Naples is a beautiful city inhabited by grubs. Well, that’s not exactly true, in fact I suspect it is a very unfair characterisation, but it was the phrase that came to my head many times over the month that we have just spent there. The city is undeniably charismatic, with its sparkling bay, the dramatic, glowering backdrop of Mount Vesuvius, stern castles speaking of a long feudal history, magnificent 18th century palaces, labyrinthine old town streets, and extraordinary vistas that can appear at the most unexpected moments. But at the same time, it is without doubt the dirtiest city I think we have visited in Italy. Naples has long had a problem with garbage collection and disposal, and though several people told us that things were improving and are much better than they were, it was still very disturbing to see a corner of the street outside our apartment turned into an impromptu rubbish tip, piled with bags of garbage mingled with all sorts of hard rubbish – beaten up old refrigerators, beds, sofas, all sorts of things. And I have never seen so many cigarette butts on the streets anywhere in Italy; smokers casually flick their butts on the ground without a thought, and certainly with no visible sign of guilt!
The Neapolitans themselves are for the most warm and friendly, though there is often an initial reserve that has to be penetrated first. They are welcoming of tourists and will happily give directions and provide assistance, working harder than most Italians to overcome the language barriers. Yet at the same time they can and will fleece you, without the smile ever leaving their face. This doesn’t seem malicious, it’s just the way their world works – if you can casually rip an extra €20 out of a customer’s pocket because they are easily confused by your rapid Italian, well, why wouldn’t you? And if you get caught out, if the customer pushes back against your chiselling, a rueful smile and a shrug will restore goodwill, no trouble at all.
Our apartment, on the fourth floor of a fairly typical 19th century apartment block, was a great base from which to explore the city, as well as providing shelter from the oppressive August heat once the day’s sightseeing was done. The building is located on the edge of the Centro Storico, whose layout is unchanged since the Greeks established their colony of Neapolis in the 6th century BC. The narrow cobbled streets form a grid overlooked by the washing-festooned balconies of four- and five-story apartment buildings that provide welcome shade during the hottest part of the day. Though this area is mostly pedestrianised, we quickly learned that you need to keep a constant eye out, since the locals, with typical Italian disdain for the rules, just barge through on their motor bikes, often at death-defying speeds.
Naples is stuffed full of churches and monasteries, monuments to the piety of its citizens, and there is a particular concentration of them in the old town. The most spectacular is the complex of Santa Chiara, a rather barn-like place to which is attached a beautiful and peaceful cloister decorated with frescoes and majolica tiles. The Church of Gesu Nuovo is equally large, but hides its riot of Baroque over-decoration behind an unassuming facade that was once the front of a palazzo, demolished when the church was built. And then there is the more austere church of San Lorenzo, outside which we were treated one evening to an ear-splitting fireworks display on the saint’s name-day – amusingly, the locals who we questioned about this event seemed as confused as we were, one of them insisting that the fireworks were actually for a wedding!
The austere facade (left) hiding the Baroque extravagance of Gesu Nuovo
The long, straight stretch of Via Toledo separates the old town from the Spanish Quarter, another warren of narrow lanes that runs up the hillside towards the crowning eminence of the city, Vomero hill. At one end of the street is the massive National Archaeological Museum, a former palace filled with all sorts of antiquities recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum. At the other is the equally massive Royal Palace, from whose glorious but stuffy rooms the Bourbons ruled the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies until Italian unification in 1861; the palace is the repository for a big collection of Neapolitan art, as is the equally grand Bourbon palace at Capodimonte, which sits on another hill that commands the eastern edge of the city. All these edifices are a powerful reminder of the extraordinary wealth of the Bourbon dynasty, most of which was commandeered by the new Kingdom of Italy and vanished into northern coffers – still a sore point with southerners today.
In high summer, the city gets stiflingly hot, and so we were always relieved when our wanderings took us either down to the water or up onto the heights of Vomero. No less than three funicular services whisk visitors up the slope, where you emerge into a delightful middle-class suburb, cooled by the breeze and altogether more genteel than the raucous old town down below. The main attractions are the massive fortifications of Castello St Elmo (for its views more than anything else), and the beautiful former monastic complex of San Martino. The latter is spectacular, but in typical Neapolitan fashion, badly kept. In the most famous of the several cloisters, the grass didn’t appear to have seen a lawnmower for months, and at least two thirds of the art gallery housed in the complex was closed to the public – apparently for lack of funding and staff.
Our other great escape from the city’s heat was the seaside. Although much of Naples’ waterfront is taken up with a very busy port, further west the city government has pedestrianised a big section of the streets that run along the shore in front of the city’s grandest hotels. Now lined with open air bars and restaurants, this is a very popular place for Neapolitans to engage in their passeggiata, the evening stroll with family and friends before dinner. I always think this is the time of day that Italians are at their most appealing, as they walk and chatter in an atmosphere of happy conviviality, parents and grandparents exchanging gossip while their kids run about and have fun, the young adults engaging in all the strutting role-playing that is natural to their age, tourists like us interspersed in the crowd and everyone enjoying the views across the bay as the sun slowly settles, bathing the city and Mount Vesuvius in a soft pink light. Needless to say we spent several very pleasant evenings participating in this ritual before settling in to a nice dinner at a restaurant with a view of the lights of Chiaia and the Castel d’Uovo, another of those forbidding fortifications leftover from a more violent era that now serve as a romantic backdrop to more benign modern pastimes.
There were other escapes for us, too. The island of Capri is visible from all over Naples, beckoning us across to enjoy its fabled delights. A simple ferry trip and we were there, staying overnight in an excellent little hotel up in Anacapri, the very pretty “poor sister” of glitzy (and expensive) Capri Town. Another overnight escape was to the island of Ischia, much more relaxed than Capri, and very popular with Italian tourists. We stayed in the main town, Ischia Porto, where the harbour was created by breaking through an entrance to the sea from what had been a volcanic lake; the resulting port is almost circular in shape, with an entrance barely wide enough for the endless stream of big ferries that come and go from the mainland. The town is made for wandering, which we duly did one evening, walking down to the famous Castello Aragonese (one of the many backdrops from this area used in the film The Talented Mister Ripley), where we threw financial caution to the winds and paid for a fast motor boat to speed us back to the port, skimming along the hotel-lined coast for the princely sum of €25. That evening ended with a lovely dinner at a waterfront restaurant where, rather comically, we engaged in a hopelessly confused conversation with the couple at our neighbouring table, two Romans who spoke virtually no English at all.
Boats featured heavily in another excursion, this one to the fabled Amalfi Coast, accompanied by Robert’s nephew, Ross, and his two mates Michael and Luke, all of whom had come to stay with us for a couple of days. That day started with a train trip on the Circumvesuviana service, whose rather dilapidated carriages rattle down the coast from Naples to Sorrento, the sea on one side and the ominous bulk of Vesuvius on the other, in about an hour. A reviving coffee at the Cafe Fauno on Sorrento’s charming main square, and then we were off for a fast motor boat ride around the peninsula to Positano, which was absolutely crammed to the gills with tourists. The town famously ascends both sides of a deep crevice in the coast; once ashore, you pick your side and start climbing, until eventually you emerge from the endless steps and narrow alleyways at the top, with stunning views back down the town and along the coast. That exercise duly completed, and a pizza lunch consumed, we were off on the next leg, along the coast to the coast’s eponymous town, Amalfi. As we remembered from our first visit here many years ago, Amalfi is surprisingly small with a surprisingly grand cathedral; after a good look around the latter, a gelato and a drink in the pretty little main piazza, we boarded yet another ferry to head for our final destination, Salerno, and another train trip back home. All in all a long day to visit what is an undeniably beautiful coast – though we both made a mental note to ourselves to never, ever again visit at the height of the tourist season!
It is of course not possible to spend time in Naples without also visiting what must be the most extraordinary set of Roman ruins in the world, Pompeii. We made sure we got there at opening time, so that we could at least have a couple of hours wandering over the site before the hordes arrived in their coach-loads. With a very little imagination, this is a place where you can time-travel, walking along streets lined with shops and houses, seeing political graffiti scrawled on walls, pausing in front of cook-shops where the citizens must have paused to grab some fast food on their way to work, entering the houses of the city’s grandees where the patricians waited to meet their clients, and listening to the echoes of distant conversations across the busy open space of the forum. And looking up from time to time to glimpse between the buildings the conical form of Mount Vesuvius, giving it no more than a moment’s thought, entirely unaware of the doom that was in store for them beneath those benign slopes. That perhaps is the ultimate attraction of Pompeii – unlike other ancient cities, its extinction was dramatic, immediate, and permanent, not a slow and sad decline into dust. We modern visitors know what happened, but its inhabitants had no idea what was coming, and that makes their agonised end, symbolised in the famous body-casts that are still shocking to behold, even more poignant.
Vesuvius today is quiescent, and the last major eruption was in 1944. It is still regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, not least because of its tendency to violent, explosive eruptions (the eruption of AD 79 which buried Pompeii released a hundred thousand times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb). Perhaps that uncertainty, the possibility, however faint, that Vesuvius might blow its top again, accounts for the slightly feverish atmosphere of modern Naples, a place that lives for today, and which as a result is, well, complicated …