In 1973, there was a cholera outbreak in Napoli. Even today, parts of the old city are dirtier than other polished, touristy destinations in Italy, such as Firenze (Florence) and Venezia (Venice). Crumbling mansions look on to streets, which are dressed in withered cobbled stones.
Scooterwallahs whiz past you as if they own the metropolis. People talk in the robust dialect of Neapolitans (residents of Napoli) and almost always sound as if they are threatening a visitor. Indeed, the typical Neapolitan has the image of being a little crude in his manners. Often, as I walk into a store to buy something, all that greets me is a nonchalant nod of the head and a “preggo” (Go ahead).
The sun is hot, and the dogs aggressive. Why, then, must you make the rather adventurous choice of visiting Napoli? For the splendid views of the Gulf of Naples with the brown-crusted Mount Vesuvius rising in the background — you could argue. This is the volcano that destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii in AD 79. Today, Pompeii has been unearthed from ash and is a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to the incredibly close peek it gives into the lives of the Romans of the era. Pompeii is 26 km from Napoli, and remains a very different experience from the city proper.
Napoli is valuable for something other than statistics or picture postcards. Nowhere else can you get this close to the nerve or the hearts of the people but in this corner of the country. Today, as you walk in the narrow bylanes of the historic centre (another World Heritage site) you see right into people’s dining rooms. Life is conducted as much in the porch or the balconies as behind closed doors. Nowhere else in Italy are you likely to strike friendships as easily or get cussed at (jokingly, of course) than in this fascinating Southern metropolis.
The two gods of Napoli
Neapolitans are very religious people. The city is dotted with some of the most important churches in Europe, including the 14th century Cathedral (Duomo) and the magnificent Baroque structure of Gesù Nuovo. One also comes across intriguing little shrines on the walls outside people’s homes.
A Christ with arms outstretched and dressed in a tapestry of faux-flowers, Mary with infant Jesus and a ring of lights, pictures of all family members dating back to the last 100 years, winged angels and wooden crosses — these mesmerisingly colourful structures are little temples of collective memory. Inside churches, you see people crying — as you would expect the voluble Italians to do — as an octogenarian priest delivers an indecipherable sermon. There are more nuns in habits here than in France.
However, there is one favourite saint of Napoli whose exploits continue to thrall the people more than 20 years after he was here. His name is Diego Maradona. The Argentine soccer star played for the local club, SSC Napoli, and is a living legend.
You do not see as many crosses, as you spot his pictures. An enterprising café on the arterial Spaccanapoli has even dedicated a shrine to the player, replete with ingenious insults for the rival club, Juventus. Young boys, who are no doubt following in his footsteps, play soccer in the piazzas and often use the doors of the churches to mark goals. They sport fashionable grunge hairstyles and go around swirling their bicycles when they are not kicking ball with their mates. The women do not play football, but are equally zealous converts to this other religion.
Pizzas and phyllos
Every guidebook talks about Napoli pizzas. Apparently, this is the place where this ingenious flatbread was born. Indeed, visiting a pizzeria in Napoli is a special experience. Everything is done right in front of your eyes. The oven is fuelled by firewood which heats the interior walls. They, in turn, radiate warmth uniformly.
The pizzaïolo (the pizza-artiste) takes out the lump of risen dough and stretches it expertly with his fingers. I have not not seen a rolling pin being used anywhere. He dresses the pasta (the dough) with the toppings (see box) and places it in the oven with a long wooden or metal spatula. It never takes longer than five minutes to cook the thing. He rotates it on a vertical axis, as you would for a phulka, and, voila! You have an artiste’s work on your plate.
However, to reduce Neapolitan cuisine to pizzas is missing the point. For centuries, the sea has been an abundant source of fish and crustaceans. I see some of the best ocean produce you’d find anywhere in Europe in the markets here. The salmon seems to be a more resplendent shade of pink, and the mussels shine in an enticing lustre. Of course, haggling with Italians is no child’s play, but it is always worth a visit to the neighbouring fishmonger.
Another area where the food scores here is the culture of espresso bars and pastries. Everyone craves a coffee in the morning, and nothing goes better with it than sfogliatelle — phyllo pastries typical of Napoli and stuffed with rich cream with a hint of citrus. One drinks the coffee very fast here, with a pouch of sugar, and one sips on aerated water to revive the tongue after that lethal dose of caffeine.
For centuries, Napoli has been a colony of various Spanish and French monarchies. The influence is palpable, both in the architecture and the language. The Neapolitan word for moustache is ‘mustaccio’, for example, similar to the French ‘moustache’ and quite a distance from the Italian ‘baffi’. On top of a hill overlooking the Bay of Naples and the city, I see various pasts piled over each other.
The castle of St Elmo has seen various occupiers, but, this evening, only a few enthusiasts look down at the sun painting the port in various shades of orange. Mount Vesuvius stands uncannily inert at the far end. Boats come in and out of the harbour. A weak haze rises from the sea. I think I see the highway to Rome towards the north.
Later, in the piazza a little way down the slope, Neapolitans come in dozens on their scooters and sit along the concrete balustrade gazing at the city along with their lovers. The Spaccanapoli stretches for a good many kilometres from the base of the hill and I imagine the sounds of the fishmongers, vegetable sellers, pizza-artistes, and the kids, living up the street, playing soccer at that moment.
Going down, there is glass from broken beer bottles on the way and I have to be careful lest a shard pierce my flimsy chappals, but, then, the warmth of Napoli makes up for these trivial inconveniences.
How to get there:
Napoli airport is just seven km away from the city centre, but the services offered are limited with flights mostly to destinations in Europe. For most transcontinental flights, you will have to land at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport, take a train to the Roma Termini station (a 35-minute long-journey via Leonardo Express trains), and then travel two and a half hours (starting at around € 10) to Napoli
Where to eat:
Every street corner in Napoli is littered with pizza joints. Slices may be offered from as cheap as € 1, and may come stuffed with ricotta cheese or buffalo mozzarella. For many Neapolitans, only a Marinara (with a simple topping of garlic, tomato and basil) or a Margherita (with mozzarella, tomato, basil, and extra virgin olive oil) are real pizzas, the rest being too frilly, and a distraction from the original taste.
However, Sorbillo (“We Have No Branch”; Ph: +39 081 446643) always has a queue of patrons waiting to enter, while Da Michele sis recommended by most Neapolitans as a good place to get started. Starita (Ph: +39 081 557 3682) at Materdei has some fancier combinations such as courgette flowers with provola cheese. Other Neapolitan street food includes Sfogliatelle, Pizza Frita (not very different from our very own bhatura), granitas (lemon slush, perfect on a summer day) and paninos (toasted sandwiches).
For something other than pizzas, try Nenella Trattoria (Ph: +39 81 414338) in Quartieri Spagnoli. In the raucous interiors, you get to dine on three or four courses such as Fettucelle Cozze e Gamberone (seafood pasta) and friarelli in padella (stir-fry bitter greens) along with wine and a bottle of sparkling water for just €10
Where to stay:
In general, you need €15 for a dorm bed, a minimum of €25 for a B&B, €60 for a decent double and €120 and above for four and five stars. Via Duomo is a good alternative to staying on the sea-front while being in the historic centre. Hotel Caravaggio (Ph: +39 812 110 066) is right in the shadow of the cathedral (a double costs €120 in season) while Hotel des Artists (Ph: +39 811 925 5086) has beautiful rooms with balconies (starting at €60). The latter also has a mixed-sex dormitory for €20 per bed
What to buy:
Limoncello liqueur, Buffalo Mozzarella, Ricotta cheese, Neapolitan coffee pots (Napoletana), Napoletan Salami, Christian artefacts