It’s hard to figure out what to say about Naples. It’s the city of my youth – actually the first city I ever lived in. My ship sailed into Naples in 1974, when I was 19 years old, just a couple months after a cholera epidemic had gone through the city. It was known then as the armpit of Europe, and it had earned the distinction.
Today? I’m not sure much has changed. The trash and noise and crowds are just what I remember. Mt. Vesuvius still looms, and it’s still right on the Mediterranean. And the food and wine and bread are just as amazing as I remember. Today there is a subway system, every bit as functional and easy to use as you would expect it to be. In other words, not at all, at least the one time we’ve ridden it so far. No question, Naples is an acquired taste.
Seriously, this is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. After the months we’ve spent in Europe you start to get the sense that all these old walled cities have become if not the same, at least similar. Whitewashed. Beautiful. Touristy. That is so not Naples. It has all the flavor and excitement and terror that you’d expect. You walk around the Old City after dark and thousands of families are living their lives out in the streets. As in, their living room or kitchen or bedroom (sometimes it’s all the same) are wide open onto the street. Here are a couple of examples of the gritty side of Naples.
But there is also the Naples of major churches, natural beauty, and incredible food. Today we spent an hour in the Duomo, Naples’ cathedral, where they pay homage to their patron saint, Janarius who was supposedly martyred in the early fourth century. They have all sorts of bones and some of his blood that usually liquifies twice a year but if it doesn’t, it means something really bad is going to happen to Naples. Sitting right under Vesuvius, you can guess what that means.
Did I mention food? Last night Mark and I ate at a simple trattoria, where the antipasto platter was nearly a meal unto itself. Every bite of vegetable was wonderful, but the standout was the fresh mozzarella, simply more flavorful than any I’ve ever eaten. Today for lunch we shared a Caprese salad, the simple combination of mozzarella, tomato, a little basil, and olive oil. It was simply unbelievable. How do they do it?? The tomatoes were the first simply perfect tomatoes we’ve had this year. And the rest of it, the combination, was just perfect. I guess a couple thousand years of practice gets you something.
I should mention the bread, too. I remember when I first got to Naples I couldn’t believe how tough the bread was. Not dry or stale, just tough. I learned to love it, though, but have never found bread like that anywhere else in the world. And I was curious – would it still be like that? Sure enough it is. It can almost hurt your jaw to eat it. But it’s worth every bit of energy it takes, really amazing.
And lest we forget, the Naples of incredible natural beauty. Naples was originally settled by the Greeks (its original name was Neopolis – New City) to take advantage of the natural harbor, and that part hasn’t changed in all these years. After touring the Duomo, we walked through Castel dell’Ovo, the 12th century defensive fort built by the Normans, who’d taken Naples from the Byzantines, who’d taken it from the Romans, who got it from the Greeks. The Normans, though, lost it to the Germans, who lost it to the Angevin French, who lost it to the Spanish Aragons and Bourbons, who mostly held it until they lost it to Giuseppe Garibaldi who unified the Italians in the 19th century. Did I forget to mention that Naples has quite the interesting history?