Why These Catacombs in Naples Might Be the World’s Creepiest

Catacombs of San Gaudioso, Naples

I’m constantly telling people to visit Naples, and I’ve finally written about one of my favorite reasons why: the catacombs of San Gaudioso. While Rome has no dearth of spine-tingling sites (hello, Capuchin crypt), these catacombs — which include a gallery in which desiccated heads were attached to the walls… and portraits of the dearly departed frescoed around them — are, hands-down, the creepiest place I’ve ever visited.

The run-down: Like the spectacular catacombs of San Gennaro, the catacombs of San Gaudioso were first dug out in Greco-Roman times. They were used as an ancient necropolis and then — later — an early Christian cemetery. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because the catacombs in Rome have similar backstories, too). But after being inundated with the lave dei vergini (literally, the lava of the virgins; great name, right?) and abandoned in the 9th century, they were forgotten about. Until, that is, some enterprising Dominican friars decided to build a church here in the 17th century… and pay for it, at least in part, with their really gruesome fancy-schmancy burial practices. (So fancy, in fact, only nobles and high-level officials got the benefit of it. Really, who doesn’t want to be drained, beheaded and put on display for all eternity?!).

Read more over in my story on the catacombs of San Gaudioso for BBC Culture, and remember: You have been warned.

If you’re already sold and just need the details:

The catacombs of San Gaudioso are located in the Naples neighborhood of Rione Sanità. (If you go, don’t miss the equally creepy Cimitero delle Fontanelle). The entrance is at the Basilica Santa Maria della Sanità in Piazza Sanità. The catacombs are open from Monday to Sunday, 10am-1pm, but visitable only with a tour, which leaves every hour; the guides (who are super-enthusiastic and knowledgeable, by the way — not always the case in Italy!) speak English, so you can ask for an English-language tour. More info here. It costs €9 per adult, which also gets you entrance to the catacombs of San Gennaro (also a must-see).

Also: two facts about ancient Rome you probably didn’t know, why you should visit Rome’s only pyramid and some other reasons to visit Naples.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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Books About Italy I’m Compulsively Reading (and Re-Reading)

No matter where I am in the world, I have a shelf devoted to books about Italy. Which may be why, although I started out this post planning to write a gift guide — something I do every couple of years — I found that everything that came to mind to include was… a book.

While that partly speaks to the fact that I’m a nerd bookworm, it also speaks to something else: whether you’re interested in fiction or memoir, food or art, ancient history or World War II, there are a number of compulsively-readable books about Italy out there these days.

What is my bar for “compulsively readable”? In the last three years, I’ve gone through two transatlantic moves. Each time, I’ve had to winnow down my library. Most of the books on this list are ones that I found myself re-buying after my last move. That’s how much I couldn’t live without them.

So. Here are the books about Italy I’ve sometimes bought not once, but twice — and the person on your gift-giving list (other than you!) who might like them best.

The best book about Italy for the one on your list… who, faced with a table of magazines at the doctor’s office, always reaches for the New Yorker.

Haven’t heard of Elena Ferrante? First, crawl out from under your rock. Second, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore to pick up the first novel in her “Neapolitan quartet”: My Brilliant Friend.

The series pins down human emotions, flaws and foibles with such searing precision, it’s sometimes almost excruciating to read. On the surface, it’s about two girls who grow up together in the shadows of a working-class neighborhood in postwar Naples. And if you love Italy, especially the south or bella Napoli, it will give you a raw, intense look at a people and culture that tend to be stereotyped, not examined.

Why take a day trip from Rome to Naples?

And yet, as in any true masterpiece, so many of the observations Ferrante makes apply far beyond the backstreets of Naples. For example…

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Seven of the Best Autumn Sagre in Italy

I’ve been obsessed with Italy’s sagre  since my first introduction to them. So much more than food festivals (though food’s a big part of it), these are celebrations of a local community, culture and cuisine. The particular foodstuff they celebrate completely ranges — anything from white truffle to chocolate to pumpkins to chestnuts to wine. And the best season for them? The autumn! Which is why I just wrote about seven of the best sagre in Italy in autumn — from a little town just outside Rome to Puglia to Piedmont — for The Guardian. Check it out here.

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What to Know About Coffee in Italy — And Where to Find the Best Coffee in Rome

Where to find the best coffee in Rome

The sad news arrived this week that Italy is truly, finally getting its first Starbucks — which seems like the perfect time to talk about coffee in Italy. You know, Italian coffee in Italy. What it is. How to order it. What the various kinds (macchiato, lungo, cappuccino, mamma mia!) really meanAnd, naturally, where to find the best coffee in Rome (and beyond).

But first, let’s get one thing out of the way: what coffee in Italy is not.

How to know your coffee isn’t Italian-style

Italian coffee is not something you would mistake on the first sip for a weirdly hot milkshake. It does not require 10 minutes of you patiently waiting for a barista to make it only to then grab it to go and rush out the door with it in your hand as if, at that precise moment, the urgency of your situation suddenly became apparent. It is not served in a cup so large it could be mistaken for an army barracks stock pot.

And it does not in any way taste like peppermint, spiced pumpkin or like what would happen if you burned butter, added it to raw bitter greens, then boiled the two together. (Yes: that last point means properly-done espresso, from good-quality beans, does not have that burned, bitter taste that you get from a mug of classic Starbucks roast).<p?

Got it? Good!

Okay, fine, but what’s the big deal with Italian coffee, anyway?

You mean, why does Italian coffee have such cachet that leading coffee chains worldwide all give their menu items Italian names… no matter how American/British/fill-in-the-blank their drinks really are?
Best coffee in Italy at Naples Caffe Mexico
At the best Italian bars, like Caffe Mexico in Naples, making an espresso is down to a science

For one thing, because Italians invented coffee culture. No, they weren’t the first to harvest—or brew—the beans. But they were the first in Europe to open a coffee house (Venice, 1629), to invent the espresso machine (Turin, 1884) and to come up with the macchinetta (the stovetop percolator first produced by Bialetti, still the leading creator of the moka, in 1933).

Or, as the owner of Caffè Sant’Eustachio in Rome once put it to me years ago, when I asked him why he thought not a single Starbucks had opened in Rome:

Macchiatto, espresso, cappuccino — these are all Italian names. Why would we buy the American version of these drinks when we’re the ones who invented them?”

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Should I Take a Day Trip from Rome to Naples?

Why take a day trip from Rome to Naples?

Actually… the issue isn’t necessarily whether you should take a day trip from Rome to Naples. The issue really is that a day in Naples is not enough time to explore the city’s art and archaeology, its ridiculously good food and fascinating underground, its vibrance and energy.

Stazione toledo in Naples, Italy
One of Naples’ new and trippy “art stations”, Toledo, on the metro (photo: Wikipedia)

Or to even start to grasp its contradictions. Naples is a place where a spate of contemporary art museums have opened in the last few years — but where people still lower baskets outside their window to the street to trade cash for cigarettes.

It’s a place where traffic patterns will sometimes completely break down — but where the buses are frequent and the brand-new subway stations have all been beautifully designed by contemporary artists.

It’s a place where whole families will cram onto a scooter without a single helmet between them — but where you’ll be admonished by a well-meaning local if you dare to go out on a chilly night without a scarf around your neck.

Whether to take a day trip from Rome to Naples
There’s way more to food in Naples than pizza… hello, sfogliatelle!

To really start to dig into (and grasp) Naples, you need at least two, three days. Or, frankly, a lifetime. (For a very good sense of why it took me a few visits to capitulate to bella Napoli — but why I wound up falling for the city, hard — then read this piece I wrote for New York Magazine).

But most people coming to Italy aren’t considering whether a day trip from Rome to Naples is enough. They’re considering whether to visit Naples at all.

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Gifts for the Italy-Bound Traveler (Updated for 2018)

Travel gifts for people going to Italy

Looking for the perfect gift for a traveler headed to Italy? (Or maybe for yourself?). I’ve got you covered!

And don’t miss my guide to the best Italian gifts, or my previous guide to the best gifts for travelers to Italy.

The perfect airplane read(s)

When it comes to bringing history to life, Ross King is a wizard, telling rollicking tales of Renaissance scandals and assignments gone awry. And he’s done it with not one, not two, but three Italian treasures: Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (on the Duomo of Florence); Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (on the Sistine Chapel); and Leonardo and the Last Supper (at right).

Conveniently, each book is on a different city (Florence, Rome and Milan). Talk about the perfect gift trifecta for someone headed for the Grand Tour.

The insider’s guide to Rome by… yours truly

If you think the Revealed Rome website is helpful, wait till you read the book. I’ve basically downloaded my Rome-related brain into a book that covers everything a traveler would want to know — think handy tips like how to pick an authentic restaurant at a glance, secrets to skipping the lines at the Colosseum and Vatican, how to eat gluten-free in the country of pasta and pizza, and much more. Recently updated, the book is now available in both print and e-versions. You can read more about the Revealed Rome Handbook here, or head right over to check it out on Amazon — where I’m thrilled to say it has 5-star reviews from 80-plus people who have read (and used) it.

Travel gifts for people going to Italy

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Give the Gift of a Revealed Rome Travel Session

6a013483a13a94970c0167691793f4970b-500wi“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

Since 2012, I have helped more than 250 clients with my one-on-one consulting sessions on travel to Italy. And I’ve been thrilled to hear their post-trip feedback about what fantastic experiences they had — and, in particular, how our sessions let them discover hidden gems and avoid the kinds of issues that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise… all personalized to their needs and wants. After all, answers to questions like “Should I go to the Amalfi coast or the Cinque Terre?” or “What do you think about a Colosseum tour?” can’t be found in a guidebook or online — because they depend on who you are!

– See more at: https://www.revealedrome.com/italy-travel-consulting

“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

Since 2012, I have helped more than 250 clients with my one-on-one consulting sessions on travel to Italy. And I’ve been thrilled to hear their post-trip feedback about what fantastic experiences they had — and, in particular, how our sessions let them discover hidden gems and avoid the kinds of issues that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise… all personalized to their needs and wants. After all, answers to questions like “Should I go to the Amalfi coast or the Cinque Terre?” or “What do you think about a Colosseum tour?” can’t be found in a guidebook or online — because they depend on who you are!

– See more at: http://romerevealed.typepad.com/italytravelconsulting/travel-consulting-italy.html#sthash.gFrBuIFW.dpuf

“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

Since 2012, I have helped more than 250 clients with my one-on-one consulting sessions on travel to Italy. And I’ve been thrilled to hear their post-trip feedback about what fantastic experiences they had — and, in particular, how our sessions let them discover hidden gems and avoid the kinds of issues that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise… all personalized to their needs and wants. After all, answers to questions like “Should I go to the Amalfi coast or the Cinque Terre?” or “What do you think about a Colosseum tour?” can’t be found in a guidebook or online — because they depend on who you are!

– See more at: http://romerevealed.typepad.com/italytravelconsulting/travel-consulting-italy.html#sthash.gFrBuIFW.dpuf

New this year, I’m offering the ability to give a classic or unlimited session as a gift. Purchase with the button below. Or read on to learn more about what each session entails!

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Italy in 30 Days

03-italy-scarf.w529.h352.2xThis month, New York Magazine is taking a little trip to Italy, with stories every day on the trials, tribulations, myths and magic of la bella vita. I'm excited to be contributing ten (count 'em… ten!) different pieces throughout the month. I'll be updating this post with the links as they publish. Enjoy!

Ciao, bella: 15 lessons from my life in Italy. How does living in Italy change you? Oh, let me count the ways…

Three pasta recipes to impress your Italian lover. Yes, you can recreate those amazing pastas you had in Rome, at home. How do I know? Because if I can do it, anyone can. Here's how.

From Italian nutritionists: Eat cookies for breakfast. In moderation, of course. That, and how to fit gelato, pasta and cappuccino into your diet, straight from the mouths of Italian dieticians. You're welcome.

To Rome with love: Six hidden-gem neighborhoods refreshingly free from tourists (for now). Even devoted readers of Revealed Rome will find some surprises. That's a promise.

Wild, medieval, non-touristy Umbria: A brief tour. It's my favorite region in Italy. Here's how to get started on exploring it — whether in a day or seven.

Naples: Less garbage, just as much to love. Not everyone falls in love with Naples, a city almost as maligned in Italy as it is abroad. I did. Here's why (and why it might deserve a stop on your next Italy trip).

Is your olive oil lying about its virginity? (It might not even be Italian!). My Q&A with intrepid investigative reporter Tom Mueller on an industry so scandalous, profits from fraudulent oil are on par with those from cocaine trafficking — and on why you should care.

Why won't Italians have cappuccino after dinner? Plus: can colpo d'aria (a hit of air) really give you a neck pain? And does a digestivo really help you digest? I talk to doctors to get to the truth behind eight rules that many Italians insist you follow — because otherwise, you might getsickandDIE.

Want real Italian food? Skip these seven dishes. From spaghetti and meatballs to fra diavolo, some of the plates most beloved by Little Italy neighborhoods across America are all but impossible to find in the motherland. Here's why, and what to order instead.

The mayor shouldn't have gone to Capri this summer. Here are five other Italian islands I'd have sent de Blasio that are every bit as stunning as the glitzy isle, but far more under the radar.

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The Most Beautiful Island Escapes Near Rome (Updated for 2018)

The island of Procida, one of the best islands near Rome

I love Rome in summer as much as the next girl. But usually, by the time June rolls around, I’m already dreaming of escaping to an Italian island near Rome.

Luckily, the capital’s proximity to the sea means you don’t need to set aside a whole week to enjoy some idyllic island time: even just a weekend will do. When I’m craving beautiful scenery, super-fresh fish, laid-back hamlets and those sparkling Mediterranean shores, but only have 48 hours to spend (or less!), these are the islands I always turn to.

Ponza, one of the best islands near Rome
I’d wile away my whole day on this dock in Ponza, too, if I could…

It’s a big claim when it comes to the Mediterranean, which is (let’s be honest) embarrassingly #blessedwith stunning little spots, but I’m going to put it out there: these are some of the best islands not only near Rome, but some of the best Italian islands around, period.

The best island near Rome for… going where the locals go: Ponza

Ponza, one of the best islands near Romea
It’s hard to dream of a prettier place than the harbor of Ponza at twilight…

I can’t believe I’ve gotten into year five of this blog (or my travel-writing career, for that matter) without having published a word about Ponza. For shame! When it comes to Mediterranean islands, it’s easily one of Italy’s best-kept secrets… from international tourists, that is.

Romans, on the other hand, know Ponza well: in fact, the well-heeled have been visiting the island for more than 2,000 years, drawn by its lush, volcanic greenery, striking cliffs and, of course, bright-blue sea. (Fun fact: the island gets its name from a local legend which holds that Pontius Pilate’s own family had a villa here).

Today, Ponza (also shown at top) is scattered with a handful of small, pastel villages. The main port town crowds with Italians fresh off the ferries in July and August. (It’s much quieter even in June, and when I went once in October, there was hardly anyone there at all—even though the temperature remained balmy enough for a swim).

Circe's cave at the island of Ponza, Ponza, one of the best islands near Rome
Circe’s cave at the island of Ponza (Also: Look. At. That. Water)

Although its villages are lovely, Ponza’s main attraction is, of course, the natural scenery. Don’t miss  the Chaia di Luna (above), a crescent of cliffs plunging into the sea where Circe, the sorceress, was said to have seduced Odysseus. In-the-know-Italians also flock to Spiaggia di Frontone, which you take a ferry to from Porto, and stay until the evening, hanging out at the laid-back bars and beach clubs.

Taking a boat around Ponza, one of the best Italian islands near Rome
You can never go wrong with renting a boat to see Ponza… or any of the other islands on this list

Renting a car or scooter is, as with all three of these islands, suggested—but for Ponza, especially, it’s also worth renting a small outboard boat, which you can do right at the harbor, to toodle around. It’s the best way to get to those out-of-the-way coves and beaches that make the island so special.

Getting there: Take the train from Rome to Formia-Gaeta (one hour, €16.50 or 1.5 hours, €8.20), or to Anzio (one hour and €3.60). From Formia, Laziomar runs ferries to Ponza (80 minutes, €25.50 or 2.5 hours, €16.70); from Anzio, Vetor offers ferries to Ponza (70 minutes, €25 to €48).

The best island near Rome for… sightseeing (including a castle): Ischia

Ischia, one of the most beautiful and best islands near Rome
The view of beautiful Ischia from its equally beautiful castle

Capri isn’t the only island off Naples and the Amalfi coast. Ischia, its neighbor, is actually the largest island in the bay—plus is cheaper, less touristic and every bit as beautiful.

I’ve written about Ischia at length before, both in this post and in this story last year for the Globe and Mail, so I won’t repeat it all here. But let’s put it this way: Ischia has a ridiculously picturesque castle (that just happens to date back to the time of the ancient Greeks), tons of little villages and coves to explore, and some of the best sfogliatelle around. And it makes not only a fantastic quick trip from Rome, but a great day trip from the Amalfi coast or Naples, too.

Yes, you could definitely come to Ischia and just flop down on the beach. But with so much to see, you’d kind of be missing the point.

Castello Aragonese in Ischia, one of the best islands near Rome
A medieval castle gives an Italian island serious bonus points, amiright?

Getting there: Take the train from Rome to Naples (the fastest is 70 minutes, €43; cheapest is 2 hours, €19). From there, grab a bus or taxi to the port (10 minutes; a taxi costs €11) and one of a number of ferries, run by lines including Medmar, Caremar, Alilauro and Snav, on to Ischia. The fastest from the main port takes 45 minutes and costs about €28 each way.

The best island near Rome for… an idyllic day trip: Procida

Procida, one of the best islands near Rome
How insane are these colors?

This picturesque little island is another of Capri’s lesser-known neighbors. It also measures just 1.5 square miles—leaving so little room for tourism buildup, both hotels and tourist crowds are pretty nonexistent.

That, of course, is part of Procida’s charm. Old men gather in the piazzas to gossip and smoke, fishermen repair their nets on the docks and centuries-old traditions endure—like the Good Friday procession of the Misteri, which parades life-sized, handmade floats through the town.

Procida, one of the best islands near Rome
The perfect place to just relax

Aside from the seaside life and spectacular scenery (this is where Il Postino was filmed), the island has a sense of magic to it I haven’t experienced anywhere else, a kind of Neapolitan mysteriousness that’s been transferred (and preserved) offshore. One local legend has it that, when Procida was besieged (hardly for the first time) by pirates on 8 May 1535, locals called on St Michael the archangel for help. He showed up, sword in hand, and the pirates fled, another anniversary that’s celebrated with a procession each year.

For more about Procida, and more shots of this stunning off-the-beaten-path island, check out my slideshow for the BBC. Procida, an island escape from Rome

Procida’s size makes it more walkable than the other islands, so you don’t have to rent a scooter or car. But getting to some of the farther-flung beaches on the island can still be a bit of a hike (it’s a 2-mile walk from the town to the lovely, if crowded on summer weekends, Lido di Procida beach, for example); we found ourselves occasionally taking cabs, which were relatively cheap (but you will have to have some way to call them).

As an aside, the island’s manageable size and proximity to Naples makes it not only a great weekend escape, but a doable day or half-day trip from Naples or the Amalfi coast.

Beautiful Procida, a great island near Rome
One of the parts of Procida where Il Postino was filmed

Getting there: For the most part, the ferries that run to Ischia stop, first, at Procida. So it’s the same procedure as above: Take the train from Rome to Naples (the fastest is 70 minutes, €43; cheapest is 2 hours, €19). From there, grab a bus or taxi to the port (10 minutes; a taxi costs €11) and one of a number of ferries, run by lines including Medmar, Caremar, Alilauro and Snav, on to Procida. The hydrofoil takes just 40 minutes and costs about €15 each way.

AlsoRome’s best beaches, the complete Rome summer guide, and lakes near Rome you won’t want to miss.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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