There are a lot of stereotypes about Naples. It’s dirty – True. It smells nasty – True. There is garbage everywhere – True. It’s loud – True. The people drive like maniacs – True. It’s rough not just around the edges – True. And it’s got some of the best food in all of Italy – TRUE.
There is nothing pretty at all about Napoli, certainly not at first glance, arriving in the centre by any means of transport. Much of the outskirts are just a few steps from looking like slums, and there is garbage everywhere.
Upon reaching the inner city, the buildings get older but their level of disrepair and the amount of trash remains the same. And it smells. It’s also a little bit scary because the people look kind of like their city, a bit rough and unkempt.
But as with everything, if approached with an open mind and respect, that’s usually what you get back. So a wander through the maze of narrow streets that make up the market, with hawkers selling anything and everything ranging from fish and fruit to gigantic My Little Ponies and laundry detergent, can be an intriguing and entertaining experience. Ask the fishmonger politely (in Italian) and you will be told (in Neapolitan) where the best little trattoria is for local food.
Although quite honestly, there is deliciousness on every corner, be it the world’s best pizza, fantastic seafood, street-side panini with provola, the incredibly delicate sfogliatella (how do they make it???) and the caffe della nonna, a sort of soft coffee ice cream made in those huge mixers for slurpies.
There are goodies spilling out of every other shop and café, and the smells of great food almost overcome the smell of garbage, which is piled in bins that line the streets, and lies all over the streets.
Perhaps Naples was beautiful once, but as a major port city, I rather doubt it. Looking carefully, buildings that used to be small lovely churches appear out of the grime, having long been closed and shuttered up. Some of the newer parts of town are brighter and shinier, and could be passed off as any standard European city with all the usual high street stores and people strolling around. It even has a rather fine castle and some lovely squares that open up all of a sudden from a narrow lane.
And then it has a whole additional city underground. The Greeks built a huge aqueduct beneath the city, which supplied drinking water until the middle of the 19th Century, when it stopped being used due to cholera. At that point it became a sort of garbage dump, people throwing their trash down the former wells, up to the point that the aqueduct was clogged up.
During the wars of the 20th Century, these areas served as bomb shelters, with the wells having all been closed off and some of the garbage removed.
The network of passages under the streets is some 400 km long, and there are several tours that offer a peek beneath the surface. Additionally, there is a huge Roman amphitheatre under the ground, which has been incorporated over the ages into the apartments built above it. How remarkable, that some people live with a 2000 year old wall in their bathroom and never even noticed.
Two unusual things are present everywhere in the inner city. Bright red talismans that look like chilli peppers but are in fact the “cuorno” or horn, a fundamental Neapolitan good luck charm, which according to legend must be red, must be hand-made and must be given as a gift. And then there are the “presepi” which perhaps started as a sort of nativity set, but in this city have developed into a grotesque sort of diorama usually enclosed in a glass case and displayed in every home (they must be, otherwise I don’t know how all the shops would survive).
There are countless craftsmen making sets, figurines and props of every imaginable kind to put in your own personalised presepo – from biblical scenes to scenarios of mundane life like a butchery or barber shop, but usually featuring Pulcinella, the strange masked clown elf that appears to be Napoli’s mascot. It’s really quite difficult to describe, but I found them rather morbid.
I made two excursions into Naples about a week apart. The first was on a grey chilly day and involved a walk through the market streets, an underground tour, a seafood fry-up, a splendid pizza diavola and a café della nonna. The second time around the weather was nicer, and we took a long walk around, missing the main tourist trail entirely and happening upon previously unseen parts of the city. I don’t know if I liked it more or less than on the first visit. I’m not sure I could ever become fond of the place. But they must be doing something right because the food is marvellous (and there are a lot of mighty plump children around to prove it).
As for the famous quote “See Naples and die!” – then most likely of a heart attack induced by the traffic. Otherwise, it’s not so bad.