Navyo’s sightseeing the Museo and Certosa di San Martino, Castel Sant’Elmo on Vomero Hill in Naples.
Taking Vomero Hill
It’s breakfast time. I walk into the dining room of I Fiori to a large spread of cereal, pastries, fruit and coffee. Yum! Opposite me is a young man in a purple lamé shirt, an American from Connecticut it turns out. He tells me of his impending trip to Capri and we share some travel tales before he takes off to lamé his way.
Today, I will not be going to Capri, although that is a wonderful thought. Island of the jet-set lifestyle of the rich and famous, Bond location and spot for expensive lounging, Capri – along with Ischia and Procida – is worth at least one visit across the azure waters of the Mediterranean.
Today, I’m headed for a castle.
I walk back up the Pignasecca, the smell of fish, the tumble of tourists, locals and vendors giving me traction as I make my way to Montesanto station.
Buying tickets is second nature to me now. Walking onto the platform, this is definitely a new experience. This train is going uphill! I follow a woman in a black dress, her legs worked out, her heels clicking. I can’t help it. Women lead the way, however much men feel in control.
But this isn’t just about sex. An older woman with a small child, a bambina, navigates the carriage. A respectable man in his 60s with a tan fedora takes his seat. Two young dudes in shades climb in. I observe this cross section of Neapolitan life and feel for a moment how it would be to belong here.
The funicolare starts it’s chain-geared ride to the top. We’re all going backwards uphill, the stadium seating providing us a view of Naples on our way up. More of an amusement ride than a train, I want to ride it up and down a few times before getting out.
Vomero is a very different neighborhood than the rest of Napoli. It’s leafy streets offer a commanding view over the densely populated city. It’s light and airy and there’s hardly any traffic. It’s also getting hot.
I make my way to the reason I’m here. Castel Sant’Elmo is a powerful sight. It’s fortifications rising up to make one feel miniscule and powerless. There’s no way anyone could break this down. Seen from the air, it’s built in an elongated star shape and its battlements an angular companion to the rounded threat of Vesuvio across the bay. Amidst all the spectacular vistas you can’t help but feel Naples is a threatening place, it’s bloody history giving it an appeal like no other. The sense of survival is in the air and on the streets – that’s what makes it so alive.
Inside the castle grounds, I approach the ticket window. Two men lean back in their chairs talking, ignoring me. One of them slides his rolling chair to the window.
“Dieci Euro,” he says, continuing the conversation with his friend.
Ticket in hand, I walk up to this giant edifice and feel smaller with every step. This place is massive. I imagine battles and sieges and human strife. But that’s all gone now. What is left is a presence. I find the entry that takes me into the cool of an elevator. Going up. The doors open and it’s then that the heat hits me.
I feel I’m on a movie set again. Everything about Italy is drama – the skies, the opera, the art, the women, the communication – and this is no exception. Where once an army assembled is now a vast empty space. I make my way towards the parapets and walk the entire perimeter of the star. Mad dogs and Englishmen out in the noonday sun, minus the dogs. There are maybe two other people here. Everyone else is sensibly inside in the shade. Call me mad, but I’m getting the full experience and the view across the Bay of Naples is breathtaking. This is a supreme vantage point, regardless of history or heat.
The sprawling city laid out before me begs for a photograph. Actually, it begs for Sophia Loren and a film crew, but that’s only going to happen in my head so I press on with my circumambulation.
It’s hot. Very hot. And I don’t have any water with me. I reach the halfway point and see the drop. It’s a long way down. Dehydration is starting to set in. Can I fly? Should I try? No. Stop that. The whole place is beginning to feel like a dream.
Paladino’s giant infantry helmet with long protruding spines interrupts the view, a reminder why this place was built. I feel myself going back in time.
I decide it’s best to seek some shade. I step into an art installation built especially for this purpose. It’s still hot inside.
Back outside I see the entrance to a gallery. Four men sit talking in the lazy Italian shade. They glance briefly at me, nodding, and continue. I meander through the gallery and cool down, although cool is not strictly accurate as it’s just not hell hot.
All modern works, the Italian drama once again is on display. I wander from room to room and take in the unique creativity, readying myself for the heat again.
Descending in the cool of the elevator, I enjoy a minute’s respite. The doors slide open and I step back into the heat. A Cinquecento greets me at the sidewalk. This is Italy.
Dolls, Dead Monks and a Donkey
I’m parched. Sidewalk tables and chairs in the shade beckon me to sit. A pretty young waitress comes to take my order.
“Una granita al limone, per favore.”
This has to be one of my favorite drinks south of Rome. The heat just begs for it, the ice, lemon and sugar blended to perfection. I sit and gaze out over Naples with my granita and sunglasses and feel like a movie star. So this is what it’s like to be an Italian.
I pay the bill and venture down the Largo towards Museo di San Martino. There’s not much going on here, and I’m the only one about. The entrance to the museum is a small door off the piazza, as if it’s trying to hide. I walk in and it all looks pretty boring to me. Some books, some display cases and in the corner, a life-size replica of the manger with baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph and a donkey.
A smart young woman, also pretty – are there any ugly people in Italy? – tells me I need to buy a ticket. OK, why not. She motions towards the door where the donkey is pointing, as if he, too, wants to get out of boredom. I take my ticket and head to the back. Going through the doors, I am met with another experience altogether.
The Museo di San Martino is an old monastery with cloisters around a square garden. Human skulls decorate the garden at strategic points as if to instill the fear of death or God or both. The place is rich in atmosphere. It’s the cemetery of the monks.
Strolling through open porticos, I look up, the ochre of the building in stark contrast against the azure sky. This could easily be the location of a Versace fashion shoot. Stepping inside the Certosa, I am met with some of the most stunning frescos I’ve ever seen. The masters of Italian baroque have put their hands into these sublime works of beauty. Shafts of light perfectly display these masterpieces as if waiting for me, the dance of sun on pigment a reminder of the elemental power of art.
And it just keeps on going. There are rooms off limits, and I step over a shwag just because. Inside are more frescos, this time in a state of renovation. OK, I’ll leave them be.
I’m not a religious man by any means, yet I am deeply spiritual. Not subscribing to any particular doctrine, I have a profound personal relationship with the divine. Being in Italy surrounded by Catholicism, I am in awe at the devotion expressed in art and architecture. Take out the dogma and you have the artist’s pure love of God. I’m in a constant state of rapture.
Leaving the Certosa, I head back into the museum and arrive at a theater. On stage, people are in various moments of dramatic action. Except they’re not moving. No, they’re not the dead monks. They are depicting a commedia dell’arte of Pulcinella, the spaghetti eating clown. It’s somewhat eerie to see these life-size and life-like dolls in total silence. I’m imagining one of them start to move. Scary.
Exiting stage right, I discover another scene of people, this time in miniature. The nativity is depicted in great detail with all kinds of characters involved around the central scene. The craftsmanship is astonishing.
Turning a corner, in a cavern behind glass is another highly detailed nativity with angels descending from heaven. The scope is much grander and the story more involved. You can really get a sense of being there. This is the famous Cuciniello Crib. But however exquisite the display, I’ve had enough of dolls.
Passing an ornate royal carriage, I head out into sunshine. A terrace leads to a garden and yet another breathtaking view over the Bay of Naples. This is what I came for.
I stop for lunch at Cantina Donna Elena, a covered alleyway posing as a restaurant. It’s actually the entrance to someone’s house, but this being Napoli, everyone is comfortable with close proximity. I take a seat and order a panino. Meanwhile, the door of the house opens and a large dog, a Ridgeback, and his large well-dressed owner squeeze by me towards the street.
After what seems like an eternity, my sandwich arrives. It’s good, of course, and worth the wait. It amazes me how something so simple can taste so good in this country. Maybe it’s Reputation Association or some other subconscious trick. Or maybe it really is just good.
The waiter has gone on vacation and I want to pay. I go down some steps into a basement and there is the waiter, two girls and an older woman all eating together around a table. I wave some Euros and the waiter shouts. A sweaty cook in an apron emerges from the back with a big smile and shouts back at the waiter, who then gets up and takes my money.
I love Italians. They don’t hold their tongue, or their hands, or anything else for that matter. All the shouting and waving has one simple objective – to connect.
Wandering back to the funicolare, I feel the sense of space here on Vomero Hill high above the city before I descend into density. The ride down is just as much fun as the ride up.
There’s still a few hours of daylight left and I decide to walk through the Centro Storico, the historical center. I did not account for the fact that a) it’s still really hot, and b) I need a nap, which is what most of the locals are doing at this time of day.
This street is long, much longer than it appears on the map. I stop at a spigot and wet my head. Both Giangi and Manuela recommended I visit this area, home of some of the great works, including the rebel genius Caravaggio. I keep walking and come out onto a piazza. This time there is a real movie crew. Well, TV actually. They are shooting an episode of Master Chef. A giant crane holds a camera, people in black move equipment about. Fans watch as a chef in white prepares a meal in a kitchen created in the square. It’s fun to see the hoopla, but I’m more interested in Napoli.
I’m walking and walking and if I don’t stop I’m going to collapse. I turn around and head back, past the show, past the gift shops, past a salon. Wait! A salon! That means sitting down in air conditioning. Right then. I’m going to get styled.
I enter Bassani Space and am greeted by Alessandro, a charming young man who speaks a little English. He calls the boss and we get introduced. His English is much better. I tell him what I want and he motions me to sit down.
A pretty assistant with dark eyes shampoos me and then massages my head for about 10 minutes, her strong fingers pushing and pulling out all the exhaustion of the day. I’m in heaven. Alessandro is ready for me and begins his dance, lifting, twirling, snipping, blowing and more snipping. I feel I’m in the hands of a master. After about 30 minutes of this, he holds up a mirror to let me inspect. I’m impressed. No, I’m overjoyed.
Finally, he infuses my hair with a product. This is the magic ingredient, he tells me. Davine’s Oil Non Oil. I’ll buy it, whatever it is. I feel thoroughly refreshed, styled and very Italian.
I leave the cool of the air conditioning uttering praises in the best l’Italiano I can muster.
Excerpt from the soon-to-be-published ‘Soul Traveler: Adventures in La Dolce Vita’ by Navyo
Read more excerpts published in Osho News
Navyo grew up to 6 foot 5 in England, studied music in London before traveling to Pune to meet Osho in 1979. He has been the co-ordinator of the music department in Pune Two for several years and has participated in a number of CDs of Music from the World of Osho. After a decade or so in California, he now travels the world housesitting in wonderful locations, working on creative projects. facebook.com/navyoericsen – conscioushousesitting.com