- From Travel
- 6 minute read
Be careful. It’s something we hear again and again when we talk about our planned stopover in Naples en route to a week on the Amalfi Coast. Dirt. Crime. The mob. Why go there?
It wasn’t always so for this ancient maritime city, capital of southern Italy’s Campania region. Founded by the Greeks half a millennium before Christ, it was once a must-see treasure for 18th-century Grand Tour adventurers. Vedi Napoli, e poi muori: in other words, you must experience the beauty and magnificence of Naples before you die.
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But, despite a recent renaissance fuelled by a crackdown on crime, corruption and the Camorra alongside an Elena Ferrante-led tourism boom, Naples, to many, remains the scruffy, lawless urchin cousin of Venice, Florence and Rome.
It irritates the hell out of Neapolitans, fiercely proud of a city that groaned under centuries of foreign domination, thrived despite a perennially threatening Vesuvius, and spawned a tough, resilient, unique culture from its pagan customs and superstitions to a local dialect studded with Latinisms (including ascraje for “tomorrow”, a word that came ashore with Ulysses, I’m told).
Our taxi driver, a young uni student, is typical. Naples was once the wealthy, powerful capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, he tells us in aggrieved tones; a Paris of the South before it got swallowed up into the belly of the newly united Italy where it’s been exploited and bombed (it took a heavy hit in World War II) and generally treated badly ever since, especially by its northern brethren. No good, he exclaims. Life is better here, the food is better, the wine is better.
The charm offensive continues at our hotel in cliffside Posillipo, Greek for “the place where unhappiness ends”, apparently. It’s appropriately named. There are fat lemons in every terracotta pot, a decanter of rich aglianico red appears like magic in front of us, and we have a dazzling front-seat view of Bay the Naples, flanked to the west by the Gulf of Pozzuoli and to the southeast by the Gulf of Salerno and dominated dead centre by the hulking, misty mass of Mount Vesuvius. It’s chocolate-box pretty, all sparkle and shades of blue turning purple as the sun sets; I imagine Renoir sprawled right in my deckchair as he painted Vesuvius and the Bay during his travels in Italy in the 1880s.
All night we keep our curtains open; even in the inky dark of the early hours, you can see the spectral outline of Vesuvius and it’s beautiful. Over breakfast, our kids keep a ghoulishly fascinated eye on the peak (“When did it blow? How many people died? Is it going to blow again? Can we outrun it if it does?”) while we tuck into sfogliatelle, the city’s most famous sweet alongside the rum-soaked, spongy baba. It comes in two forms, our waiter tells us: on a napkin, he draws a scone-sized frolla and a shell-shaped riccia. He grins, pats his tummy. Easter is almost here. Lots of pastieri — try!
Stuffed to the gills, we take the funicular at Chiaia down to the waterfront district of Mergellina. It’s a fine morning for a stroll along the Lungomare, the 3km seafront promenade rejuvenated by the massive urban renewal of Naples in the early 20th century. It’s a pretty stretch of wedding cake buildings in prawn pinks and ochre yellows in the city’s distinctive Liberty Napoletano style. Our walk takes us past the lush Villa Commune, once the royal gardens of Naples’ Bourbon kings, all the way to the former artists’ colony of Santa Lucia where tourists snap selfies outside the Castel dell’Ovo (“egg castle”). It’s Naples post-Ferrante fever — slick, pretty and polished.
Hugging the seafront, old, grimy, grafting Naples continues to thrive, however. Touts sell terracotta olive oil jugs, bleached star fish, Virgin Mary and Pulcinella figurines. I’m in love all of a sudden. It’s a proper, old-timey maritime city in the way I’ve always loved: seagull poo and fishing nets and wizened old men caulking old fishing boats, a far cry from the sleek pleasure craft that start invading the Amalfi Coast from nearby Sorrento all the way north to Salerno and beyond in summer.
Fishermen, probably the sons of the men John Steinbeck wrote about fishing all night for anchovies and squid along this stretch of coast, stand in gumboots and aprons filleting and arranging their catch: silver eels rolled up in perfect coils, baby cuttlefish, sardines, sea urchins, the ubiquitous vongole.
Over limoncellos at Grand Hotel Santa Lucia, we watch locals haggle over the fresh catch. Little boys jump off the breakwaters into the cold tidal flats.
Serenaded by a busker crooning Tu vuo fà l’americano, lunch is a spectacular margherita pizza at Via dei Tribunale; nearby the famous Sorbillo’s is packed despite being hit with a reported mafia bomb in January last year. Then it’s a stroll through the city’s UNESCO-listed historic centre. Art and culture seep out of every crack and crevice.
Naples was once home to the workshops of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. Bad boy Caravaggio romped through these streets, as did Thomas Aquinas, Pliny the Elder, Virgil and Boccaccio. My art treasure highlight is Sanmartino’s creepily beautiful Veiled Christ complete with pulsating vein across the forehead at Capella Sansevero; even the city’s prized Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy, pales in comparison.
Again, everywhere, we find the real Naples unfurling outside the tourist frame: the young man preening on his Vespa; the tableful of old men flirting with a glamorous octogenarian Sophia Loren lookalike. This is a city where life happens in public, as Charles Dickens wrote in his travelogue, Pictures from Italy, in 1846, filled with wickedly funny pen portraits of Neapolitan beggars with glass eyes and beautiful brown men resembling American movie villains and the theatricality of local body language (“everything is done in pantomime in Naples … those five fingers are a copious language”).
It’s all “macaroni-eating at sunset, and flower-selling all day long, and begging and stealing everywhere and at all hours, you see upon the bright seashore, where the waves of the bay sparkle merrily”, Dickens wrote.
“Maybe they’re the only people in Europe that a visitor, in the city for only a week or so, can learn enough about to have anything to say. That’s because Neapolitans are the only people you can actually watch living their lives, from top to bottom, head to toe.”
Too soon we have to hit the road for Pompeii, Capri’s Blue Grotto, then Positano. Here, I find a copy of John Steinbeck’s Positano in a drawer at our Airbnb. Positano bites deep, Steinbeck wrote. “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”
He got it wrong. For me, it’s gritty Naples that lingers in the memory, not its shiny neighbours.
IN THE KNOW
Due to the coronavirus, the federal government’s Smart Traveller website advises people to exercise a high degree of caution in Italy and reconsider their need to travel to a number of towns in the northern Lombardy and Veneto regions.
In Naples, eat as the locals do: fresh seafood, caprese salads and pizza. If you can’t get into the famous Sorbillo, try Fresco Trattoria Pizzeria.
For a family-friendly hotel away from the crowds, Hotel Paradiso Napoli in Posillipo has a jaw-dropping view across the bay.
Getting around is easy. We hire a driver through our hotel but regular bus services cover the Amalfi Coast and trains connect Naples to major Italian cities.