Yes, I know your objections to Naples. “But the crime!” you point out. Perhaps you mumble something about piles of garbage.
We who know her counter with, “But she is a diamond in the rough!”
So let’s let the camera speak, because the verbal argument is long and tedious.
You can’t miss the volcano when you are in Naples. Like the city, it is alive and dangerous. But people like it. Every time the authorities fan out and tell the residents whose little houses teeter on the slopes of Vesuvio, “Come. We have nice houses in a much better place where you are safe from being deep fried in the lava flow signore” they receive stern looks that tell them no. The tomatoes are the best from here. And oh, the lemons! Volcanic soils make valuable fruits. The risk? It is nothing to those who propose a good life and live it until the end, however and whenever that comes.
You the tourist can flaunt your invincibility by walking right up and peering down into the steaming vent while a park ranger spouts numbers at you (79 ad, one and only active volcano on the European mainland, yada yada). Take the risk, there are fine views of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
If you remain a ninny, you can have a place to go within Naples. Up the coast on the waterfront there is a piece of earth the Romans liked to construct their best villas upon. Its very name, Posillipo, comes from the Greek and means “respite from danger”. And here we see the view, complicated by what we might call a gaggle of Vitellone, that is, a group of youth ripening into manhood, according to Fellini.
The root of petty crime is often associated with poverty. Naples has some interesting swerves away from the common beliefs regarding the immorality of not getting paid enough to make a decent life. You can’t just wedge a soccer field in the historic heart of a crowded city, but that doesn’t keep the little ragamuffins inside with their parents. What a level playing field we have here inside the impeccably clean and luxurious Galleria Umberto I!
But seriously folks, there are little endearing things that Naples denizens do for the poor. After WWII the folks would go to a bar for a coffee and pay twice so that some poor soul could enjoy a hot coffee later. It was called a caffè sospeso, a suspended coffee. If you were a person of little means, you could ask if there was one available and have a enjoy a free coffee. Just recently, this practice was updated for the COVID age.
In a working class Napoli neighborhood, a church has become a Covid testing center to allow poorer people access to swabs. Inspired by Naples’ post-WW2 “caffè sospeso”, for every paid-for swab, one will be given for free to someone who can’t afford it.
C’mon, admit it. You can’t be a connoisseur of pizza without going to Naples. My Italian neighbor hails from Naples, and he told me I had to have a pizza from da Michelle. Fair enough. I did:
I liked it. It was different from all the Italian pizzas I’d ever tasted. Here, pizza is trimmed to the barest essentials. You can get a Margherita with basil and cheese, or a Marinara with oregano. That’s all that you find on the menu. It’s a controversial pizza; some don’t care for it. Like Naples.
Food in Naples isn’t expensive at all. Pizza makes a very cheap thrill.
Castel Nuovo: Newcastle
If you are from America, you will delight in things like the castle shown below that are called new when the guide informs you it was first erected in 1279. The Civic museum is inside.
But don’t just gawk at the castle. See the cars? You know there’s a mafia presence because each and every car is parked for a quick getaway. Or perhaps everyone’s going for Pizza when the work day is over.
The Egg Castle: Castel dell’Ovo
What a name! It’s a wonder we don’t have these in America. I imagine a giant corporation spewing gigantic egg castles all over the county, Styrofoam fake castles where you come to eat eggs in every form imaginable while a knight guarding the door looks on suspiciously in case you were thinking of skipping out on the bill.
The reality of this castle is even weirder than my corporate fantasy. From Wikipedia we learn:
The castle’s name comes from a legend about the Roman poet Virgil, who had a reputation in the Middle Ages as a great sorcerer and predictor of the future. In the legend, Virgil put a magical egg into the foundations to support the fortifications. Had this egg been broken, the castle would have been destroyed and a series of disastrous events for Naples would have followed.
Piazza del Plebiscito
Ordinary life comes in contact with extraordinary architecture and sculpture in Naples.
Naple’s famous bar, Gambrinus is quite near this scene. It reeks of luxury, while exuding also the sturdy odors of risk and revolution. Famous authors like Hemingway and intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre have sipped and cogitated at its tables. Have a taste of Sartre’s vision of Naples:
In Naples I discovered the filthy kinship between love and food. It did not happen suddenly, Naples is not immediately revealed: it is a city that is ashamed of itself; tries to make foreigners believe that it is populated by casinos, villas and palaces. I arrived by sea, one morning in September, and she welcomed me from afar with dull glow; I walked all day long along its straight and wide streets, Via Umberto, Via Garibaldi and I could not see, behind the beauties, the suspicious sores that they carry at their hips. Towards evening I had come to the Gambrinus coffee terrace, in front of a granite that I looked sadly as it melted in its enamel bowl. I was rather discouraged, I had not grasped on the fly that little multicolored facts, of confetti. I asked myself, “Are I in Naples? Naples exists?
Naples is perhaps most famous these days for its Nativity scenes or presepi. While you or I might set up a tiny, plastic, made-in-China manger scene every year to prove our normalness to the neighbors who might drop by hoping for a glass of something expensive, Italians grow their scenes yearly, combining the distant past with the present, the manger with the pasta so to speak. This requires yearly purchases. If you were to go there in this year of the plague, you’d likely find a Trump figurine. The manger reflects many worlds and grows with them.
The thing is, mention the via San Gregorio Armeno and the folks who’ve heard of it will raise their eyebrows as if to feign surprise that you’d mention such a touristy place to a well-traveled couple who’ve spend days in Campania and have seen “nearly everything, darling.”
But you see, tourists, yes, they cram the crowded little via but some of them are Italian and on a quest. Peeking into the little places gives you an idea of how homes were once constructed. An atrium now piled with figurines is animated by folks coming in from the December dank cold.
There is junk and there is art. There is a peek into the world of Italian culture, humor and satire. Politicians and priests are rendered as the people see them, and it’s not always as respectful as you might expect.
And sometimes the detail is absolutely astounding.
The Archaeological Museum and the “Secret Room”
Campania brims with the remains of ancient culture, and the best of it is on view at the sprawling Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. It’s one of the biggest and richest in the world. If you really want a thrill, visit the “Secret Room” or Gabinetto Segreto, which holds the excavated treasures they don’t usually show to the public (which rather skews the view of any culture’s sexuality). They once didn’t allow women to see these things, but today anyone can marvel at the cultural artifacts displaying Roman sexuality that the archaeologists didn’t smash during excavation. Erotic oil lamps were particularly cherrished. Oh, those sailors!
The Ordinary and the Extraordinary
A nondescript neighborhood. Peeling paint. Extraordinary inclusion.
Need something? They are likely to have it.
The Sunny Side of Naples
How can you pass up a little Rum Baba? It’s a drunken pastry with a glow that makes you happy. You can have it for breakfast; no problem.
And Finally: About that Crime
Yeah, let’s get back to the crime. They keep tabs on these things you know. There is slightly less crime in Naples, Italy than in Chicago. Being from Illinois, I like Chicago, too. Maybe I like crime. You never know.
Notes: You can’t go to Naples right now, but you can enjoy a virtual tour of the city from the women who let us in on its secrets in December of 2009, Naples born and bred Fiorella Squillante and Context Travel. See: An Introduction to Naples with Fiorella Squillante.
More on Destinations in Campania
To get a guide to seeing more of the city, see Martha’s Italy: Naples Travel Guide