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.

Continue Reading

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?”

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

Five Weekend Escapes from Rome, in Pictures

Looking to get out of Rome for a couple of days? Here are five of my favorite weekend escapes!

Siena, Tuscany, a great day trip from Rome
Siena, one of my favorite cities, boasts medieval streets, incredible Renaissance art, graceful palaces, and one of the most incredible churches in Italy. It's a 3-hour train ride from Rome. Check out my other post on Siena, or my day trip itinerary over at Art Trav.

 

Monopoli, Puglia, Italy

Although it takes almost 5 hours to get here on the train from Rome, Monopoli, located in Puglia, has a beautiful beach, lovely streets, and top-notch food. It's also a great place to stay for the weekend to explore Puglia's other gems, like Bari or Polignano a Mare

 

Naples, Italy, a day trip from Rome

Although you could visit Naples in a day trip—on the high-speed train, it's just a little over an hour—the city's really worth at least a weekend. Evocative piazzas and palaces? Check. Some of the most important art in Italy? Check. One of the finest archaeological museums in the world? Check. Incredible food (including pizza), three castles, and the liveliest atmosphere you'll ever experience? Check, check and check. Here's my post on what to see in Naples, here's my weekend guide to where to stay and what to do for the weekend for New York Magazine, and here's my most recent article on why I love the city so much.

 

Ponza, off the coast from Rome

I owe you all a post on Ponza, the gorgeous island just a 2-hour ferry ride from Formia (itself an hour-long drive from Rome). But until then, this picture, of the cliffs on Ponza where Circe was said to have lived and seduced Odysseus, will suffice.

  Perugia, a great day or weekend trip from Rome

Perugia, located 2.5 hours from Rome on the train, is a gem of a city. It's also a great base to spend the weekend exploring Umbria, possibly my favorite region in all of Italy.

Continue Reading

Weekend Escape to Naples, for New York Magazine

My piece on Naples, Italy—including where to stay, eat, visit, and my suggestions for a seriously spooky “oddball day”—has gone live over at New York Magazine. I’ve always been a huge proponent of this incredible and much-misunderstood city, and it happens to make an easy (1:10 hrs on the fast train) day trip from Rome, so check it out.

Coming up soon: less self-promotional blog posts. I promise.

 

Continue Reading

Through May, Naples Museums Come Free

Although I usually focus on events in Rome, I came across some news today that — especially since I just posted on Naples as a great day or weekend trip from Rome — I can't not share with you all.

From now until May 30, some of Naples' top museums will be free. The fantastic Archaeological Museum, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be included, but the museum at Capodimonte (remember, the one with all of those famous pieces by artists from Botticelli to Caravaggio) is. That's €7.50 saved. You can buy two whole pizzas with that kind of change.

The Capodimonte, as well as the museum at Castel Sant'Elmo and the Certosa and Museum of San Martino, are free from 8:30am-10am and 4pm-7:30 through May. The museum Duca di Martina is free all day (8:30am-2pm). Click here for information on Naples' free museums from Pierreci.

Continue Reading

Day Trip to Herculaneum: It’s Not Pompeii, But Its Ruins Pack a (Volcanic) Punch

DSC_0251

I love Rome’s ruins: the forum, the Palatine, the scattered bits of temple and theatre and bath. But I’m the first to admit that you need some imagination, and historical background, to look at “ruin” and see “ancient city.”

Not in Herculaneum.

Destroyed (or preserved), like Pompeii, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Herculaneum shows you more than the shape of the ancient town. It shows you the town itself. The site boasts two-story buildings, colorful frescoes, and near-perfect mosaics. And because it was dumped mainly with a dense, volcanic stone called tuff, rather than the ash that felled Pompeiians, it’s only here, not at its more-famous neighbor, that you can see remnants of actual wood. There’s nothing like seeing an ancient bedframe to feel uncomfortably close to the townspeople who died here nearly two millennia ago.

Even so, Herculaneum hasn’t managed to usurp the hold that Pompeii has in the international imagination. Why? It’s a lot smaller, for a start: about a third of the size. It’s also somewhat less grand. But with better-preserved buildings, less crowds, and a closer location to Rome, it’s also a rewarding alternative to its more-notorious neighbor. And don’t underestimate the site:  It takes the thorough visitor a good three hours to peek into each house’s nook and cranny.

To get to Herculaneum from Rome, take the train to Naples. The fastest train is 70 minutes and starts at €44 one way; the slowest, at 3 hours, costs €12.40. Go to Trenitalia’s website for times and fares, but remember to put in “Roma” and “Napoli,” not “Rome” and “Naples.” From there, grab the local train, the Circumvesuviana, to “Ercolano.”

Continue Reading