Naples 101

napoli_vesuvio

Although Naples is the third largest city in Italy, it is not as well known as its more popular neighbors to the north, like Rome, Florence, and Venice. That’s why we’ve brought in guest poster Gabriella Sannino to tell us the basics about her adopted hometown. Continue reading Naples 101

Italy’s Most Unusual Religious Relics

Examining the ampoule of San Gennaro's blood
Examining the ampoule of San Gennaro’s blood

No matter if you’re a devout Catholic or a curious non-believer, you should make a point to check out a few of Italy’s many religious relics.

More than 2,000 years of Christianity has produced numerous fascinating, if not gruesome, stories. And it seems that for every Biblical tale, there is a relic housed in Rome, the Vatican, or in one of Italy’s thousands of churches.

Here are a few unusual relics that you can put on your next Italy itinerary.

Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin is one of Italy’s most famous relics, housed in the Cathedral of Turin (Duomo di Torino) in the Piemonte region. The Shroud is a linen cloth that bears “the image of a man who appears to have been physically hurt in a manner consistent with crucifixion.” In short, the image on the Shroud bears a striking resemblance to the collectively agreed upon image of Jesus Christ and is thought to be Christ’s burial shroud – thus, the relic’s significance among Christians.

As with all religious relics, the Shroud’s authenticity has been doubted. Even the Catholic Church has yet to formally endorse the Shroud. And a recent scientific study confirms the shroud as a relic of the Middle Ages (i.e., NOT 2,000 years old). Nevertheless, this sacred relic (called Santa Sindone in Italian) is well-protected by the Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud.

Because of the Shroud’s delicate nature, it is not always on display. Check the Torino Tourism website for updated information.

 

The Blood of San Gennaro

It’s hardly surprising that a hot-blooded place like Naples would have a relic made of blood (see main photo above). Each year, the city of Naples awaits the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Januarius (San Gennaro), which is stored in an ampoule in a reliquary in the Naples Cathedral. An early saint of the church, having been beheaded during Emperor Diocletian’s anti-Christian raids in the 4th century, San Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples. The liquefying of his blood, which can happen up to 18 times per year, is thought to signify a miracle and helps protect Naples from calamities, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Michelle Fabio explains more about the Feast of San Gennaro for Italy Magazine. She has also posted a link to the video of the Procession of San Gennaro, which you can watch below:

The Holy Foreskin

(Currently Missing)
David Farley’s book An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town was one of the inspirations for this post.

In his book, Farley writes about the town of Calcata, located in the region of Lazio (Rome’s region), where the Holy Foreskin – yes, the skin from Jesus Christ’s circumcised penis – was kept for centuries until its disappearance in 1983.

Farley has devoted himself to this subject, so you’d do well to read his book to learn about the relic and Calcata, which is known as a “village of freaks.” But here’s an interesting tidbit: apparently Saint Catherine of Siena wore the Holy Foreskin as a ring. Now that’s some devotion.

Sacra Cintola - Sacred Belt, Prato

Mary’s Holy Belt

The Virgin Mary didn’t leave behind a piece of her body for future Christians to revere. But she did leave behind a belt.

The story goes that Mary gave this sacred accessory to Apostle Thomas as she ascended to heaven. The Prato Cathedral acquired the relic in the 14C and has kept it in a precious silver reliquary ever since. In fact, a special chapel was built to house the relic and the church also commissioned artists Michelozzo and Donatello to build an exterior pulpit, from which the relic is ceremoniously displayed to crowds below.

Unlike the Shroud of Turin, the Sacra Cintola is made of a more durable material – green wool – so the church readily displays it five times a year: Christmas, Easter, May 1, August 15, and September 8.

Prato is located in Tuscany, just north of Florence, so it is hardly off the beaten track should you wish to visit.

Relics in Rome

Being the center of the Christian universe, Rome has, perhaps, the most holy relics per square mile of any other city in Italy. And here you will find some wonderfully odd ones, including:

  • Saint John’s severed head in the church of San Silvestro in Capite (also the National Church of Great Britain in Rome)
  • Saint Valentine’s head in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin (the rest of the body is in Terni, Umbria)
  • The head of Saint Agnes, located in a side chapel of Sant’Agnese in Agone (the huge church that fronts Piazza Navona)
  • The “doubting finger” of Saint Thomas (in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme)
  • Papal innards in the church of SS. Vincenzo e Anastasio near the Trevi Fountain
  • Saint Francis Xavier’s forearm in the church of the Gesù (the rest of the body is in Goa, India)
  • The Santo Bambino in Santa Maria Aracoeli
  • And “evidence” of souls trapped in purgatory at the Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio (nicely explained by Jessica at WhyGo Italy).

I’ve barely even scratched the surface of all of the unusual relics one can find in Italy. So, what’s your favorite? Please leave your comment below!

Photos (top to bottom): sangennarofeast.org, Wikipedia, Gwilbor.

Italy Article Round-Up

In case you missed these recent articles on travel to Italy…

New York Times
Sicily, Through the Eyes of the Leopard

The Washington Post
See Naples…And Eat

Sydney Morning Herald
Ready for Super-Bol (A Search for the Best Ragu in Bologna)

Los Angeles Times
Exploring Sun-Splashed Venice’s City Squares

The Guardian (UK)
Instant Weekend…Turin

The Boston Globe
Eat Them All, Pray For More, Love the Neopolitan Pie
Ancient Capri Still Casts Its Powerful Spell

Seattle Times (Rick Steves’ Europe)
For Italy In the Extreme, Go to Naples

The Independent (UK)
See Italy – From the Wheel of a Ferrari
Lyrical Charm in Capri

The Vancouver Sun
How To Enjoy Rome With the Kids

The Financial Times
Do You Need Another Reason to Visit Florence?

The Pontines, Perhaps

Unlike Greece, Italy isn’t a land of islands. Sure, there’s Sicily, Capri, and the Tuscan Archipelago, which includes Elba. But there is also a small set of islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea between Rome and Naples that, according to Guy Dinmore of The Financial Times, “offer a safer and saner way to travel” for those who want a “sedate alternative to dashing around packed piazzas.”

In “Escape to ‘Alcatraz’,” Dinmore explores the Pontine Islands, which were once used as prison islands by the likes of Emperor Augustus and Mussolini. You can still take a tour of Santa Stefano, the main prison island, which is today uninhabited, or stay on Ventotene to visit its subterranean dwellings and Roman cisterns or go snorkeling. Dinmore also touches on Ponza, the most popular of the Pontines, and Ischia, which is not exactly a Pontine island but typically grouped with Capri and Procida.

Ponza, apparently, is having its day in the sun lately, as German In Style magazine included it among its round-up of party islands. In Style suggests the following Ponza haunts:

Need more convincing? Check out these spectacular photos from the Pontine Islands on Flickr.

Photo by RonnyBas

Spain Conquers Italy

Palazzo Reale in Caserta Campania Italy
Palazzo Reale in Caserta, Campania Italy

Large parts of Italy were once united under the Spanish flag, with conquests in Naples and Sicily by the houses of Aragon and Bourbon, among others. Even Milan and Parma were under Spanish rule at one point. I confess that I am not an expert on Spain’s influence on Italy, so you may want to read more about it here or here. This article from Best of Sicily Magazine even discusses the Spaniards of Sicily. While I still need to brush up on my Spanish-Italian history, I do know there are a number of interesting sites to visit in Italy that have a Spanish past.

For example, the city of Caserta, north of Naples in Campania, is known for its breathtakingly large Royal Palace, built on the orders of Charles of Bourbon by Luigi Vanvitelli in the late 18th century. The Campania Regional Tourist office lists several regal itineraries including this Itinerary Fit For a King.

The Caserta Palace was one of four palaces used by the Bourbon Kings of Naples. The other three are in Naples, with one on the Capodimonte Hill, one in Portici, and the other at Piazza del Plebiscito. You can read more about the Bourbon palaces from the Royal House of Bourbon Two Sicilies, which still exists, if by name (and wealth) only.

Speaking of Sicily, the island has tons of Spanish leftovers, as it was ruled by the Houses of Aragon, Bourbon, Bourbon of Two Sicilies, and the Spanish Hapsburgs, among others. This brief history from the travel agency Think Sicily has a good rundown of what each dynasty left behind and what there is to see today. The Sicily Tourist website provides an itinerary of the castles and forts on the island, including the Spanish Fort (Portopalo di Capo Passero) on the southeast coast.

For more palaces, go north. The Palazzo Ducale di Colorno in the province of Parma was a Bourbon residence. Milan also has a Palazzo Reale, which houses the city’s contemporary art museum. Some of the Royal Palace in Milan was destroyed during World War II, but underwent a long restoration that ended in 2006.

Then, there’s the island of Sardinia, which was ruled for many years by Spain before becoming a kingdom in its own right. Sardinia has a very diverse history, and many of its feasts and festivals, such as Sartiglia, held each year in Oristano, features a medieval Spanish-style jousting tournament. Here, too, is The Complete Guide to Sardinia, a fantastic, in-depth article written by Frank Partridge of London’s Independent in 2007.

Of course, I have only touched on a few Spanish-related gems in Italy. Certainly the maritime territories, such as Genoa and Venice, have Spanish connections, and areas throughout Sicily and the Mezzogiorno (Abruzzo, Basilicata, etc.) also have leftovers from the Spanish era. I hope to bring you more about these sites in the future.

Photo from Caserta.nu

The Complete Guide to the Bay of Naples

Bay_of_Naples_and_Mount_Vesuvius2C_Italy

Now that Naples seems to have a handle on its garbage problem, it is hoping that tourists start to make their way back to Italy’s “city by the bay.” Right on time is a service article from the U.K.’s Independent. The Complete Guide to the Bay of Naples gives the lowdown on getting there, visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum, and taking tours of Vesuvius, the Campi Flegrei “sulphurous sites,” and nearby destinations like Sorrento and Capri. As the article is geared towards the British traveler, some of the suggestions, such as for hotels, are a little on the pricey side for American tourists. But there is a lot of information here for someone who’s considering exploring one of Italy’s most evocative cities.

Not even 5 minutes since we wrote the above…Want even more about Naples? You may also enjoy 48 Hours in Naples. This recent piece from the same newspaper has great tips for the “independent” traveler, including city walks and dining suggestions.

Photo: Wikitravel Naples

Day Trip to Pompeii from Rome

My friend Tom recently asked me if I knew of any good day trips to Pompeii from Rome. When I last visited Pompeii, I did it myself: taking the morning train to Naples then Pompeii and doing the reverse in the evening. My tour of Pompeii was solo and without a guide; quite frankly, being alone added an extra eerie element to the ruins around me.

Nevertheless, I know that there’s a better way to “do” Pompeii because I am sure that I missed a lot in my quest to be self-sufficient.

Tom’s question put me in research mode. Unfortunately, what I found were fairly expensive tours, the lowest of which started at $173 for a one-day trip or €115 (about $176) for a guided tour of Naples and Pompeii. The In Italy website had trips starting at a ridiculous €728 for a two-person tour. I’m sure that their guide is quite knowledgeable, but their trip still has travelers riding the same train that they could book for themselves.

I took a look to see what it costs today to ride the train from Rome to Pompeii. Currently, a train trip to Pompeii (transferring at Napoli Centrale) on the Ferrovie dello Stato costs €37.90 (or about $58) each way. The earliest trains depart from Rome’s Termini station to Napoli Centrale is 6:45 a.m.; total travel time is about 2 1/2 hours.

Once in Pompeii, travelers will no doubt come upon authorized and non-authorized Pompeii tour guides, whose expertise could cost about €50 for a two-hour tour of the archeological site. Alternatively, once inside the entrance, visitors can purchase an audioguide for €6.50 and pick up free maps of the excavations from the Information Point. To ask about additional services offered by the Pompeii Archeological Site, send an e-mail to infopompei@tin.it.

In sum, a self-guided trip to Pompeii – taking the train, €11 admission, and using an audioguide – will cost a traveler about $142.50 a day, not including breakfast, lunch, and other knick-knacks. Add in those extras, and you may as well book one of the above trips. That, or find a friendly Italian guide who can drive you there and give you a tour for less. Good luck with that one.

So, Tom, I hope that this little bit of research comes in handy for your travel planning. I wish I could have found a better deal for you. Perhaps someone else has a tip? If so, please comment below!

One other idea that I write about in the Unofficial Guide (and that I was reminded of when reading about In Italy’s Pompeii tour) is to consider a daytrip to Ostia Antica. Located about 30 minutes by local train outside of Rome, this ancient ruined city is Pompeii in miniature. Sure, Ostia Antica didn’t die the dramatic death that Pompeii did (the silting up of its outlet to the sea and rampant malaria drove its populace out), it is still a beautiful, awe-inspiring, tour-worthy site.

Photo © Paul Vlaar

Should Naples Secede from Italy?

Yes, that’s a pretty drastic headline. But, Beppe Grillo – Italy’s #1 social/political commentator – seems to think so. He posted the following GreenpeaceItaly video about the Naples garbage problem on his website saying “I’m here to say sorry to you on behalf of all the Italians.” This is a huge tragedy that I hope will be resolved soon – before the summer sun really starts cooking that trash. *sigh*

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9ZGsZ_7m2c&locale=en_US&persist_locale=1]

Renaissance Hotels in Italy?

I’ve been really digging the recent ad campaign by Renaissance Hotels in which famous Renaissance-era compositions are recreated with modern models and scenes. The one listed above, of course, is an homage to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery) and there is also one that is based on Leonardo’s Last Supper. You can check out the comparisons of the ads and the original paintings here.

Anyhow, this got me thinking: a company named Renaissance that uses inspiration from Italian masters surely must have tons of hotels in Italy, right? Wrong.

It turns out that Renaissance Hotels has only one property on the peninsula: the Renaissance Naples Hotel Mediterraneo. According to the reviews on TripAdvisor, it seems like a fine hotel and is currently rated #37 out of 195 hotels listed on the ratings site. I have to admit, however, I am a bit disappointed with this finding.

I’m not advocating that there should be more corporate-owned hotels in Italy. But, it almost seems like false advertising using well-known Italian Renaissance painting scenes to hype up your hotel in Orlando. At any rate, if any of you are looking for a hotel in Naples that is “great for a day trip to Capri,” “near great shopping on Via Toledo,” and has stunning views of the Bay of Naples from the breakfast terrace, then this may be the hotel for you.

You’re welcome.

A Tour Through Campania

Trying to devise an itinerary for visiting the Amalfi Coast and other notable towns near Naples? A recent guide in the Via Michelin magazine shows you how to make a three day plan that takes in medieval hill towns, farms that make limoncello and wine, a cheesemaker, and a 14C Carthusian monastery. Of course, you can also count on Michelin to direct you to some of the finest hotels and most authentic restaurants, including the Michelin-starred La Caravella, one of the few eateries in southern Italy with that distinction.