Naples graffiti (Image: HWL)
A most voluptuous volcano: view to Vesuvius near Castel Sant 'Elmo (Image: HWL)
There were five of us in the tiny Fiat 500 which only had three functioning wheels. As we turned the corners we had to lean left to relieve pressure on the fourth wheel which began making a horrible noise and smoking violently, a problem we addressed by winding down the windows to let the fumes out and giggling hysterically to drown out the noise. As we careered violently down Naples’ narrow laneways, an oversized 4WD moved over to let us pass. “You see,” said Luca, owner of the Fiat and Naples’ best youth hostel Hostel of the Sun, “He respects my car.” As we finally squealed to a stop on the cobbles outside our hotel in Quartieri Spagnoli, we spilled out like extras in Herbie Goes Bananas, said our warm goodbyes and watched as Luca lurched off beneath the washing lines and into the night. It was at this moment that I fell in love with Napoli.
The idea of creating a daily itinerary is a little bit odd for Naples, a city not known for its punctuality. Time also seems a particularly clunky instrument in a place where life is better compartmentalised by snacks. Is it time for gelato? (Yes, please.) Coffee? (Always.) A slice of pizza marinara? (Now you’re talking!) This list of suggestions is indebted to travel writer Cristian Bonetto who showed me around Naples while giving me a crash course in everything from fried snacks to corruption scandals and my lovely travel companion Sally O’Brien. (Any errors are mine!)
Naples: coffee @ Gran Caffe Gambrinus (Image: HWL)
Morning begins with sfogliatella, a crispy, multi-layered pastry that looks like a squat croissant dusted with icing sugar. Inside is warm ricotta, and perhaps a hint of cinnamon and orange zest. (Note to amateurs: Do not eat if wearing black mohair.)You’ll find this Neapolitan treat in just about any pasticceria, but I was taken to local legend Attanasio (1-4Vico Ferrovia). Note, for a hit of breakfast vitamin C, most cafes will do a freshly squeezed orange juice – go the blood orange if it’s on offer.
Caffeine fix: coffee is taken constantly, usually as an espresso and mostly standing up at the bar. Sitting down and lingering costs about three times more, but on a sunny day the terrace at Caffe Gambinius (1-2 Via Chiaia) is highly inviting. Inside it’s all belle époque grandeur. (Digression: Weve all heard of fascist architecture, but Gambinius has the distinction of being subjected to an early experiment in fascist interior design. Mussolini had smaller rooms blocked off thus keeping all customers in view in an attempt to prevent any subversive mutterings. Note to would-be dictators: if your regime can’t withstand the chit-chat of freelance coffee drinking types, it’s not much of a regime. Time for democracy.)
From here you can stroll directly across Piazza del Plebiscito and continue on for a winking blinking look at the sea; along the way, pop into the Chiesa di San Francesco di Paola. Echoing aspects of the Pantheon in Rome, the church’s surprisingly austere interior inspires quiet reflection regardless of your taste in spirituality.
Sightseeing: take the funicular railway, direction Vomero, for Certosa di San Martino. There you’ll find the Certosa’s church (built along the principles of more is more) a well-appointed if slightly neglected Museo Nazionale di San Martino dedicated to curios including the local tradition of nativity scenes (see below) and dreamy royal boats. The view overlooking the bay and museum gardens is spectacular and a drawcard in its own right. There’s also a striking cloister garden featuring silken marble carvings, including skulls – a Napoli motif guaranteed to please any vanitas revivalist. (Note: signage is minimal, prepare to bumble about.)
Amazing nativity scene, Jake & Dinos Chapman wish they were this good. (Image: HWL)
Just next door you’ll find Castel Sant’Elmo, among other things it houses Novecento museum, an interesting collection of contemporary Italian art predominantly by Neapolitan artists.The museum doesn’t yet have a dedicated website, but you’ll find details and a summary of the concept here. The Kafkaesque opening hours were devised by masochist – the door is allegedly open on the hour every hour, so if you arrive 10 minutes past the hour, you won’t be allowed in. (What happens if you arrive on the hour but wearing a very, very long tail is unclear.)
Graphic art at Novecento, a museum in progress, in Naples. Including (clockwise from top right) Andrea Bizanzio 'Composizione' (1951); Bruno di Bello 'Aut Aut' (1971); Gianni de Tora 'Sequenza del triangolo' (1975) (Image: HWL)
Lunch: Nenella (103-105 Vico Lungo Teatro, Quartieri Spagnoli) is a typical Neapolitan joint with an Italian menu and no prices (expect to pay about 10 Euros a head). The motto here is, ‘Why say it in Italian if you can shout it in Neapolitan?’ The overall ambiance is best described as an opera combining tragicomic elements. Continue reading