The city of Naples is as mysterious as it is exciting and energetic, but you’re unlikely to uncover its secrets on your first trip. If you want to discover some of the more unusual aspects of the city, you can visit places that reveal an obsession with fear and superstition, as well as love and incredible generosity. On your next trip to Naples, check out some of these secrets of the city.
The patron saint of Naples is San Gennaro, a bishop of Benevento in the Campania region who was beheaded in 305 A.D. City historians claim that some of the blood from his decapitated head was collected and taken to the catacombs of San Gennaro and, some 100 years later, the blood became liquid again. This “miracle” now takes place at the city’s duomo (cathedral) before thousands of devotees who fervently believe that, if the blood does not liquefy, Naples will perish. This ceremony takes place on the first Sunday in May, on the feast day of San Gennaro on September 19 and on December16.
The caffè sospeso is a lovely tradition whereby someone buys coffee for someone else who can’t afford to buy one. To pay for 2 -- and drink only 1 -- is considered a sign of one’s own good fortune and a way of helping someone less fortunate. A caffè sospeso happens when a customer pays for 2 coffees and takes one. The next customer then asks if a caffè sospeso has been done and, if so, takes the free coffee. Sadly, the custom is not as common as it once was, but the fact that the tradition arose in the poor south of Italy rather than the richer north is an interesting insight into the generous nature of Neapolitans.
Deep below the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore is an underground archaeological site that reveals remnants of ancient Greco-Roman streets, such as butcher and baker shops and an arcade more than 2,000 years old. A museum (Museo dell’Opera) explores the site’s long history. Excavations of the Greco-Roman streets continue today.
The story goes that Margherita of Savoy, the first queen of Naples and the wife of King Umberto I, was held in such affection by her subjects that, in 1889, the owners of Pizzeria Brandi created a pizza in her honor. The “margherita” incorporates the 3 colors of the Italian flag – red (tomatoes), white (mozzarella) and green (basil). Most pizzerias in Naples now serve the pizza.
Gestures are a part of everyday life in Italy but nowhere else in the country are there so many as in Naples. Some say this is simply because the city is so noisy and there is no better way to communicate. Look out for the “sign of the horns,” which is done by pointing the index and little fingers while folding the other two. When pointing to the ground, the sign wards off the malocchio (evil eye) and is done when a funeral passes. When held aloft, the gesture is more offensive and means tiene é corna (you are a cuckold). Check out more colorful gestures.
The tufo (volcanic rock) used to build Naples was excavated from the hills around the city. The excavation created caves that became an unauthorized cemetery for victims of plagues, earthquakes and Mount Vesuvius eruptions. The victims numbered in the thousands and many were unidentified and buried by city authorities without last rites.
Catholics thought that the victims’ souls would be trapped in purgatory. Locals formed a cult known as anime pezzentelle (abandoned souls) and they cleaned, cared and prayed for the bones. In 1969, the Archbishop of Naples banned the care of the bones practice and the cemetery closed that year. The cemetery reopened in 2010.
Jan Fuscoe is a London-based writer and editor who has written extensively about Naples and the Amalfi Coast. She wrote the Time Out Guide, Italy: Perfect Places.