Naples may be the wild child of Campania but it is those who live with wild abandon that have the best stories to tell. Here’s why the tale of Naples is one worth listening to.
Sorrento is stunningly beautiful, Rome is regal and Florence is a Renaissance masterpiece. But Naples is real. This is where Neapolitans live and breathe and love as they have done for centuries. There are no red velvet ropes standing between you and the artefacts, and no polished marble promenades with fledgling potted palms to prettify the seafront. The villas here are the same sugared almond shades of pistachio, peach and lemon as those on the Amalfi Coast, but the paint is timeworn and the balconies are hung with the clashing blue and white stripes of Napoli FC shirts. If you are beguiled by the idea of ‘la dolce vita’, head for Ischia or the high-end enclave of Capri. But if you want to experience real, raw Italy, cast aside your preconceptions and entrust yourself to the urban sprawl.
It was Goethe who coined the phrase ‘See Naples and die’, suggesting that no other place could ever compare to the one which sprawls defiantly in the shadow of an active volcano. The German writer wasn’t only enamoured with the way Italy’s third largest city carves itself into the Gulf of Naples coastline. Instead, like any affair of the heart, Goethe’s admiration for Naples went way beyond aesthetics and everything he loved about the city stands true today, from the exhilarating chaos of the Centro Storico to the imposing mass of Vesuvius and the theatrical locals.
Acquaintance with this wild city gets off to the sweetest of starts in its pasticcerie, where the morning coffee is served zuccherato (sweet) and the clamshell sfogliatelle hide lemon cream or chocolate centres beneath layer-upon-layer of flaky pastry.
Naples’ unique charm takes on various guises in its many neighbourhoods, but nowhere is its magnetism felt more than on the atmospheric streets of the Centro Storico. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the beating heart of the city, its straight streets still following the grid of ancient Roman and Greek settlements. The city’s world-class museums are elsewhere, but the hustle and bustle of the street which splices through Naples is an attraction in itself. The Centro Storico is indicative of the way everyday life is lived here, from beautiful girlfriends riding pillion on speeding Vespas to feisty Neapolitan Nonnas shouting between the balconies. Sitting in the Piazza de Plebiscito is a cinematic experience, bettered only by the addition of a slice or two of Neapolitan pizza with which to enjoy the view.
The unique beauty of an afternoon in Naples is that the city’s neighbourhoods are busy not with tourists but with locals. Some rifle through crates of fist-sized tomatoes destined to be whipped into a ragu. Some put the world to rights with friends, antipasti in their hands and dogs obediently by their feet. Others simply watch, from balconies strewn with washing on the Spaccanapoli’s vertical streets or from sandstone doorsteps in hillside districts that take five hundred steps or more to reach.
Neapolitans are passionate about everything. Devoutly religious, there are hundreds of churches in the city and when they aren’t worshipping at the altar, locals are lighting candles at street shrines embedded into walls outside their homes. Most pay worship to Madonna, others Diego Maradona.
Food is the city’s second religion. Pizza and Naples are one, inseparable. Pizza pilgrimages lead you to an unassuming sand-coloured restaurant front sandwiched between bookstores on the Via Port’Alba. It might not look like much but for pizza fans Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba is everything. Opened in 1830 as the world’s first pizzeria, its pizzas provided sustenance for the city’s cash-strapped, even offering an option for patrons to pay up to eight days after their meal. Nowadays it nourishes tourists who queue around the block to sample the magic that happens when San Marzano tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil and basil meet on a perfectly charred crust.
Spend an evening in Naples and you’ll notice the night owl tendencies of the Neapolitans. Teatime’s aperitivo hour means that dinner is a late and long affair. In the local haunts, tables stand empty until at least 8.30pm, at which point friends, family and a combination of the two congregate to feast on plates of insalata caprese and spaghetti alle vongole. Be warned, for once you have dined ‘alla Campagna’ you will spend a lifetime trying to replicate the dishes, most attempts proving pitiful without tomatoes grown in the soil of Vesuvius and buffalo mozzarella made just a few miles along the coast.
Food and otherwise, Naples is an assault on the senses, but with sight, sound and smell overwhelmed, you will set sail into the Campania sunset knowing that you have seen the real Italy; passionate, welcoming, wild and with a characteristic determination to live life to the fullest.