When you travel by high speed rail at 300 km/h, it only takes 5 hours to reach Naples from Venice. Despite this insane land speed, zipping through the country couldn’t be more peaceful. Here’s some travelling advice for you: when planning the order of a roundtrip multi-city route, it’s almost always better to travel to the furthest cities first rather than last. Two reasons: the first is that when you begin your trip, you’ll be full of energy and willing to commit to the expected long journey. But, when nearing the end of the trip your energy levels are low and your body is anxious to get back home and rest; this is not an ideal period to stretch out commuting time. The second reason, and more importantly, is crisis aversion. Say you miss your train, plane or bus on the final route back to the starting point of your roundtrip. You are now at the furthest city from where you want to be with far less options to get back. Since the returning distance is now significant, transportation options will be limited (not to mention last minute) making prices skyrocket. That’s why the Italy trip we planned went Venice-Naples-Pompeii-Rome-Vatican-Pisa-Florence-Bologna-Venice and not the other way around because Bologna is so close to Venice that if we were to miss the train at Bologna, we could easily bus or train the 80 minute distance opposed to the 5+ hours needed to get back by either train or plane exclusively from Naples. In the end, it’s all about making your trip as stress-free as possible and the order of your selected cities can be a factor.
Arriving at the rail station in Naples, “unimpressed” would be putting it politely. From quiet, clean, automobile-free Venice, we entered a noisy, smelly and seemingly no-rules city environment. To the exception of two traffic lights, there was no system of traffic control whatsoever near the rail station. This meant that the only way to cross a road was to swiftly walk through moving traffic in hopes that drivers would yield. The people on the street appeared cold and detached, making me feel very uncomfortable — a stark contrast to the smiles and chitter chatter in Venice. As we searched for our hostel on the trash-strewn sidewalks, we walked through streets lined with piles of garbage bags. I legitimately thought it must be garbage day due to all the litter found on the public streets. Upon meeting the hostel owner, he assured me that was not the case. This was, in fact, a very different Italy.
We were in Naples, however, not for the city itself but primarily for the attractions nearby; namely Pompeii, Mt. Vesuvius and the island of Capri. That’s not to say that Naples doesn’t have attractions itself. If you can get past some of the lackluster portions of the city, there are some real treasures to be discovered. I’ll start with the catacombs.
Catacombs are underground mass burial sites that were used as a graveyard for the deceased. As you will see from the pictures, this was a massive undertaking when digging commenced sometime in the 2nd to 3rd century. It amazes me how this development could have even taken place without the use of modern construction tools or methods. Due to looting between the 13th and 18th century, the skeletons have been all cleared out and moved to another cemetery. What remains is the restored Catacombs of San Gennaro.
You will notice several rectangular chambers along the wall which were where the bodies were laid. The holes on the wall were used to grip onto as people climbed them to place the bodies into their resting place.
These catacombs are particularly large in comparison to others around the world, likely due to a fusion of many nearby subterranean cemeteries. The ceilings are high, the hallways are very wide and the smell isn’t rotten at all. It’s actually a very pleasant attraction and loses much of the anticipated creepy factor I was expecting. Still, it is quite a marvel.
At one point, the catacombs exit to an outdoor walkway and then re-enter into another attached catacomb. This one was smaller overall but was easier to navigate through with its straight, long hallways.
The next site worth mentioning is the Parco Virgiliano, which is characterized by a system of terraces that look over the Gulf of Naples in stunning panorama. This is probably the nicest public park I’ve ever visited, simply because of the view.
Another park we went to was the Parco Sommerso di Gaiola Area Marina Protetta. While we arrived too late to explore this popular landmark (it was locking up for the day), we did manage to see the island of Gaiola with its picturesque bridge. Apparently you can snorkel and kayak if you arrive early in the day!
The final attraction we visited in the city of Naples was another catacomb called Catacombe Di San Gaudioso Napoli; this time located beneath a church! In fact, entry to the catacomb is located within the Santa Maria della Sanita basilica.
By stepping through the gate pictured above, you’ll be welcomed by the entrance to the crypt.
The catacombs served as a place for Christians to honour the martyrs that had gone before them. It was deemed fitting to rest the bodies beneath the church floor as they wait for their eventual resurrection. Some of the graves had very intricate designs above them, usually representing a significant achievement of those who lay there.
This catacomb has a guardian of the crypt embedded in the wall — that’s a real skeleton!
There are a few other big attractions in Naples that we did not have the chance to visit because of the other day trips we had planned. It’s quite a shame that so many attractions within the city are so distant from one another; it makes for many sacrifices when selecting attractions within a limited time period. The next few trips would be in the surrounding area around the city. The first of which was a fantastic packaged tour that included a visit to both the Pompeii ruins and walking along the top of Mt. Vesuvius!
Mt. Vesuvius is an active volcano with a long history of sporadic eruptions, the latest of which occurred in 1944. While each of Vesuvius’ eruptions were significant, none match the sheer destruction of the famous eruption in 79 AD that completely obliterated the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. At a rate of 1.5 million tons per second, the volcano ejected molten rock and pulverized pumice into the sky that rained down upon Pompeii. The sister city Herculaneum, located much closer to the volcano, was faced with a devastating avalanche mixture of ash and hot gases called a pyroclastic surge. This avalanche travelled at 160 km/h down the mountain with temperatures of 500 °C, incinerating everyone instantly (source). However, the pyroclastic surge that hit Herculaneum actually preserved the city quite well with many houses in great condition after excavation. Pompeii was not so fortunate. The strong winds blew much of Mt. Vesuvius’ debris upon the city, resulting in a hailstorm of rocks pummelling all of Pompeii’s buildings and trapping people indoors. The tremendous weight of the ash caused roofs to collapse on those inside. Those who had survived thus far would experience the rumbling of earthquakes leading to another pyroclastic surge similar to that which destroyed Herculaneum heading directly toward Pompeii (source). The surge of rolling rocks managed to stop just short of the town but the toxic gas that was carried with it, a deadly combination of carbon dioxide and super-heated hydrochloric acid, did not. This suffocated the town’s remaining citizens and essentially turned their bodies to concrete, forever frozen in their final position. During Mt. Vesuvius’ 18 hour eruption, the volcano deposited more than 10 billion tons of pumice, rock, and ash upon the surrounding area (source). It is estimated that 16,000 died as a result of this eruption. It is truly hard to comprehend the destruction that took place here.
Arriving to the site, our tour group was immediately walked straight to the ruins. Indeed, ruinous it was as little remains of this once flourishing town. Various parts of Pompeii, however, are still in good condition or have been somewhat restored.
Let me first draw your attention to the gladiator training ground. This is where the slaves in the region would train to become gladiators.
As a slave, you didn’t have much of a choice when it came to being a gladiator. You either refused and were killed right away or you agreed to fight at a chance for freedom. This meant many agreed to be a warrior and trained day in, day out (more on this in my Rome blog entry). Little bunkers along the side of the training camp is where they’d sleep. This is really all these gladiators-in-training could do; eat, sleep, train.
Next, there is an amphitheatre that was used as entertainment for plays and musical performances. It’s still in really good condition!
The houses within Pompeii did not fair so well. The rocks that crashed down upon this town left no home intact; tall three-storey structures were cut down to measly half-storeys, many right down to the foundation.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll find that that Pompeii was far ahead of its time. The city diverted water to run streams through the streets; one stream went to public fountains, another to public baths and a third travelled to homes of wealthy residents (source). Below is a picture of the stepping stones that would be used to cross the stream to reach the other side dry. If you look carefully, there are actual wheel tracks from carriages drawn through the water that eroded between the stepping stones. This was truly an integrated city!
Further evidence of Pompeii’s brilliance was the use of lead pipes to carry water — yes, not modern pipes but ancient pipes to deliver water to households, public baths and fountains. There were also sundials that to this day precisely measure time, mill wheels to grind flour and intuitive heat-maintaining pots. What I found particularly interesting was the layout of many houses with the kitchens located at the front as to serve food to people on the go in order to make some money. This is essentially the ancient fast-food system and with it came lots of intuitive food designs like the pizza, which was originally believed to be used as a method of carrying vegetables and sauce on an edible plate (ie. toppings on dough). Below you can see what were likely the heating elements used to cook food upon.
Both Pompeii and Herculaneum used to be busy seaports yet the shore is far from the old ruinous cities making many believe that volcanic ash extended the shoreline. Below are a few more pictures of what remains of ruinous Pompeii.
There are even a couple victims who were discovered amongst the ash that are on display. It’s amazing how detailed the ash preserved the bodies even after nearly two millennia.
While what happened in Pompeii is an absolute tragedy, we are fortunate as a species to have this town preserved the way it is. With it, we have learned some valuable insights about the lives these ancients used to live. It was now time to personally visit the volcano that destroyed it all — Mt. Vesuvius.
To this day, it is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. The surrounding population of over 3,000,000 people makes this the most densely populated volcanic region in the world (source). I can’t even imagine how extensive damage and loss of life could be if something were to happen again in the near future.
On our tour bus, the driver takes us up a winding road that goes fairly high up the volcano. From the point we get dropped off at, there’s a good 30 minutes of uphill climbing to reach the crater of the volcano. A few things to mention at this height: the temperature noticeably drops, it’s much windier and there’s a lot of bugs. Just something to keep in mind if you ever plan on doing the trip yourself.
Once you are at the top, you get a good look at the inside of this behemoth volcano. No, there isn’t any bubbling lava on the inside because if there was, an eruption would be imminent and I’d be running for my life. What you do see is the incredibly deep pit that the eruption emanated from. The inner walls of this volcano are terrifyingly tall and paints a picture as to how destructive previous eruptions must have been to cause such a crater.
At one point during the walk around the volcano, hot steam was coming off the inside of the crater! It was nothing to worry about but it certainly removed any doubts I had about Mt. Vesuvius still being active.
Finally, we arrived to the end of the free portion of the trail. From that point on, you must pay in order to go full circle. No matter though, as we had to rush back to our tour bus and conclude the day trip. There was still time for a final photo! This is the view of the bay from 1,281 meters up.
The final day in Naples was reserved for the island of Capri. This beautiful island is located only an hour away by ferry and was an absolute must-see.
While my best friend and I were originally planning on exploring the island itself, time permit us to only explore around the island and visit the famous Blue Grotto. The Blue Grotto is a cave accessible only by boat that illuminates a strong neon blue in the water due to sunlight passing through an underwater cavity. On the outside, it doesn’t look like anything of interest…
…but how wrong you would be.
Unfortunately, the boat rower only keeps you in for a few minutes. It’s the fastest 20 Euros I’ve ever burned through but it was totally worth it. On the plus side, our rower serenaded us with his singing which was something we didn’t even get in Venice!
After this, we boarded a second boat to circumnavigate the island. The following are highlights from the boat tour as it circled around Capri.
I asked the driver if I could steer the boat for a little while, and he had no problems with it! Just goes to show that you don’t know until you ask! A good end to our trip here!
Overall Naples is a great hub to numerous attractions. While the core of the city is filthy, graffiti-ridden and a bit run-down, Naples is definitely worth visiting just for the proximity to everything around it. The day trips we packed into Naples made it one of the most memorable experiences in Italy by far. And the crazy part is that even with all this, there’s still so much I missed! Perhaps another time, then.
Next stop on this Italian trip is the one and only Rome!
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This blog entry is part of the publication Robert Cekan Travels & was originally written on July 30, 2014
Robert Cekan is a young entrepreneur and proud Hamiltonian. He is the founder of the Hamilton discovery website True Resident, as well as Cekan Group, a property management group. He is also a Hamilton REALTOR® with Ambitious Realty Advisors Inc., Brokerage and an active blogger.
For all of Robert’s projects, please visit robertcekan.com