"Naples is fascinating because each and every piece, fragment, or specimen reflects the present, the past and the future. One shouldn't be talking of a single Naples, but of many cities in one."
Domenico Rea, Visite Privée, Chêne, 1991.
Love at first bump
The reason I fell in love with Naples, was a taxi driver. It’s not what you might think. In my first -and much unprepared- trip to Naples, the guy saved me from a bad hotel choice in the middle of the jail district (“Signorina, there is no way you stay in Poggioreale all alone!”) and offered to find me another place to spend the night. His suggestion launched one conspiracy theory after another. I tried hard to convince myself that the Camorra had no reason to target me. To my defense I must add that, at the time, my young age and lack of traveling experience made me vulnerable to the negative propaganda coming from people as ignorant as I was about Naples. Not knowing the north from the south and the center from the suburbs, I decided -like another Blanche Dubois- to depend “on the kindness of strangers” and let the ride to the unknown begin.
The drive experience in the center of Naples was a show of its own: as if we were playing in a James Bond movie -but with less fancy cars-, the taxi driver started rushing to the opposite direction, slipping through lines, creeping into alleys one could easily touch the walls.
When he was not honking or screaming at fellow drivers, he was on the phone doing bargains with hotel receptionists to find me the best room rate for the night. At one of the few red lights which managed to stop us -”red lights are dangerous only if you respect them,” says a travel writer about the Neapolitan traffic- an old lady with her poodle hopped in. Barking sounds were added to the shouts and honks; “this is not a car ride,” I thought “this is Pirandello…a surrealist play”.
As soon as I overcame the first shock, I started noticing the city around me: noble buildings, eroded by centuries of time, lined up along narrow streets; laundry hanging from house balconies under the eye of nonchalant tenants chatting with their neighbors; scooters rushing by from every visible and invisible corner; churches casting their baroque shadows over tiny Lottery stores. My ears pricked up to the rocky sound of the car’s tires on the old cobblestones, here and there covered by the fishmongers’ shouting. My eyes opened wide to the view of an elegant old mansion: it was a beautiful gem of neoclassical style, crumbly but still alive; despite its decadence, it was standing proud of its past, projecting memories of its noble residents when Naples was still capital of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies; I felt moved by the solemn decency of its wounds.
We soon reached the coast. The driver dropped me off to a hotel with one of the best views in town; a choice rewarded with a generous tip –let alone his undercover commission fee. Later that evening, I took a nice walk along Lungomare, Naples’s long, curvy Promenade by the sea, lined with palm trees and lampposts. I sat on a bench, took a deep breath of salty air and gazed at the city’s majestic gulf.
No matter how startled I felt at first by that crazy ride, it was, in fact, an instructive experience: it offered me the chance to be introduced to the essence of Naples in all its disorder, inconsistency, absurdity, but also its sociability, self-assurance, and a much envied carelessness.
I realized that under layers of dust and neglect lies a precious architectural heritage offering itself to those who are willing to see past its scratches and bruises. The city’s contrasts fascinated my curiosity. A few months later, I plunged into history books, packed a selection of travel notes and came back to Naples, determined to leave no stone unturned in this ancient-old city of the Mediterranean.
This guide is dedicated to my dear friend Sara for helping me unlock Naples’ fascinating character.
Under the balcony
In my trip back to Naples the first thing I discovered was that, the heart of the city beats on the streets. But not just any streets: The Neapolitans’ favorite spot to hang out is somewhere around their house. You will notice them cooking next to open windows, drying laundry from their balconies; you will cross them sweeping doorsteps or hanging ceremonial baby clothes from door frames to inform the neighborhood of an approaching christening or a recent birth. You will surely bump into their chairs, laid in line for the ladies to sit and chat -and to also keep an eye on passers-by. Nothing goes by unattended by the neighbors who are constantly on standby to jump into each other’s lives in order to help out or to simply quench their curiosity.
Their remarkable proximity is the fruit of a social welfare system in decline. See, in a city that has been suffering from the chronic plague of poverty, peer-to-peer solidarity makes up for the lack of stable jobs; food sharing replaces food stamps; and the word-of-mouth is the most vital source of information on where to find a new place to work, a doctor, a lawyer, a priest, or a money lender.
In a city where it is hard to survive outside the pack, the street becomes a refuge much safer than the humble basso: Naples’ poor-condition, ground-floor, tiny flats. It seems that the only way out is the way in: that’s why doors must be kept open.
This culture of open-doors, so typical of Naples, hasn’t changed a bit over the centuries. Every time I wander through the dense grid of streets in the Spanish Quarters or Riona Sanità -to name two popular down-town areas- I notice a total lack of private space: boundaries between private house and public pavement are more than blurry. Television is an excellent medium for bonding. For example, during football games, TV sets are placed at visible spots close to open doors so that people come over and watch. On the rest of the time, devices can still be left on, volume up high, as a mark that the residents are inside in case a neighbor feels like stepping in and saying hi.
And if the evening calls for a few extra beers, no need to leave the nest: the grocer is one phone call away. A delivery boy shows up, lets out a cry and waits for the bucket to come down: Naples’ famous grocery bucket, a timeless city mark. Long before the advent of e-shops, Neapolitans were already familiar with the system of home deliveries: all they have to do is to throw a bucket from their balconies, firmly tied with a rope, place some cash inside and fish their order up. In the article “Under the balcony”, travel writers describe this colorful world made of invisible walls, suspicion and solidarity.
In the name of God, saints and evil spirits
“A city that grieves in search of justice, with flesh and wounds still open, is closer to the devil than it is to God.” — Domenico Rea, Visite Privée, Chêne, 1991.
The city’s dysfunctional system of justice and its difficulty to stand on its feet have surely played a role in reinforcing a collective belief in the metaphysical. Never have I met people more superstitious than the Neapolitans; their panoply of gestures, amulets and rituals to chase away the evil spirits is legendary. They have invented an eternal enemy, the jettatore: this mythical figure is credited with a supernatural ability to “enter” the body of any man or woman, rich or poor, and turn him or her into the most unlucky person in town. The jettarote is everywhere and nowhere in particular. As writer Dominique Fernandez explains, it is much easier to blame a jettarote -that is, a shadow, an idea- for easing the pain of a woman who miscarried, than trying to explain to her the reasons why her poor living standards and consecutive births are a threat to her body and a serious cause of miscarriage.
Faced with a social condition hard to change, Neapolitans look for a jettatore to ease their bitter feeling of injustice. And once they spot one, they will run away to avoid him on the street; they will clench their amulets hidden in a pocket and secretly do the sign of the horns -the corna– with their fingers.
It was reported that, during an outbreak of cholera, a former President of the Italian Republic shook hands with hospital patients while doing the corna behind his back to fend off the evil. Guess where he was born…
The Neapolitans are as cautious in fighting bad spirits, as they are in worshiping good ones. Their patron Saint, San Gennaro, is one of the greatest stars in town. His reputation is nationwide: three times a year, pious people from all over the country flock to the Saint’s Cathedral to attend a scheduled miracle: the liquefaction of two vials allegedly containing his blood. As writer Domenico Rea wisely puts it,
Saints serve to Neapolitans as mediators, between earth and sky, to transfer their prayers to the much more abstract figure of God. It is important for them to think that their deities are made of flesh and blood -like them-, and that they suffered martyrdom -like many of them do, every day-, in order to be commited to their faith.
This is why, next to the street shrines dedicated to the Madonna or some Catholic Saint, the visitor will be struck to notice wall-embedded shrines of the same solemnity -full of candles, statuettes, flowers, poems- dedicated to their pagan Saint: “San” Diego Armando Maradona. Twenty years after his departure from the Neapolitan football team, the spirit of the “Hand of God” still hovers above the city; his figure is everywhere: from statuettes on Via San Gregorio Armeno and the huge murals in the Spanish Quarters to smaller paintings, posters, stickers and other memorabilia scattered all over town. The article “Battle of spirits” recounts the timeless love story between Naples and their secular god of football.
Food culture and the YOLO spirit of Naples
“Sono una maschera sempre affamata” — “I am a mask who’s always hungry” says Pulcinella, one of the most popular characters of Commedia dell’Arte, the Italian theater of improvisation. Born in the Parthenopean city, Pulcinella represents the ultimate Neapolitan archetype: Poor, vulgar and always hungry, he will stop at nothing for a plate of spaghetti.
The most famous Neapolitan of all times doesn’t care about tomorrow: the tough world he was raised in has taught him that it is useless to be ambitious and make plans. So he lives for the moment and looks for the easiest way to make ends meet.
His low morals and canny spirit will put him in trouble as much as they will help him get away with it. This widely recognizable figure is a timeless reminder of the city’s strong bond with food -and its peoples’ struggle to survive. Travel writer Domenico Rea wisely explains: “The day of the Neapolitan is placed under the sign of randomness. Every morning he tells himself that ‘time will tell’; he prefers to stay under his blanket, but hunger takes him out to chase for food.”
It is this very lack of resources that pushes people into ingenius thoughts. Like for example the idea of adding cheese and tomato to a baked piece of bread. Tada! And Gods of Naples created pizza, arguably the most popular food in the entire world! Their inventive brains also gave birth to the famous spaghetti, as well as “Italy’s best” coffee and gelato. Moreover, the region of Campania is known for some of the world’s best citrus fruits -such as lemons and oranges-, tasteful fish, irresistible pastries -such as Rum babas- and wonderful wines, all thanks to the volcanic ash boosting the soil with an abundance of nutrients.
Pizza, coffee, ice cream…What else could someone ask for?
The spirit of food permeates every layer of the city; travel writers draw parallels between the local food and the landscape: pizzas with scorched rims as if baked in the Vesuvius volcano; spaghetti slipping through the fork like street kids slipping through the alleys after having pinched someone’s wallet.
Even architecture in this town gives the impression of being designed for opening the appetite: Churches are crowned with baroque domes as puffy as a wedding cake; their porcelain cherubs seem to have a skin so sugary you almost want to eat them. In the article “Kingdom of pizza”, we bring together the most fascinating travel notes about the prominent role of food culture in Naples and share locations of our favorite food markets, restaurants and pastry shops in town.
Layers of history
“Naples is fascinating because each and every piece, fragment, or specimen reflects the present, the past and the future. […] One shouldn’t be talking of a single Naples, but of many cities in one.” — Dominique Rea, Visite privée, Chêne, 1991.
Cities located at commercial crossroads have always been a pole of attraction to powerful colonies, empires and kingdoms. But few are those fortunate places still bearing the marks of their presence. Naples is one of them, featuring one of the richest architectural stratifications in the world. Its oldest street, Spaccanapoli, has remained untouched since its opening, at the turn of the 1st millennium BC. Seen from above, the street looks as if dividing Naples with a long, deep stab. Its chasm echoes the sirens of the city’s founders, the colons of the Greek region Cumae (Κύμη). Settled in the 8th century B.C., they turned Naples into the greatest center of their empire, Magna Grecia, using it as a cultural bridge between Greek and Roman cultures. Their marks are visible in the ancient walls of the lovely Piazza Bellini, the frescos in the catacombs of San Gennaro, and the Corinthian columns at the facade of San Paolo Maggiore.
Later on, the city was conquered by the Ostrogoths and the Byzantine Empire, sacked by the Arab-Muslims, and controlled by the Lombards and the Normans. The Angevins built a number of churches, -including the city’s Cathedral- as well as the famous Castel Nuovo fortress. The Aragonese added a Renaissance touch that barely survived -you can see it on the Tuscan-styled facades of Palazzi Cuomo and Carafa. By the 17th century, Naples had become Europe’s second-largest city, and a major cultural center, homeland to Baroque artists as famous as Caravaggio and Bernini. Spanish viceroys of the House of Habsburg commissioned decorative works of a heavy, theatrical style in alignment with the principles of the counter-reform architecture. These can be admired in the Gesù Nuovo church, the Immacolata obelisk, and the spectacular Spagnolo and Sanfelice palaces. The Reggia di Caserta, a palace that only Versailles can rival in opulence and grandeur, glorified the Neapolitan baroque era and was set as a model for many Hispanic courts from the Iberian Peninsula to Vienna.
“The historic center is the naked heart of a city with ancient palpitations; a Pompeii, not of dead stones, but of flesh and blood, in which the ages of humanity are stratified. It is a living museum, visible on the walls of houses and churches, on the streets’ outline and on people’s faces: the Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Swabian, Angevin, Saracen, Catalan and Spanish faces of the crowd.” — Jean-Joël Schifano, Naples, Seuil, 1981.
Land of contrasts
If one thinks that the architectural richness is resumed in the historic center then he/she should check out two more areas: Vomero Hill and Mergellina. Take the metro to Vanitteli station: you will feel as if you have flown to another planet. After having explored all the layers of the city’s stratification, I couldn’t imagine that Naples would still be able to impress me. The neighborhood at the Vomero hill is an oasis of serenity, after a noisy day in the jungle of the old Parthenope. Visitors will enjoy walking on its spacious, peaceful streets, lined with elegant neoclassical mansions; walk up towards Morghen and enjoy a coffee in the freshness of its car-free squares, under the shade of trees. From there, they will find Castel Sant’Elmo and enjoy a 360° city view they will find hard to forget.
Only from the balconies of this majestic medieval fortress can one realize the diversity of the Neapolitan landscape. Imagine a long, vivid postcard featuring countless streets, church domes and tile roofs, as well as parks, ports and sea fronts. On the background of this canvas full of colors, you will notice the nearby islands of the bay –Procida, Ischia and Capri- lost in an endless blue horizon, under the solemn shadow of Mount Vesuvius. The picture is perfect. For those who are fond of sea views, I warmly recommend the seafront promenade of Santa Lucia’s Lungomare, up to Mergellina e Porto di Sannazaro. Walk along this strip of divine land, caressed by the sea breeze, and watch the Neapolitans sunbathing on the rough breakwater rocks, gulls playing with the mistral winds, and amateur fishermen meditating in their boats. When it comes to Naples, I have two words of advice for you:
Take your time and don’t stick to the city center. This is the only way to appreciate the city in all its splendor: in its narrow alleys and spacious promenades; in its bassi and its mansions; in its chaos and peacefulness; its religious faiths and pagan superstitions; its glories and its wounds…in all these magnificent contrasts that make Naples a city of flesh and blood: vulnerable, humble, tenacious, and absolutely unique.
Kingdom of pizza
Pizzas scorched by the Vesuvius. Church domes puffing out like wedding cakes. Cherubs of a sugary porcelain skin: the spirit of food permeates every layer of this city.
Battle of spirits
Whether in churches or on graffiti walls, Naples, land of superstition, worships good spirits to fend off evil. From San Gennaro to Maradona, their Saints are made of flesh and blood.
“Red lights are dangerous, only if you respect them,” wrote a connoisseur of Naples. As the driver was creeping into the city’s urban jungle, I gripped the door handle with all my force…