By Jean and Peter Richards
(This article was written after a trip taken in February 2009)
Naples is one of the most underrated cities in Europe, except, perhaps, by French schools whose students seem to arrive by the busload.
Its site along the bay in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius is spectacular. Its art, architecture, nearby archeological sites and food are as gratifying as the friendliness of the people.
We went for four days and stayed 13, astonished by the depth of the beauty within and within reach.
The garbage strike is long over. The only possible pickpockets we encountered were on a bus. We went everywhere by foot, bus and train; people were helpful and public transport was easy.
The expensive hotels are alongside the bay of the lovely Riviera di Chiaia. We preferred the more edgy side of town and stayed in the infamous area of Piazza Garibaldi near the main train station, the transportation hub, often cited by guides for its grit and its crime. There we found a cafe on the piazza so welcoming that we nearly wept upon leaving, a trattoria so pleasing that we ate there all but one night and a real neighborhood where people hung their washing on their balcony, carefully selected their daily marketing from curbside vendors and regularly greeted one another and us. It was a perfect experience.
At Antico Caffe Moro, named for the penny bank given the founder by a grateful American soldier during the war, Ciro or Alfredo made us long cappuccinos, double espressos and incredibly delicious fresh juice from blood oranges for breakfast. Then we would talk in fractured tongues about life in Naples and our plans for the day. “Pay attention,” Ciro warned, pointing to his eye, as we headed for the streets.
At da Donato we were not the only regulars sampling Marilena’s homey Neopolitan fare but torn each evening about the selection — artichokes in olive oil, roasted peppers, thinly sliced prosciutto with fresh mozzarella as antipasto; perfectly cooked pastas including her revelatory linguini with scoglia, arugela and shavings of parmesan, and homemade lemon sorbetto. Some say their pizza rivals that of the more famous da Michele. We cannot cavil with that. Donato became as much club as eatery. Night after night we met interesting people and had lively conversation in a smattering of languages with people like Angelo from Pescara, tourists from Belgium, England and France and three sailors on shore leave from an American destroyer who made a picture of the USA — a chubby young man from Tennessee along with a black immigrant from Ghana and a Pakistani, both now calling New Jersey their home.
The temperature this winter was unusually cold — enough to chill cafe life outdoors but not at the famous Gambrinus where paying extra for the privilege to shiver in a seat on the piazza was rewarded by the view of Neopolitan streetlife along a huge arc from the shopping on Via Toledo through the arcades of Palazzo Reale, across the sweep of Piazza Plebiscito and up the steps of the Church of St. Francis of Paul.
Naples isn’t just a city, it is many within one. Each district is distinctive and reflects a connection to a past rich in infusions from afar. Greeks, Romans, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese and Bourbons left their marks over three thousand years.
A day could be considered full after climbing the magnificent double staircase to view the sumptuous royal apartments at the Palazzo Reale, strolling through the spiffy and strutted Galleria Umberto, and visiting the oddly shaped Angevin Castel Nuovo with its massive, detailed bronze Renaissance doors, serene chapel and still functioning baronial hall.
A day and a half wasn’t enough for the Museo Archeologico where the important finds of Pompei and Herculaneum are casually guarded.
There are found the fabulous Farnese bull, the splendid Greek sculptures of Herculaneum, the mosaics, frescoes and bronze satyrs of Pompei and the Gabinetto Segreto of erotica.
The sites themselves are an easy ride on the Circumvesuviana train. Pompei was least interesting, perhaps because it seemed sterilized. Most of the objects are now in museums. We found the Villa of the Mysteries closed, the staff somewhat surly and the hilly terrain tiring for lack of more than jagged stone walls and deeply cobbled streets. Yet, one could not help but be moved by the events long past and the sight of Vesuvius capped in snow looming beyond the extensive enclave.
Paestum, on the other hand, was exciting. We visited its three stately Greco-Roman temples on a wintry day when sun washed the biscuit columns and lintels and wind rippled greening fields. There’s something at once connected and comforting about Paestum. Today one walks casually through remains once planned precisely.
Fifth century b.c. Herculaneum is simply stunning from its first sighting beyond the gates above the lower end of a rather sorry town. Thanks in measure to the Packard Humanities Institute, it is being conserved but not spoilt. It may be that only a small portion has been unearthed as it is now thought that much more still lies beneath the town. Ash buried Pompei. Mud and lava encapsuled Herculaneum and that which can be seen is more intact and more interesting.
Some of the astonishing riches of Villa Papyri have been moved to the Museo Archeologico in Naples, but to wander through its skeleton is to understand just how well its owner lived until Vesuvius claimed it in 79 a.d. We took the lunch we brought with us at one of Herculaneum’s taverns — recognized not only by the excellent signs at the site but also because counters with holes for cooking pots were so well preserved they could be made useful again. Terra-cotta vessels still lay ready for sale in shops at least two millennia old, bits of frescoed still llfes can be made out here and there, a little orchard has been planted near the forum, mosaics abound and the city baths could still be the envy of any tony spa.
In Naples’ hilly, dense Spaccanopoli, where Spanish troops once quartered, palazzos and churches from Romanesque to Baroque punctuate the life of cobbled streets lined with crammed residences that seem taller because of their density and small specialist shops selling everything from little ceramic figures to large cured hams.
Those inclined toward the religiously Baroque will find much to see in this part of Naples, not least in the lavish private fiefdom of the Capella Sansevero whose riches are matched by the entrance fee.
The Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte is an extraordinarily beautiful Vesuvian red building at the head of a large and beautiful park way atop this city of hills. It was built by Charles of Bourbon to be his palace as well as to hold the collection of his mother, Elisabetta Farnese. The paintings include a wonderful Mantegna portrait of a young man, Titians and admirable works by Annibale Carraci, Carravaggio, Masaccio, El Greco and Bruegel. Off the galleries is a small corridor room of rarities any one of which we would happily own but especially the Farnese 17th century dinner service, a gold and rock crystal casket, extraordinary engraved glass decorations and a rock crystal fruit bowl. The apartment rooms are so beautifully decorated here that the excessive indulgence is not the least bit inelegant. The porcelain room with its Chinese theme is certainly rare; the ballroom is one of the prettiest anywhere with its rose hues and huge chandeliers.
The contents of the first floor were more than enough to satisfy our appetites though we did go up to see the Flemish tapestries on the second floor commemorating the French loss at Pavia, but passed on the opportunity to see Warhol’s Vesuvius appropriately blowing its top. The Italians have a relaxed attitude toward public spaces. Outside the young played soccer on the palazzo lawns while others sought a comfortable spot in which to lunch.
We thrice lunched at Ciro a Santa Brigida, an upscale and pretty place where a table on the narrow enclosed terrace is as much to be savored as the frito misto, carciofi alla romana and traditional Shrove Tuesday lasagna.
Getting to the top of another of Naples hills was almost as much fun as being there. Vomero is reached by a funicular which runs from a beautifully restored 19th century station set back across from the Via Toledo entrance of the Galleria Umberto. Vomero’s pleasant neighborhoods bustled with strollers and shoppers, but we had the Villa Floridiana’s collections to ourselves. The villa spectacularly overlooks the Bay of Naples at the end of yet another charming and well trafficked garden. Children played soccer on its terraces; the elderly snoozed in the sun and we took our time with the impressive collection of Chinese and Japanese export on the lower floor and the Meissen, Sevres and Capodimonte porcelains on upper floor while taking every opportunity to look out the long windows at the wonderful view of the bay.
We walked the Lungomare one warm day from the port where fishermen tie up at Margellina to the castle called Egg and found yet another Naples, prosperous and plush. On another day we headed for Piazza Dante off which booksellers gather with stores and stalls along the covered passage to tranquil Piazza Bellini.
Perhaps it is its legendary poverty which has saved Naple’s core from modernization.
Buildings rise only five or six storeys in gelati-like colors. The city’s architectural integrity and attention to detail in balconies and fenestration enhances the pleasurable view even on Corso Umberto where subway expansion has been ongoing for years.
One need not look for da Michele’s sign on via Cesare Sercal. You can see the queue from the Corso Umberto. They say pizza was invented in Naples and Michele makes the best. A Marguerite with its simple sauce and fresh mozzarella is the variety of choice — “maxi” for those who want extra cheese. At four euros a pie, it has to be one of the food bargains of Italy — elastic dough, charred slightly on the edges in the wood burning oven, lightly slathered with fresh unsullied tomato sauce and topped with silver dollar-sized dollops of fresh mozzarella. Numbered tickets are handed out on arrival to those waiting outside and seats don’t get cold between sitters at Michele’s 19th century tables. The pizza is excellent but half the fun was chatting on line.
Our final foray was by train to Sorrento, a charming little town on way to the Amalfi coast with an exquisite cloister in the Church of San Francisco seldom worthy of mention in guides more concerned with the views from the town’s many terraces.
We had approached Napoli with some trepidation. “Call me, I’ll pick you up at the train station when you return,” a friend in France chortled conjuring images of our new car being stolen. Travel guides were more direct: “Petty crime is quite widespread,” said one. Another warned that anyone foolish enough “to decide to travel into Naples by car, be prepared for highly stressful driving, heavy traffic and parking problems.” Naples deserves a better reputation.
Copyright © 2009 Jean and Peter Richards