Few people who have visited Naples feel ambivalent about this former-capital city. From the very moment a traveller arrives there and sights the churches, the castles and the litter-strewn streets, he has already decided whether or not he likes it. After that, further exploration of the city can only enforce his opinion; it won’t change it. For the character of Naples, nowhere more present than in its architecture and its people, is ubiquitous throughout the city. Every one of its streets has been marked by history in some exceptional way, and everywhere, however affluent the area, looks reassuringly well lived in. In Naples the poor have not yet been confined to living on the outskirts of the city as in London and Paris. Their houses can instead be seen all over, tucked away down side streets and back passages, often just a stone’s throw away from some of the city’s most visited attractions. Nothing has been tidied up for the benefit of tourists. Naples is what it is, and for those who don’t like it, they can always catch the hydrofoil to Sorrento or drive down the coast to Amalfi.
Many choose to do just that, and it’s easy to understand why. Perhaps more than any other Italian city, Naples has a reputation for petty criminality. The tourists have all been warned about the notorious scippatori, who ride about the city on Vespas in search of a bag or phone to snatch. As a result, they steer clear of Naples, seeing nothing more than a fleeting view of the gulf as the coach takes them to their hotel. Yet in truth the city is no more dangerous than any other. Perhaps the worst a tourist should expect there is to have his pocket picked, and provided he takes precautions, he shouldn’t really have to fear so much as this. Once his money has been committed to his money belt, he will find in Naples generosity beyond belief, some the finest food he will ever eat, and buildings that rival the antiquity and importance of anything built on the continent. What is more, he can experience all of this for a very reasonable price, and quite often for no price at all.
Owing largely to financial constraints, Naples has been left remarkably unspoiled by the developers, who, in wealthier European cities, have seen fit to replace old buildings with glass monoliths of inexcusable ugliness. From the famous bay, all of Naples’s oldest and greatest landmarks can still be seen, and few of them have changed much over time. The Castel dell’Ovo, Naples oldest standing fortification, looks especially magnificent from this spot. According Neapolitan legend, it takes its name from a single egg, apparently placed in its dungeons by the poet Virgil, who forewarned that, if the egg were to break, the castle would be destroyed and Naples plunged into unimaginable devastation. We can only assume the egg has stayed intact, since the castle remains as sturdy as it has always been, rising out of the coruscating sea, its towering grey walls glutted with tiny window-shaped impressions. It may not be as popular as the nearby Castel Nuovo, the “new” castle, built in 1282, and adorned with a triumphal arch. But in my opinion nothing quite compares to the sense of history you feel while exploring the inside of the egg castle.
Neapolitan history is steeped in myth and superstition. Stories of miracles abound and are often still commonly accepted as true by the Neapolitans of today. The most famous of these, involving San Gennaro, the patron saint of the city, is subject of a most extraordinary ritual. This takes place three times a year inside the Duomo di Napoli, wherein a sample of what is claimed to be San Gennaro’s blood, contained in a sealed glass ampoule, is said to change from its usual solid form into a liquid. Pious locals gather in their hundreds to witness this spectacle, and have done so since the 14th century, when the miracle was first recorded. They believe fervently that if the blood doesn’t liquefy, some terrible misfortune will be brought upon the city, as happened in 1980, when a short while after the miracle failed an earthquake struck the region. As a further addition to this bizarre extravaganza, we are now to believe that Pope Francis, the leading voice of modern Catholicism, performed his own miracle earlier this year by liquefying San Gennaro’s blood with a kiss. Since the blood only half liquefied, however, he is quoted as having said: “We can see the saint only half loves us. We must all spread the Word, so that he loves us more!”
Despite being devoutly religious, and believing these miracles with obliging credulity, Neapolitans have somehow managed to balance their faith with an unashamed fondness for sex. They are not at all prudish. Nor do they seem to accept the view commonly held by Catholics that sex is not only impure but also, when practiced for the purpose of gratification, reprehensively wicked. It is true that Neapolitans do not deprive themselves of simple pleasures, be it pleasures of flesh or of the table. As far as they are concerned, all that is beautiful in both art and nature should celebrated. They certainly do not believe, as we do, that there is such a concept as having too much of a good a thing, most likely because Neapolitans have often had to do without life’s most fundamental of necessities. In World War II the people of Naples suffered poverty on an unimaginable scale. Their city was the most bombed in the whole of Italy. As Norman Lewis recalls in his personal account of the troubles, children in their hundreds, barely able to move from the effects of starvation, could be seen mounting rocks down by the shore, searching desperately for limpets that they could sell for a few lire. The scugnizzi, the street children, who at the time numbered almost 20,000, made money by pimping and petty theft. They had lost their families and homes in the upheaval of the times, and did all they could to stay alive. That was and still is the Neapolitan way.
Even Naples itself has had to prove its unflinching resilience time and time again. Although it has been attacked on many occasions, and by many different armies, the city’s most persistent enemy has always been Vesuvius, the great volcano that produced the lava fields on which it was built. Famous for the volatility of its eruptions, Vesuvius is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years. The most recent eruption was in 1944. This destroyed several villages and somewhere between 78 and 88 aircraft belonging the United States Army Air Forces, whose base was located just a few kilometres from the eastern side of the mountain. An earlier eruption, in 1906, killed over 100 people and ejected the most lava ever recorded from a Vesuvian eruption. Italian authorities at the time were preparing to hold the 1908 Summer Olympics, though since funds had to be diverted to the reconstruction of Naples, London was selected to hold the Games instead. If the current statistics are to be believed, almost 3 million people now live in the area surrounding Vesuvius. This makes it the most densely populated volcanic region in the world, and therefore an extremely dangerous place to live.
It is impossible to imagine the people of any major city in England having to contend with these same cataclysmic threats. Unlike the English, Neapolitans are good at accepting misfortune with stoicism and humour, and have had to be. Their city is one of the poorest in Europe, with an unemployment rate of almost 11 percent. Even today, after years of engineered improvement, it is still looked upon by the rest of Italy as a problem that’s best left alone, a city tarnished by corruption and organised crime. The detractors paint Naples as a place of drug dealers and prostitutes; they say nothing of the irresistible character of its people, with their tremendous enthusiasm for life and boundless generosity. Yet that is what makes Naples such an endearing city. Neapolitans are unpretentious people, and this is reflected beautifully in the way that they conduct their business and go about their lives. Staff in shops, restaurants and panifici all seem to operate on a level of friendly informality, and feel no reason to put on any air and graces, or to engage in pointless small talk.
The city’s bad reputation has been grossly exaggerated. The speeding Vespas, so often cited as source of vexation for tourists, are easily ignored, and at any rate are no more irritating than the transport in any city. Naples is not at all like London. The motorists there are vocal, but rarely aggressive, and under most circumstances they will quite happily drive round pedestrians who have ventured out into the road. Near accidents between drivers, though invariably followed by the exchange of theatrical hand-gestures and raised voices, tend to end amiably, and more than often in mutual agreement. Besides, once you’ve reached Naples’s historical heart you feel no sense of the congestion that, near the Piazza Garibaldi, can be quite overwhelming. Within moments you begin to understand that this is a city of many riches: the city of Giotto’s frescos, of San Francesco di Paola, of the Galleria Umberto, and the National Archaeological Museum with its great many Greek and Roman statues.
To dine in one of Naples’s many pizzerias, to converse with the locals, and to witness the breath-taking churches from the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, is to sample the true delights of this incredible city. The untidiness and petty crime will always bother some people, but every traveller, irrespective of what’s he’s been told, should visit Naples at least once, if only to confirm his prejudices.