A Sacred and Strange Walk through Naples

I planned to let my feet lead me on my walk through Naples. But first, I dug out the Alibus schedule I had acquired upon arriving at the Capodichino Naples Aeroporto and rode the worn-down and aptly named Alley Bus through a honeycomb of narrow streets cramped with double-parked cars and impromptu street café seating.  Horn-bleating scooters flitted carelessly amidst the battered buses and fleet of mini-cars.

Garibaldi City-Scape with Vesvius in the BackgroundAlibus runs every 20 minutes directly from ‘Airport Departures’ to two central city stops: Piazza de Garibaldi and Piazza Municipali. At 3 Euros, it is not a bargain, but the ease and simplicity of the line appeals.

I began my Naples walking tour at the Piazza de Garibaldi in the east end of old Naples, home to the Stazione Centrale di Napoli since 1866 and currently home also to a major construction site and several large piles of intransient trash. Twenty-five rail lines run out of Central Station, connecting Naples to more popular tourist destinations like Rome and Sorrento, and herding daily masses of tourists on the Circumvesuviano to Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius, and Herculaneum. Train lines are named with an apt clarity in Naples: the Circumvesuviano, for example, traces a circle about Mount Vesuvius.

As I commenced my walking tour, straight seemed the easiest direction. The sidewalk on Corso Umbrica is lined with tourists, shopkeepers, occasional honking scooters, and a host of street vendors hawking their wares: sunglasses, earrings, leather belts, small paintings of the Madonna and Saint Gennara, as well as a series of purse displays so alike in design and pattern that they must have fallen off the same hapless truck.

I had intended to turn off on Via Alessandro and walk north to the Castel Capuano, a 12th century royal palace and later Hall of Justice now covered in graffiti and barbed wire fencing. But, thankfully, I have smart feet.

The thrill of exploring a new city seems to be connected to the feel of uneven cobblestones under worn soles. As I trod the illogically twisting streets, I peered alternatively up at faded street signs in a language I don’t understand and down at a cartoonish tourist map tucked into the outside pocket of my over-shoulder purse. My feet understand this and my brain knows enough to shut up and go along for the ride.

Once off the main Corso, the Vias and Della’s take over. They are thin strips of road made even more narrow by shops spilling out onto sidewalks and the adjacent high-rises so rickety that they tilt inward and drip wet laundry onto the unwary walker. Although the trash emergency in Naples has been reduced, open toed shoes are a novice mistake as sidewalks inevitably run with various sticky substances and a small layer of litter.

In one back alley, Via Annunziata, a marble archway openThe Ruota in Casa Dell'Annunziataed to a picturesque courtyard with pepto pink walls and signs urging visitors to see the “Triste Routa.” My feet led, and I entered a short corridor decorated by crayon drawings of Christ’s resurrection. Three women sat guard, talking as much with their hands as with their tongues.

In retrospect, I would have fared better if I had not said “oui” when asked if I was Francaise, but they gestured me in warmly and thankfully their French was worse than mine. The exhibit was free. I managed to procure a guide sheet in French and escape to the main display room without much conversation.

The Ruota is an odd contraption: a large wooden cupboard housing a giant rotating bucket reminiscent of nothing so much as a lazy susan. Aside from the wheel, the room is largely clinical, painted in white and decorated only by black and white marble floors and a white marble sink set into one wall. It is this clinical nature that makes the wheel and what it stands for all the more fascinating: the cupboard in which the wheel sits is built into the outer wall of the house, and the wall opens onto the adjacent street. Here, through a small drop-slot, an unfortunate mother could place her unwanted infant into the wooden wheel and close the door. Inside, a Holy Sister would turn the wheel, wash the child, record its sex, health, and name–if one was given–into a large leather tome, and welcome the “Child of The Painted Ceiling in Basilica Santa Della Annunziata Madonna” to the Casa Santa Dell’Annunziata.  The children were considered ‘touched by Grace’ and were accorded special status within the city, so occasionally even parents wealthy enough to leave gold coins with their child would turn the infant over to the Ruota.

The Triste Ruota was sponsored by the Holy House which was founded in the 14th century as one of a series of institutions to care for abandoned children. The Holy House continued to accept abandoned children until social services took over this role in the 1950s.Thankfully, the sad wheel was decommissioned in 1875, reportedly Sanctuary in Basilica Santa Della Annunziata due to injuries sustained by abandoned teenagers shoved into the overly confined space.

The Basilica next door is a beautiful cathedral with a particularly astounding side chapel decorated in a muraled vault ceiling and lined with parable scenes carved in dark wood.

Entrance is free, flash photography is discouraged, and the walk is well worth the time. The Basilica and ruota are located at: 34 Via Annunziata and are open Mon-Sat 9-6pm.

Having reached my quota of historical knowledge for the day, I let my mind take control and sadly visited the disappointing Castel Capuona. I was then hassled by street peddlers and a kindly, but misguided, old mathematics professor from the University of Naples, causing me to miss my bus on the first pass. I also developed three blisters, paid too much for a mediocre gelato, and ate a re-heated pizza neapolitano margherita at a sidewalk stand that was tough as my shoe.

Sandals aside, walking is the only way to see Naples.

Written by and photos by Anne Siders for EuropeUpClose.com

Anne Siders is a foot-path traveler who delights in the off-beat, the ancient, and the active.  She travels for work and for pleasure and for the opportunity to write and photograph it all.

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