June 30, 2017

Places to visit in Naples, Italy

The southern port city of Naples or Napoli is often a stopover point for travellers heading to the illustrious Pompeii and the beautiful Amalfi coast. While Pompeii is known for its ruins, Amalfi coast is a popular drive down destination. Naples might not get categorized alongside other Italian cities from a tourism perspective, as it has always been known for its chaotic people and localities where conflicts are common. However, Naples too has its elegant basilicas, spectacular museums, gorgeous palaces and a serene harbour with Prussian blue waters and Mt. Vesuvius in the backdrop. Pizzas are believed to have been originated in Naples and are known as Neapolitan pizzas. Here is a list of places to visit in Naples which can be covered over a period of two days at a leisurely pace.

Catacombs of San Gennaro

Located on the Capodimonte hill, the second century catacombs of San Gennaro is one of the major attractions in Naples. With a maze of tomb chambers and underground passages, the catacombs take the visitors down to the earlier centuries when a whole community used this as a burial ground. The fine paintings on the ceilings and walls are reminiscent of the times gone by.  Naples’ patron, San Gennaro’s tomb can be seen here, however, the remains have been moved to the Cathedral of Naples. Apart from the tombs, the lower catacomb also houses the Basilica of Sant’ Agrippino. The upper catacombs housed the tombs of bishops and has many paintings. The tickets are inclusive of a guided tour which takes about 30-45 minutes.

National Archaeological Museum:

This is one of the most spectacular archaeological museums in Italy and is known for its huge display of art. Also referred as Museo Archeologico Nazionale, the museum is a treasure trove of finest collection of sculptures, paintings and other antiquities excavated from the ruins of Pompeii. The displays also include collections from the kings of Naples and from various palaces. The magnificently sculpted figures from ancient history are in marble, mosaic and bronze. The wall painting collections are a delight for any art lover.

Castle Nuovo:

Overlooking the harbour and the Mediterranean sea, stands tall the five towered Castle Nuovo. Once occupied by the kings of Naples, the 13th century castle is also referred as Maschio Angioino. Rebuilt over the years by French, Spanish and Austrian rulers, the castle offers nice views of the harbour. The castle houses the Baron’s hall, the Armoury hall, Purgatory Chapel, the Chapel of San Francesco Da Paola and many more. The castle also has a Civic museum on its higher floors which has a huge display of art works by various artists.

Naples Cathedral:

Built in the 13th century, this imposing church is referred as Cathedral Di San Gennaro, named after Sant’ Gennaro, the patron of Naples and whose blood is stored here. The cathedral showcases styles of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture, and was built on the foundations of earlier two basilicas. Apart from a beautiful altar, the cathedral’s interiors are plastered with frescoes, carvings and sculptures on its ceiling and tall columns. The cathedral also houses the Basilica of St. Restituta and the Royal Chapel of the Treasure of Sant’ Gennaro. The latter is known for its gorgeous frescoes on walls and ceiling.

San Domenico Maggiore:

Lined with tall pillars, Aragonese arches and an ornate ceiling, the high altar is quite an attraction in this church. Built in late 13th century, it has beautiful chapels inside with carvings and frescoes. San Domenico Maggiore also houses numerous relics from the 15th and 16th centuries, and also has a monastery annexed to it.

San Paolo Maggiore:

With baroque style architecture, the church with a beautiful outer façade is quite a charming one. First built in the 9th century, the imposing church was constructed on top of a 1st century temple. The Baroque Firrao chapel and the Crypt below the basilica are the major attractions here. The interiors are adorned with numerous frescoes and marble works.

San Lorenzo Maggiore:

This gothic church built in 13th century might not boast of attractive interiors. However, San Lorenzo Maggiore is popular for its museum and the excavated underground Roman market below the church, known as Macellum of Naples. The church houses two chapels, Cacace chapel and Chapel of Sant’ Antonio, both built in baroque style.

Palazzo Reale:

Next to Piazza Plebiscito which is one of the largest public squares in Naples lies the Palazzo Reale or the Royal Palace of Naples. Built in the 17th century in Italian and neo- classical architecture, the palace was the residence of the Bourbon kings. The western façade of the palace has statues of the kings of Naples in chronological order. The biggest attraction of the palace is probably its main staircase which looks absolutely grand and leads to the gallery. It was built during the restoration work in mid 19th century, and the walls are covered with rose marble apart from statues and carvings. The palace has numerous halls, chambers and antechambers which are decorated with chandeliers, royal furnishings and artefacts apart from paintings and art works on ceilings and walls. King’s chamber, Throne room, Royal theatre and rooms dedicated to the Queen are a few of the spellbinding ones here.

Basilica Di San Francesco Di Paola:

Opposite the Royal Palace and across the Piazza Plebiscito is the Basilica Di San Francesco Di Paola with a lovely dome and curved walkways with pillars on either side. Built in early 19th century, the façade in the front is reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome. The basilica has two chapels on either side of the entrance. Interiors are lined with numerous pillars and statues of numerous saints by various artists.

Bay of Naples:

As you walk down the road from Piazza Plebiscito, the Mediterranean sea slowly opens up. Extending from Piazza Muncipio, this waterfront offers magnificent panoramic views of the sea, the active volcano- Mt. Vesuvius and colourful towns in the distance at the base of the mountain. With harbours, piers and docks, this bay is considered to be the gateway to the Mediterranean sea. The walkway is lined with numerous cafes which are known for their Neapolitan pizzas and a stroll in the evening is ideal to enjoy the breeze.

June 27, 2017

Vatican City- A Walk Through the Heart of Christianity

The metro slowed as it crossed River Tiber, beyond the city centre of Rome. After I got down at Ottaviano station, all that I needed to do was to follow the crowd. The cobbled streets lined with shops on either side had guides who were keen to book me a ticket to the famous museums of Vatican. Despite being disinterested, they were happy to show me the direction to the San Pietro Square, more popularly referred as St. Peter’s Square.  There are markings that demarcate the boundary between Italy and Vatican City. However, as I neared the St. Peter’s Square, I was oblivious to the fact that I had walked into another country.

The huge square which is a creation of the great sculptor, Bernini houses the imposing St. Peter’s Basilica along with 17th century fountains, a granite obelisk, statues and curved pathway with pillars on either side which form a beautiful frame. As I captured the frames, the entrance queue to the cupola (dome atop the Basilica) lengthened. Though a long one, it moved quickly as I headed past the Swiss guards in colourful uniforms. They are the official guards and serve as the de facto military of Vatican City apart from safeguarding the Pope and the Papal Apartments which include residences, various offices of the church, numerous chapels, Vatican museums, Sistine Chapel, Vatican library and many other official buildings.  

Though there are more than 550 steps all the way up the dome, I opted for the elevator which helped me skip almost 300 steps. The level where the elevator stops has a balcony which offers magnificent views of the interiors of the basilica. I was lucky to be there when the services were on. The balcony also offers a closer view of the magnificent ceiling which is adorned with breathtaking art work. After gazing at the amazing works, climbed the winding stairs to the top of the dome. The spectacular views of St. Peter’s Square, endless tile roofed buildings and the city of Rome in the distance left me spellbound for a while.

As it got crowded, I walked down and the path which ended at the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica. For the first few minutes, all that I could do was to take my eyes off one spectacular creation and fix it on another spellbinding one. There is no end to the wonderful artwork inside this grandiose creation. In early 16th century the present Basilica replaced an old church which was built in the 4th century by Constantine. The architects of the basilica include artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael. From pillars to ceilings to walls, everything is adorned with carvings, paintings and sculptures, making the basilica seem more like an art gallery with a display of plethora of magnificent works. The interiors were nicely lit up and as the sunlight filtered through the tiny windows on top, the ambiance definitely seemed magical. The beautiful canopy with spiraling columns built by Bernini stands tall above the altar and is a major attraction. It is believed that beneath altar, deep in the undergrounds are buried numerous tombs including that of Saint Peter. Apart from the gorgeous dome, Michelangelo also sculpted the Pieta for the basilica. This marble creation of Virgin Mary cradling the crucified Christ on her lap is considered to be one of the masterpieces of the artist and is the biggest attraction inside this basilica. As I craned my neck and walked, was absolutely stunned by the astounding creations all around.

A quick lunch later I was at the entrance of the Vatican museums waiting for my guide. It is well recommended to opt for a guided tour while visiting the museums as that would give a better understanding of the history and detailing of the beautiful works. With audio guides plugged in, we began with the works of Michelangelo as the guide took us through a picture tour of his works. From there on, it was a stroll through brilliant creations by various artists. It was almost a melee out there with numerous guides and amazed tourists rubbing shoulders and forging ahead through the countless hallways plastered with magnificent pieces of art. From walls to ceilings, every inch is adorned with a plethora of art depicting stories from bible and characters from the western civilization. Undoubtedly, this seven kilometers of rooms and hallways has one of the richest collection of art in the world. Museo Pio- Clementino, Museo Etrusco and Museo Egiziano are some of the popular museums. Stanze di Raffaello or The Raphael Rooms houses the brilliant works of Raphael which includes Disputation over the Holy Sacrament and School of Athens. Apostolic library has some of the finest collections of ancient manuscripts and rare books.

The walk finally culminated at the popular Capella Sistina or Sistine Chapel, without a doubt a mindboggling work of art that includes the famous works of Michelangelo such as Last Judgement and Creation of Adam. The chapel portrays the biblical story of man in 3 parts- from Adam to Noah, Giving of the Law to Moses and birth of Jesus to the Last Judgement. The 15th century Sistine chapel is one of the finest displays of artistic expression in Vatican City. Sistine chapel is also one of the most sacred ones and this is where the cardinals elect new Popes. Photography is prohibited inside this chapel. One of the exits from the chapel leads to Giuseppe Momo’s staircase, an attractive spiral staircase. The guided tour ended at the entrance door of the Basilica and the irresistible interiors pulled me inside once again.

Walking out of the museums and the basilica, I strolled through the square still amazed by the breathtaking work of art. It seemed like I just walked through eternity.

Ponte Sant’ Angelo and Castel Sant’ Angelo outside St. Peter’s Square and near river Tiber are the other popular attractions here.

Travel Tips:
  • Stay in Rome and take the metro to Ottaviano station. St. Peter’s Square is a short walk away from the station.
  • Keep a full day aside to visit Vatican City.
  • Book the visit to museums in advance and a guided tour is definitely recommended. It is a 3 hour tour and they take you to the important and most popular museums.  I booked through Maximus Tours.
  • Visit to the basilica can be done on your own.
  • To go up the cupola (dome), the charges are 6 Euros and if opting for the elevator, it is 8 Euros. Guided tours do not take you up; have to do it on your own.
  • There are queues to enter the basilica and the for the dome. Head there as early as possible (Basilica opens at 7 AM).
  • There are numerous restaurants and cafes just outside the square.

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