We are in the Galleria Umberto I which was completed in 1891. From the roof of our hotel, I had assumed it must be the Botanical Gardens because of the glass roof. It’s like the galleria near the Museo Archaeologico although it differs in some important respects. Built in the same cross-shape, here the arms of the cross are of equal lengths. It is altogether much bigger and the marble floor is much more ornate with geometric patterns and designs and although the façades of the shops (three tiers here instead of two), are much less decorated, they are all the better for that.
Also it is far from empty. Blacks are trying to tempt passers-by with leather goods and handbags as well as jewellery and trinkets which are displayed on a blanket in front of them. According to Sophia, our guide, if a policeman came along they’d sweep the whole lot into the blanket, sling it over their shoulder and leg it, like a burglar making off with the swag. Well maybe, but it seems to me they could easily be arrested if the cops really put their minds to it and I suspect it’s just another law that the Italians choose to ignore. Probably they’ll get fed up of catching motorists not wearing seatbelts soon too and life can get back to normal.
We came in by the entrance facing the Teatro di San Carlo, but it is the oldest opera house still operating in the world, if you pardon the pun. The Charles after whom it was named was the Bourbon Charles III of Spain or Charles VII of Naples or Charles V of Sicily. Take your pick, but since we are in Naples, I’m going to go for the middle one and although he was three times a king, I can’t quite see somehow how that elevates him to the sainthood. Anyway, the theatre was completed in 1737 which makes it some 40 years older than La Scala in Milan. So put that in your pipe and smoke it Milano — not to suggest that city wars are still alive and well in Italy of course.
When we leave the Galleria we find ourselves once more on the Via Toledo, this time near where it ends at a roundabout on the Piazza Trieste e Trento. Sophia tells us that Rossini lived on this street and had to be locked in his room by the theatre manager because the maestro was more interested in sampling the delights of Naples rather than getting on with his composing. I presume that means he was addicted to pizza and ice cream with three flavours, though not necessarily at the same time.
At the other side of the piazza is the aforementioned Teatro di San Carlo. It’s just as well it’s not on our itinerary as the piazza is immense and crossing a street, never mind a piazza, is a death-defying experience in Naples at the best of times. But just in case we should wish to attempt it, a car has been parked on the pedestrian crossing just to make it a bit more challenging.
We pass the Caffè Gambrinus where waiters with long aprons are flitting amongst the patrons sitting at the pavement tables. I mention it, because as well as being the present-day haunt of artists, musicians and writers, it was frequented by two of my literary heroes, Guy de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde.
Now we have reached the Piazza Plebiscito. Now this is what I call a piazza! It is vast! On our left is the Palazzo Reale, an austere edifice taking up one entire side, and on the right, the church of San Francesco di Paola. Now that is what I call a church!
The problem is there has been a concert here last night. (What! Here and the one down by the port as well?) It’s hard to hear Sophia over the intrusive sound of cascading scaffolding. But why, oh why, is it can you only see the best buildings Naples has to offer except through a screen of 21st century clutter and scaffolding? And what was the concert performed here last night? Verdi? Puccini? Mozart? Or was it some rock concert whose amplified bass notes made the very foundations of this magnificent building tremble to its very foundations, never mind recoiling in horror at the “music” it was forced to endure?
Despite seen through this spider’s web of steel, the San Francesco di Paola is the best building I have seen in Naples so far and I have seen some pretty good ones it has to be said. Perhaps it has something to do with scale; in fact, I am sure it does. It is so huge it’s staggering but it also has a lot to do with contrast. The Palazzo Reale is so austere, so plain, that it is hopelessly upstaged by the classical lines of the church.
It is modelled after the Pantheon in Rome and there is something immensely pleasing about the combination of the magnificent portico with its columns and the graceful curves of the cupola rising behind the pediment like a moon — but for me it is the great sweep of the colonnades on each side, embracing the piazza like welcoming arms that gives the building its awesome elegance and appeal. We are told it was conceived by Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, but unfortunately for him he never saw it, the French being booted out of Naples in 1815. His loss is our gain. Merci, M. Murat, merci mille fois!
The Palazzo Reale was begun in 1600 and not completed until 1843. Not so surprising when you look at its vast scale. It’s difficult to hear Sophia as yet another piece of scaffolding strikes its fellows down below with a clang like a giant glockenspiel and continuing to resonate long after the blow was struck — but to be honest, I am not that interested anyway. I am still in awe of the San Francesco di Paola. The façade of the palace is so dull the beauty must all be on the inside. What is of some interest though are the statues of the kings of Naples in niches all along the bottom of the building and even if the names mean nothing, it’s a parade, in stone, of fashion through the ages, particularly the headgear. Which is fine if you are a follower of fashion, but if you are like the “baby” in Nina Simone’s song, you won’t even find that interesting.
Sophia tells us if we want a pleasant walk in the evening, we should walk this way, past the Palazzo and follow the bay round to the Castel dell’Ovo or Egg Castle, so-called because of a magic egg supposedly hidden somewhere inside it.
According to legend, this egg had a spell cast on it by Virgil, and it was believed that as long as the egg remained intact, the castle, and Naples, would be protected from disaster. Which worked very well until, in 1503, the castle was practically razed to the ground by Ferdinand II of Spain.
It seems some careless person must have made an omelette for breakfast.