I fell in love in the side streets of Naples. In love with Naples.
I’d been told that if I love the north of Italy, the south would prove be a revelation. Some people love it, some hate it, but no one is indifferent. First the Greeks then the Romans found a home here, followed by a plethora of kings and duke and princelings, each leaving in their wake a city awash with a vibrant cultural and artistic legacy.
Our boat sailed in at dawn, past the backdrop of Vesuvius. Arriving by boat is a great way to see the Mediterranean. These places have been ports since the dawn of time, and old cities and towns cluster along the shoreline. You see the city through the eyes of the sailors and fishermen who have plied these waters for centuries, hear it through the voice of Homer who wrote of this coastline and islands.
Naples Bay is reputedly the birthplace of the Sirens. Although the age of the city remains unclear, mythology has it the city was built on the site where the body of the siren Parthenope washed ashore. (She drowned herself when her songs failed to entice Odysseus, a man so readily enticed.) A town was probably founded by Greek colonists, perhaps as early as the 10th C BCE, which became a thriving city before the rise of the Rome.
Behind a tiny breakwater lay a huge port. By midday the place would be basking under the summer sun, but for the moment a cool sea breeze kept the temperature under control. After running the usual gauntlet of taxis, we set off walking. Naples is a city for
walking, for finding unmarked nooks and side alleys (not to mention cafés). Although the height of summer there were no crowds – many places we had literally to ourselves. The only queues we encountered were outside a pizzeria and a gelato shop. Naples is a city
The Castel Nuovo guards the city. Begun in 1279, it was called “new” to distinguish it from two older castles. A solid structure, it has the air of a true fortress. Having only the day in Naples we did not venture inside, but from the causeway the stunning marble arch guarding the entrance – the Arco di Trionfo – is easily admired. A striking piece of artwork, it was built in 1443, and
decorated with bas relief of The Triumph of Alfonso,
complete with the Four Virtues and St Michel. Naturally.
We crossed past the Plazzo Reale (once one of the most important royal courts in the Mediterranean, but we didn’t have time to visit) to the Via Toledo. This thoroughfare runs through the heart of Naples, past many museums, churches, cafés, piazzas, shops… the list is endless. Officially called Via Roma, the Via Toledo is also a major shopping hub, and an excellent way to reach the Spanish Quarter.
At its start of is the Caffé Gambrinus, which dates from the Napoleonic era. Once the haunt of politicians, artists and writers such as Oscar Wilde, it is worth a visit for the lush interior alone (but the best coffee in Naples comes later).
When a cholera epidemic swept through the overcrowded city in 1884, the government responded with an urban renewal plan which created large enclosed spaces such as the Galleria Umberto I. No pictures do the Galleria justice. A glass dome soars above a floor
of patterned marble. Elegant arches open onto arcades filled with shops and restaurants. At this hour of the morning it was virtually empty every footstep echoed, and I could really appreciate the true beauty of the place. Buying some postcards, I chatted to the
shopkeeper. Originally from Holland, he came to Naples when “things became too hot”. Ah, Naples. I wonder who his boss is now.
Small streets wind up from the Via Toledo to the Spanish Quarter, the Quartieri Spagnoli. These gird-like streets were built in the 16th C to house the Spanish garrisons imported to quell the riotous local population, but the area soon became synonymous with crime and prostitution. Now one of the poorest areas in Italy, it has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in Europe. The average width of the
streets is 3m – many are not large enough for a car, not even a fiat (though they frequently try). The flats and apartments are equally as tiny, so the people live their days on the streets, and this is what gives the area its life and character.
Despite all the dire warnings, I felt totally safe. It was mid morning and the streets were full of locals. The place was a maze of narrow streets, some winding, a few straight; washing hung overhead, often blocking out the sun, and shops of all kinds were interspersed amongst the flats. With a turn of a corner came and another market, full of fresh fruits and vegetables bursting with colour (the peaches were especially delicious.
One kind was a strange shape, looking almost squashed, but one bite was enough to convert me.) There was, it seemed, a different tomato for every requirement – I’ve never
seen such variety, not even in the markets of Venice or provincial France. Fishmongers sold three or four different types of clams, or half a dozen different types of squid.
Cars and vespas shot past in all directions, and footpaths simply didn’t exist. Shops and their wares spilled onto the road. On nearly every corner, and on many buildings, were alcoves with statues of Our Lord or the Virgin. Religious pictures – or ones of soccer stars– adorned many a window.
I could easily have spent all day here, simply wandering. Heaven knows where I would have ended up; Naples is huge, and there is much to explore. The morning was passing, and it was time to move on (always with an eye open for a perfectly located hotel to make my base when I next return. Or maybe a convent – they are always in a perfect location, with a good restaurant nearby).
The Literary Traveller
What else to read, but Homer’s [easyazon_link identifier=”0140268863″ locale=”US” tag=”aharrison20-20″]The Odyssey[/easyazon_link]? It has been argued that between the writing of [easyazon_link identifier=”0140275363″ locale=”US” tag=”aharrison20-20″]The Iliad[/easyazon_link] to The Odyssey came the evolution of consciousness. The backdrop of the Mediterranean, her lands and her peoples, flood this work.