Ah, Napoli! A city with a rough reputation, there are so many hidden delights, and wonderful food, that you can’t discount Naples if you’ve never been there. A few weeks ago I spent most of a short weekend outside of Naples but I made sure we put aside time for lunch when we first arrived, and before we jumped on the Cirucumvesuviana (the train that goes around the volcano Vesuvius).
One of my favorite parts of Naples is Spaccanapoli, a neighborhood deep in the heart of Naples that is full of interesting places to eat, people watch, and of course, buy figures for your presepe, Christmas nativity scenes.
There are two main streets lined with these presepe shops (as well as other touristy-like businesses). Via San Gregorio Armeno is one of these streets and the shops in the weeks leading up to Christmas approach a near frenzy of activity with the crowded streets packed full of hopeful shoppers.
The presepe is normally made of wood, and you can see some craftsman making them right in their open-door shops as you walk by. After you have the structure of your presepe, you have to fill it up! There are of course the more classic figures that you’d expect to see in a nativity scene: baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the 3 kings, and all the animals in the manger.
But why stop at just the manger? Many Italian households will build entire cities around their presepe and will take up entire tables or floor spaces with the nativity scene. Some of the nativity figurines will move like these below – taking bread out of the oven, chopping wood and doing other nativity-like activities. You can build entire populations and stories if you so desire – get crazy with your imagination!
The important thing is Baby Jesus is absent from the manager until midnight on December 24th. Usually the youngest person present will bring the Baby Jesus into the manger as the others look on.
Perhaps you hadn’t planned on adding Barack Obama to your nativity scene, but you definitely can! Below Mr. President are the words “Sono bello, sono giovane, sono abbronzato” – (I’m handsome, I’m young, I’m tanned) – words that Obama has obviously never said about himself, but Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said this regarding Obama, directly after he won the presidency.
Sometimes though, when I looked down a particular market street, I lost track of where I was. It almost seemed like the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, with some covered porticoes and alleyways that never end.
In Naples, the edicole sacre (sacred shrines) – also called madonnine, madonnelle, nicchie votive, santelle, capitelli votivi, and tabernacoli – are where certain saints or other religious figures are displayed, embedded directly into buildings, courtyards and corners and become integrated with the neighborhood. Offers of prayers and candles can be placed directly at the base. The religious figure, the focus of the shrine, is usually enclosed in glass and protected slightly from the elements as you can see by the green awning above this one (below). There are so many that often you have to be looking around and up otherwise you can miss them!
This edicola sacra is obviously color-coordinated for a reason. Not all spaces are consecrated or will be devoted to the Madonna (Mary) such as this one below, but you can sometimes find local patron saints (Naples has 50!!) and photos of local residents that have passed away tucked inside the space. This resident decided the door should match the protective awning which matches Mary’s cloak.
Have you been to Naples? Love it or leave it?
Love it or hate it, it’s a city full of character. As you say the most interesting part is it’s historical centre Spaccanapoli which they say divides the city in two. But the shanty towns at the foot of the Vesuvius are ugly!
Positano has a large Presepe called la Grotta built in a cave along the road, with running water, moving figures and all.
Laura from Ciao Amalfi says
Ciao Sara! What wonderful photos! I’ve walked along that street a couple of times, but the shops were closed both times. I must go back before Christmas and see that crazy scene you describe. Thanks for the great reminder!
There were definitely some wonderfulthings to see in Napoli, but I could leave it. We actually left early. There was too much trash, and the driving and the streets were a nightmare. All the hotel and restaurant people would tell us how many thieves live there, and not to trust anyone… We had WONDERFUL pizza and mozarella and the main piazza is very cool, but i have no desire to ever go back. I saw the street you have here. you took some great pics!
I was way more impressed with Pompeii.
i love naples, but i never want to spend too much time there in a row. it’s a great place to stop by, but i can’t imagine spending more than a day or two there. i love just wandering the streets and absorbing the culture; there aren’t many places in naples that are unauthentic which is refreshing.
i’ve never been to the Spaccanapoli neighborhood. guess i’ll have to go back before i leave italy! i need to go back and try more pizza (my disappointing experiences in that arena are on my blog).
the obama nativity scene totally cracks me up. that’s great.
I went there for only a day but loved it. It was part of a tour from a cruise boat, so perhaps I only saw the parts of the city where tourists go, but I do remember having some wonderful meals there!
Joan Schmelzle says
Definitely love it and especially Spaccanapoli walks and one particular visit to the street of presepe which started me on a many-year hobby of collecting Nativity scenes when I travel. Would you believe–most come from Italy after 13 trips!
The Food Hunter says
I spent one day in Naples and I loved it! Wish I had more time there.
I grew up in Napoli, and let me tell you all: the trash, the traffic ect .etc there is no city in the world like Nap0li. And just because I know the city, you guys have seen maybe 20% of the beauty of NAPOLI. There are places or ” luoghi” that only a Neapolitan can show you. And to Ellen and Sara I want to say that Neapolitan people, are one of the beauty of NAPOLI and maybe you guys are just too snob and rich to be there. And we have a place also for those kind of people, that would be the island of Capri . but maybe you two are not snob and rich enough for that .
Ms. Adventures in Italy says
Hi Antonio – your comment started out good, and then it got offensive quickly.
I don’t think there’s any reason to judge people you don’t know – that’s their opinion and they are entitled to it – we are talking about Naples.
Kathy Righetti says
I love it, i hope i can visit Napoli this December soon, so excited! :)
You have a very nice blog! :)
I’m kind of neutral about Naples. Love it as a tourist destination for maybe a day or two but would hate to live there. I know a lot of ex-napolitani here in Rome and there’s a reason they left!
I was unwillingly forced to move to Napoli with my family. The first thing I noticed was the smell (not good)! After about a week you got used to it. Let’s just say, I fell in love with the city. Whenever I returned after being away, it smelled like home. After a few years of living there, I was forced to move, yet again. I cried the entire plane ride back to the states. I would love to go back yet again. Christmas Alley (as the Americans called it) was so amazing to visit in the winter. It is such an event choosing the presepe that is just right for your home, and the people who are just right for your presespe. Vendors sold chestnuts and hot drinks, such a wonderful memory. By the way, to those who feel Napoli is full of thieves. Yes, there are those who will steal you blind, but they will never hurt you in the process and you won’t find a more sincere, warm-hearted person than a Neopolitan!!
Joe Savarese says
I found Napoli to be an absolute treasure. My wife and I had heard nothing but bad things but when we got there we found a loving people, full of life and very friendly. It is a beautiful city and the food was great. At night families and friends would walk arm in arm down the streets. I only have great memories of this wonderful city. I hope to go back there again soon.
Baruch Arbel says
I spent four days in Napoli about 8 years ago and hope to visit it again for even a longer stay. On the second day of my visit I fell in love with the city, and very soon after, with its people. It is not only a most beautiful city, but so full of archtectural and artistic treasures, that one would need months to absorb it all (naturally, one has to be interested). Then there is also the food and the music (including opera the San Carlo), not to mention the museums, large and small. I cannot help but agreeing with Leslie! As for thieves, you find them in every large city in Europe. If you are wise and careful, you won’t fall victim.
Jim Mulla says
Really like the city. I have been their four times, and have shopped on San Gregorio Ameno (sp?) at Xmas time. The craftsmanship of the of the nativity makers is amazing. They quickly become some of my favorite gifts for people (most people like the angels). Great memories. Jim
I m 22 y old and I came from Naples.
I live in London for almost 2 years, I ve move to England to continue my study in tourism , and I found London University very well organize.
this Christmas and new year I will be in Naples to visit my family, which are located in centre Naples.
I know very well my City and if there is any one who came to Naples in Christmas for the 1th time and want to explore and live the City I will be more the happy to help you !!!
Thanks for the wonderful tips! We are taking my nephew from the US to Naples in June from our home in Berlin and I really want to not fall into (too many) touristy traps and see the city. Love the pictures & Italian names.
Loved the article!
Is there a safe way to order a presepe online and have it delivered to the USA?