Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bella Napoli?

On Tuesday we took advantage of the gorgeous day, and our locale and train connections to make a jaunt to Napoli. It is one of those cities that polarizes; you either love it or loathe it. Staunch supporters will fight to the death to sing its praises, like my friend Luciano, who hails from the fair city. He will frequently effuse about the glories of his bella citta`, but when asked why he lives in Ascoli Piceno instead of his hometown, he quickly says, "Well, it's beautiful but I couldn't live there anymore."

I confess that I had been on the other side of the fence. I spent one wretched day in Naples on one of our earliest trips to Italy. Admittedly, the heavy rain did nothing to cast a beautiful aura upon the place and made it difficult to get around to see much of anything. The fact that my stepfather drove into town, got us very lost in less than stellar neighborhoods, where we were nearly killed three times over by red-light defiant motorists didn't put the town or inhabitants into a rosy light. And, while the Archeology Museum that we'd ventured into to town to see was impressive, the addicts shooting up outside of it tarnished it all for us. After that, whenever I saw the requisite pizzeria in every town named Bella Napoli, I would question, "oh really?"

But, living a relatively easy train ride away pushed us to give Naples another chance. We arrived right in the centro and hopped a bus to the seafront castle to follow a sort of self-guided tour that Bryan had staked out for us. We didn't have a list of truly "must sees," but instead had a route that would take us past some of the more important sights and monuments. For me, wandering the streets and getting a "feel" for the town is more important than rushing through museums or churches.

We had a gloriously sunny day. It was warm enough for just a light jacket and the Mediterranean shimmered and rippled. The clear outlines of Capri and the Amalfi Coast loomed. The enormous main piazza saw teens and dogs basking in the warmth while grandmothers pushed baby carriages. I was already starting to see the "bella" part of the often quoted statement.

We visited the imposing castello and the church of San Francesco, which borrowed heavily from Roman monuments like St. Peter's and the Pantheon. We meandered in the districts known as Quartieri Spagnuoli and Spaccanapoli, both of them tight grids of insanely narrow streets brimming with life. Countless rows of laundry criss-crossed the alleyways, fluttering like a boat's regata flags. Motorini rocketed around, even in the areas marked "pedestrian zone," not bothering to slow down for said pedestrians or oncoming scooters, but instead sounding their horns to tell us to jump out of their way. The constant cacophony cascaded through the canyon-like alleys, minging with the shouts of vendors and the din of a hundred TVs and conversations that tumbled out the windows.

We visited ancient ruins, a few pretty churches, and rode one of the famed funiculars (while humming that old song Funiculi Funicula). At one corner, while thrusting ourselves against the wall to avoid being plowed down by a motorino, the vegetable vendor started chatting with us. We asked him for a good place to have lunch, and he directed us to his sister's little restaurant. She happened upon us just then, so we followed her while she told us of their specialties that day. We enjoyed a nice plate of freshly prepared spaghetti alla vongole (delizioso). Before leaving town, we managed to fit in a vera pizza Napoletana and some of the local pastries, known as baba`.

We mostly marveled at the place. Naples really is unlike any other city in Italy. It is Europe's most densely populated, and it shows. It is full, and fully occupied. There is little green space, few parks, and unlike many Italian cities, boasts few piazzas. It is dirty - though not from the much- publicized trash crisis, but from millions of people, tourists, buses, cars, dogs, motorini and businesses all converging together in daily life in a compact space.

Napoli is full of contrasts. It is a place that both charms and intimidates. It attracts and repels in the same instant. It is full of beauty and full of chaos. There is daily drama, wafting music and filth occupying the same space. A vast sea and towering mountains define its boundaries yet it is squished in with streets so narrow the sun doesn't penetrate.

So did I like it? Yes. And no. At the same time.


Amanda said...

Very well said and written. I love it and hate it too. At times, I have no patience for it, and then I have days where I just am in awe with it. It certainly not for the light-hearted tourists looking only for Capri or Tuscany style experiences. But for the more adventurous and open-minded traveler, Naples can be fascinating!

Anonymous said...

I loved this post!

Oh husband and I spent 2.5 days there this pasty May during our honeymoon. In the was one of our favorite stops!

At first, we left the main train station in extreme heat, hopped in a cab and were amazed by the extreme poverty that met us directly outside the train station. it was like nothing any of us had ever seen before!

luckily the mood changed quickly as we got to our hotel (hotel vesuvio) right by the seaside!

we ate the best pizza or our lives, almost died numerous times crossing the streets blindly, and met numerous extremely friendly people!

in the end...I love it!

p.s. piazza plebiscito was by far my favorite area in naples! the packs of dogs were astonishing too!

take care!

erin :: the olive notes said...

we still haven't been able to visit Naples, although I do want to. ...and baba is SO good

South of Rome said...

Bring on the grit! I don't know, but I just love it! Of course, I don't live IN the city ;)

Glad you had a nice day.

Ciao, Karen

Anonymous said...

Valerie, We spent 2 years vicino Napoli, thanks to the US Army, living in Puzzuoli.It was the beginning of our love affair with Italy.Some of the friendliest Italians we've ever met are Napolitani.(sp?)Next time you go, check out Via San Gregorio Armeno, better known as *Christmas Alley* to the military community there. It's one of our favorite vicoli in Naples.Also,if you have time, don't pass up a chance to go to Ischia. I'm sooo dying to be there.
Happy weekend.
carol in dc

janie said...

Thank you for the great description of the Napoli that you saw. I've always wanted to go there, but like others, have been hesitant. We did have one funny experience in the train station there once when we were changing trains.

Laura said...

Ciao Valerie! Yes, I know just how you feel with Napoli. I am happy you had a good visit, and you certainly did have glorious weather! I have been impressed with the city, and usually in a good way, every time I visit. It is another world, and never ceases to amaze me how different it is from the Amalfi Coast while being so close!

Valerie said...

Amanda - The city is definitely not light-hearted, which is just another contrast because the Neopolitans we know are!

Ery- The pizza...fino del mondo! Oh wait, that's crossing the street ;) ha. Crazy place, yet so full of life. The dogs! They were a hoot.

Erin - the baba is definitely yummy. In Ascoli they make a version soaked in anisette.

Karen - Naples shows that grit can be good ;) I enjoyed it and would like to explore it more indepth. Your area is just a tad quieter than the centro, I imagine!

Carol - you're so right; Neopolitans are so warm and fun-loving. I heard about Christmas Alley but we didn't make it there. Next time!

Janie - Do tell! Train stations are ripe with stories.

Laura - It really is a world apart despite the close proximity. We really did have a nice day.

DominiqueH28 said...

There is nothing like going into Naples for the day and walking along the waterfront. The city itself is a death trap and a wonder all at the same time. The day my husband and I found a Sushi place downtown, we knew that we wouldn't mind facing all the craziness at least once a month as long as we got to eat some great Sushi!
We've been here for a few years now, and hope to be here for a few more. We love it and loathe it all at the same time. Love it for the experience, culture, and food. Hate it for the crappy air quality, the rude mopeds (they're everywhereeeeee!!), and the fact that you really can't get a better pizza then in Naples!!

Gil said...

Nice post! I can't wait until we get back there as we love walking and visiting all of those little side streets you wrote about. Also, love the port area. Finally, the thought of the seafood and pizza makes me drool.

rob said...

I loved this post, Valerie! I think it helps understand what makes Naples so different though I must confess that I haven’t yet been there ..., shame on me!

Valerie said...

Domonique - You're so right, a wonder and death trap at the same time! The pizza really does spoil you for anything else that calls itself "pizza"!

Gil - Wandering and eating seem to really embody the place and let you come to appreciate it, huh?

Rob - Thanks! Despite passing by several times, it took us almost three years to visit. You'll get there, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

It's not for the faint hearted! I also think it is better to see it after you seen some of Italy. You know, let the reputation get you prepared.
I've had some great trips there. If you didn't see the "Veiled Christ" then you have to go back.....

Valerie said...

Anonymous - We didn't get to see the veiled Christ statue ...unfortunately that church is closed on Tuesdays! It was one of the things we really did want to see, so will have to go back, as you say.

Laura said...

I don't know Naples very well, but I am always compiling a list for the next time I go. Which church has the "Veiled Christ" statue? Grazie!

Lola said...

Valerie, I've been neglecting you. I apologize.

Reading your Napoli post I found yet another reason to agree with you. I have lived in Naples for 3 years for work&love (Neapolitan ex-boyfriend), and experienced the same odd contrasting emotions. I loved it and ended up running away, hating it, suffocated by its intrusive and loud nature. I packed my things and moved out of my relationship and the spectacular attico with a 360° view of p.zza Vittoria, the Villa Comunale park, Mergellina, Posillipo, Capri... overnight.
Whenever I think of that magical city, I - despite it all - weep with nostalgia and steep in the melancholy of incredibly fond memories.
Napoli, can't live with her, can't live without her.

BTW the Veiled Christ is in the Cappella di Sansevero, in via Francesco De Sanctis. Ciao!

Valerie said...

Hi Lola! Great to hear from you. Your apartment in Napoli sounds like it was fabulous! But I can easily understand your feelings of "can't live with her, can't live without her". I definitely had that impression, even on just a brief visit.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Beautiful post. I went to Naples for just the day during my third visit to Rome.

I loved it but found it overwhelming. When I returned to Termini I told an Italian friend Naples makes Rome seem as calm as Greenwich CT.

For the moment I walked out of the train station I felt like I was back in pre-Disney Times Square...the noise, the crowds, a strange man trying to sell me shoes, bags and asking me if I was sure I didn't need a taxi.

I would like to go back and spend a weekend there, to really see the city.

I had the best pizza of my life in Naples. Cannot remember the name of the place to save my life. I went with Tracie B. I still think about that pizza from time to time.

The archeological museum is fantastic. The layout is strange but it holds many artifacts from Pompeii. The 14 and up room is a must see. The Ancient Pompeians liked their phalluses.