Italy

Naples City Break: Rione Sanità, a district steeped in mystery, legends and hidden gems

Napolitans still raise an eyebrow when you mention choosing the Rione Sanità neighborhood as the base for your city break. For decades, this working-class district has been labeled as ‘dangerous’ and ‘absolutely to be avoided.’ However, efforts are underway to shake off that stigma. We discovered Rione Sanità as one of the most vibrant and captivating spots in Naples: where life and death coexist, and ancient traditions still permeate daily life.

Claiming that Rione Sanità is undergoing a true renaissance and can be considered a hipster neighborhood might be slightly exaggerated. While Rione Sanità may no longer be isolated from the outside world due to a reputation of decay and danger, it remains a working-class district where residents have to make do with very little, and where the alleyways and buildings excel in decay. However, Rione Sanità is bursting with Italian passion, with bustling markets, elderly residents gossiping on their doorsteps, streets adorned with hanging laundry, and youths racing through the alleys on scooters. Spicy and raw. If there’s ever a neighborhood we can call ‘authentic,’ it’s Rione Sanità.

Mamma Mia

“It’s definitely going to be a unique stay,” I say as we first behold our apartment where we will find shelter for a week: in an old bourgeois house that must have once been glorious but is now ‘adorned’ with graffiti and peeling paint, an old lady fighting against decay. Our apartment is located on the top floor – the rental site boasted promisingly of a ‘penthouse’ – but from the street, it’s difficult to gauge what exactly we can expect.

View from one of our terraces, onto one of our other terraces.

There’s not much time to linger; the owner of the apartment – round, friendly, and somewhat elderly, imagine an Italian mama – enthusiastically calls us inside and immediately we’re swept into an Italian whirlwind of which we understand half. The building turns out to have a small courtyard – packed with scooters and Fiats – and there’s a rickety coin-operated lift (never forget to have 10 cents on hand, otherwise you’ll have to start the climb up yourself).

Our ‘penthouse’ turns out to be more spacious than expected, with no less than four (!) terraces: front, back, and two on the sides. Everything looks a bit haphazard, and the outdoor spaces are clearly ‘organically’ built, but amidst a densely populated working-class neighborhood where space is scarce, we consider each terrace a pure luxury. La mama gives us a tour, rattles off a laundry list of house rules, and thanks to her excellent pantomime, we understand most of it.

As we say goodbye – she pulls us close and treats us to two kisses – we know exactly how the boiler works, where the electricity box is located, that there’s a kitchen cabinet we can only open with caution, and that we mustn’t forget to water the plants every day. La mama also adds where we can find the tastiest sfogliatelle (an Italian pastry) in the neighborhood and assures us that we’ll have a wonderful time in Rione Sanità.

Life in the neighborhood

Rione Sanità, to put it mildly, is a chaotic district. It’s early evening and the neighborhood is buzzing with activity: Neapolitans rush from work to home, scooters whiz by at top speed, eateries and shops fill up, the aroma of pizza portafoglio (folded pizza) wafts through the air, and residents engage in lively discussions on the streets. There’s no leisurely stroll here; it’s a bit of a slalom between the frenetically busy Neapolitans.

Despite its cozy and atmospheric charm, it’s quite hard to believe that just a few years ago, this neighborhood had an incredibly bad reputation. Rione Sanità was a rundown district where only the poorest and most corrupt of Naples resided. With the mafia reigning supreme, outsiders had no business here. If you valued your life, you made sure to get out of here as quickly as possible.

Even today, we – clearly tourists – are in the spotlight, albeit for much friendlier reasons than the mafia had back then: people are mostly curious and eager to strike up a conversation. An elderly couple asks where we’re from and turns out to know more about our royal family than we do ourselves (perhaps thanks to Queen Paola’s Italian roots), a fishmonger offers us a glass of lemonade and lures us inside to admire his proud catch of the day – a gigantic swordfish – and we are even invited to attend a mass at the local church (we dare not refuse, thankfully the service turns out to be movingly beautiful, and brief).

Tip: Neapolitans are not shy and love to chat, making it easy to make friends. However, if you want to score extra points, the magic word is ‘Mertens.’ Footballer Dries Mertens is a deity in Naples; there is truly no one in Naples who is not a fan, and as a compatriot of ‘their’ Mertens, you immediately have an advantage.

Good to know: if you’re staying in Rione Sanità (or in Naples), don’t be surprised by the fireworks that are regularly set off (oddly enough, even during the day). Neapolitans love fireworks, and every celebration – whether it’s a birthday, birth, reunion, or whatever else – must be celebrated with loud bangs. However, it’s also said that fireworks are set off by the mafia; when a mafia boss has something to celebrate (such as a wedding or birth) or when a new batch of drugs arrives. The loud bangs then serve as a signal to customers that a new supply is available. With so much fireworks in the city, it seems quite challenging to distinguish between the celebration of a wedding and the dropping of a new load of stuff.

Hidden Palazzos

A case of ‘you have to know it’s there, otherwise you’d walk right past it’: hidden among the market stalls, we find the Palazzo dello Spagnuolo, a palace with a remarkable stairwell, designed by architect Ferdinando Sanfelice during the first half of the 18th century.

Back then, it was an exceptionally prestigious building, but today it houses several apartments. A bit further down the road, we also find the second small palace of the same architect: the Palazzo San Felice appears to be a copy of the Spagnuolo, but is in worse condition.

Fun fact: the stairwell halls often appear in movies and series. In Gomorrah, drug dealer O Stregone lived in one of the buildings, and also the finale of the popular Netflix series Sense8 took place here.

Art on the Wall

It’s a trend that many cities embrace: brightening up gloomy spots in the city with street art to give the neighborhood a second life. In Naples, you can marvel at numerous small and large murals, although the art of street art is taken to a slightly higher level there. Not only renowned street art artists but also the ‘man in the street’ occasionally gets creative with the paintbrush and spray can. Evidence of this can be found in the many graffiti works (condemned by some, praised by others), portraits of football players (often Maradona, although since June this year, there has been a life-sized portrait of Dries Mertens on a Neapolitan wall), and the stunning and gigantic artworks by internationally renowned artists such as Blase, Lasivita, Bosoletti, Jorit Agoch, and Banksy. Connoisseurs claim that many street art artists have realized their best work in Naples, and who are we to argue with that?

Rione Sanità is also a grateful canvas for street art artists, and the neighborhood has even gained a bit of a cult status in that regard. Many of the artworks are rich in symbolism, contain hidden messages, or refer to the house or street where the painting is displayed. For instance, at the Sanità bridge, there’s a work by the Argentine artist Francisco Bosoletti, titled “Hidden Hope.” The artwork depicts the face of a homeless person, but you can only see the face when you view the image in negative.

RESIS-TI-AMO

By the way, Bosoletti is fond of Rione Sanità; we can find another towering mural of his in the church square amidst the neighborhood: RESIS-TI-AMO (a mix of “resist” and “I love you”) catches all the attention. This work refers to a true story about a Neapolitan couple who overcame a terrible illness with much love. The mural is a symbol of resistance against violence, illness, and crime.

Luce

The artwork “Luce” – by the artist Cruz – also comes with a message: Cruz created this piece in collaboration with the children from the neighborhood. The mural resembles a beam of light in which the faces of the children are visible, symbolizing hope for the future for the entire community.

L’opera luminosa

Hardly noticeable during the day, but once darkness falls, it becomes prominent: the luminous letters that were installed at the entrance of the neighborhood over a length of 120 meters, beautifully named “L’ Opera luminosa” in Italian. The luminous artwork is a concept by Tiziano Corbelli and was created by artist Antonio Spiezia. The words are from the song “Napule è” by the Neapolitan singer Pino Daniele, who passed away a few years ago. The verses almost serve as a manifesto of the city of Naples (loosely translated: Naples is a thousand cultures, Naples is a thousand fears, Naples is the voice of the cries…).

The purpose of the artwork is to put Rione Sanità back on the map and proclaim a message of hope. The luminous letters certainly create a pleasant atmosphere as night falls.

Food and Drinks

Eating like the locals

By now, everyone will know: if you want to eat well abroad, seek out the places where the locals love to go. In Rione Sanità, that’s easy peasy: almost all the restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops are bustling with families from the neighborhood. Our favorite spot quickly becomes Casa del Caffé, a local cafe/eatery where you can eat to your heart’s content from early morning till late at night. Italians love a simple cuisine, and that’s exactly what you get here: straightforward, without too many frills, and with pure yet quality ingredients. Don’t expect too much from the interior (let’s say functionality is key), but the atmosphere is great, with regulars discussing worldly matters (read: football) at the counter and families gathering around tables with grandparents and grandchildren. They also offer takeaway (handy if you’re renting an apartment). And as for the prices, you needn’t worry: a Penne Arrabiata sets us back 3 euros, the Linguine alle Vongole is 6 euros, as is a delightful grilled swordfish.

Coffee at Home

Without my morning cup of coffee, I can’t wake up, and the fun part is that in Naples, you don’t even have to make your own coffee or leave the house. A simple phone call to your favorite coffee bar is enough to have your coffee delivered to your door. The bar staff then rushes through the streets with trays and hot coffee to deliver it on time. In Rione Sanità, there are even coffee delivery drivers who do this by scooter, skillfully maneuvering through the winding streets.

Tip: In Naples, there’s an old tradition of “café sospes,” literally a “suspended coffee.” This means you order one coffee but pay for two. That second cup of coffee, the “sospeso,” is intended for the next customer who can’t afford a cup of coffee. They (he or she) then drink the coffee you paid for and toast to your health.

The Best Pizza in Naples

In Naples, it’s almost impossible to eat a pizza that doesn’t taste delicious; pizza is the culinary pride of Naples, with pizza margherita and pizza alla marinara as the ultimate calling cards. Most Neapolitans proudly claim to be the inventors of pizza, although there is no hard evidence to support this claim. What is true is that the idea to recognize pizza as World Heritage originated in Naples, after a Neapolitan pizza maker drafted a pizza petition for this purpose. Pizzas are a serious matter in Naples regardless, and there are strict and very precise rules about how to bake a Neapolitan pizza according to the rules of the art.

We are fortunate because one of the best pizzerias in Naples is right here in ‘our’ Rione Sanità, right in the heart of the neighborhood. Pizza maker Ciro Oliva of Pizzeria Concettina ai Tre Santi belongs to the fourth generation of a family of pizza makers and presents the classic Neapolitan pizza combined with modern touches. In addition to the traditional pizza, new and creative versions of the classic are also featured on the menu monthly (and made with organic ingredients). The place is almost always full, and even for take-away, there is often a long line. The pizzas are delicious: Concettina ai Tre Santi has won several awards and received various honorable mentions in the Michelin guide. But despite so much fame and recognition, Ciro Oliva has no intention of leaving Rione Sanità or raising prices; it’s ‘his’ neighborhood, and he feels at home there.

Tip: just like with a café sospeso, you can order a pizza sospesa here: you pay for an extra pizza that can later be picked up by someone who can’t afford a pizza.

Snowflakes in Naples

Now that we’re talking about pizza, we should also tell you about the dessert you can have after your pizza: conveniently located across from Pizzeria Concettina ai Tre Santi is Pasticceria Poppella, where you can taste the unique fiocco di neve (snowflakes), a delightful pastry made of ricotta, whipped cream, and a few secret ingredients. The pastry was invented here and is ‘world-famous’ in Naples, which is no small feat in a city where residents cling tightly to culinary traditions. When you taste the fiocco di neve, you’ll understand how that’s possible: the pastry tastes heavenly!

The Church of San Vincenzo

Religion plays an important role in Naples and especially in Sanità. The Basilica Santa Maria della Sanità, located in the heart of the neighborhood, is therefore an important hotspot. However, among the residents of the neighborhood, the basilica is known by another name: the church of San Vincenzo Ferreri, named after the patron saint of the district. Indeed, when Naples was plagued by a cholera epidemic in 1836, San Vincenzo’s wooden statue was carried through the streets. According to tradition, the procession halted the spread of the epidemic in Sanità. Therefore, San Vincenzo was promptly promoted to the patron saint of Sanità.

In any case, the Church of San Vincenzo is absolutely worth a visit: we marvel at the oldest fresco in all of Naples, an image of la Madonna della Sanità. And beneath the church, the catacombs of San Gaudisio provide an underground adventure. Dating back to the 4th century, the catacombs are named after Bishop Gaudioso, who miraculously washed ashore in the Bay of Naples on his return from North Africa. Aside from ancient frescoes and mosaics, you’ll find a number of skulls here; it used to be the tradition to lay survivors on stone chairs. The bodies dried out, the corpse was walled in, and only the head remained.

Cemetery of the Skulls

Rione Sanità has always been a place where life, death, and the afterlife intertwine. It began with the ancient Greeks and Romans, who turned the area into a burial ground; you can still visit these catacombs today. The name Rione Sanità dates back to the 1500s, attributed to the (then) excellent air quality and the catacombs where miraculous healings occurred.

If you found the catacombs of Gaudioso a bit macabre, brace yourself for a visit to the Cimitero delle Fontanelle, this burial ground is not just a ‘graveyard’, but a cemetery for over 45,000 skulls and a heap of bones. There are likely more bones buried underground than those already counted. It is estimated that the remains of about 8 million people are there!

We walk on foot from the basilica to the skull cemetery, and it’s a bit of searching and climbing. Naples is a hilly city and especially during the hot summer months, due to the many uphill and downhill streets, you’ll soon find yourself panting. In a charming street where children play outside happily and life goes on as usual, we finally find the cemetery; the graveyard is located in a cave carved out of tuff stone. The cooler temperatures in the cave are certainly refreshing, but the ‘graves’ are much less so. Our eyes take some time to adjust to the darkness in the cave, but then we notice how eerie this cemetery is. We see masses of stacked skulls, many adorned with coins, toys, and/or notes. Here and there, an altar has been installed, with crosses and prayer stools.

Most of the deceased who ‘rest’ here are victims of the major plague in 1656 and the cholera outbreak in 1836, they are people who couldn’t afford a place in the regular cemetery and were ‘dumped’ here.

It’s not so much the skulls themselves that leave an impression, but rather the ritual of the so-called anime pezzentelle, a practice that was popular not too long ago. In this tradition, skulls were literally ‘adopted’ by the residents of the neighborhood; they would give the skull a name – often revealed to them in a dream – and the skull became a full-fledged member of the family. Because they were skulls of tormented souls – having not received a proper church burial – they required care and attention. The ‘worshipper’ would clean the skull and decorate it with embroidered fabrics, cushions, and rosaries. In exchange for all this attention, the skull could obtain ‘mercy’ and put in a good word for the worshipper in the afterlife.

In 1969, the worship of the skulls by the church was banned, although we found that many skulls still had new and modern offerings. Nowadays, the Cimitero delle Fontanelle is considered a historical site and can be freely visited.

Good to know:

  • Rione Sanità is part of the Stella district, located north of the historic center of Naples, next to the Capodimonte hill. You can easily reach the neighborhood by metro and/or bus.
  • There is a daily market; it is open every day until 8:00 PM, and until lunchtime on Sundays.
  • Every year on July 5th, Sanità celebrates its patron saint with a street party featuring music stars and celebrities. In 1975, the celebration was suspended after the Camorra alarmingly demanded extortion money.
  • The Sanità Bridge connects two streets: Santa Teresa degli Scalzi and Corso Amedeo di Savoia. The idea for the bridge came from a Neapolitan architect to connect the Royal Palace of Capodimonte with the city. Nowadays, you can take an elevator to access the bridge and explore the elevated part of the city. From the bridge, you have a beautiful view of Rione Sanità.
  • Officially, it is not part of the Rione Sanità district, but the National Archaeological Museum is located just around the corner, so we’d like to mention it. This world-renowned museum houses a vast collection of ancient artifacts, including the Farnese Bull, one of the most famous sculptures, found during excavations in the Baths of Caracalla in the 16th century. You can also admire the world’s largest cameo (gemstone) there.
  • The district can get quite busy, especially during rush hours. However, right after noon, when the Neapolitans seek refuge from the heat, it becomes very quiet.
  • Less known to us, but a true celebrity in Naples: Antonio de Curtis, better known as Totò, a comedic actor, screenwriter, and poet who rose to fame during the first half of the 20th century. Totò grew up in this neighborhood, and although his birthplace is empty and not accessible to the public, it is a point of interest for many Neapolitans. He passed away in 1967, but in Sanità, he is still very much alive through the numerous portraits of him, excerpts from his poems at the entrance of the neighborhood, and a square named after him.

Information and addresses

  1. Palazzo dello Spagnuolo, Via Vergini (located behind the market stalls)
  2. Palazzo San Felice, Via Sanità, 2 & 6
  3. Casa del Caffé, Via Arena Alla Sanità, 32-33, casadelcaffenapoli.business.site
  4. Concettina ai Tre Santi, Via Arena della Sanità, 7 Bis, pizzeriaoliva.it
  5. Pasticceria Poppella, Via Arena della Sanità, 29, pasticceriapoppella.com
  6. Basilica Santa Maria della Sanità, Piazza Sanità, 14, catacombedinapoli.it
  7. Cimitero delle Fontanelle, Via Fontanelle, 80, comune.napoli.it
  8. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Piazza Museo, 19, museoarcheologiconapoli.it

For more information about Naples and Italy: italia.it

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