“The basic philosophy of life seemed to be: What do I care? It’s none of my business. [The philosophy of Naples, Italy.]”
― Franco Di Mare, The Paradise of the Devils
When in Rome, well you know the old adage, but when in Naples? ‘Allora’, in Naples, it’s best to start by minding your own business. In fact, I started, as soon as the taxi pulled up outside our B&B.
It’s no secret, Italian taxi drivers are one of a kind, but in Naples they’re elite extortion assassins. After hailing a taxi at the airport, I settled on a fixed fee, or so I thought. The price seemed to increase with every kilometer we sped. There was an extra parking fee, a road toll fee and a baggage fee, per piece no less. A heated debate ensued, but it was short lived. I realised my only real option was to eject myself, and my three precious children, in the centre of Naples at 9:30 at night. What’s more, the driver was using both hands to explain the breakdown of his hefty fee; folding down each digit on his left hand with his right, whilst weaving through the traffic at break-neck speed.
When we finally arrived, I’d struck a deal. He seemed pleased and unloaded our very expensive bags. It must have been a good price, because when he saw the drunk, lifelessly slumped across the doorstep of our B&B, he casually muttered ‘allora’, and with some effort, slid the body to one side. Lost for words, I figured the additional 5 Euro baggage allowance was reasonable after all, and tipped him a little extra through the slot in the door as I slammed it shut.
“What a pretty banister” I said, as we dragged the suitcases up 2 flights of stairs. The children looked unconvinced and wanted to ask questions about the dead body at the front door. Despite a delightful welcome from our hosts, and unsurprisingly, an extremely competitive room rate, there was still the issue of, as they say in the business, location-a, location-a, location-a. In this case I admit, it was, somewhat lacking. Our hosts handed me the breakfast form and suggested I remove all my jewelry after I ate in the morning. They also reassured me it was ‘quite-a safe’, but not to walk home after 8:30 at night. It seemed we were staying in Camorra territory; the gritty heartland of the Neapolitan Mafia and a hotbed of crime for the impoverished Northern African sprawl. Later, as I attempted to go to sleep with three terrified children in my bed, the appeal of the economical price tag was waining. There were blue flashing lights outside the bedroom window, and from what I could deduce from the police loudspeaker, they were shouting something like ‘come-a out-a, with your hands-a up-a.’
The next morning our Italian friend Marco arrived. He’d come from Positano to show us Naples for the day. Not surprisingly, his first words were, ‘ How on earth did you find this place? The internet?’
We set off down Corso Garibaldi, amidst sirens, buzzing carborettas, and horns; a chaotic street symphony in the theatre that is Naples. Our first stop was the city’s fish market. If you’re traveling with children, skip the aquarium and come here. The Italian fishmongers seem to delight in the giggles of children as they touch the tentacles of live octopus and marvel at the multi coloured plastic buckets of shell fish and slithering eels. Further down the lane are fruit, bread and cheese stalls, and shops selling everything from stolen cameras to hand made saddles. With Marco’s expert haggling, I bought a beautiful old pair of hand made leather baby shoes. Two exquisite little shoes that once toddled through Italy’s history; a poignant reminder that we all have one life, but the choice of where we leave our footprints is entirely ours.
We turned down Corso Umberto and stopped for a Macchiato at Il Cafe Di Napoli. The smell of hot pastries, the hiss of steam and the percussion of teaspoons slamming onto saucers, is something that always reminds me I’m back in the bosom of Italy. Marco insists the coffee in Naples is the best in Italy because of the way they roast it, and as I sipped that smooth, rich, liquid gold I wasn’t in any doubt. Expresso and a mouthful of Naples’ famous , Sfogliatella, made with layers of flaky pastry and sweet ricotta, are just about the two best tastes in the world at 10 in the morning. My obvious enthusiasm seemed to endear me to the barman, who presented me with a cellophane wrapped expresso cup and an extra Sfogliatella for later.
From here, we continued down Corso Umberto and turned right down a lane near Spaccanapoli . As we went to enter, a man approached and told us the lane was closed. He was very insistent the children would be kidnapped and we’d be held at gunpoint by bandits. Despite saying all this in Italian, his body language was International, and in one turn of a heel, I’d wrapped all three children in my arms and tacked a new course in the opposite direction. Marco, who’d lived in Naples as a student, seemed unperturbed and told me not to worry. I reluctantly followed him into the deserted lane, past beautiful boarded up churches; past mattresses under makeshift awnings; down Flagstone streets, bereft of all but a street cat and a child wearing underpants and trailing a red towel behind him like superman. At each cross street, there was a Camorra watch man, casually leaning against a wall. If there was a lack of people walking down these lanes, I figured there were more eyes on us than we realised.
Marco took us to the kitchen of two ladies who cook for the locals. Their smiles and affection seemed to melt the malaise. They invited us inside and offered us Pasta Ragu. It was still early, so we reluctantly declined. As we stood and talked, the rain came and suddenly there was life; shutters opened above and women frantically began to wind their washing in, but just as quickly as it started, the downpour finished, and with it, the shutters closed once more. Unlike Rome, Florence, and Venice, the centre of this ancient and beautiful city has been abandoned by the rich; it’s grand villas and palaces crumbling and graffiti covered, like beautiful old leather bound books with Biro defaced pages. The economic crisis is palpable, but the complexities of Neapolitan politics seem to weigh heavier yet.
We continued up Spaccanapoli and then up Vicaria Vecchia, past Piazzetta Divino Amore and into a little lane famous for nativities. The beauty of these lanes is the thrill of stumbling upon the unexpected; peering through the windows of ateliers, and as we did, watching a religious restoration Attelier at work. It was here we met an elderly Professor, a kind faced man with gentle hands, who was working on a clay sculpture for a bronze bust. Another artist was applying gold leaf to the pedestal of an ancient statue of Christ. Jars full of brushes and instruments lined the shelves and dust seemed to dance in the sheathes of light that flooded the room. I was surrounded by the holy family and all the disciples. It could have been a scene from heaven, had it not been for the screams of a drug addict, who’d suddenly collapsed outside, thrashing and convulsing on the street. A few onlookers attempted to call an ambulance, but the rest walked on, minding their own business.
Further beyond, there are lanes like Vico del Fico al Pergatorio where, as the name suggests, there are ateliers of a more sordid nature. Apparently the pink door belongs to Marcia, one of Naples’ most famous prostitutes.
There was just enough time before lunch to visit Museo Cappella Sansevero . If you only visit one museum in Naples, it really should be this one. Legend has it that the owner of the chapel, Prince Sansevero, was an alchemist who transformed the draped veil over the statue of Christ into marble. Looking at it, it’s impossible to imagine anyone would be able to create such translucency with just a single piece of marble. The other statues of Modesty and Disillusion share the same mysteries: miraculous marble fishing nets, and robes, that look like draped wet muslin.
After a typical Neapolitan lunch, we climbed the hill to Castle Saint Elmo. From here you can look out over the city and the Bay of Naples beyond. A women beside us spoke, and for the first time all day, I detected a foreign accent. If the sign of a good tour is getting off the beaten track and experiencing a truly authentic taste of a culture, then this one had delivered in spades.
It was getting late. We made like Cinderella and headed for home, minding our business and marveling at this crumbling old dame of a city; a Paradise of Devils; a mystery in marble, waiting for an alchemist’s spell.