Neapolitan Time

See Naples and die they say, but on the first day of my visit to the city I felt I could have passed on and missed it. I arrived late in the afternoon as sheets of rain seemed to paint the streets with grime that flowed away through streams on the road.

Jaywalking through swarming chaotic traffic put my good health in unnecessary peril, as mopeds brushed the edges of my legs with abandon. The next day the sun shone and everything seemed much brighter and my view changed completely of a city that definitely grows on you.

Modern day Naples is the undisputed and neglected capital of the Mezzogiorno or South of Italy with a population of about three million if you include the sprawling suburbs. It is much poorer and less touristy than its cousin cities of the north, but there is a wealth of hidden gems about for you to see. According to legend the city of Parthenope (on the site of present Naples) was created when Odysseus rejected the siren of the same name and she drowned, was washed ashore and turned into a rock. Odysseus resisted the lure of the sweet singing of the femme fatale mermaid siren by being tied to the mast of his ship. His crew filled their ears with beeswax. In the 10th century BC, colonists from the Greek island of Rhodes found the new city of Naples or Neapolis as it was then called. The Romans took over the city in the 4th century BC and made it into the capital of the Campania region. After the fall of the Roman Empire it was ruled by many others in a whole series of secessions including the Goths, Angevins, Normans, Spaniards from Aragon and Bourbons. It was returned to Italy when the North and South joined together in the formation of the new Kingdom of Italy in 1871.

The famous Gran Caffé Gambrinus on Via Toledo was frequented by Oscar Wilde. It is a good place to sit and have a morning cappuccino and a late breakfast. One or two of the local delicacy sflogliatelle pastries filled with ricotta, sugar and candy fruits will set you up for a day burning the shoe leather. The Palazzo Reale nearby was built in the 17th Century for a visit by Philip III of Spain to Naples, but he never actually turned up. Inside is the impressive National library with two million books. Around the corner is the Teatro Carlo, which is one of the oldest opera houses in the world. Operatic performances are staged in its lavish interior during the season between November and May.

Two dramatic castles dominate the Naples seafront. The Castle Nuovo, in the port area, was built in 1279 by Charles I of Anjou and is often called Angevin’s fortress. The Spaniard, Alfonso V, rebuilt it with the magnificent renaissance triumphal arch that stands to this day. The second castle is the egg castle or Castell del’ ovo and it is on the islet of Megaris in front of the port of Santa Lucia. It was built by the Normans and remodeled by the Angevins. There is a magical egg buried by Virgil somewhere in the grounds and it protects the city from catastrophe.

The castle is on the long promenade and this is the best place for a romantic sunset stroll and views of the setting sunlight on the bay and Vesuvius. Santa Lucia was immortalised by Enrico Caruso’s song ‘Solo mio’, which was used by serenading locals. After a ban, serenading is no longer that popular in the city as is generally frowned upon. The Irish version of serenading will not please the owners of your hotel.

Via Toledo is really the main drag of the city and runs northwards from Piazza Plebiscito. Named after a Spanish viceroy, it used to be a major shopping thoroughfare in the time of Spanish rule, but now it is a bit rundown. The Galleria Umberto I with its iron and glass dome is not as chic as it used to be. Via Chiaia has taken over as the smartest shopping street with many expensive boutiques for those with heavy wallets and purses.

The pedestrianised street of Spaccanapoli cuts the historic centre of Naples in two. It was an old Roman road and many of the original buildings remain. This is where you can get a real flavour of local life as it is lived out on these ancient streets. Although the touristy antique and souvenir pasta and olive oil shops have started to infiltrate, much of the native ambience remains and the Neapolitan street show is authentic. A highlight is a visit to the cramped Ospedale delle Bambole (Dolls’ hospital) to marvel at repair work on the dolls and puppets that can look eerily human. Many original local crafts, such as making nativity scenes called presepi for christmas, are still practised in the many workshops all around. This is a place for bargains if you have an expert eye.

As with most Italian cities there are lots of churches about and the more interesting ones are clustered around the Spaccanapoli. The unusual palatial façade of the Gesu Novo church dominates the Piazza del Gesu and inside is an opulent blaze of gold ornament. A little further on is the 14th century Santa Chiara monastery with the painted majolica cloisters of the Poor Clare nuns. This is the place for some peaceful respite from the chaos of the city. Queuing to get into the private Capello Sanservo church off Piazza San Domenico Maggiore is a bit of a pain but it is well worth to see the lavish baroque interior. The Veiled Christ masterpiece by the Neapolitan sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino was carved from just one piece of marble.

The main cathedral on Via Duomo is also worth a look. On the right as you enter, the Church of San Gennaro is full of silver sculptures and has a dramatic roof with an impressive fresco depicting angels in flight. This is a sacred place and every year it is filled with crowds of people on the first Sunday in May and the 19th of September (which is the saint’s feast day). The blood of Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, is kept in two phials and on these auspicious days it miraculously liquefies and starts to boil. If the blood of San Gennaro does not boil, then Vesuvius will. In 1980, the last time the saint’s blood remained coagulated, the volcano erupted.

For culture buffs there are two major museums in Naples: the Museum of Anthropology with intricate mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum and the Capodimonte Museum upon Vomero Hill with much great art including the Farnese collection and important early Renaissance works.

Football is a huge passion in the city and if a match is on at the San Paolo stadium and the local team wins then the city will be filled with raucous supporters tooting their horns and shouting with glee. The glory days of the Napoli football club are long gone and the team has been in the doldrums for quite a while, but no one here forgets those heady times. In the 1980s, Diego Armando Maradona, the best footballer ever, played for them and almost single-handedly steered an average team to a few Italian league titles. El Diego was not just a heroic footballer to impoverished Neapolitans, but also a symbol of hope for the future. His sky blue number 10 shirt is treated like a relic in the city to this day. There is never a mention of the infamous ‘Hand of God’ incident in the World Cup, nor his narcotic induced fall from grace.

Pizza and pasta lovers are in for a gastronomic treat in Naples. There are a myriad of pasta dishes available and they are not only “macaroni eaters” as their unjustified nickname suggests. Fish is king and a meal of Frutti di mare or just plain Spaghetti al vongole is enough to tickle any palate with joy. The best accompaniment to a fish dinner is the curiously named Lachryma Christi (Tears of Christ) wine. Monks ferment this pleasant tipple with grapes grown in the fertile volcanic soil on the side of Vesuvius.

Neapolitans claim they invented pizza in the 18th century and even though this is disputed I think due recognition is warranted. They were definitely first to created the ever-popular Margherita and Napoletana varieties. Pizza margherita was named after Queen Margherita who adored the simple but tasty mozzarella (the best stuff is made in this area), basil and tomato pizza, which up to then was considered food only fit for peasants. The Napoletana also contains salty anchovies. A popular way to eat pizza is with the locals at Scaturchio on Spaccanapoli where you stand at the bar. You might if you have any room left be tempted by a slice of the chocolate cake with rum cream filling and an obligatory coffee.

Naples can be used as a base for an incredible variety of day trips. You should really venture out in the Neapolitan bay to visit at least one of the legendary islands. Capri is the most famous island and has a lot to offer, but it does get a bit touristy in the summer. Ischia and Procida are a bit quieter. You can take a trip up to the rim of Vesuvius and the ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum (locals call it Ercolano). The elegant Sorrento and the Amalfi coast, the Doric temples at Paestum, the Phlegrean volcanic fields and the Bourbon Palace at Caserta are all within a few hours reach.

Naples has a bad reputation for crime. The descendant of the impish, but honest, scugnizzo street urchin still stalks the streets. The modern day version, however, you feel is more likely to snatch a tourists valuables than live the honest life running errands. It is best to be wary especially if you decide to wander in the narrow streets filled with washing and Italian flags of the Quartiere Spagnoli district.

The Neapolitans are generally a friendly bunch. Although they gesticulate wildly during every conversation and seem to be constantly on the very edge of a huge tantrum, it is not so. Their exaggerated animation reflects an enthusiasm for life that is infectious.

At the end of your visit you will adopt the great Neapolitan shrug that can have a range of meanings “I don’t know”, “I don’t care”, “It is not my business to say” or “what do you expect me to do?” If you can adopt their easy going attitude and this Neapolitan enigmatic shrug during your stay, then you will have done well.


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