As a child I sometimes cowered on my visits to Napoli. For a naturally quiet soul from the leafy suburbs of West London, the city seemed chaotic and frightening. People hollered from pavement to balcony, vehicles honked furiously and yellow canaries in cramped cages sang their tiny hearts out in a futile bid for freedom. The only relief from the suffocating heat in our apartment were the cool tiles underfoot, tiles which although chipped and worn were beautiful never the less. The memory of being robbed never quite escaped me either. We had decided to travel to Palinuro in an attempt to escape the city’s sticky humidity and just as we set off several mopeds blocked our car. Suddenly there were hairy arms grabbing at our bags through the open passenger window, just millimeters from my sister’s little blonde head. My mother scratched the arms until her hands bled and my father’s only victory was to close the electric windows. Fortunately their mission failed: we managed to keep the bags. The bandits sped off leaving us shaken.
Yet even from the youngest age Napoli fascinated me. It’s a land of contrasts steeped in history and legend; Chaos and beauty, pain and joy, abundance and poverty, light and dark, generosity and injustice. As for the people they’re the best people you could ever meet (Please come in, eat, eat!!) but if you’re unlucky, also the worst. One of the only times I took a handbag out with me two youths on a Vespa attempted to snatch it, they were unsuccessful partly due to a tranny who came running to my rescue. Oh, there was also the time a boy attempted to run over my sister and I.
Other factors made up for this: Sirens dwelled on rocks and lured sailors to their deaths. (Read my take on this legend.) People seemed so overly affectionate and warm-hearted. The peaches were giant white spheres whose juicy tears had to be wiped away from ones chin. Cyclops’ home was just past the chaotic city, in the tiny coastal town of Palinuro. A Night club now inhabits his cave called il Ciclope. Every year on 23rd Aug a group of actors stage the landing of Ulysses on the fire-lit beach. Napoli and it’s surroundings seem magical and born from legend.
The truth is, the city both terrified and fascinated me.
The historical centre is like a medina. Tiny alleyways – or ‘vicoli’ are shrouded by lines of washing. Slithers of sky hang somewhere high above the tired crumbling buildings which are so precariously close together that if you were to live in one of them you’d know the ins and outs of the family who lived in the palazzo opposite. Vespas whiz up and down the streets beeping (why must they always beep, surely it’s not necessary!) and baskets lower from windows above to collect orders of shopping. Behind the heavy doors of each palazzo, ornate courtyards revealed themselves to be oases in the middle of the stone chaos.
Napoli is layered with diverse cultures, quite literally. Underneath today’s city lie Greek foundations (Neapolis – ‘New City’), on top of that the Roman city sprawls to an unknown extent. The underground network of alleyways and buildings are accessible through trap doors and stone staircases – we were invited by a greengrocer to see his house in the historical centre, just off via dei Tribunali. It was one of those homes which consisted of one room on street level which houses an entire family. Residents often spill out onto the street, perch on chairs and stone steps and chat like evening sparrows. The TV blared full volume as if sharing news with the entire neighbourhood. Proper Neapolitan Ragu, a delicious tomato and meat sauce, wafted from the stove to greet us with more warmth than the suspicious looking granny who sat inside. As unannounced guests we served as meer annoyances; she’d been busy reqading her fortune from an old pack of Neapolitan playing cards. We recieved nothing more than a nod. The green grocer showed us a concealed doorway which led us down stone steps to a vast atrium with numerous archways. Stables once upon a time. Now this is where he keeps his stock. At one end of this stone cave was another staircase which seemingly disappeared into the depths of the earth. He had no idea where this led to and didn’t even seem interested to find out. Fascinating and terrifying – just like the city itself.
What lies beneath Napoli is responsible for the horrific traffic on the city’s streets. They aim to finish an underground metro system but every time digging starts they stumble upon a temple, amphitheatre or necropolis. An archaeologists dream but a residents nightmare I suppose. Neapolitans have used the underground cities to their advantage over the years – a refuge in war times, escape routes in case of invasion, smuggling and (although I hope it’s not true) dumping the rubbish which continues to plague the city’s streets.
For a deeply Catholic city held at the mercy of Vesuvio, earthquakes (My Nonna had a gaping hole in her wall due to an earthquake in the 1980s) lack of jobs opportunity & the emigration of the population, Camorra & corruption, poverty, and having been near destroyed by war numerous times, Neapoletans are hardy. Why, as Italy’s third largest city, do some of these problems continue to exist? People have learnt to take the law into their own hands and seek protection from the local Mafia bosses. It’s not uncommon to see bullet holes in business windows if the owner has failed to pay protection money or have assasinations in broad daylight. Yet ask anyone if they’ve seen anything an its a bit of an ‘I ain’t seen nothin’, right?’ attitude. To ease the hardships, Neapolitans have developed a strong culture of superstition. Talismen such as little red horns called ‘cornicelli’ or horseshoes are used to ward off the evil eye. Then there is San Gennaro, the patron saint of Napoli whose vial of blood is said to liquefy in a ritual held three times a year. If the blood remains dry when the vial is overturned there are shrieks of horror and cries of astonishment because it is said that if it does not liquefy something terrible will become the city.
Now, I don’t want to paint a negative or dark picture of the city by all means. The saying ‘See Naples and then Die‘ is not because of its dangers but because one must experience it’s beauty before clocking off. I’ve taken friends to Napoli who have cried when they got there then cried when they left! The city is in my opinion, and not because I feel obliged by my cultural heritage to say so, one of the most beautiful and unique places on the planet. Emerging from the narrow streets, you’re faced with the most spectacular views. The seafront (via Partenope / Mergellina) gives you clear views of Vesuvio, Capri, the bay and the city itself which is built up on gentle hills. Spaccanapoli, a street which cuts the old city in half, is easily identifiable in the incredible panorama from San Martino monastery in Vomero. From there, Napoli looks like a Presepe and if you know the characters who live in it, you can relate to the pastori (figurines) for sale in San Gregorio Armeno.
The quarter of San Pasquale comes alive at night, jam packed with fun seekers in plush bars and eateries. The well dressed block the arteries and veins of the area. I’ve never quite figured out a way to master the ancient cobbled stones in heels. Piazza Plebiscito hosts an array of free open air concerts a stones throw in from the sea, I’ve seen Jose Carreras and Enzo Avitabile perform. Piazza Gesu’ is always buzzing with a mix of tourists, students and bongo drumming hippies. The Spanish Quarters, or quartieri spagnoli, have always been notoriously dangerous. In the area’s maze of vicoli I can see how even a Neapolitan would become disoriented. I haven’t dared venture deep into its heart but thats not to say I wouldn’t come out alive even if I would. Long gone are the days of street urchins luring unsuspecting foreigners around corners to rob them. Theft is still rife however, so just be careful to conceal bags or even better, don’t take one out unless necessary.
New Year’s Eve is always interesting! The city literally explodes due to a tradition of lighting fireworks. Most households stock up on rockets and bangers and fire them off their balconies at the stroke of midnight. The higher up the hills you are, the better the view. If the night is clear then fireworks along the bay and Capri can be seen. See Napoli explode here! Watch out though, it is also customary to throw old and broken household items out of the windows – TVs, pots, pans etc!
On Sundays people promenade up and down the sea front on Mergellina and via Partenope. Families stroll at a snail’s pace enjoying the view. Couples huddle on walls. Kids dive off rocks into the sea. There is romatic graffiti on almost every rock from which stray cats scurry in and out of. The daring ones wait behind haggling fishermen with begging eyes.
There are numerous eateries to chose from along via Partenope: aside from the restaurants (love Anema e Cozze), there are also kiosks – why not try get a few peppery taralli to snack on, or a tray of tripe! (um, on second thoughts I’ll just have a fritto misto, thanks).
Every time I took a stroll on Borgo Marinaro, a lump of rock which juts out onto the sea and home Castel d’Ovo , a few restaurants and palazzi. An elderly lady waved from the same window year after year. She shrank with time, but never the less always waved her delicate porcelain hand. Last time I visited in December 2011 I found the window empty. In fact I see the decline of many of the centre’s personaggi, those ones who helped make Napoli so colourful. There was the man who sold Pulcinella trumpets, Enio Gagliardi, who you would hear coming a mile away. Then the man we’d see everywhere who balanced a green glass bottle on his head. He was even spotted swimming in Ischia! Or the woman who sold fruit for over 80 years on the corner of Via Nilo, who remembered my dad in his childhood. Or the elderly lady who sat on the same spot on Spaccanapoli with milk-bottle bottom glasses.
Some of these personaggi still exist. There is the man who walks around followed by a dog AND a duck! The man who follows you asking from bread (money) ‘O’ Pan O’ pan‘ just as his father did. And of course the mischievous Pulcinella and humorous Toto who exist in the heart and soul of every Neapolitan.
The streets of the historical centre feel busy even when totally deserted. There is an inexplicable energy in Napoli, like the souls of whoever left footprints in it’s dust have been trapped to roam the streets both above and below. The city is restless.
The problem is, because tourists always by-passed or used the city as a stop over point en route to the Islands of Amalfi coast, cheap grotty hotels around the Central station were favored by tour operators, giving visitors a terrifying first impression of Napoli. It’s worth dedicating a few days to discover this mysterious and beautiful city and if you decide to go to Napoli, DO NOT stay around the Central Station i.e Corso / Via Garibaldi. Instead, try some of these places:
Napolit’amo – two family run B&Bs in the heart of Napoli. One a stones throw from via Medina and Piazza Municipio (eat at Trattoria Medina, a lively traditional restaurant), the other on via Toledo, one of the city’s lively shopping streets where locals take part in a very Italian ritual: la passeggiata.
MH Design Hotel – modern hotel on via Chaia, another plush shopping street and near the lively quartiere san Pasquale and Piazza Plebiscito. 10 minutes walk to the sea front.
Hotel il Convento – located in the quartieri Spagnoli this boutique hotel was once part of a convent and just a hop away from via Chaia and via Toledo. 10 minutes walk to the sea front.
Palazzo Carafa di Maddaloni – a B&B set in a seemingly ancient palazzo with crumbling frescos and classical piano floating in the air. Located on the corner of Spaccanapoli and via Toledo, the building is a perfect location to explore both the modern and antique city.
Una Terrazza Sul Golfo – Situated on the hill above the chaos, otherwise known as Vomero, this area belongs to the well-heeled of the city. Vomero is a short cable car ride away from via Toledo. Now, Una Terrazza Sul Golfo apartment is perhaps a little over budget for your average traveller. But it is the apartment of dreams with its huge private terrace and spectacular panoramic of the bay. Ah… one day!
Beyond historical centre of the city are the areas of Pozzuoli and Possilipo which boast both beauty and archeological interest. Just a 30 minute boat ride away you will find yourself in Capri, Sorrento, Procida or my favorite islan, Ischia, famous for its’ thermal spa.
Napoli’s cultural heritage can be savoured by all the senses. Its music at times laments and others extremely heavy on percussion, alway accompanied by open vocalled gravelly voices. In traditional Neapolitan dance, tammoriata, castanets are used. Each visitor to the city left something behind – you don’t have to look hard to find something interesting and ornate even if faded and slightly broken. Ceramics and frescos are floor to ceiling in palazzi and churches. In fact, there is such an abundance of visual stimulation that at times it can be blinding and as a resident, taken for granted. My father only started appreciating the beauty of Napoli when London became his home.
On almost every street is a testament to the Catholic faith. Many religious buildings have been decommissioned and remain closed (and sadly looted!) because there was simply not enough money to maintain them. The famous Veiled Christ can be found in Cappello Sansevero, an unsuspecting chapel. I also once stumbled upon the ruins of a mosque in Ischia. There are treasures around every corner here.
The cuisine of Napoli is reminiscent of it’s cultural heritage. Some dishes are rather Arabesque such as Struffoli, or Scarola with sultanas and lemon. Neapolitan flavours are robust. Because the city’s residents have at times be poverty-stricken food is regarded with utmost respect and importance. Any excuse for a banquet is a good excuse, Christmas, Easter, New Years Eve & Day, Birthdays, Name Days. The tradition if living and socialising around a table and Sunday meals is still alive. ‘Neapolitans like to eat’ is perhaps an understatement. The fruit & vegetables grown in volcanic soil are to die for. Aside from deep red tomatoes and giant lemons, my favorites are peperoni verdi and friarielle, otherwise known as Cime di Rape. Try Vacco e Press’ on Piazza Dante for a great selection of contorni dishes which make use of robust Neapoletan flavours. Pastries are awesome in Napoli too! Try Pastiera, Baba’ or a hot Sfogliatella. Ice cream in Napoli is absolutely the best in Italy (on par with Sicilian Ice Cream).
Lets not forget a classic Margherita Pizza, which was said to have been invented in Napoli for Queen Margherita in the colours of the Italian flag. My favorite place to eat a Pizza is Pizzeria di Matteo on via dei Tribunali. Here you will have a real Neapolitan experience. The prices are economical, there is saw dust on the kitchen floor which you must walk through to reach the eating salon and the miserable face of the pizzaiolo transforms when he starts to banter. Pizzas here are huge but light. Aside from the classing Margherita, do try to Pizza Fritta (deep-fried calzone). If you eat in di Matteo, you wont forget about it.
Don’t pass kiosks on the street by either. These little holes-in-the-wall offer refreshing granita, (flavoured crushed ice – try Lemon or Almond) or specialised coffee (Kinder or Ferrero Rocher – swoon!). There’s a great kiosk in Pignasecca on the right as you ascend which offers fried courgette flowers along with arancini, fried maccheroni balls, panzerotti and panino napoletano. I wish I could recreate the scent of Pignasecca – salami, cheese, fresh fish and fried food I can gather together with ease. Vespa fumes, tomatoes and peaches warming in sunlight, damp, chaos, pizza and tripe not so easy to capture. The smell doesn’t sound like the greatest of perfumes does it? But it is. It’s the smell I long for the most on a drizzly london day.
The dialect spoken in Napoli is a language in its own right. It’s a mix of Italian, Spanish, French and Arabic (Neapolitans say ‘Sciue’ Sciue’ – a term derived from Arabic.) Vowels at the end of words are cut short far removing it from the sound of recognisable forms of Italian. Neapolitan is poetic and hilarious, its proverbs plentiful. Traditional songs from Naples are world-famous and favoured by singers such as Jose Carreras and Pavarotti, who recognised the passion, joy and tragedy in its melodies. Plonk a speaker of Neapolitan in Milan and this is what happens (Toto goes to Milan.) Take a Milanese to the historical heart of Napoli and they wont understand a thing. There are other very Neapolitan ways of communications too – hand gestures, facial expressions and noises which surpass the need for the spoken word. ‘Ueeee’ and ‘Ooooo’ have very different meanings.
On the run up to Christmas last year my family gathered its’ closest and traveled to Napoli, the land from where it came. Armed only with a basic camera I wished some day I could find a way to smuggle my Canon around without drawing attention. It is December and trees lining Corso Umberto are heavy with oranges. We wear t-shirts and welcome the sun’s warmth as we sip Kimbo in the shadow of Vesuvio. We see the dog & duck man. A folk band play tammoriata and dance the tarantella on Spaccanapoli. We witness Cavani (player in Napoli football team) get mobbed by hundreds of people in Piazza Plebiscito. I curse every so often under my breath wishing I could capture typically Neapoletan scenes on film: entire families piled onto a moped whizzing by with a wardrobe strapped to the back. Holes in the wall which house antique faces and ancient trades. Cheeky scugnizzi (street urchins) playing football in Galleria Umberto. This is Napoli, and some things will never change. The city is modernising however, allbeit at a slow pace: Piazza Carita’ is now pedestrianised, the airport is both plush and clinical and the Pulcinella man has been replaced by two young’uns.
Edoardo De Filippo, a famous Neapolitan actor once said “Napule è nu bel presepe ma so è pastur ca nun so’ buon..” – Napoli is a beautiful presepe, its the people in it which aren’t good. I hugely disagree and much prefer this quote: “Napule è nu paese curioso: è nu teatro antico, sempre apierto.” Napoli is a curious land: its an ancient theatre, always open. That’s it: its like an opera.
The people of Napoli have a distinction in the university of life, for wherever you go in the city it is expressed with a huge degree of passion, both joyous and tragic. There is a wild air about the city, its essence is both beautiful and dark. A streak of danger looms behind backs and lurks in the shadows yet the sunlight reveals such blinding beauty.
Napoli is unique. It’s an experience that one must live once, for the better or for worse.
I highly recommend the film Passione by actor John Turturro. Here you will catch a glimpse of Napoli’s essence in all its pleasure and pain.