“I remember the back streets of Naples
Two children begging in rags
Both touched with a burning ambition
To shake off their lowly brown tags…”
Peter Sarstedt – ‘Where do you go to my lovely’
There is a famous phrase that claims ‘See Naples and die!’ which originated in the eighteenth century under the Bourbon regime when the city was added to the Grand Tour of Europe and meant that before you passed away you must experience the beauty and magnificence of Naples which at that time one of the most important cities in all of Europe. This is where Horatio Nelson met and wooed Emma Hamilton. Naples was capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies until Italian Unification in 1861 and was the wealthiest city in Italy, plundered then by Rome leading to economic decline and a hundred years of neglect.
Some, less charitable, now say that the city is so mad, dangerous and badly polluted that death might possibly be a consequence of a visit there.
But to be fair not everyone is so pessimistic and gloomy about Naples and in 1913 George Bradshaw wrote in his guide ‘Great Continental Railway Journeys”…
“Naples is a bit of heaven that has tumbled to earth.”
The dangerously psychotic cab driver with a personal death wish which included anyone else in his cab at the same time dropped us off at a taxi rank at the City Cathedral and gave us final walking instructions to our accommodation but when we got there we couldn’t find it and I immediately accused him of dropping us off in the wrong place. Unfairly as it happened because as it turned out it was my fault that I didn’t spot the small plaque on the wall that identified the b&b which was inside a residential apartment block.
My heart sank, in pursuit of a bargain price had I made a massive mistake? We were too early to book in but we left our bags and set off immediately into the back streets of Naples.
Not the sort of hotel front entrance that we normally expect…
I liked it immediately. I liked it a lot. At the Centro Storico the warren of alleys with peeling sepia walls were vibrant, chaotic and gloriously dilapidated, the architecture was street stained, the locals loud and boisterous without any sort of volume control, the balconies were bannered with laundry and the driving was appalling. This was a fabulous place, the beating heart of the city, raw, dirty, passionate, crumbling, secret, corrupt but above all welcoming.
But so dirty, so grubby, so full of street litter that I concluded that although Naples was notorious for crime that we were more likely to be endangered by grime especially as it is well known that refuse collection in Naples is run by Mafia gangs.
The cities of southern Italy are in complete contrast to those in the north, this is a completely different experience, there is no wonderful architecture, no magnificent art except mindless graffiti, here there is no Michelangelo or Leonardo de Vinci, no Raphael or Botticelli, it reminded me immediately of Palermo in Sicily and Bari in Puglia but like a warm mozzarella the city oozes history, charm and adventure.
Not nearly as gloriously grand as Rome, as fabulously splendid as Florence or as dreamily romantic or decadent as Venice but with its own unique character, gritty, grimy, raw and sweaty with a down to earth proletarian charm.
Naples is a traditional South Italian living and working class city with shabby narrow streets, care worn but brightly colour-washed buildings that have ancient coats of paint which have blotched and blurred by successive harsh summers and the result is an artist’s palette, water colours leaking in the rain, everything running, flaking and fusing. The streets between the houses are deep grey gullies decorated by washing lines carelessly strung outside windows and across the pavements like tattered bunting as though in anticipation of an important carnival, dripping and swaying above little shops, street food vendors and small bars.
I was intrigued by the shops, the greengrocers with outside tables weighed down with plump produce grown in the rich volcanic Vesuvian soil, the mini-markets with a cold cabinet display full of tempting hams and pungent cheeses, the cheap bottles of beer and the shop selling locally produced wine. Especially the shop selling locally produced wine. We bought some ludicrously cheap grape juice of course even though there was no way of determining its origin or its vintage or with any confidence whatsoever about its alcohol content or what damage it was likely to inflict on our livers!
We walked some more through the pedestrian zone, although the term pedestrian zone I warn you should not be taken too literally in Naples. There are generously spaced bollards at each end and if anything motorised can squeeze between them then this appears to be completely acceptable and a visitor certainly needs to have their wits about them when walking casually around these streets that’s for sure. What makes it even more alarming is that the narrow, winding streets and high buildings make even the most clapped out moped sound like a Ferrari on a Grand Prix starting grid.
At three o’clock we thought our room must surely be ready but no, we had another thirty minutes or so to wait so we found a bar and ordered afternoon drinks and waited. When I say waited I really mean I worried because as time passed by I was not so optimistic about the accommodation and how much trouble I might be in.
After a beer to muster courage we returned to our b&b, my heart beating fast enough to contribute to a marching band but I needn’t have worried because it was absolutely wonderful. It turns out that this was once the house of a member of the Neapolitan nobility (a long time ago of course) and we were allocated a room on the front with a special balcony that had been installed two hundred years earlier to provide a grand view of the Cathedral Square outside.
I was so relieved that I immediately opened the bottle of wine and as we declared it completely acceptable considered our dining options for later. After a short debate we agreed that as we were in Naples then it just had to be pizza. It had to be pizza! Of course it had to be pizza!
Our room is balcony top right…