?
Roberta: Life in the streets, yeah. Many people might have money to go away from here, but they still stay here.
No taste of Naples is complete without a pizza. Antica Pizzeria da Michele is a favorite. Baking in just the right combination of fresh dough, mozzarella, and tomatoes in traditional wood-burning ovens, this restaurant is considered by many the birthplace of pizza. They brag it takes several years of practice to get the dough just right. Catering to pizza purists, the menu is brief — just two kinds: marinara comes with tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic — no cheese. Margherita celebrates the unification of Italy. Named after the first Italian queen, it comes with the colors of the Italian flag: red tomatoes, white mozzarella cheese, and a garnish of green basil.
Italians who come to the States are not impressed by thick and fancy pizzas. Judging from the enthusiasm of those munching these hot and tasty pies, what really matters is not the quantity of ingredients, but the quality.
The sweeping Bay of Naples arcs from its teeming city south past the ancient ruins of Pompeii all the way to genteel Sorrento, the gateway to the Amalfi Coast. And towering above is the mighty volcano, Mount Vesuvius.
The entire bay is well served by a rickety but reliable commuter train. Because it circles under Mount Vesuvius, the train's called the "Circumvesuviana."
From the Pompeii stop, shuttle vans take curious visitors up the volcano to the end of the road.
Rick: Ah, very nice. OK. Grazie. Ciao!
From there, a 30-minute hike takes you to the 4,000-foot-high summit of mainland Europe's only active volcano. Belly up to the crater-edge viewpoints. The last eruption was in 1944. The steaming vents are a reminder that while Vesuvius may be quiet, it's just taking a geological nap. Hiking around the crater's lip, you enjoy spectacular views of its fertile and densely populated surroundings.
While Mount Vesuvius is sleepy today, in 79 AD, the volcano exploded, sending a cloud of ash and cinders 12 miles into the sky. It spewed for 18 hours, sending a red-hot avalanche racing down the mountainside at about 100 mph burying the city of Pompeii in 20 feet of scalding debris.
Life in Pompeii was stopped in its tracks. Today, excavations of this once-booming city offer the best look anywhere at ancient Roman life. For archaeologists, Pompeii was a shake-and-bake windfall.
Ancient Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean Sea. That made it a kind of free-trade zone — and Pompeii was an important port town. It was big — 20,000 people. It was an important commercial center — imagine this square just busy with market activity. And because it was a port, it was a kind of a sailor's quarter, and that meant it was fun: lots of bars, baths, brothels, restaurants, and places of entertainment.
The main square, or forum, was Pompeii's commercial, religious, and political center. The curia housed the government. It was built of brick and mortar — a Roman invention. It was originally faced with gleaming marble. The basilica, or law court, was nearby. Here you see the basilica floor plan that medieval churches adopted after Christianity became legal.
In good Roman style, the city was well-organized, with a grid street plan contained within its walls. Remains of homes give a glimpse into Roman lifestyles.
The House of [the] Vettii, the home of a wealthy merchant, shows the typical layout of a mansion. It's colonnaded atrium — with formal garden and water flowing to give freshness — was ringed by colorfully frescoed rooms. Roman dining rooms were always richly decorated. This one shows little cupids playing out commercial activities of the town: collecting flowers, taking your knocks on a chariot, and enjoying the local wine.
For a better understanding of life at Pompeii, Italian archeologist Gaetano Manfredi is taking us on a walk. Pompeii's impressive baths were just past the gymnasium. After working out, Romans would relax, be pampered, and enjoy the social scene in a public bath.
Gaetano: This was the tepidarium, so people coming from gymnasium after sport, they were massaged by the slaves. Inside the niches all around there were oils, creams, perfumes for the body massages. A part of the ceiling is still original, and so we can see how beautifully decorated it was once on the ceiling. They were massaged by the slaves 25, 30 minutes before going to the sauna. Because tepidarium means "lukewarm bath."
After the tepidarium there was the caldarium, which was the hot bath. Beside this wall there was a room where the slaves made the fire. The hot air went underneath the double floor, because this floor is supported by little columns, and the hot air went between the double walls. There was a circulation of hot air, and just when everything was really hot, they opened the water fountain over here, the water slowly fell on the floor — the floor was hot — and this produced steam.
The last stop was the frigidarium — the cold bath. As we still do today, after the sauna to harden the muscles and for the body's circulation…the cold bath.
Water was abundant in this well-plumbed city. Fountains provided a social center at intersections. And a steady stream of water flushed the chariot-rutted streets clean.
Rick: So why the stones in the street here?
Gaetano: Well, there was always water flowing along the roads, and washing the roads, so that's why the sidewalk all over, and the stepping stones.
Rick: So the pedestrians walk across and not get wet?
Gaetano: Yes to the crossroad, avoiding wet feet.
Rick: Very smart.
While the site is evocative, the horrors of that day in 79 AD are hard to imagine.
Gaetano: Thousands of people died in this eruption. Here, we have the casts of those people. You know, during the excavations, sometimes the archaeologists found, under the volcanic materials some empty spaces left by the decomposition of the bodies. And so what they did, they injected a liquid plaster in these empty spaces. The liquid plaster took the form of the previous bodies, and when it dried up, the archaeologists cleaned all the ash away, and it appear, the body, in the same position the man was when he died 2,000 years ago.
Rick: One day a thriving city, the next day…this.
Pompeii was excavated back in the 1700s — before Italy was united. The local king who ruled from Naples demanded, "Bring me back the best of whatever you find!" That's why, even though this site is so impressive, the finest art and artifacts of Pompeii ended up back in Naples, at the National Museum of Archaeology.
For lovers of antiquity, this museum by itself makes Naples a worthwhile stop. The city's one essential museum visit offers the best possible peek into the art of Pompeii. The collection ranges from grand statuary and exquisite mosaics to the most intimate details of everyday Roman life.
It's easy to forget that, for many centuries, the people of Pompeii painted Mount Vesuvius like this — before it blew its top.
These bronze statues, like so much of the art from Pompeii, are first-century BC copies of fourth-century BC Greek originals. They decorated the holiday home of Julius Caesar's father-in-law. Resting Hermes — with his tired little heel-wings — is taking a break…but it's clear, he'll be flying off again soon. The Drunken Faun — singing and snapping his fingers to the beat, is clearly living for today — true to the Epicurean philosophy Caesar's father-in-law subscribed to.
Pompeii's many finely crafted mosaics give a sense of the sophistication and wealth of the city and its people.
Culture thrived at Pompeii. This mosaic takes us backstage at the theater just before curtain time: Actors are being dressed, instruments tuned, and the masks that still symbolize comedy and tragedy today are ready to go.
Another finely detailed and realistic mosaic shows street musicians boisterously entertaining those not quite up to a night at the theater.
This scene from the grand Battle of Alexander — with over a million pieces — decorated a floor in Pompeii's House of the Faun. In this epic battle, Alexander and his Greeks meet and defeat Darius and the Persians. The outcome is clear by the fear in the eyes of the Persians, and the focus and determination of Alexander the Great. Notice the dynamism, shading, perspective — everything the Renaissance artists would work so hard to relearn 1,500 years later.
The Secret Room contains an assortment of erotic statues and frescoes. These were commonplace in Pompeii's wealthier homes. In fact, the rich actually commissioned this art to entertain their guests. Some of it's humorous, some of it's erotic — you'll have to come here in person to actually see that — and some if it is simply beautiful.
In this scene, a lusty faun playfully pulls the sheet off what he thinks is a beautiful woman, only to be shocked to learn she's a hermaphrodite — perhaps the original "Mamma mia!" Venus, the patron goddess of Pompeii, was a favorite pin-up girl. Again, the art of Pompeii shows an intimate and impressive mastery of realism. The much copied Three Graces celebrated elegance, beauty, and a love of life.
The museum also has highlights from other parts of the Roman Empire.
The Farnese Collection fills a grand hall with statues excavated from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The collection's centerpiece is the largest intact statue from antiquity — said to be carved out of one piece of marble. It was "restored," in part, by Michelangelo. The Toro Farnese features a tangled group with a woman being tied to a bull.
Once upon an ancient Greek time, that woman, Dirce, seduced a king who abandoned his pregnant queen. The abandoned queen gave birth to twin boys, who grew up, and after killing their deadbeat dad, they tied Dirce to the horns of a bull to be bashed against a mountain. The action is masterfully caught, as hoofs flail, capes fly, and the dog snarls. You can almost hear the bull snorting. The jilted queen serenely oversees the action as ancient justice prevails.
Stepping back out on the streets, the immense Piazza [del] Plebiscito celebrates the plebiscite, or vote, in 1861, when Naples chose to join Italy. The Royal Palace illustrates how the city has suffered through many foreign rulers. Each of the eight kings in the niches is from a different dynasty: Norman, German, French, Spanish, Spanish, Spanish again, French — the brother-in-law of Napoleon — and, finally, an Italian: Victor Emmanuel II, Italy's first king.
The adjacent Victorian iron and glass of the 100-year-old Galleria Umberto I takes you back to a grander time. Newly united Italy was flush with energy and optimism, and this was a virtual palace for the public.
And, across the street, the Gran Caffè Gambrinus retains the elegance of the 1860s. It's a classic place to sample a unique Neapolitan pastry called sfogliatella — a crispy pastry filled with sweet ricotta cheese. You can stand at the bar or pay double to sit. Either way, imagine the café buzzing with the intellectuals, journalists, and high-society bigshots who sipped and munched here during Naples' 19th-century heyday.
Vibrant Naples, the capital of south Italy, is a springboard for plenty of travel fun. We climbed Mount Vesuvius, and resurrected the ruble at Pompeii, but that's just the beginning of this region's charms. The genteel town of Sorrento provides a comfy gateway to the dramatic Amalfi Coast. And a short jet-boat ride takes you to the enchanting Isle of Capri. But all that will need to await another travel adventure.
Europe has a lifetime of travel experiences. And one by one, we're sharing them all. I hope you've enjoyed our look at colorful Naples and evocative Pompeii. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Ciao.
Rick: Walk together, OK? Here we go! OK! Hey! No, no, no, no — come with me! OK! Here we go — bella Napoli. OK. OK. Here we go. Now we walk. I'm Rick Steves, back — momento — I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe.